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The Branded Whore 7
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 Chapter 10
Miranda sat in the sunshine many days after their arrival on the little island. She mused over her growing relationship with Liam and found she quite liked it. Oh, there were fits and starts, of course. When two strong-willed people come together and each is used to doing things alone, there are always clashes of personality. They worked well together, though, once one or the other of them unbent enough to listen to what the other had to say.
He was Laird of his clan and it was his nature to give orders. She was a ship’s captain of some repute and used to having her orders obeyed without question. They both thought independently of each other, often arriving at the same conclusions through wildly different means. Miranda supposed they should work harder on approaching solutions to problems together instead of working at cross-purposes. It was a terrible waste of their time, though they had nothing but time until Liam’s friend Michael came to fetch them. She was in total agreement with Liam on that. Michael couldn’t come quickly enough!
Miranda enjoyed the conclusion of their arguments enormously. They often had their most debauched encounters after their battles of will. Liam still refused to make love to her properly, but she understood and agreed with his edict. They pleased each other with their hands and mouths quite satisfactorily.
She found Liam an amusing companion, with a dry and acerbic wit that often had her in stitches. Well read and very bright, he traveled the world in service to George and the John Company. She was a bit jealous of that, but she thought she might be happy settling down in one place for a time. Perhaps they could travel when their children were old enough to be independent. The thought of children with Liam sent happy warmth through her chest.
She finished with her braid and walked to the beach after putting her palm sun hat on her head. The hat was an ugly thing and made her head itch, but the equatorial sun was brutal and they both tried to stay in the shade as much as they could. Thankfully, the heavily wooded interior provided plenty of protection during the hottest part of the day.
As was her daily habit, she scoured the beach for anything they could use to make their lives a bit easier. Sharp shells, bits of driftwood and the occasional clam that added a bit of variety to their diet of fish, fruit, and the bland roots she dug every morning. Sometimes she found bits of sea glass, but that was a very rare occurrence. They were pretty, and she kept them wrapped in a bit of the linen that had bound her hands.
They had each tried to spear seabirds but had thus far failed spectacularly at that endeavor. Miranda was torn between wishing more time to master that skill, and wishing Michael would arrive on the next tide. Her days spent in stillness in the shallows with a spear in her hand taught her that hunger is one of this life’s great teachers.
They kept their fire tended at all times. It was far easier to keep a small blaze going than it was to start a new one. The fire they had when they cooked their first fish went out in a torrential downpour and neither of them wanted to deal with the backbreaking work involved in starting another. They both found the smell of wood smoke comforting and moved their fire closer to their cave.
To say that the sight of masts on the horizon shocked her was an understatement. She stood on the beach, nonplussed and staring at the utterly inconceivable sight for so long, that Liam became concerned at her rigid posture. Such was her surprise that she couldn’t speak and merely lifted a shaking hand to point.
Liam’s eyes followed her finger and an expression of excitement followed closely by confusion crossed his face. “That isn’t…” He stared a little longer at the approaching ship and his face paled. “Miranda, we have to hide.”
“But…”
“Now! Run, Miranda!” He grabbed her hand and hauled her quickly back to their shelter then kicked dirt over their fire. Miranda sputtered in anger at the destruction of their only source of flame and he slapped a hand over her mouth. “Listen to me! We don’t have time to argue. That ship isn’t the Enchantress. I saw Stiles’ mark on her.”
Over his hand, her eyes widened then narrowed in anger. She nodded abruptly and he took his hand away from her mouth.
“I want him, Liam. I want him dead so badly I can taste it.” She spoke barely above a whisper, but her words were furiously angry.
The beast growled in approval at her words, but Liam shushed him. “We can’t, sweetheart. We are only two and have no weapons. Even the wolf is no match against men with guns.”
She wanted to scream in frustration but knew better than to make any loud sounds. It was unlikely that the ship was close enough to hear even if she screamed, but it was best to err on the side of caution. She settled for kicking a small rock across their cave. “You’re right, of course, but I don’t like letting the opportunity go to waste.”
He frowned at her words. “What are you thinking, little pirate?”
Her face grew animated and excited as she plotted. “The ship may not land here at all. There isn’t anything here but water, and this close to Ecuador, you know they wouldn’t bother with it unless their need was dire. If they do come ashore, and if it’s dark, I think we should sneak up on them through the jungle and find out what they are doing.”
She huffed out an irritated sigh. “We shouldn’t risk it if they come ashore in daylight, though. The chance of discovery would be too great.” She glanced at him questioningly. “Do you have any thoughts? I would like to hear them.”
“I think I can avoid detection as a wolf,” he ventured.
She shook her head. “You stand out here. If you were smaller, it would probably work, but your coat is visible against all the greenery.”
He sighed but nodded. Miranda was most likely correct about that and it was a very large thing to leave to chance. “So we stay in the cave and wait?”
