"Nay, I am fine." Valoreeforced a smileto her lips. "I amjust suffering an achinghead. Please go on."- "Anyway, there was a famous privateer called Captain Red.
Living in the Caribbean, you probably heard of him. It was rumored that hewasactually a lord, trying to remake thefortune hehad lost, butonlytheking andThurborne would know for sure. At anyrate, the poor fellow was captured by the Spanish, butit was just after he had turned inhis cargo for assessing. They say thatthe Spanishwere sofurious at being cheatedout of the treasure they had expected, they tortured him and his entire crew todeath."
Not his wholecrew, Valoree thoughtgrimly.Onlythose who hadbeenaboardatthetime. A skeleton crew, just enough men to get Jeremy where he was to meettheassessor. Sheand the others had been in port, collecting thesupplies they would needforthe next trip out. AndtheSpanishhad gotten the gold.
"Butthen rumors began to circulate, "Beecham went on, "that Captain Red and his crew hadcomeback fromthe deadto seek vengeance and wreak havoc on the Spanishfor what hadbeen doneto them. Ship aftership aftership claimed that the dead captain and his crew appeared out ofnowhere, out of the very mist, materializingsuddenlyon the deck of their ships. There was never anyship, just the crew."
Valoree’s mouth twitched at that with nervous humor. Their attackon that first ship had worked so well, they had used it repeatedly: leaving the new Valor anchored in a safe cove, rowing out in a smallpiragua or two, then drillingholesinthe smallboats and climbing aboard their targeted ship to take it over. With each craft they had taken, the story of Back-from-the-Dead-Red hadgrown until the very sight of them on deck was enough to send the crew of whatever ship they boardedeither totheir knees to plead for their lives or scurrying to droptheir own skiffs into the waterto get away. That had left them with, notonly whatever treasureeach carried, but the ship itself to sell. That was how they had made the moneythey had needed to replace so quickly.
Of course, they had taken an occasional ship in the usual manner, chasing them down in theValor, boarding, fighting, and winning, butalwaysatdusk or dark whentheycould continuethe charade of Back-from-the-Dead Red. Sailors were a damned superstitious lot, and that charade had given them theedge more timesthannot.
"Theking wasirate about this, of course, " Beecham related.
"Privateeringis one thing, but pirating quiteanother."
"Yes, " Valoreeassented. Good Lord, yes. If the kingdidn’t get his share, the whole letterofmarquewas null andvoid – evenif the pirates in question attacked only the king’s enemies, and never bothered their own countrymen or ships ofcountries that were allies. Unfortunately, when Jeremy had died, thename of the assessor and next meeting place arranged with the man had beenlost aswell. Thus, Valoree and the men had been unable to keep everything as aboveboard as they wouldhaveliked. Still, they had saved the king’s portion, always counting it out painstakinglyto be surethat his share was there. They had stored it in a ware-house herein London when they arrived, and waited for the king to contact them.She’d assumed he would as soon as he knew that Lady Ainsley was in London. He had known CaptainRed washer brother, of course.But he had notyet called onthem, and frankly, Valoree had been so wrapped upinthis husband business, the matter had quiteslipped her mind.
"So, since Thurborne was one of the few people besides himself who had met this Captain Red, the king sent him out to seek thetruth of the matter – whetherthere really was a ghost pirate running amok out there, or if Captain Red hadsurvived after all andwas takingadvantageof the talesof his death to keep the entireportion of the treasures he took."
Valoree blinked insurprise. She hadnever consideredanyone mightthinkthat, but, she supposed it madesense. Unfortunately, she had more importantthings toconsider. Forinstance, whatthis allmeant to her andthemen. If Thurborne hadbeen the assessor, then heknew that Jeremywas Captain Red. And if heknew that, he knew she was his sister. So why had he notcometo her and requested information? Why not ask herthe truthof the matter? Had he beenhanging about allthis time in thehopeof learning some further information for the king?
Quite suddenlyshe remembered the night before and what had happened after the carriage accident. She had unthinkingly mentionedthe ship. Daniel had heard her and echoedthe word.
Valoreehad fully expected himto question her on the matter once they returned to the town house, buthe had not. He had merely kissedand caressed her, thenleft.But he had not returned this morningaswas hisusual habit.Where was he? Out looking for her ship? Andnow that shewas thinking along those lines, she recalled all thetimes hehad emphasized certain words like uncle or your islandor theCaribbean with some hiddenmeaning. She had paid little attention, and hadwasted little concern over such mattersatthetime, but she wasnow beginning to attacha terrible significance tothem.
