Aboard the Dark Sapphire
Off the coast of North Wales
Bam! Bam! Bam!
“What the bloody hell?” Keegan growled from his bunk.
“Captain. I hates to disturb ye, and ye know it, but there’s trouble afoot. May I have a word with ye?”
Keegan opened a bleary eye. His cabin, lit only by a single candle mounted in a lantern hung near his bed, flickered and swayed with the roll of the sea.
“Captain! Can ye hear me? ‘Tis Hollis and I hate to wake ye, but I needs speak with ye.”
“Trouble?” Keegan repeated, his head feeling as if it might split wide open.
“Pirates?” God’s eye, Hollis was always conjuring up the devil, certain there was a horrid looming disaster afoot. The old man seemed certain the Dark Sapphire was cursed to her very keel.
‘Twas enough to try a man’s patience. But then, he’d saved Keegan’s life. Hollis was, and always had been, loyal and true. But a pain in the backside.
“Nay, Captain, there be no pirates,” Hollis yelled.
“Are we taking on water? Is the ship sinking?”
“Are the men planning a mutiny?”
“Nay, nay, not that I’m aware of, Captain, but-”
“Then go away.” Keegan rolled over in his small bunk and jammed his eyes shut.
“Leave me be!” He was cross and had no time for the old man’s pointless worries.
There was a pause, then Hollis’s nasal whine yet again. He wasn’t a man to give up. “If ye’d please jest let me have a word with ye, Captain Keegan. . .”
“Bloody Christ.” Snarling at the intrusion, his head thundering from too much ale and too little sleep, Keegan tossed back the fur covers and, without bothering with his dressing gown, threw open the door.
There was a gasp--for a second Keegan thought it sounded like a women’s voice--from the dark stairwell. But that was impossible. There was no women aboard, and they’d set sail three days earlier. A gust of bracing wind cut through his skin. “What is it, Hollis?” he demanded as his eyes adjusted to the darkness. “And whatever it is, it had better be good.”
“Oh, sweet Jesus, Captain, if ye’d be so kind as to cover up-” Hollis’s round face was illuminated by a lantern he’d hung on a hook near the door. Above his scraggly beard one cheek bore four red welts that had been scratched deep into his skin, his sparse hair stuck out at all angles, and one of his eyes was nearly swollen shut.
“What the devil happened to you?” Keegan asked as he noticed the rope, a thick coil that wrapped around Hollis’s hands and trailed behind him and ended with a knot over the bound wrists of a captive.
A dirty, bedraggled mess of a women, but a women nonetheless. Jesus Holy Christ, where did she come from?
“Tell your man to untie me,” she ordered, tossing off the hood that had covered her head. Wild red hair caught in the candle glow as it framed a smudged face with high, prideful cheekbones and fierce blue eyes that cut him to the quick. Perfect teeth flashed white against her filthy skin. For a heartbeat he thought he knew her. There was something about her that instantly triggered a dark, forgotten memory that refused to spark. Nay, ‘twas impossible. “I am not a slave! Nor will I be treated as one!”
“Who the hell are you?” He ignored the unlikely thought that he’d met her before.
“She’s a stowaway, that’s what she is.”
“I asked her.” Irritated, Keegan leaned a scarred shoulder against the door frame and folded his arms over his chest. “What’s your name?”
Aside from the howl of the wind and the roar of the sea, there was only silence. The bit of a woman had the audacity to hold his stare, and there was something in her eyes that gave him pause--something that tugged at the corners of his memory yet again. Had he seen her somewhere? Defiantly she raised that pointed little chin of hers.
“She ain’t sayin’ Captain,” Hollis finally offered. “I found her in the hold, hiding behind the ale casks.” He cleared his throat and shifted so that his shadow fell across Keegan’s bare loins.
Keegan didn’t give a damn what the woman did or didn’t see. “What were you doing in the hold?” he demanded of the scruffy, prideful wench. “For that matter, what in God’s name are you doing on my ship in the middle of the night?”
“Hidin’, that’s what she was. And up to no good, let me tell you,” Hollis answered in his raspy voice. “Nearly tore me apart, she did. Clawed and hissed and spat like a damned she-cat. This one’s the spawn of Lucifer, I tell ye. She’s cursed this ship, to be sure.”
“Have you, now?” Keegan asked.