“We wait.”
Miranda sat quietly for many interminable moments, making Liam wonder what she thought.
“May I ask you a question, Liam?” At his nod, she continued. “Why is your ship called the Enchantress?”
He laughed softly. “Her name is the Scarlet Enchantress, and she’s named after you, sweetheart.”
She blinked in surprise. “Why me?”
“Michael asked me to name her, and I could think of only one woman worthy of our ship. Unfortunately, I never learned your name during our time together. I called her the Scarlet Enchantress because of your red hair and because healers in the old times were often thought to be witches.” He took her hand and placed a soft kiss on her scarred palm. “I would have been honored and happy beyond words to call her the Miranda St. Clair.”
“Oh. Liam, I don’t know what to say.” She had no idea that she had affected him so much he would name a ship after her so long after their chance meeting. It was utterly beyond comprehension, and it was better than a thousand of the massive emeralds like the one Jack gave her.
“You don’t have to say anything. Michael knows I named her for you and he understands. I can’t wait for you to meet him.”
She crawled into his lap and kissed him softly on his beautiful mouth. “I think that is the most wonderful thing anyone has ever done for me, and I will cherish it always.” She would have kissed him more, but he resolutely turned her in his arms to face the sea, tapping her nose fondly when she sighed in disappointment.
“I love that I can distract you from that ship out there, but we need to focus on the matter at hand.” He grinned roguishly at her to soften his words and she smiled wryly.
“You’re right, of course.”
They talked quietly as the ship grew larger in their view. She saw the insignia on her bow clearly now. It was Stiles’ flagship and she had been looking for it for months. She scowled in displeasure to find it now, of all times, when she couldn’t do a thing about it.
It approached closely enough to drop longboats on the southern beach, but suddenly veered east. Miranda let out an ugly curse, making Liam laugh.
“You swear like a pirate, darling.”
“Have you forgotten?” She bared her teeth in a feral grin. “I am a pirate.”
They crept from the cave, careful to stay low to the ground and in shadow as they made their way to the other side of their shelter so they could see the eastern shore of the island. The crew probably had a glass trained on the island and if they stood, the setting sun would silhouette them. The eastern shore was shadowed as a single longboat settled into the water beside the freighter.
They hunkered down behind a small outcropping and watched as the eight people in the small craft approached the beach. Six were rowing, and the remaining two appeared to be conversing heatedly. Miranda desperately wanted to know who they were and why they argued. The sun was low enough in the sky that she couldn’t see well, but she thought one of the people arguing might be a woman.
Miranda kept her voice to a low whisper, even though it was impossible for the ship’s crew to hear her words. “I think he circled the island to see if it was inhabited. He must have just approached when I spotted him.”
She lowered her head, deep in thought. “We have to get closer,” she whispered. “They will probably land the longboat between those two rocks near the breakwater. It’s not deep and the water is calm enough to fish. There’s a downed tree just inside the tree line that will make a good hiding spot. With luck, they’ll camp close enough we can hear.”
Liam nodded and said, “We go now. They won’t notice additional movement in the trees while they set up camp. I also want to let the wolf be our guide. He can be stealthy when he wishes and can choose a clear path for you.”
Miranda nodded her agreement and Liam’s body flowed into that of his beast. It was the first time he had shifted since Miranda had her little talk with the beast, and he couldn’t believe how easy and painless it was. After years of painful and forcible shifts, he wondered if he would ever lose the amazement. In a trice, the wolf sat before her, his mouth open in a toothy smile.
“Show me the way, Sir Fluffy,” she whispered softly.
From his place in the back of the beast’s mind, Liam could feel his pleasure at their mate calling him by that name. In his way, the beast had been very fond of Miles.
Miranda crept behind the wolf, not daring to stand upright. It took them ages to slink through the undergrowth and reach the downed tree where they would conceal themselves. It didn’t help that twilight had fallen, reducing her vision to worthlessness. The wolf led her straight and true, though, and they reached the downed tree without discovery.
“Do not shift,” she warned in a breathy whisper, barely heard over the breeze rustling the trees. The wolf grumbled a soft reply.
Malcolm Stiles was barely ten yards in front of her arguing with a woman, and she could hear every delicious, treasonous word. The woman had her back to her, so she couldn’t see who it was, but her voice sounded familiar. She shrugged the thought away and concentrated on their words. It would come to her, or the woman would turn and show her face.
Stiles turned and barked at his crew. “Get back in the longboat and go out past the breakwater. We’ll signal when we’re ready to return.”
“Was all this necessary?” the woman asked. “I dislike traveling by sea, and this uncomfortable journey has been most taxing.” She snapped her fan open and waved it in front of her face.
