That was asfaras he got, of course. Thiswasn’t the type of place where men "discussed" their differences. The Scot was on him at once, slammingafist into his jawmidword, sending him stumbling backward. Valoree sighed, thinking she would have to give up herrelaxing drink andinterveneon Daniel’s behalf. It seemed she wouldfindno peacetoday.. . anywhere.
But before she could move, he hadregained himself and come back at theman, fists flying. Valoree was impressed. TheScot wasn’t much taller than Thurborne, but he carried twice his bulk, and had armsasbig aroundasher thighsand fists like pots. But Daniel was thebetter fighter, apparently – and a dirty one, too, she realized with a grin amoment later as hesuddenly kickedthe other man.
The Scot howled anoteinsoprano, his hands suddenlyglued to his groin. He tumbled sideways to moan and writhe on the ground.
Straightening his cuffs, Daniel eyed the Scot for a moment, then turned a hard-eyed lookon Valoree. "If you have finished your refreshment, mayhap we could get out of this establishment."
"Well, now, " she said withamusement."As ithappens, I am notquite finished. Besides, it appears you’vemade some friends."
"Friends? " He gaveher an angry look.
"Aye. And itappearsthey’dlike ye to stayand play."
Understanding dawning in his eyes, Danielwhirledjust intime to see the fist that came flying athim. Hetried to avoid it, and while he didn’t succeed entirely, he did manage to avoid the worst of the blows. It seemed the Scot had friends – three of them – and theywere moving in on him. Sighing, Daniel spread hisfeet slightly and prepared to do battle.
Gulping down the last of her whiskey, Valoree stood and moved around the fighters to reach the bar again. Settingthe mug down for the barkeep to refill, she kepther gaze fixed on Daniel and his new friends as the real fighting began. She wasn’treally worriedabout him, despite the odds.If he could handlethe Scot, he could handle those three … four . .. five … Now, six was getting a bit unfair, she decided irritably.
Grabbing herrefilledmug in one hand, shesnatched the now empty whiskey bottle from the barkeep with her other, and started backto the table. She paused along the way to smashthe bottle over thehead of thenearest of the six men. He felllike a stone, crumplingto the wooden floor behind her asshe continued on to the table.
Sipping herdrink, she watched the remainder of thefightwith interest.Daniel wasfaston his feet. He wasalso, she sawwith delight, using every dirty trick in the book. There werenofancy fisticuffs here. He was pulling hair, gouging eyes, kneeing, punching, andkickinggroins. She couldn’t have been prouder had hebeenone of herown men.
A tap on her shouldermadeher glance around to find herself staring at Richard andScratchy. "What the devil are the two of you doing here? " she snapped irritably, then glared ather second mate. "Richard, I leftyou in chargeof the ship. What – "
"Skully came back to relieve me. He saidHenryhad sent him togive me some time off, too."
"Oh." Sighing, Valoree glanced back at the fight, trying to shrug off the guilt that was suddenly plaguing her for notthinking herself ofgivingtheman time off. "Well, behave yourselves."
The two menmuttered acquiescencetothat, then were silent for a moment, watching the fight with her.
"He’s pretty good, " Richard commented after a moment as Danieltossed one of the menover his shoulder andonto anearby table. "Is he’him’? "
"Him who? "Valoree asked distractedly.
"The one what ye’re gonna marry, " Richard clarified, bringing herheadsnapping around.
She glared at himbriefly, then snapped, "Nay."
"Why not? "
"Why not? " she repeated in amazement. Because he was definitely not thesort to allowher tobe incharge; she couldtell justby looking at him. But insteadshe said, "Well, for onething, hehasn’t asked."
"Hmmm." Richard pursed his lips and eyed Thurborne consideringly. "Goodfighter."
"Not bad, " Scratchy agreed, pluckingout asilverofwood that washalf sticking out of the rough wooden table and using it to pick histeeth as heconsidered thecontinuingfight. "Knows how tohandle hisself."
"Hmmm."They were allsilent for a moment; then Richard muttered, "Don’t suppose weshould help’im out abit? Justin case it turnsout he’s thinking of asking? "
"He doesn’t need help, " Valoree snapped. "He’s doing fine.
