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Excerpt From Chapter 3

     Penn started to surge forward, but Marklain held him back with an arm.

     “Don’t do anything stupid,” Jack warned. As he pressed the knife tighter against Sirene's throat, causing her to stand on her tiptoes to avoid getting cut, a low whimper escaped her. A nice touch, Jack thought. He eased her back down so her feet were flat on the ground and took a step forward to mask the act, pressed her back tightly against him in the process. This time she yelped. He pressed slowly forward. “Now, gentlemen, if you would be so kind as to set down yer arms and back toward th’ vessel, I’d be much obliged.”

     “To what end, sir?” asked Marklain, unbuckling his pistol.

     “It is my intention to commandeer yon brig, and I need a temp’ry crew. Now step lively lads, lest something nasty happen,” he snarled with a wicked grin.

     The man at the table playing with a deck of cards had yet to move. He looked up, measured the situation, and decided to play it cool. “So, you kill some farm boy unlucky enough to get snatched.” He shrugged, turning another card. “It will just be one more crime on your list to be read at the gallows. What does his life matter to us?”

     Penn glared at the other man, but said nothing. Marklain voiced objections for the both of them.

     “A life is a life, Edmonds.”

     Edmonds slammed the deck down. “We are paid to protect the Ambition from theft and nature. Not to safeguard the local peasantry,” he snarled.

     “It’s the only decent thing to do,” Marklain insisted.

     “Th’ Christian thing,” Penn added in a mutter.

     “You want to save lives, then go join the navy. Me? I’m staying right here, as is that ship,” he pointed, “until the captain calls for her and damned be to bloody hell any fool who says otherwise.”

     Penn started to move on Edmonds and found himself staring down the barrel of a pistol. “Don’t be stupid, Penn. I’ll shoot you just as readily as I’ll shoot this pirate through whatever poor sot he’s using for a shield.”

     As the gun began to swing in their direction Sirene bucked. She gave a low, guttural cry and slammed her head back against Jack. In the process of knocking her hat loose, she clipped his chin, and took a razor scrape along her cheek from the knife. She doubled over, dislodging her hat completely, releasing a cloud of silvery blond hair. Jack bent and grabbed a fistful, pulled her back up to show her face to the guards and still maintain his hold on his hostage.

     They all reacted with recognition, but it was Marklain who exclaimed, “Miss Margaret!”

     “Damn ye, girl,” Jack snarled. “Ye went and spoilt my little surprise.”

     To play it safe, he pointed the knife downward over her heart. It was less secure, but less risky should she try something like that again. Even Edmonds froze.

     “Ah, I see I have something ye do care about, gentlemen. Is yer answer still th’ same?” he asked, with a triumphant sneer. “Or are ye going to play along now?”

     Edmonds started to lower the pistol, then a thought occurred to him as he raked his eyes over her. In response, he cocked the pistol, taking aim at Jack’s head. “Why, if she is your hostage, is she wearing men’s clothing?”

     Jack switched sides, still using Sirene as his shield, shifting his grip from her hair to the strap around her throat. “Because, dim wit, I had hoped to sneak her on board without anyone the wiser that I was stealin’ a woman. But things got a little complicated,” he hissed. He gave her ‘collar’ a jerk to punctuate his point. “Someone had to give it all away. Now, if you gentlemen will climb on board, we’ll be under way and it will all be over in a few days, weather willing. Then ye kin return home none th’ worse fer….”

     “I simply cannot allow you to steal the captain’s ship,” Edmonds insisted, though the muzzle of the pistol had lowered a full half-inch.

     Jack snarled, shifting his position again. “I am not stealin’ th’ damned thing. I’m borrowin’ it. You can even bring ‘er back to port yerself when I’m done with ‘er. It’s not like she’s big enough for me line of work. Maybe when she grows up,” he grinned. The comment did not sit well with Edmonds and the pistol resumed its bead. “Make up yer mind, man. Which do ye think yer captain treasures more? His bonny wee boat, or his silvery lady?”

     Edmonds hesitated. The other men watched him desperately.

     “I am not a patient man, Mr. Edmonds,” Jack warned, and bent Sirene back against his body so she couldn’t fall, and pressed the point of the knife below her chin.