“Do you really want your maids or low deck swabs hearing about your deal with the French emperor, Countess?” he snapped. “This island is uninhabited and there is no one around to hear our words. British thieves honor the crown, even if you do not.”
Malcolm was beyond tired of this spoiled woman. She thought to hold the purse strings and her relationship with Napoleon over his head to ensure his compliance, and he knew she planned to have him killed once he delivered their cargo. Whores were much better, he decided. They didn’t make unreasonable demands of fidelity and didn’t hatch plots to bring down monarchies. He thought for a moment that he should renew his acquaintance with the delectable Mrs. Stewart, but she was far too clever for his liking and much, much too deadly. God save him from smart females.
“I want to know first if that unholy Branded Whore has been sighted.”
The woman turned and Miranda held in a gasp as she beheld her father’s wife. What in the hell was she doing with Stiles off the coast of South America?
Miranda held her breath and waited for Stiles to speak. She desperately wanted to know of any gossip about the Whore.
“The last sighting was in Lima several weeks ago. She hasn’t been seen since then,” he replied tersely.
“Maybe the bitch sank,” she muttered. “Have you gathered the entire cargo?”
“Of course. It’s loaded on the Bountiful Duchess and en route to London as we speak. It should be reaching the cape soon.”
“Why did you not use one of your ships?”
“Really, Lady Warwick, do you take me for a fool?” he asked derisively. “Let the John Company take the fall for it, if anyone bothers to investigate. Besides, everyone knows the Whore doesn’t attack British ships.” He smirked and added, “Though I imagine her crew would get a nasty surprise if they did.”
“How did you manage to load all that powder without anyone knowing?”
“It’s all in salt barrels, marked for delivery straight to the House of Lords for their December meeting.”
“The Emperor will be quite pleased. He’s been waiting most patiently.”
Malcolm nearly grimaced, but managed to keep his face smooth and expressionless. The arrogant little toad hadn’t been patient at all, judging by the behavior of the Countess. She had been a right shrew lately. “It was a necessary delay. One must be careful when stealing the King’s own powder to blow up his House of Lords. You know we could only take a bit at a time.”
She grimaced as if she had eaten something sour but nodded in acquiescence. “Quite so, Mr. Stiles.”
He offered the Countess his arm. “I hope the Emperor is ready to pay what he promised. The House of Lords will go up in flames in December and no one can stop it now. Shall we return to the ship? We’ll drop you in Cape Town as you requested, my lady.”
Miranda held very still until the ship was out of sight and heading west toward Africa. The beast shifted and Liam held her stiff body in his arms.
“Did you hear?”
“Yes, I heard.”
She exploded into motion, wrenching herself out of his arms to pace in agitation. “I have to get us off this island,” she muttered to herself. “Think, Miranda!”
Liam’s face grew stern and the beast growled. The irritating chit still thought she was responsible for saving the world singlehandedly. He strode forward and picked her up, clenching his arms tightly to keep her still. She struggled mightily, but was unable to break free and hissed angrily.
“Miranda,” he said softly. His soft voice and the uncompromising set to his jaw caught her attention. “We have to get us off this island. Not you, not me, but we.”
She stared at him as understanding flooded her. She didn’t have to do this alone! Liam was so clever, and there was the beast, and hopefully Michael on his way. She wasn’t alone; she wasn’t wholly responsible for their lives! It was a welcome epiphany for her and she relaxed instantly as relief flooded her body.
He set her down on her feet and she turned to throw her arms around him. As she peppered his bearded face with kisses, she whispered her thanks repeatedly until he kissed her mouth to quiet her.
Liam cupped her beautiful face in his hands. The sun had bronzed her skin and brought forth a constellation of freckles on her cheeks and nose like kisses from angels. He couldn’t see them in the dark, but knew their pattern better than he knew his own face. He traced paths between them with his thumbs.
“Do you have any ideas?” he asked.
“Not a single one,” she confessed. “Do you have any?”
“I’m afraid not. I suppose we should go to bed and pray for enlightenment, and for Michael to get his skinny backside here before the world goes to hell.”
Surprisingly, they both slept deeply and woke early the next morning with clear minds and willing bodies. Miranda stepped out of the cave after a careful search of the horizon. She was taking no chances that Stiles would return. A tree caught her eye. Trees covered much of the island, but this variety had long stringy bark that hung off it in threads like the beard of an old man. She walked toward it and fingered the bristly fibers. A smile lit up her face and she tore a handful away from the tree before racing back to the cave.
“Do you think we could make this into some rope?” She handed the fibers to Liam and he looked at them speculatively.
“I think so.” He tugged on a few of the fibers to test their strength. He decided it would make fine rope if they could gather enough. “What do you have in mind?”
“W could build a raft. We could make rope…” Her face fell. “Never mind, it would take us weeks to make enough to build a raft for the both of us, and we have no way of cutting poles.”