Besides, you know I don’t like you men fighting when you’re on shore." She winced as oneof the men landed aratherbrutal blow that seemedto stun Thurborne fora moment, allowing several more blows before he could stop them. The Scot chose that moment torecover from his own injury. Climbingback to his feet, he released a furious roar and charged Daniel. The two men crashed onto a far table, grappling together. Now thattheScot was backin the battle, several more mensuddenlyfound their courage and decided to join the fight as well. Once the odds reached nineto one, Richard couldn’tkeepsilent any longer.
"Hemay notneedhelp. Allthesame – "
"Oh, go ahead."Valoreesighed, hidingherreliefas Scratchy and Richard rushed forward, launchingthemselves into the fray.
Thurborne had done allright for himself, but he was growing tired and could use the help.
"What do you thinkyou are doing? "
Valoree glanced around with a start at that sharp tone, relaxing somewhat whenshe saw Meg and Henry standing behind her.
"Oh, it’s you. Done, are you? "
"We finishedseveral moments ago, " Megtold her grimly. "And have been searchingfor youeversince."
"Well, all you hadto do was askOne-Eye. He must have seen me comeinhere."
"One-Eye didnotsee you come in here, " Meg informed her grimly."Heclaims you ordered him andthat poor gentlemanwith no nose to remove their weapons and tie up their hair, then disappeared. Hesaid that by the time they had finished these tasks and glanced around, you weregone."
"Oh. Well." Valoree gave an unconcernedshrug atthe news.
"Youfound me in the end, and that’s all that matters, I suppose."
"All thatmatters? " Meg repeated withdismay. "What matters isthat you are presently sitting ina … a … What are you doingin here? "
Valoree blinked in surprise at the razor-sharp edge to the woman’s voice. She shifted uncomfortably. "I’mjust watching a fight, " she answeredquietly, reaching for hermugto take asmall drink.Her hand was about toclose aroundthecup when Meg slapped it. Snatching the cup, the woman raised itto hernose and sniffed the contents.
"Whiskey? " She exclaimed in horror.
"Aye.Do ye want some? " Valoree glancedtowardthe bar to wavethebarkeep over, only to cry out inshock as pain shot throughher head. Meghad grabbedher ear andtwisted it.Even now, shewasusing it to force Valoreeto her feet. Followingthe pull to avoid further pain, Valoree found herselfdragged back out ontothestreet before she wasreleased. Eyesspittingfire, she whirled onthe old ex-prostitute, then reached automatically for her cutlass, only tofind it missing.Withlittle elseto use against her enemy at the moment but words, Valoree sucked in her breath, ready to bawl her out, only to find her mouth snapping shut in surprise asHenry grabbed her arm and whirled her around in the direction of thecarriage.
"If you were my daughter instead of my captain, I’dtake you overmykneeand whupye, " he snapped. "Me? "Valoree cried in amazement."But she – "
"She did exactly as an aunt would be expected to do to a brainlesswhelp who doesn’t havethe sensetotend toher own reputation."
"You were in a tavern. A run-down hivefull ofthieves and doxies. There wasn’t a singlerespectable lady there, including yourself, itwould seem."
"Just becauseI am a woman, it doesn’tmean – "
"Woman? " he snapped, turning on her. ‘This has nothing to do with being a woman.This has to dowithbeing anoble. You are a member of nobility, girl. Orhave you gone so far that you’ve forgotten that? ‘Cause your brother never did. He was a gentlemanright upto the day he died."
Valoree stiffened, her face paling to a deathly white as he continued.
"Jeremy never would have set footina place like that. Not unlessen it was for business. And then he wouldhave left the minute business wasdone, andfound a more respectable place to relax. Butyou!You’ve gotsomething to prove, don’t ye? And what is it exactly, I wonder? That youcan crawl in the mudwith the restof the scum? "
Valoree wincedathis words, then lifted herchin. "Richard and Scratchy were in there. They are not scum."
"Nay, they’re not. But they ain’t nobility either and nevercan be.You are. And that life is justwaiting forye. Why are ye so afraid of it? "
Panic suffused her briefly; then shewhirled onher heel and strodetoward the carriage. "I ain’tafraid ofnothing, " shesaid with asnarl.
"I know ye’re notafraid of death or pain, " Henry called as she stomped backto the vehicle. "But it sure seems to me yer afraid of living!"
Her face was hot. Not just hot, but burning. It also itched something fierce.The discomforthad startedshortlyafter Meg hadfinished putting that glop they hadbought today on her face.
Valoree had beendoingher bestto ignore the fiery itch for what seemed likehours, butreally shewasbeginningto think it would drive her mad – if all the fawning women around her did not manage tofirst.