Sirene cried out. It began as a simple, feminine scream of pain or fear, but the pitch was uncomfortably high and rising, and Marklain jumped toward her, hands up, begging her not to scream.

     “Miss Margaret, please. No! I beg you!”

     Jack, uncertain what was going on, backed the knife off a hair and took a step away. His ears were ringing. His hand slipped up and over her mouth, silencing her.

     “Please, sir pirate. Set her down. We’ll do what ye want, just don’t make her scream.”

     Behind the man, a scuffle had ensued. Penn had jumped Edmonds and was wrestling the pistol away from him. Jack jerked his head in the direction of the scuffle.

     “Ye’d best end that in my favour, Mr. Marks, or things’ll end badly here.”

     Marklain jumped to help, but Penn had already wrested the pistol away and tossed it. Marklain picked it up and held it on Edmonds. “There’s something just not right about you, Mr. Edmonds,” he exclaimed. “Willingly endangering the captain’s mistress for a few timbers and sailcloth?”

     A new light went on in Jack’s head as he absorbed that titbit. “Mr. Marks,” he began, shifting Sirene so that she was on her own feet, leaning of her own will against him. He wrapped his arm around her waist, as it seemed she might faint and shifted the knife to the hand holding her, pressing it flat against her belly. He held his bandaged hand out to Marklain. “The pistol, if you would, mate.”

     He turned it around, grabbing it by the barrel, but hesitated to hand it over. Edmonds struggled in Penn’s grasp, but Marklain ignored him.

     “Please don’t hurt her, sir. She’s a right sweet woman. Take me for hostage instead and leave her here. Penn and I’ll sail you wherever you want to go.”

     Jack sighed. “That’s mighty kind of ye, but I fear she’s a tad more valuable than you. The pistol?” Still he wavered. Jack was losing patience. “I assure ye, man, that if it comes to the worst, the pistol would be a swifter, kinder end than my knife. Especially if it should open her belly.”

     Edmonds shouted unintelligibly as Marklain closed his eyes and passed the butt into Jack’s waiting grasp. “May God forgive me,” he prayed.

     “I’m sure he will,” Jack answered, and shifted Sirene to put the dagger into his belt holding the pistol near her head. “Now,” he said, straightening, “Mr. Marks.”

     “Marklain, sir,” he corrected politely.

     Jack nodded. “Marklain then. I think my first order shall be for ye to find something with which to restrain the wicked and heartless Mr. Edmonds.”

     Marklain nodded and ran onto the boat. Jack led Sirene over to an empty chair and sat her in it. He sauntered over to where Penn stood over the kneeling Edmonds. Penn’s arms were tucked under his, and his hands were locked behind Edmonds’ neck. Jack looked over the contents of the table, at the order of the cards, then began to inspect the troublemaker Sirene had warned him of. He saw something sticking out of the man’s sleeve where they waved ineffectually above his head. Jack grabbed his wrist with a grin and pulled a card out of the sleeve.

     “Cheating? At solitaire, no less? Tsk tsk. You are truly… a dishonest man. I wonder what else ye’ve been stuffing up yer dirty little sleeves.”

     Edmonds struggled and snarled, flailing his arms back at his captor. “Now’s your chance, you idiot. Jump him not me!”

     Jack chuckled, turned the last chair around backwards and straddled it. As he crossed his arms over its back and leaned forward on them, he made sure the muzzle of the pistol was pointed in Sirene’s direction and that the arm was free to change targets if need be.

     “I don’t think he will. Ye see, unlike you, Mr. Penn… it is Penn, isn’t it?” he asked. Penn merely nodded. “Mr. Penn is a smart man. You… yore a selfish man. He knows I could, at anytime, simply shoot th’ lady. If, say, he were to have taken yer advice,” he said civilly, pausing to pick something out of his teeth, “and attempted to jump me, I would have swiftly shot him and stabbed you. And whilst this would mean Miss Margaret over there would be safe, she would have to work twice as hard, as would Mr. Marklain, to get me where I’m going. And ye wouldn’t want to see that delicate flower of womanhood hauling capstan lines, now would ye? Oh, right, of course. Ye wouldn’t care a whit. And not just because ye’d be dead.”