“I thought about the poles. We could burn them through at the base, but it would take a long time even if we didn’t have to worry about rope to lash them together.”
“Do you think we could make enough rope that we could bind deadfall into a raft?”
He thought about her idea for a moment then shook his head. “I don’t think such a craft would be seaworthy, but we could see what we can find. Perhaps there might be a piece of a shipwreck we could use.” Liam winced at his thoughtless words. “That was unkind. I’m sorry.”
“I thought about it too,” she whispered. “I think the crew of the Whore would be happy if there was something left that could help us. Not a one of my crew was a traitor. We were just pirates.”
“They were all good men,” he agreed. “You single handedly culled the best sailors from all over the Pacific, you know.”
“I just picked the ones who didn’t have families to protect from Stiles. It was a condition of employment that they have no wives or children because I didn’t want to leave them unprotected.”
Liam was in awe of this strong, beautiful woman. She was strong physically, of course, but her strength of purpose and will were her greatest assets. “You will be a magnificent Lady for our clan,” he murmured.
She huffed out a laugh. “It has to be a great comfort to you that I’m richer than the King as well.”
He winced but grinned shamefacedly. “It certainly won’t hurt. Our clan isn’t a rich one, sweetheart. We have had many bad years lately. I send everything I earn home to feed them.”
“Then my wealth will be well spent. It’s just earning interest now. I have no need of fripperies or fine dresses. The only things I spend it on are books and supplies for my painting.” She tapped her chin with a forefinger. “Oh, and I bought a new saber. I used the one Rhys had at first, but I liked the one I bought better.”
“You bought nothing for yourself?” he asked. It surprised him. With all that money at her disposal, he would have thought she would have spent it on something.
“I had everything I needed on the Whore. Why buy things when I would have to store them in my cabin? You slept there. You know perfectly well that there wasn’t room for any silliness. I think I will buy something for myself if we come out of this in one piece. I would like a new sextant, and one of those new spyglasses with the adjustable sight.”
He shook his head. The woman had a one-track mind and still thought of herself as a ship’s captain. He just knew there would be sparks between her and Michael. His crew might be delighted to serve under the Demon of the Whore for the journey home, though. Perhaps Michael would be willing to step aside and let Miranda have one last sail through the Southern Ocean.
After all, he had promised to buy the Demon his weight in whiskey.
For the next two days, they continued to discuss and discard ideas for getting to Ecuador and Miranda was growing frustrated. South America was so very close, but she had no way of getting there. She simply had to get off this island to prevent the horror to come! She didn’t even want to think about what a blow it would be if Napoleon destroyed the House of Lords. Commons was necessary, but the real power rested with the Lords and their destruction would devastate the British Empire.
The third day dawned with no strokes of genius from either of them. They were both morose and picked listlessly at the fruit Miranda gathered for their breakfast.
She stood and washed her hands in the tiny pool in their cave. “I’m going to comb the beaches for wood. Maybe today I’ll find something.”
Liam nodded and washed his sticky hands as well. “I’ll come with you. Maybe another person looking will help.”
They decided to travel in opposite directions and meet up on the other side of the island. It would save them some time, though Miranda almost said that she wanted the company. She resisted the impulse, knowing that their survival was more important than her whims. She found a few scraps, but nothing nearly large enough for their needs.
She spotted a few clam holes and dug down to find them. There were only a few, so she cracked them open with a rock and sucked the mollusks raw from their shells, grimacing at the taste. Miranda realized that if someone gave her a chunk of rare beef, she might happily let London burn to the ground. She dismissed the thought immediately when she started adding imaginary bread with melting butter and roasted potatoes with thick salty gravy to her meal. Such thoughts were not helpful and only made her long for a proper meal.
Suddenly exhausted, Miranda sank to the sand and rested her forehead on her knees. She had no idea what to do in this impossible situation. Tears sprang to her eyes and she simply let them fall.
Chapter 11
Footsteps sounded behind her as she sat there feeling sorry for herself. “I’m sorry Liam. I didn’t find a single thing today. I suppose we can try again tomorrow.” The two clams she found weren’t worth mentioning. They were barely a mouthful to a man his size.
A low male voice drawled, “I do believe I’ve found the Demon of the Whore. What have you done with Liam?”
Miranda leaped away in shock and no small amount of anger at herself. She had become complacent on this island and after Stiles' surprise visit, she should know better! The man standing insolently in front of her was easily a match for Liam in size. Yet where Liam was dark haired, this man was fair as a golden sunrise. He looked like a lion with his fierce expression and blonde hair curling over his ears. His green eyes glittered at her malevolently.
“Tell me your name, sir,” she ordered. She didn’t have a weapon, but she widened her stance, readying herself for combat against this blonde stranger.