She didn’t bat an eye, just met his gaze with the angry fire of her own. The barest trace of a smile slid across her lips. “Oh, yes, Captain,” she confided in a husky voice. “As surely as the moon rises behind the clouds and the wind screams over the sea.” She took a step toward him without a trace of fear. “I be a witch sure and true. I’ve sent many a fine ship to the depths of a watery hell, and if you do not set me free at the next port, all of the wrath of Morrigu will be upon you.”
“Morrigu?” Hollis whispered, horrified, his eyes rounding above his beak of a nose, his skin ghostly pale. His throat worked. “The goddess of death,” he whispered.
“Oh, she is much more than that,” the woman taunted, turning to stare down the man who had the audacity to leash her. “Fate and war ride on her wings. Destiny is her companion.” Despite, her bonds, the she-devil advanced upon her captor, and though much smaller than Hollis, she seemed to tower above him as he cowered in fear. “Morrigu’s vengeance will be swift and harsh. Trust me. She will have no mercy on you, you pathetic insect of a man, or you, Captain Keegan.” Whirling suddenly, she faced him. Fierce eyes, dark with the night, bored into him. Red, wild hair caught in the wind. “This ship and all those aboard will be doomed to the most painful and vile of fates if I but say so. Death will be a blessing.”
Keegan laughed despite his headache. She seemed so certain of her gifts of death and pain. “Will it, now?”
“Do not mock me!”
“Oh, wench, I would not,” he lied, but couldn’t stop the smile he felt slide across his chin. “Curse away,” he said, unable to hide the amusement in his voice. He motioned toward the decks with one hand. “’Twill not be the first time the Dark Sapphire has been damned.”
She flinched a bit at the name of the ship.
“Nay. Do not!” Hollis’s voice squeaked as he spun on a heel, his terrified gaze landing full on Keegan. “Be ye losin’ yer mind, Captain? We . . . we wish not the wrath of the fates upon us. Morrigu, do you not know of her power, of her wrath, of her-”
“-Hold upon you?” Keegan demanded, tired of the game. “Even though you somehow managed to bind the witch’s hands? Why has Morrigu not saved you, wench? If she be so powerful, why are you tied like a dog?”
The woman’s expression was pure cunning. “For she is patient, Captain. Unlike mortal men.”
Laughter erupted at the top of the stairs. Several deck hands coughed and snorted.
So the woman had already caused a stir among the men. ‘Twas no surprise and yet a problem that irritated Keegan. His crew was a randy lot without much conscience or many scruples. A woman cast among them was certain to cause jealousy and trouble. Mayhap old Hollis wasn’t so far off from the truth--that this wench would bring nothing but disaster to the ship and the men aboard her.
Keegan’s amusement disappeared. He glowered up the stairwell to the darkness where the faces of his men were hidden. “Every one back to his watch or work, and you-” he fixed his eyes on Hollis and hitched his chin toward the cabin “-bring her inside.”
“Nay!” She threw herself backward, and the rope slipped through Hollis’s fingers. He toppled to his knees as Keegan snagged the leash and wrapped it skillfully around his own palm.
“Do not bother fighting,” he warned the arrogant bit of womanhood. “There is no place to run.”
In the weak light her expression changed. Fear, though fleeting, darted through her eyes, and an expression of defeat crossed her features, only to be quickly replaced by steadfast determination. Holding her head high, she followed him as he tugged on her tether and led her into the small confines of his cabin.
Dusting off his breeches, his pride completely undone, Hollis followed, barely sliding through the door as Keegan slammed it shut. From the corner of his eye Keegan noticed that the woman was assessing every square, naked inch of him. Worse yet, it was having an effect. His damned manhood, so long dormant, was responding.
His teeth ground in frustration. Just what they needed--a damned woman with her talk of spells on the ship.
Turning his back to his new prisoner, he dropped the rope and plucked his mantle from a hook near his bed. Deftly he threw the cloak over his head and didn’t bother with the laces.
“Leave us,” he ordered Hollis, who was planted firmly in front of the door. “Wait. Get some water--enough for the lady to drink and wash with.” Beneath her grime he noticed a spark, a flicker of intelligence. “And have a tankard of ale as well as bread and meat sent up.”
Hollis’s bushy eyebrows shot upward. “You want food?”
“For the lady.”
Hollis made a disparaging sound deep in his throat. “Water be precious. There be little aboard.”