     Marklain returned with a length of heavy rope.

     “Ah, just in time.” He frowned, as he looked from rope to ship to the stout man. “That wouldn’t happen to be something we’ll be needin’ on ar voyage now is it, Mr. Marklain?” He frowned, twitching one side of his moustache and managed to stare imperiously down his nose at the taller man.

     “No, sir. This was a bit of extra. What it was cut from was replaced months ago. I just kept it lying about just in case.”

     “Hmm, very well then, tie him up. And see that it’ll be a while afore he can manage to wiggle out of it.”

     He watched the process with a lopsided grin of approval as the two men were less than gentle with their chore. He also noticed that Penn left most of the tying to his friend. When they were done, he inspected the knots to make sure they would hold and was surprised to note they had used knots that would hold in the roughest weather. Poor Mr. Edmonds was going to have to be cut loose. With a swagger, he crossed to Sirene and picked up the end of her leash.

     “Come along, Miss Maargaret,” he drawled as he gave the line a tug. “There’s a good girl. Mr. Penn, be so kind as to fetch the lady’s hat on yer way aboard. Mr. Marklain, I’ll be takin’ yer pistol belt and ye’ll be leadin’ th’ way.”

     He handed over the belt without a fuss, which Jack looped over his shoulder and followed the man onto the gangplank. Penn trotted behind, pausing to undo the mooring before leaping aboard. Once on deck, Jack led Sirene to the quarterdeck, lifted her up the stairs, and set her by the wheel before he let her go of her leash. He tucked his pistol into his belt and took hold of the helm. He began giving orders and the two men scrambled to drop the sails necessary to leave the small harbour. Sirene sank to the deck and leaned her forehead against the rail attempting to regain her strength. He kept half an eye on her and half on his shanghaied crew. As they began to pull away from the dock, he couldn’t help himself and jumped to the rear railing to wave to shore.

     “Do give me regards to yer master, Mr. Edmonds. Be sure to tell him that Handsome Jack came to call and thanks him for the use of his pretty little coracle, and his lovely mistress.”

     He laughed as Edmonds jumped up and down in his chair, cursing foully as he tipped over in his impotent rage. Jack gave him a saucy salute and jumped to the deck. As he turned back to the wheel, he scowled to see Marklain bent over Sirene. The man jumped when a dagger embedded itself into the deck beside him, a hand’s breadth from Sirene’s knee.

     “I was making sure she was all right, sir… Captain,” he choked. “She seemed…”

     The scowl on Jack’s face silenced him. Sirene watched in amazement at the presence the small man commanded when he wanted. Of course, her current point of view could be skewing her impression, she thought.

     Jack was silent for a few seconds more.

     “Mr. Marklain. Release the lady and help her to the lower deck. Ye both kin earn yer keep.”

     “You want her to help with the rigging? But sir…”

     “That’s CAPTAIN sir, Mister,” he roared. “And bear in mind, I’ll shoot at the first sign o’ mutiny from any one o’ ye. Once we’ve put in at a useful port, everyone can go their merry way and none to harm. We’ve few enough hands at the moment and I need them all, savvy?”

     “Aye, Captain. Though I still think the lady’ll be of no use. She’ll only get in the way,” he mumbled as he cut the reins from her wrists and loosened the loop around her neck.

     Sirene set her hand on his arm before he could note the fail-safe. “It’s all right, Mr. Marklain. The captain is right. We need all hands… even his,” she added, glaring at him over her shoulder. “I may not know the ropes, but I can be of other help. Just tell me what to do,” she said, slipping the rein over her head.

     He helped her to her feet and, still grumbling about it not being right, led her down to the main deck and set her to work helping drop the rest of the sails. Jack grinned, most pleased with himself. He was on a real deck again with the wind at his back and the horizon open before him. The broad ocean beckoned to him like the open arms of an eager lover and he was not going to disappoint. He spun the wheel with intense joy, bringing the ship full around and aiming her prow to the open water.