The man drew himself up and looked down his aquiline nose at her. “I am Michael Beecham, Duke of Wellsdale. I must assume…”
His words stopped abruptly when Miranda flung herself into his arms and kissed him soundly on the lips. “Thank heavens you’ve come! We’ve been waiting so very long for you.”
She pulled herself away from him and blushed furiously. “You have my apologies, Lord Wellsdale. You have no idea what this means to us.” She grasped his hand and tugged him along. “Come on, we have to find Liam to tell him you’re here.”
Michael refused to move and she huffed at him irritably. He wanted to smile at the disgruntled expression on her freckled face. “Is Liam well?”
Her nose wrinkled charmingly. “He was this morning. If he is otherwise now, I will be extremely put out.” She tugged Michael’s hand again and gave him a beseeching look. “Please, we have to find him!”
Michael gave up and allowed the chit to tug him along behind her. She let go of his hand and broke into an easy run that he only just managed to maintain. Christ, the girl was fast. She started screaming Liam’s name and he saw a dark smudge in the distance resolve itself into his best friend.
As they drew closer, he watched Liam brace himself for the Demon’s headlong dash into his arms. He caught her and swung her around several times before kissing her soundly.
“He came, Liam. Your friend came for us,” she breathed. She suddenly broke into wrenching sobs, utterly overset with a mixture of relief and worry.
Liam sank into the sand and cradled her as he whispered soothing words in her ear. He glanced up at Michael and scowled. “What did you do to her?”
The menacing growl took Michael by surprise and he simply gawped at his oldest friend. He looked closer at Liam. His eyes were solid blue and there was no tinge of gold. Where was the beast? It always came when Liam was upset, but there was no sign of him in Liam’s body or words. It was utterly confounding. He watched Liam comfort her until her tears stopped and she smiled.
“By the heavens,” he whispered. “She’s your bloody mate!”
“Yes, and you will take us first to Salinas so I can get her wedded and bedded, and then we will go to London.” Feral yellow showed in his eyes for a brief instant before the blue subsumed it.
“Liam! We don’t have time for a stop! We have to get to London before…” She bit her lip in consternation.
“Tell him, Miranda,” Liam urged.
She sighed deeply but nodded. “We have to reach London before the December meeting of the House of Lords. Malcolm Stiles plans to blow it up.”
Michael ran a hand through his golden mane of hair. “Bloody hell! We can’t make it by December, even without a stop.”
Miranda stood and straightened herself to her full height and stared at Michael, meeting his eyes boldly. “The Demon of the Whore can. I’ll take the Enchantress below sixty.” She glanced sideways at Liam. “That should please you. We’ll have time to stop in Salinas for a wedding.”
“Are you bloody insane, wife?” Liam was nearly apoplectic with anger. “Nobody goes below sixty and lives.”
“Hush, Liam. It’s harsh, but the Whore has made it many times. Why do you think people call me Demon?” She gave him a crooked grin, her eyes full of mirth and dark pleasure. “Now show me my namesake and we’ll see if she’s fit enough for me.”
Michael shook his head. The words didn’t make a bit of sense to him. “Wait a moment, please. Liam, does Mrs. Stewart insinuate that you named the Enchantress for her? You know that’s quite impossible. You named her for your sweet healer who tended you all those years ago. The girl is surely married by now and safe in England.”
Liam scowled. “She is quite married, I assure you, though perhaps not in the eyes of the church. She is married to me. Nevertheless, as you can see, she is not safe in England. This is my healer. I would know her eyes anywhere.” He looked at Miranda then, a soft, besotted look that made Michael grimace. “She remembered me as well.”
They settled into the longboat and Miranda took a seat at the oars, making the men at the other oars glance at her curiously. Michael began to bluster that ladies should not row and she showed him her hands. Roped scars, reddened and angry, disfigured both palms, shocking him to silence. “I rowed your best friend out of a shipwreck to that island with a splintered piece of my deck. I think I can handle a short jaunt using an oar with a real handle. You should also know that I am decidedly not a lady.”
Michael held up his hands, begging peace, but Liam had other ideas. He picked Miranda up and placed her in the passenger seat before taking her place at the oars. “You may not be a lady, but you’re my bloody wife. My wife does not row.”
Miranda grinned. “Well, that’s different. Carry on, gentlemen. I wish to see my new ship.”
They approached the Enchantress and ropes came down to collect the longboat. Miranda grimaced at the state of the ropes. It was utterly disgraceful and no better when she climbed from the longboat. Salt left by spray littered the deck and there were piles of trash and loose rope everywhere! The sails made her shudder in disgust. They were torn, and the few repairs were so badly done, Miles with his one hand could have done better. She put her hands on her hips and scowled.
“You named this scow after me?” Her voice was so soft, and so very dangerous. Liam winced. Compared to the pristine Whore, the Enchantress was no better than a prison hulk. He had always thought Michael kept a tidy ship, but after being on the Whore, he knew it could be so much better.