Keegan sent him a hard stare. “Water and soap. Aye, bring soap as well.”
The woman stood stiff as a broomstick.
“But-” Hollis attempted to protest.
“Do it! Now.” Keegan threw the man a look that cut through steel.
“As you wish.” Hollis, with his rapidly bruising cheeks nodded, though he glanced at the woman as if she truly were a curse come to life.
“Be quick about it, then. My guest waits.”
“Guest?” Hollis repeated.
“She’ll be staying here. With me.”
“Nay!” She turned on him so swiftly her black cloak whipped about her legs, parting enough to allow him a glimpse of her dress. The fabric had once been a silvery gray but now was splattered with dark stains.
“You have no choice.” Keegan rubbed the back of his neck and looked down upon her, for she was a mite of a thing, all bravado and little flesh. He glanced at the door through which Hollis was quickly disappearing. A salty breath of sea air seeped inside. “Well, that’s not quite true,” Keegan amended, rubbing his jaw thoughtfully. “If you would rather, you could take your chances with the rats and the crew, but let me warn you, lest you decide too quickly. The men who serve me have only one virtue--they are loyal to me. I ask no more of them. I know naught of who they really be or of what they have done to make them want to work here. They could be honest seamen or they could be cutthroats or thieves, traitors or debtors, murderers or worse. I know not. I care not. As long as they give me an honest day’s work and remain true to me and this ship, I ask no questions.”
“Ah, Captain, ‘tis a fine assemblage of men you’ve gathered,” she mocked, but beneath her show of courage she was not so brave. He noticed that her throat worked, and she sneaked a worried glance at the doorway.
“There’s nowhere to go, you know. Now that we know you be on board, you cannot hide. You either stay here in the cabin with me, take your chances on deck or in the hold with the men, or dive into waters that are cold as ice and filled with all manner of creatures.” He sat on the edge of his bed.
Her lips pinched in a display of defiance, and he could imagine the wheels turning in her mind as she conjured up some ridiculous means of escape.
“So now, woman, ‘tis time you told me who you are and why you are hiding in my ship.” He reached forward and she, who had been bracing herself against the sway of the carrack’s floorboards, nearly jumped out of her skin. “I’ll not harm you. Well, at least not yet.” He took her hands in his, and when she tried to resist, to pull away from him, his thin patience snapped. “Do you wish these bonds removed?”
“I thought so. Be still.” He started untying the knots, keeping his eyes on his work though her breasts were heaving in front of him and through a gap in the laces of her cloak he caught a glimpse of white skin and the dusk of cleavage. Again his manhood responded, growing thick, hard, and needing relief.
Setting his jaw, he ignored the sensation; ‘twas foolish to even think of it.
“Now,” he said, his head bent over his task. The light was poor and Hollis’s damned knots had swollen tight. “Who are you?”
A moment’s hesitation. “Victoria.”
“Victoria?” he repeated, knowing it to be a lie. “From where?”
“So far inland?” He glanced up at her, noticed the blanching of pale skin beneath a layer of mud and grime. She nodded, red hair seeming to catch fire in the candle’s glow.
“Where did you board my ship?”
She bit her lip.
“Not from Rhydd.”
“Nay. I--I got on at Gwagle-”
“Why?” The knot was loosened and the loops of rope fell away. Swiftly, she drew her hands from his, rubbing her wrists and sneaking a longing glance at the door.
Hollis, grumbling under his breath, returned with a large platter upon which was balanced a small pitcher of water, tankard of ale, crust of bread, and several strips of dried venison. A cat slithered between his boots, nearly tripping him.
“Damned beast,” he growled. “Go after the rats, would ya, now?”
The creature let out a pitiful cry before slinking from the cabin.
“Just set everything there,” Keegan ordered, motioning to the bedside desk. Hollis was quick to do his bidding, adding a bit of soap and a cloth from his pocket to the tray he set on the small table. With a disapproving look at the captive, he made a quick sign of the cross over his chest and, mumbling about sea witches and hexes, slipped through the door.
It closed tightly behind him. The woman—Victoria--started. No, now she was not so bold.