     Sirene paused from fighting with a stubborn knot she had no idea how to undo. Her hair continued to whip into her face, though she tried to capture it beneath her hat. She sighed, closed her eyes and drank in the salt air and the heaving waters and exhaled slowly to calm her frustration. A deep, almost painful longing washed over her, leaving her as cold as if struck by a receding wave and left standing wet in the wind. She opened her eyes, and found herself looking up at the bridge deck where the captain stood, feet spread and rock steady, hands to the wheel, surveying the ship and the sea like an ancient pirate god.

     His head was thrown back drinking in the wet, briny air, and the wind spread his hair before him. However, it did not seem to be bothering him as hers was. The sunlight gleamed off the brown locks, flashing coppery in places and gold in others. His clothes were old and looked like a shipwreck, as did the faded yellow sash that waved from his hips, but the body beneath them was lean and wiry and permanently tanned from years at sea. She knew that from the few times she had been up close and personal with it.

     There was no sign of scurvy or other seafarer’s diseases, and his teeth were remarkably good, though not perfect. His face was timelessly young. He could easily be mistaken for mid-twenty when rumour alone dated him more than thirty. His beard was short and sparse, barely there, lying close against his chin along his jaw and, as she remembered, was soft enough he must never have shaved a day in his life. Gone was the rolling gait of the drunkard, replaced by a perfect ease with the pitch and swell, and a confidence that was undeniable. Somehow, she did not find it arrogant, as she did on Price. On Jack it was absolute freedom.

     She was distracted by Penn’s approach. He bobbed his head and asked with a gesture if he could be permitted to help her. She nodded, grateful. He showed her which end to pull to release the knot with a minimum of effort. He kept his head bent to his work, showing her the next thing that needed to be done, but questioned her in a low voice.

     “Ye’s all roight, Miss?”

     She realized that her eyes were tearing, and she hurriedly wiped them on her sleeve, nodding as she answered. “I am fine, thank you, Penn. It’s the wind. It keeps whipping my hair into my eyes.”

     He nodded, but there was a look of disbelief on his face. “’e ‘asn’t… ‘urt ye, ‘as ‘e? Or otherwise…”

     She cut him off with a choked laugh. “No, he hasn’t.”

     “No doubt it’s on ‘is mind, though,” he mumbled. “Th’ way ‘e looks at ye.”

     She helped him haul on a line to bring up the main staysail. “I confuse him,” she explained.

     He gave a snort. “Don’t all women any man?” he muttered. “Try to stay out o’ ‘is attention, Miss. We’ll do as ‘e says so long’s ‘e don’t lay an ‘and to ye. I’ll not be standin’ by that.”

     He might have said more, but the captain walked by, dancing across the deck as he dodged ropes and swinging booms, having the time of his life. Penn moved to drop the top gallant sails, but the Captain’s voice stopped him.

     “Avast, Mr. Penn.” They looked up to see him balanced on the side rail with one foot on the rail and one hand on the ratlines, the rough rope ladder than connected to the shrouds. “We’ll run on the mains and the tops at best fer speed, but should we run up a squall, the gallants’ll be too much fer four hands to furl in time. Leave ‘er as she is.”

     “Aye, sir,” he responded curtly, and promptly retied the line.

     “I’ll thank ye t’ man yer post, pilot,” he added. “There’s shoals and reefs afore open water and ye’ll be knowin’ them better than I. I’ll see t’ th’ lass’s education.”

     Penn ground his teeth, but turned away and headed for the bridge. Jack jumped to the deck, enjoying himself. As he crossed the planks toward her, he noticed a shift in the ship and the wind, and looked up into the sails. A great rippling ran across the canvas as they began to spill.

     “Smartly, Mr. Penn. I like me sails full!” he shouted, jumping into action. “Mr. Marklain, brace that mains’l!” He pointed Sirene to a line not far from her. “Third pin larboard there. Unhitch the line and pull ‘er back ‘til th’ sail fills!” he ordered, running farther ahead of her to grab the line on the topsail.

     Sirene fumbled with the line, but managed to unhitch it in a reasonable amount of time. She hauled back on it as hard as she could, drawing the boom around to catch the changing wind. It was a fight, but she slowly began winning it. She was just reaching for the belaying pin to wind her down when Penn bellowed a warning.

“Coming about, Captain! Larboard!”

     She had no time to ask what that meant before the rope she had hold of went slack, sending her tumbling toward the deck. She never landed as the wind caught the sail in the last second and flung her up the deck into the captain’s arms. He stared down into her ice-blue eyes and chuckled.