Michael bristled. His beloved Enchantress was better than most and he opened his mouth to protest. Liam stopped him before he spoke. “You never saw the Whore, Michael. She was so perfect; it was as if she had just left a shipyard. She didn’t smell of rot, and her decks looked scrubbed so clean you could take tea on them without a plate. Compared to the Whore, the Enchantress is a scow.”
“Do you think to tell me that little girl is a better captain?” Michael couldn’t believe what he was hearing! How could Liam, of all people, think a mere woman could captain a ship?
“Michael, she is a better captain. You know I wouldn’t say this about any woman; I never thought a mere female capable of anything aside from bearing children. I sailed with her for weeks. Her crew was the best I’ve ever seen. Even the lowest deck swabs obeyed her orders as if God himself gave them. That damned ship obeyed her as if it was an extension of her body.”
Liam pushed a hand through his disheveled black hair. Christ, he needed a bath, but he had to talk to Michael first. “She’s a better navigator than either one of us to boot. I don’t like it, but if my woman says she can get us to London by December, then she can.”
“What do you want from me, Liam?” He knew the answer, as surely as he knew his eyes were green.
“I want you to give the Enchantress to Miranda. You said once many months ago that you would buy the Demon his weight in whiskey. Consider this that price for meeting the Demon of the Whore.”
Michael lowered his head. The Enchantress was his life and he didn’t want to give her up. Yet he looked around and saw the neglect that so disgusted Miranda. Perhaps Liam was right, as much as it pained him to admit it.
He sighed heavily. “I will not allow you to give her our ship, but she can take us as far as London. The Enchantress is under the command of the Demon until then.”
“Thank you, old friend. It will only be until we get to London. After that, she will have other demands on her time. Will you be her first?”
“Of course.”
Liam turned away from Michael to seek out his wife. He found her carefully coiling a tangled rope, her face set in a frown of disapproval. Michael’s first mate walked by and stared at her, but said nothing. The man went forward a few more steps and stopped dead in his tracks.
“Lady Sudbury?” he whispered.
Miranda glanced up from her rope and her face broke into a wide grin. “Captain Aames!” She rushed forward and kissed the man’s cheek. “How are your wife and children?”
She grinned helplessly. The man was as tall and spare as ever, with intelligent blue eyes peering out from his weathered face. His hair had a bit more gray than she remembered, but he really hadn’t changed much at all.
A soft smile rose shyly on his face. “They are well, Lady Sudbury. I must thank you for what you did. Stiles came to see us the day you took the Whore, and I was able to tell him you fired me.”
“How did you know?” Miranda was disgusted with herself. She thought she had hidden her activities better than that but she knew perfectly well that sailors gossiped worse than old women did.
“Lady Sudbury, the Australia Sun disappeared from her berth, and just a few weeks later, we all heard stories about the Branded Whore, a magnificent sloop of war with a mysterious and dashing pirate captain. My eldest daughter has quite the crush on you, you know. She thinks you must be quite handsome and rakish, but you cover a horrible scar with your black mask.” He gave her a cheeky grin.
Miranda winced and gave him a wry smile. “Sorry. Do you think anyone else knows?”
“No. The other men you set aside might suspect, but they would never say a word.”
She nodded and breathed out a heavy sigh. “I suppose it doesn’t matter now. The Branded Whore was lost to a rogue wave several weeks ago. Lord St. Clair and I were the only survivors.”
Captain Aames removed his cap and bowed his head then squeezed Miranda’s hand gently. “I am so sorry, lass. Life has given you some hard blows, hasn’t it?”
Miranda shrugged her shoulders. “It is what it is, Captain.”
“I’m no longer a captain and I’m going to retire after this voyage. My wife wants me home more often.”
“Talk to Harriet Crane if you change your mind. Perhaps she can find you something between Port Jackson and New Zealand or Tasmania.”
He nodded. “Don’t worry about me, lass. I’m looking forward to resting these old bones.” He peered at her speculatively. “Have you come to take the Enchantress?”
She grinned impishly. “Do you think I should?”
“It would be a story I could tell my children,” he said with a roguish wink. “Fancy them having their old Da sailing with the Demon of the Whore. I would be honored to serve under your command, Captain Stewart.”
Michael and Liam stood off to one side, listening to their conversation. Mr. Aames was a clever old goat. He had never said a word that he knew Miranda! Michael scowled and Liam knew he had the very same expression on his face. God save them both from the machinations of women and old men!
Liam walked forward to join his wife and first mate. “Mr. Aames,” he murmured. He kissed Miranda’s soft cheek. “I fear I must abscond with my fiancé to find her something decent to wear.”
Mr. Aames blinked in surprise. “My lord?”