Mayhap they should not have waited for the king to send someone around. Mayhap he would not. Mayhap he would merely have them all arrested and hanged.
Cursing, sheleaped to her feet and started forthedoor.
"Is theresomethingamiss, my lady? "
Valoree paused, thenglancedbackblankly at Beecham. She hadquite forgottenall about hispresence. Recovering herself, she managed a smile."Nay, mylord. It just suddenly occurred to me to wonder where that tea is that myuncle saidhe wouldhave sent. I willnot bea moment, " she assured him, then slid out into the hallto find herself facing Henry, Pete, One-Eye, Bull, Skully, and Meg. Theyall stood there, huddled in conversation, but fell silentand turned to face her asshe closed the door.
"What? " she began, scowling. Henry held up his hand to silence her.
"One-Eye andSkully justgot back from theship, and the crew has voted. Ye marryThurborne."
"You menare incredible, " she said withdisgust. "You cannot vote on a thinglike that. Ishall marry whom Iplease."
"Nay, according to the contracts – "
"According to thecontracts, any decision that affects you men andyour life aboardship isup to the vote, " she said shortly. "So, aye, mayhap youcouldforce me to marry, butonce I marry and reclaim Ainsley, yourlives aboard ship end. Then you become land rats. And that means all your contracts are null and void. So I will marry whom I please, and Iammarrying Beecham.In fact, I amgoing to gotellhim so right now."
Turning on her heel, she threw the door open and marched right back in, closingthedoor behind her witha slam. She was so angry, she was halfwayacrossthe roombefore she realized that she hadnot told them about Thurborne, and that they wouldstill have to take care of that situation right away. Sighing, she whirled reluctantly back, then changed her mind. She couldtell them allabout that later. First she would arrange things with Beecham.
Smiling, she returned to her chair and had just seated herself when the door opened and Meg rushed in. "Oh. Hello, Lord Beecham, " she said brightly, ignoring Valoree’s glare as she moved to join them. "How are you today? "
"My lady."Beecham stoodat once, bending to kiss the older woman’s hand when it wasoffered.Valoree sat frozen, throwing glares at the woman thatwere studiouslyignored.
She had no doubt that this wassupposed to preventherfrom announcingBeechamas her choicefor a husband. Meghad made herself scare every other time that John Beecham had been present. Valoree was not sure if it had been becauseshe feared being recognized as his scandalous aunt, or if the sight of himjust broughtback the pain of the rift with her sister. Still, whatever it was, Meg had always chosen to absent herself when he was about, leavingHenry totend to thematter ofchaperoning – ajob he had done miserably, allowing her countless moments of fraternizing with aman who was most likelytrying togetthem all hanged.
"How handsome youlook this afternoon, my lord, "Meg was saying, seating herselfbeside Beecham on the settee and beaming at him widely. "You must tell me whoyour tailoris so that Henry can payhim a visit. The clothesmaker we have been using is barely adequate."
"Oh, well, I would be pleased to share his name, " the man assured her quietly. "He is quite the best one in town, inmy opinion, Top-quality workata fairprice."
"Oh, marvelous. It isso hardto find thatnowadays, is it not? So manyovercharge and – "
"Aunt Meg, " Valoree interrupted inawarning tone, and Meg turned toher innocently.
"Yes, dear? "
"I was about to speak of something important with Lord Beecham."
"Were you, dear? "she murmured, then brightenedasthe door tothesalonopenedand Petey entered, carrying atray. Henry was hard on his heels. "Oh, look.Here is the tea!"
Sighing, Valoree sat backin her seat impatiently and crossed her arms. They could delayallthey liked, but she would marry Beecham. Shewatched with grim displeasure as the two men walked to her side. Pausing there, Peteyheld the tray silently as Henry lifted a cup of teaand offered itto her.
Giving him a you-are-pushing-your-luck-mightily stare, she reached impatiently for the cup. But her pesky crew did not moveonthen; they stood waiting. Valoree arched her eyebrows irritably. "What? "
"Ye have totry it, "Henry announced, adding when Valoree began to frown, "Petey’safraid he may have madeit toostrong."
Rollingher eyes, Valoreelifted the cup toher mouthand took a curious sip, nearlyspitting it out insurprise. There was heated spiced rum in the cup.
"Something wrong? " Henry asked innocently, giving her a wink when she glanced up at him. Valoree shook her head, her shouldersrelaxing.