     “Just can’t resist me, can ye, luv?” he teased, wrapping an arm around her back and ducking the both of them in time to avoid the swinging boom.

     He reached out and deftly snagged the line with his other hand. He braced his foot against a raised hatch to keep it from tossing him as well. He grinned down at her, as she had yet to let go. His smile faded instantly. Her eyes were glassy and her lips, parted in a gasp, were whiter than her hair. There was blood on his shirt where she grabbed it, and his hand on her back felt a cold dampness under her coat. Just as he noticed there was no sweat on her brow, her eyes rolled back, her hand lost its hold and she began to slip to the deck.

     Jack grabbed her more tightly with the arm he had around her, bracing her with his knee to keep her from falling, and bellowed for Marklain. He strained against the pull of the wind until he saw the man from the corner of his eye and tossed him the rope. Mr. Marklain had no choice but to stop to tie it to the belaying pin.

     The moment his hand was free, Jack grabbed Sirene and laid her gently on the deck. He made sure she was breathing, however shallowly, and that her heart beat evenly if a little weak. He ran his hands inside her coat and up her back to make sure she was not wearing some binding he hadn’t noticed before that might have caused the faint, which she wasn’t. Her back was drenched with a cold sweat. He pulled his hand out, gently brushed a lock of hair from her brow, and gaped in horror at the red streak his middle finger left behind.

     “What the devil,” he began, turning his hand over. The palm was painted in a thin layer of blood. “Bloody hell?”

     Jack pulled her up, leaning her limp body against him and began to strip off the dull brown coat. Her shirt was plastered against her back, stiff in some places with dried blood and very wet most everywhere else. There were even spots along the back of her sleeves that were dotted red. He looked up to see Marklain standing nearby staring down at Sirene in blank shock. Jack swept her up and over his shoulder with deceptive ease and stood, paused to issue orders.

     “Snap to, Mr. Marklain! I shall need water, cleaning cloths, and possibly bandages.”

     Marklain stirred, shaking his head. “Aye, Captain,” he answered numbly, and scurried off to acquire the items.

Jack made a beeline for the aft cabins. “Mr. Penn, you have the helm for now. Think you can handle it for a while?”

     “Aye, sir!”

     “Very well then. Ring the ship’s bell if you need a hand. I shall be below.”

     “What’s th’ bearin’, sir?” he asked just before the captain disappeared from his field of vision.

     “Guadeloupe,” he answered, and vanished below.

     Finding the captain’s cabin was not difficult; it was the centre door in the aft housing and clearly labelled ‘Captain’. The luxury of the room was almost criminal and took easily two-thirds the width of the ship. The other cabin would be painfully small. There was a curtained, four-poster bed set for the best view out the massive stern windows. The glass in them was expensive, nearly flawless. There were book cabinets with glass and bright-work doors, and a mahogany wardrobe, as well as a sea chest.

     He carried her to the bed and sat her on the edge of it, working the shirt off her. He winced whenever he had to pry the fabric loose from spots of dried blood. He ignored the bare and snow white mounds of her breasts and laid her on the bed on her belly. Marklain came in with the medical supplies and a small bottle of whiskey.

     “For inflammation,” he said weakly, setting the bucket and cloths at the captain’s feet, but refusing to look at the figure on the bed.

     Jack noted his reaction and paleness of face, and took the bottle handed to him. “Thank you, Mr. Marklain. Return atop and help Mr. Penn.”

     Marklain left swiftly and gratefully. Jack set the bottle on the bedside table and began to wash Sirene’s back. As the nature of her injuries became known, he began to grind his teeth.

     Sirene woke to the tender ministrations of Jack’s hands. She kept her eyes closed and tried to relax. She knew she should not have done as much as she had today, but there had been no help for it if she wanted to escape. She had been mostly all right even on the horse ride, but the deckhand activity had reopened the worst of her wounds. Even though her entire back was on fire she could feel his touch on every single stripe. She became aware that he was cursing under his breath in one of the island languages, one she was only cursorily familiar with, as he followed the wickedly thin lines on her lower back to where they disappeared into her trousers. As he hesitated to figure out how to get them off without hurting her further, she spoke.