Rubbing his whiskered chin thoughtfully, Keegan leaned over the table. “If you got on the Dark Sapphire in Gwagle, you’ve been with us for three days.” Again she flinched at the mention of the ship’s name. Now, why was that? “If you boarded earlier, then it’s been longer still. You must be hungry, thirsty, and would probably like to clean yourself.” He paused, picked up a piece of venison jerky, and took a bite. She followed him with her eyes. Aye, she was starving, just too damned proud to admit it. Her small shoulders were squared beneath the muddied finery of her cloak. At first he’d thought her an alley wench, a poor woman, presumably a whore but that was before he noticed the fur lining her mantle and the embroidery that was visible on her dress when she moved. This woman was no pauper. She carried herself with a regal bearing and looked haughtily down her small, straight nose, though she was in no position to argue with him.
Keegan chewed thoughtfully and tapped the remainder of his portion of smoked meat against his cheek. “So what have you to say for yourself . . . Victoria?” Waiting, he took a long drink from the tankard. Again she watched his movements. “Why did you steal onto my ship?”
Victoria gritted her teeth. Her stomach rumbled, and her mouth was dry as parchment. Lord, what she would do for a swallow of water or ale. But she couldn’t tell this devil of a captain the truth. She couldn’t confide in anyone and expect to live. Her skin itched, her muscles ached. Shuddering inwardly, she remembered the past three nights of hiding aboard this ship, listening to the sound of tiny, scurrying claws, feeling the rats climb over her feet, across her shoulders, or through her hair as she nodded off. Even now, just at the thought of her vermin, her skin crawled.
“You’re running from something,” he deduced, his eyes narrowing in the frail light. Another bite of jerky. He chewed deliberately. “What is it?”
“’Tis not your business.”
“You’re aboard my ship. Without my permission.” Another precious swallow of ale. “Seems like that makes it my business.”
“I’ll—I’ll pay you for passage.” The ship rocked slightly, the candle flickered.
“When we dock, I’ll make arrangements to see that you’re compensated,” she insisted.
“’Tis not your worry.”
“’Tis precisely my worry.” Frowning, he offered her the tankard. “How do I know that I can trust you?”
She held the cup in both hands, took a long swallow, felt the cool ale slide down her throat, and forced herself not to gulp it all down so fast she would vomit. Slowly, she lifted the metal tankard from her lips. “You know not that you can put your faith in me, of course, but I give you my word.”
“Aye.” She took another swallow, and he shook his head at the folly of it all. She pinned him with her gaze. “I promise,” she said slowly. “I will pay you and well, Captain. Of that you can be sure.” Her mind was reeling, her thoughts pricked with fear. She had not known the name of this ship when she’d boarded or that of the captain. Could it be? Could this strong, strapping man be the boy . . .?
His gaze raked down her body, and she was well aware of her sorry state, the rips and tears her mantle had endured as she’d raced through underbrush, the tiny scratches on her face and hands, the blood staining her skirts. . .
The moments dragged by.
She forced her mind to the present. This man Keegan held her fate in his callused hands.
Her pulse raced anxiously.
Outside, the wind moaned as the ship rocked.
“We dock in a week’s time, Victoria,” he finally said, his gaze assessing her reaction. “You have until then to convince me that you have a way to pay me for my inconvenience, that you are not on board to steal from me and that at the time we lay anchor there will not be authorities ready to storm the boat and search for you.” He leaned closer to her, and she saw that his eyes were the same steely color as the sea in winter.
“There will be no trouble,” she lied.
“We’ll see.” He stood, towering over her, and she noticed his bare legs, all sinewy, tough muscles and dark hair. She kept her eyes averted though she’d witnessed his sheer nakedness only a few minutes earlier, had surveyed strong back muscles covered with tight skin that bore the marks of floggings, old scars that had never faded. And then there was his manhood; she’d glimpsed that as well, though she’d studiously avoided staring at the juncture of his legs.
Once she’d been curious about men.
But no longer.
“Eat.” He nudged the platter toward her. His teeth flashed white in the depths of his beard.
Her stomach grumbled, and it was all she could do not to eat greedily. The bread was dry and hard. Delicious. The jerky was tough and salty. It tasted like heaven. Never had she been so hungry.
“Why were you hiding in my ship?”
She nearly choked on a bite of bread.
“As I said, ‘tis my guess that you were running from someone.” The Dark Sapphire pitched and rolled. “Probably the soldiers.” Her back stiffened and he nodded, “Oh, yes, they were there at Gwagle. I met their leader, Sir Manning of Tardiff . . .” His eyebrows drew together as he considered the name--as if it had some significance but was lost on him. Her heart turned to ice. “He was searching for a woman, a murderess. But this woman’s name was Sheena, not Victoria.”