" ‘Tis perfect, " she said quietly, knowing that thiswas Henry’s way of saying he was sorry. Fromthe timethat she hadboarded the Valor at the age of eleven, any timeshewas feeling sick or just plain unhappy, Henry had always brought her some heated, spicedrum. Of course, Jeremy had not known that. At least, she didn’tthink hehad known. But just the taste of the warm drink on her tongue made her soften toward him affectionately.Asunlikely as itseemed, this crustyold pirate had been the equivalent of nanny, friend, and tutortoValoreefrom the moment she had become Valerian. And he still was her friend, confidant, andeven tutorin someways. Especially when she wasreacting in anger rather than usingher head; then he always settled her down and helped her to see what she was doing.
"Drink up. Tea’s good for what ailsye, and there’s plenty of it, "
Henry said cheerfully as he moved around her chairtowardthe settee, Peteyfollowing.
Smiling slightly, Valoree took another drink, enjoying the spicedflavor andthe warm, fuzzy feelingit gaveheras it went down.
"Thank you, Henry, " Megmurmured, accepting her own cup as Henry took it from the tray and carefully handed it to her. Lifting it to her lips, shetook asip andsmiled as she swallowed it. "Oh, my. It is good, isit not? " she asked, smilingat Valoree, who grinned back, nodding asshe took another swallow.
Valoree knew darned well that Meg’s cupwould not haverum in it.Despite the way she had tried to fool them all at first that she wasa drunk, she didn’t drink much at all. Hercup wouldhold tea and nothing else. Of that she was sure, andthe thought of the trickthat she and Henrywereputting over onthem struck her suddenly as quite funny, making herchuckle aloud.
Henry and Peteypaused on the way to Beecham to turn to glance ather with amusement. Meg liftedone querying eyebrow.
"Somethingfunny, dear? "
Valoree shook her head. "Jusss thinking, " she murmured, frowning when she heard the slurof her own voice.
"Oh, well, drink up, " Meg murmured. Valoree nodded, dutifully swallowinganother gulp, thenleaning back in herseat with asigh as she watched Henry continue toward Beecham. She was suddenly quite tired. She supposedit wasthe lackof sleep last night, when she andHenry had sat up playing cards and guarding against another "accident." She hadn’t really lost much sleep, though, just a coupleof hours; then One-Eyeand Bull had taken over for them.Or hadit been Petey and Skully? Mayhap it had been Skully andOne-Eye, orPetey and Bully – Oops, Bull. She chuckled again, and Henry paused in the process of lifting Beecham’steacup offthetray.
"All done? Shall I fetch youmore? " heasked pleasantly.
"Oh, aye." Swallowing the last ofherdrink, she heldthe cup out, laughing again asit teetered andswayed beforeher.
An exclamation drewhergazetoBeecham to see the teacup Henry had been holding tumbling out of his hand and down towardthenobleman. It seemed to Valoree tofall in slow motion.
Shesaw it turn upside down asit went, the liquidspilling down to hit the man on the shoulder, splashing down the front of his waistcoat even as the cup finallycaught up, bouncing off his shoulder andsmashing to the groundina thousand pieces.
Fallingback into her seat, Valoreebeganto laugh uproariously as she letthe cup she held drop to thefloor.It wasall too funny – especially their expressions. Beecham was jumping up with alarm, hiseyes wide as thoseof a fish. Meg was looking horribly apologetic and leaping and jumpingaround like a frogas , she wrung her hands.Henrywas doing his besttomop upthe mess up with Petey’s help astheyurgedBeecham toward the salon door. Oh, it was hysterical! "Really, this is awful, Iam sosorry.Please forgiveus, " Meg murmuredworriedand repeatedly even as Henry closed the door behind thedepartingman, then leaned weakly against the wall beside it. She sighed miserably. "I wish there had been another way."
"Well, there wasn’t, so it’s no goodfretting over it, " Henry assured her quietly, then reached out to pat her shoulder awkwardly as Petey hurried back into the salon to check on Valoree. "Does heknow ye’re hismother? "
Meg frozeatthat, her eyes going wide. "I – He isnot – "
"He’syerson, " Henry said firmly and dryly. "And there’s no doubting it. Your sister maylookquite a bit like you, but she hasn’tgotthose lovely blue-as-the-skyeyes with the goldflecks. I doubtanyonedoes."
"Tom could tell Lady Beechamwasmy sister, too? " she asked in alarm. "DearLord, whatifeveryone – "
"Everyone hasn’t figured it out, " Henry reassured her quickly.
"Valoree hasa good eye.She recognized yewere sisters, then talked to yeabout it. Afterward she told me. I don’t thinkeven she has figured out that Beecham’s yer son, though. The only eyesshe’s been lookinginto lately is Thurborne’s."