The Thurborne ball was certainly a different beast than the Beechamparty had been. Theirhostess, Lady Thurborne herself, hadgreeted them upon their arrival, been most gracious, then taken it uponherself to introduce themaround. There were no snickers behind fans or gloved hands, nor malicious messages being sent from cold eyes.Everybodyhad been most pleasant.
Valoree wouldhave liked to have believed that itwas because Megwas doing allthe talking and that theolderwoman, much to heramazement, carried herself, looked, andsounded exactlyas a lady should.
Truly, her performance was impressive. She carried each conversation withapparentease and grace, leaving Valoree and Henry to smileand nod politely. Butthat explanation just didn’t wash. These people were up to something, Valoree decided grimly. There was noother explanationfor theway thewomen had suddenlycrowded around her, cooing and pleadingthat she attend this ballorthat dinner.They werefawning overher asif she were royalty, and it was making Valoree nervous.
Her gaze slid to Henry, andshe saw the same suspicion she felt reflected inhis eyes. He, too, had noticed the difference. No doubthe had also noticed that, while they were presently the center of anevergrowing circle ofpeople vying for her attention, there was not a single man among them.. .. Well, except for Thurbornehimself, but Valoree didn’t really counthim. She had already ticked him off her list of possible husbands, so his presence was easily discounted.
Nodding politely in response toyetanother younggirl’s plea thatsheattendsome functionor other, Valoree turned her face awayfromthegrowingcrowd. Annoyed, she dabbed at thesmall bead of sweat that was trickling down the side of her face.
Despitethe crowds and theheat in the room ofso manybodies together, Valoree wasn’t really hot enough to be sweating. At least not fromthe neckdown, but that stupid wig that Meg had insisted she wearwas irritating her scalp something fierce. Since she’d arrived, sweat had begun gathering at her hairline and trailing down her face. Valoree kept discreetly dabbing at it, trying to minimizethe damageto her makeup, but really, all she could think wasthat this was all terribly uncomfortable and a blasted waste oftime.
Why, she wondered, wasshe allowing herself to sufferthrough this when every single man but Thurborne was keeping himselfat a safe distance? Watching the frufarau curiously, but not approaching? Valoree could almost have believed she was wearing her shirt and breeches, and that the women all thought her a man, by the way they were gatheringaroundher. Except that She had never been this uncomfortable in herregular clothes.
"Would you care to dance? "
Valoree gavea start and glanced over to see Daniel Thurborne.
The man had a small bruise on his left cheek, but otherwise looked none the worse for wear. "Nay. I do not dance, " she answered irritably, then gaspedin surpriseas he suddenly took herarm andturnedher away toward the dancingcouples.
"Comenow, you shall have to come up with a betterexcuse than that, " he chidedgently as heled herunwillinglyforward.
"Aye, well, Idonot, " Valoree insisted, giving a uselesstug on herarm.
"Then I shall be pleased to teach you, " hemurmured sweetly, pausing to drawher around to face him and settling thehand he held onto his shoulder, even as he snatchedup her otherin his own and setout to dance.
Her handsmoved with him;her arms did too, but Valoree’s feet stayed plantedfirmlywhere they had settled, her legs bracing automatically againsthispull as if she were astride the Valor’s, deck during rough seas. Startled, Daniel halted abruptly and peered down at her feet, then up at her face.
"You really do not know how, do you? " he asked quietly.
Encouraged by somethingin his eyes, Valoree sighed and shook her head. His gaze drifted briefly; then he straightened his shouldersand nodded."Then I shall teach you. Now, you just – "
"I really do not think that would be a good idea, " Valoree interrupted, turning awayto head right back towardwhere Henry and Meg still stood surrounded by women. She came to a dismayedpause, however, upon seeing that every single personin the grouptheyhad just left seemed to be watchingher. There was nothing like a littlepressure to make thingseasier.
"Well, I think itwould be a verygood idea, " Thurborne argued, taking advantageof her pause to draw her back around to face him. "After all, it will be very difficultto find yourselfa husband if you donothave the proper skills, " he argued.Ashe did, he replaced her hand at his shoulder andtook the other up in his own again.
"What makes you thinkIam lookingfora husband? " Valoree askedsharply.
"Isthat not every woman’saim? " he asked with amusement.
Then, seeing that she was not amused, and neither was sheabout tolet the question go, hesighedand admitted, "All right, Whister told me the first time you andI metathis office."