     “Just cut them off.” Her voice was low and husky with pain.

     He looked to see those eyes the colour of an English sky looking back at him weakly. “Then what will ye be wearin’? I can’t have ye paradin’ around deck half naked. That Marklain is already getting’ a bit peculiar with just yer bare back. I swear that man’d blush if he saw yer ankles, let alone naked thigh.”

     She started to chuckle and then stifled a sob of pain. “There are clothes… in the chest,” she breathed.

     Before Jack could move he heard the door open and the cocking of a pistol. He saw Sirene’s lips move to form Penn’s name.

     “Mr. Penn, I sincerely hope yer not lettin’ us run aground on some shoal while ye stand there threatenin’ me like a fool. Ye’ve only one shot. And if I move, ye will hit th’ lady.”

     “Did ye do that to ‘er?” he growled, through his teeth.

     The look that crossed Jack’s face explained to Sirene the reason he was called ‘Mad Jack’. He slowly turned his head, and affixed one blue-brown eye on the older Penn. There was danger in those unpredictable eyes.

     The pistol never wavered. “I ask ag’in, sir. Did ye do tha’ t’ Miss Marg’ret?”

     Sirene waved to Penn to put the pistol down. She lifted her head from the mattress. “No,” she said hoarsely. The barrel wavered. “Captain… Ambrose… Price.”

     All colour left his face. He shook his head in disbelief. “No… can’t be. Th’ capt’n wouldn’ do this to ye.”

     “Believe me,” she whispered. “It’s not… the first time.”

     He hesitated three seconds before he lowered his arm and spun the pistol in his hand, held it back out butt first. “Apol’gies, Capt’n. I stand ready,” he said stiffly.

     Jack crossed to the man, took the pistol. He stared up at the sailor for a long moment, taking in every wind whipped crevice and grizzled grey hair. Then he set his hand on the man’s shoulder, and spoke confidentially.

     “Yer a very good man and a fair decent sailor. I need every hand, including hers and I’m now short that. I may be mad, but I ain’t no fool. I’ll not be punishin’ a man fer decency. I respect loyalty, sir. Just don’t let it make ye stupid.”

     “Penn,” she wheezed, gesturing for him to come nearer. He waited until the captain nodded before crossing to the bed and kneeling beside it. She set her hand on his. “Jack didn’t kidnap me; he saved my life. I ran away. You and Marklain can go back if you want… weave whatever story you please. But I beg you… help us. I would have asked you outright, but…”

     “Edmonds,” he said, nodding.

     “And this way… you aren’t exactly lying.”

     He grinned, showing poor, but clean teeth. “Not exactly. I’ll inform Mr. Mawkl’in at once. We’ll get ye to Guadeloupe safely, Miss Mar…”

     She squeezed his hand, and gave a tiny shake of her head. “It’s Sirene. Margaret is what Ambrose named me.”

     “Aye, Miss Sirene. Can I get ye anyfin’?”

     She nodded. “Seawater.”

     He bobbed his head and stood to go. “Captain,” he said, with a nod in his direction.

     Jack held him back. “Seawater?”

     “Aye, Captain. Burns loik ‘ell, but she’s good fer burnin’ out impurities; better’n ‘at rot-gut what’s on th’ table. Might want ta consider some fer yer ‘and, sir.”

     Jack dismissed him and returned to the bedside. He crossed his arms and glared down at her. “That was risky, tellin’ ‘im th’ truth.”

     “It was time. I can trust him.”

     “That was still some’at we should have agreed upon. I am captain, my word is law on shipboard,” he growled.

     She laughed softly. “Hear me roar,” she mocked. He scowled. “We are partners in this, Captain Wyndlam. I am not part of the crew. Though, as soon as I can get up from here, I will gladly go back on deck and help as I can.”

     “That will be some time judging from that mess,” he sneered, nodding at her injuries. “Why the bloody blue blazes did ye allow me to bully ye into all that work, knowing ye were injured?”

     “Because it needed to be done.”

     He roared in exasperation, throwing up his hands and pacing around the cabin. The woman was infuriating; her logic infallible. She was right, but that didn’t make it right.