“We shall be married as soon as we reach Ecuador.” He glanced around, seeing the greedy stares of his crew as they stared at Miranda’s bare legs. He couldn’t believe he had forgotten about her state of dishabille. “There’s one more thing, Mr. Aames. I would take it as a kindness if you wouldn’t mention Miranda’s presence. She will be taking over as captain for the length of the journey to London, but it will return to Captain Beecham after that. We may also need you to vouch for her identity as the Demon.”
“I understand, my lord, and may I be the first to offer my congratulations on your upcoming nuptials.”
“Thank you, Mr. Aames. That is very kind of you. Now, if you’ll excuse us, I need to get my lady to a cabin.” Liam tugged on her hand as she said goodbye to the older man.
She followed him down a dimly lit passageway and sighed as she saw rubbish outside the officer’s cabins as well as on the decks. There were chamber pots, of all things, and judging by the smell, they were not empty. It simply wasn’t to be borne! Granted, she didn’t use the head as the rest of her crew had, but she cleaned up after herself!
It would be days before this scow was even remotely acceptable, and she wanted to thump both Liam and Michael for letting her get into such a state. The ship had good bones, though, and she could see the fine old girl behind the grime and peeling paint.
There was already water waiting for them in his cabin and Liam made a note to thank the ship’s cook. The galley was probably the only place on board that Miranda would find acceptable. Cook resembled one of the Nubian warriors that gave the Dutch so much trouble in Africa, nearly seven feet tall and heavy with bulging muscles. He shaved his head bald and wore a heavy gold hoop in one ear. A long scar bisected one eye, giving him the look of a particularly deadly pirate. Piercing dark brown eyes stared out from skin so black it appeared blue in the morning sun. The galley was his domain and he kept it as fiercely as Miranda did the Whore.
Liam thought she and his irascible cook would get along just fine.
At least Liam’s cabin was more or less tidy. Miranda sighed. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to sound ungrateful about our rescue, or that you named this ship after me.”
Liam rubbed his face irritably. “I don’t remember it being this bad, but compared to your ship, this one is a floating garbage heap and barely seaworthy.”
“It isn’t that bad!”
“Miranda,” he chided. “It really is.”
She sighed again. “Yes, it’s a right mess. What happened?”
“I expect Michael was too busy looking for us to pay attention. Granted, it was never as tidy as the Whore.”
She flopped on the bed in exhaustion. “Well, at least we’ll have a few days for a wedding. We can’t even begin to head south yet.”
“Why can't we head south yet?”
Miranda grimaced. She had not wanted to speak about this right now. She was tired, dirty and in dire need of a good meal that was not fish. “There is so much, Liam. Two days is enough to get the Enchantress sound for sea travel, but the sixties are not for the weak.”
Clutching her knees to her chest, she continued. “Every bit of rope, every single scrap of our canvas has to be flawless. There can be no cracks and we must caulk every seam. We have to scrub and sand the decks, and then we have to put down fresh sand every single day to prevent ice. We can do some of it on the journey south, but we need a port for the structural work and someone has to scrape off all the barnacles. Three days would be better, but I don’t want to waste the day.”
She went on, her voice growing animated as she warmed to the subject. “We need supplies. I will give your cook a list. We need lumber, pitch, additional canvas…”
“There is plenty of canvas!” he protested.
She shook her head. “If what you have stored is anything like what’s on your rigging, it won’t last. You should have enough extra to replace half your sails because you will lose at least a quarter of them.” Hopping off the bed, she began to pace. “Never mind, I’m going to replace every inch of canvas myself.”
Liam bristled, his male pride coming to the fore at Miranda’s insulting offer. “I will not allow…”
“Liam,” she said softly. “This is my life, your life, the lives of all your men, and those who are at risk in London. The money is nothing to me and is just sitting idle in Cape Town. I should think this is a worthy cause.”
Liam winced, knowing she was right, and knowing he was going to lose this argument. “All right Miranda. You can finance the sails.”
“I want new rope as well. I was surprised that we made it aboard from the longboat, given the state of the haul ropes.”
She nearly bounced on her feet and Liam smiled wryly at her childlike excitement. “Oh, this will be so much fun! I can’t wait to go shopping!” She rushed to his small desk and opened a drawer. “I need foolscap and a quill for a list.” She pulled a rather rumpled piece of scrap parchment from the drawer and located a quill and ink then began to write.
“I like Salinas. There is a fine bookshop, and the proprietor always keeps paint and canvas for me. There is also a very good mapmaker near the coffee shop. He probably still has copies of the charts I lost when the Whore went down. Do you like coffee? It’s so hard to find; I’ll get some to take back with us. I have letters of credit with most of the businesses here, so it will be just a matter of picking out what we need. A fisherman on the docks makes the most amazing rope for a good price. Hopefully, he will have enough for us, but we’ll make do with what he has.”