Suddenly her appetite disappeared. Her stomach threatened to give up everything she’d just swallowed. He was onto her.
“It seems this Sheena was recently married and killed her husband, the Baron of Tardiff. She then stole some of the jewels from Tardiff’s treasury.”
Sheena began to shake inside. Be calm, this is but a test, one you must pass.He went on, “This murdering wife, she led the soldiers on a merry chase. They tracked her to Gwagle only to lose her again.” His lips pursed and he pointed at her skirts. “Now Victoria, your dress, beneath your cloak, appears stained with blood.” He leaned closer to her. “A bit of a coincidence, wouldn’t you say?”
She set aside the tankard, gathered her strength, and though the tip of her nose was mere inches from his, met his gaze steadily. “All I ask of you, Captain Keegan, is safe passage. I said I would pay you and I will, so, please, give me the same respect you bestow upon the men you hire. Inquire not of my past. Ask only that I be loyal to you, and hold me to the bargain we have struck.”
“You are in no position to bargain,” he pointed out.
“But you agreed.” She saw hesitation in his eyes and something more, something indefinable. Again she was set upon by the unsettling feeling that she’d met him before, long ago. The name of the ship should have been warning enough. But was it possible, was this surly Keegan, the upstart of a boy she’d saved--the handsome, cocky bastard who had allowed her to save his life, only to kiss her and leave her stranded in the cove? But that was impossible. That boy had been killed. She’d seen his death with her own eyes.
“’Twould be a mistake to cross me,” he was telling her.
“As it would be to cross me.”
The hint of a smile touched thin lips surrounded by his dark beard. “Is that a challenge, lady?”
“’Tis a fact.”
His gaze traveled to her mouth. “Is it now?” So close she could see the streaks of blue in his gray eyes, she was, for a second, lost in his gaze. He suddenly straightened and she swallowed hard. If he wasn’t the boy--then who? A man so like him as to be his brother? His twin? Dear Lord, maybe she was imagining the likeness. The boy was dead. Dead.
“Well, Victoria, we shall see.” Again he took in her sorry state, and involuntarily she squared her shoulders.
His black eyebrows drew together. “Your clothes be dirty and damp. Mayhap you would like to change.”
She nearly laughed, knowing she was lucky to have escaped Tardiff with her life, much less any possessions other than the three stolen stones. “I be sorry to disappoint you, Captain,” she said, her gaze lowering to his bare legs, “but I am wearing all that I have, which is more than I can say for you.”
“You’re a bold one for being my captive.”
“Ah, so there it is,” she retorted hotly, meeting the dare in his eyes with that of her own as the timbers of the ship creaked. “A captive. Did you not tell your man that I was a ‘guest’?”
His lips compressed. He looked as if he wanted to step forward and strangle her.
“Or was that just a lie, a reason to keep me here alone with you?”
Shaking his head at her impudence, he bit out, “Be you careful, lady, for that tongue of yours has a way of getting you into trouble.” He turned his back to her, kneeling at the side of his bunk. “And it be my guess that you’ve found enough of that already.”
She opened her mouth, then snapped it shut as he pulled out a deep drawer from beneath his bed. Inching nearer to the door, she watched as he rummaged through the garments, obviously searching for something she could wear, though nothing he could own would fit her, as he was nearly twice her size.
Yet he uncovered a bag that was tucked beneath a pair of breeches. “’Twas a good thing I thought better of throwing this into the sea,” he muttered under his breath. Withdrawing a large, coarse sack that smelled faintly of lavender, he straightened and untied a fraying drawstring.
He reached inside, and to Sheena’s amazement, he retrieved a wine-colored gown embroidered with gold thread. Without a second’s thought he tossed the dress to her, then pulled out another gown, this one deep blue, the sleeves quilted in silver and lined with black fur. “Wash yourself and wear whichever of these you wish,” he said, dropping the second gown over the first.
Dumbfounded, she shook her head. “I cannot.”
“Because they--they must belong to someone,” she said, running her fingers over the plush pile. The dresses were as fine as any she’d ever seen, meant for a lady.
“Aye,” he said, his voice without emotion, his expression harsh and dark. “They once belonged to my wife. Now, Victoria, they be yours.”