Liam shook his head. Miranda was utterly single-minded when she focused on a project. He laid a hand over hers and took the quill from her fingers. She looked up at him in surprise. “There’s a tub behind that curtain, darling…”
He would have said more, but she shot to her feet, threw his shirt into a corner, and sunk to her chin in the warm water before he could speak. Her groan of pleasure made his cock harden in his breeches. “There’s soap on the ledge behind you. I’ll find something for you to wear while you bathe.”
“Thank you. Anything will be fine. I’m not picky.”
Indeed. Michael wished his lady was just a little more careful about her appearance. He still stewed angrily about the crew seeing her bare legs. “I won’t be long,” he promised. He shut the door and locked it with the spare key from his desk then went in search of Michael.
He finally found his friend sipping whiskey morosely at Cook’s spotless worktable. “Is she settled in your cabin?”
“She’s taking a bath, but she’ll need clothing. Do we have anything that might fit her?”
Michael shook his head. “I doubt it. She’s too…” He moved his hands in an approximation of Miranda’s shape. “She’s too…”
“Curvaceous?”
Michael grinned. “Yes, but I wasn’t going to say that about my oldest friend’s fiancé. Moreover, I’m afraid we won’t find anything in Salinas for her either. The shape of her would be one thing, but the chit is nearly six feet tall, lad. How on earth she managed to make the world think she was a man with those…” He held his hands in front of his chest, refusing to say the word.
Liam laughed loudly. “Linen bindings and several scarves tied around her waist to thicken it.” He leaned back and accepted the glass Cook handed him. “But I think that she hid in plain sight. She wore breeches, boots, a man’s shirt, and a saber. I saw her, and I knew she was a woman, but she disguised herself with mannerisms and a lower voice. It was almost as if she truly became a male.”
“What manner of woman dresses as a man?” Cook asked curiously, his Dutch African accent crisp and enunciated.
Liam cursed his tongue for its wagging but knew Cook would keep the secret for the short time necessary. “Have you heard of the Demon of the Whore?”
“Everyone has heard of the Demon, my lord! The man is a legend! Sailors sing songs about him in dockside taverns.”
“The Demon, my fiancé, is currently bathing in my cabin and she needs something to wear.”
Cook’s mouth opened then he shut it with a snap. He sternly took the glasses from Michael and Liam then locked the bottle away. “No more whiskey for either of you until you sleep it off.”
“Malcolm Stiles murdered her husband, the Marquis of Sudbury and his friend, the Viscount of Exter. They were very close. She commandeered the Australia Sun, painted her black, and ravaged his ships until he went into hiding. Did you never wonder why the Branded Whore never attacked other ships?” Liam asked.
Cook snorted in derision. “Do you mean to tell me that Stiles has been running from a woman for better than a year?”
“Ask Mr. Aames. He captained the Sun until Miranda fired him to protect his wife and children. He knows who she is.”
Cook shook his head in disbelief. “I can’t even imagine that little girl commanding a crew.”
“You won’t have to imagine it,” Michael said. “I’m handing command to Captain Stewart when we reach Salinas. We have to reach London by December, and the Demon is the only captain I know who can get us there. She plans to skirt the southern continent.”
“That isn’t possible! No one sails that far south.”
“As Miranda reminded me, why do you think people call her the Demon?”
“May the gods help us. Will your Christian god help if I pray to him?”
“It can’t hurt.”
Cook bowed and touched his fingers to his lips. “I might have something that will fit her. I bought it for my wife, but she doesn’t know about it and won’t miss it. Captain Stewart can have it if it fits her. It might be a little long, but she could hem it.”
“Miranda probably reaches your shoulder, old friend.”
“Ah, then it might be a little short. Let me go to my cabin and get it.”
He returned quickly bearing a bundle of green silk. He shook it out with a flourish, revealing a gorgeous brocaded green silk dress with cap sleeves and full skirts. “Will the future Duchess like it?”
Liam took the dress. “Thank you, Cook. I think Miranda will be very pleased. She wore a green dress the first time I saw her in Port Jackson. I’ll reimburse you so you can get your wife another. We would also like you to keep this to yourself until we reach port and announce it to the rest of the crew. I also want to warn you that she will inspect the galley. I don’t think she’ll find anything wrong here, but the general state of the Enchantress upset her greatly.”
Cook let out a rude snort. “Why are you surprised? The place is a pigsty and your sailors are all lazy oafs.” At Michael’s grimace, he winced. “Please accept my apologies, Captain Beecham.”
Before they left the galley, Liam asked Cook to prepare a meal for them. “It’s not a mealtime, so something simple will be fine. The only thing I ask is that there is absolutely no fish.”
As they walked back to the officer’s quarters, Michael glanced around at the mess in the passageway and cursed. It really was that bad.
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