Valoree turned her face away."Is thatall? "
Henry and One-Eye exchanged a glance; then Henry straightened hisshoulders andannounced, "We voted yelet Meg teach ye some ladylikethings."
Her jaw tightened. "Whatsort ofladylike things? "
"Walking and talking andhowto laugh in that high, tinkly way that ladies do."
"Isee." She was chilled through.
"We also voted, and ye can’t cussor drink nomore."
Her head snapped aroundatthat. "Are you done? "
The two menglancedateach other, then nodded.
"Good, " she said grimly."Now get out."
They hesitated, but thenmoved to the door.One-Eye paused there and nudged the older man. Henry glanced back to add, "We need toknow yeranswer right quick, sowe know ifwe’re having tovoteina new captain or not."
"Iwill give you my answer as soonas I have decidedif youare allworth it, " she respondedcoldly. "Now getout."
Thistime the two men left, andValoree sank back in her seat.
Much to her amazement, a moment later shefelt a wetness on her cheeks andreached upto touch it indisbelief. She hadn’t criedin so long. To crynowbecause they wanted herto wear skirts was just plain silly.But, of course, that wasn’twhat she was crying about.She wascrying at the fact thatit hadfinally happened.
Theywere threatening to take away her position, something she had clungto likedeathsincelosing Jeremy. It was theonly thing she had left in her life. What would she do if she were not captain?
A bitter laugh suddenly slipped from her lips, and she got impatiently to herfeetto pace the smallcabin, rubbing her upper armswith her hands as shedid. They had basicallyvoted to take that position awayfrom her when they had alldeterminedthat it was time to retire, claimAinsley Castle, andsettle down.
Anotherknockat the door madeher stiffenand slowly turn.
Her expression was coldas shewatched the door open, anddid notsoften when Megentered."What do you want? "
Meg peeredather silently, thensighed. "I thought mayhap you wouldlike to talk."
Valoree’s mouth twistedslightly. "You heard, didyou? "
"Of course.I had avote, too."
"Of course." Valoree sighed and turned quickly away. She paced to a map stuck to the cabin wall, a map of the Caribbean, andstaredatit blankly.
"They really aretrying to help, " Meg explained quietly. "They care aboutyou a great deal." WhenValoree remainedsilent and unmoving, the woman added, "And sodo I."
Valoree shiftedimpatiently."You hardlyknow me."
"Iknow you are intelligent, brave, and noble."
Valoree snorted at that. "I’m a pirate. Noble is not in my vocabulary."
"You are aprivateer, " Meg said firmly. "You carrya letter of marque from the king himself and have dutifully saved his portionover the years. It isstored in awarehouse until youcan arrange to see the king and have it delivered. Which you intended todo assoon as you hadsorted the matter of your inheritance."
Valoree was silent for a minute, then muttered, "Henry has a big mouth."
"Why do you not simply tell Thurborne that? " Meg asked quietly."It would resolveyour problem with the king. Mayhap even resolve yourproblem with him."
Sighing, Valoree returned to herdesk chairand sank into it, gesturing forMeg totakethe seat across from her. "Theletter of marque wasmade out to Jeremy. I am not sure that it would protect uswithout him."
"Oh, surely – "
"And I do not have it, " Valoree finishedquietly.
Meg’s eyes wentwide. "What – "
"It wentdown with the original Valor whenthe Spanish sank it."
The woman frowned at this news, then said, "Aye, butsurely the king will recall? He must; he sent Thurborne to look for you."
"Aye. Even before I knew that, I had hoped that he would recall assigning Jeremy a letterof marque, allow that it protected myself and the crew, and would simply take his portion and be happy. But that was beforethe men kidnapped Thurborne – his man, and a noble. I fear that mightmake him alittle less pleased togrant us his favor."
"Oh, dear, I see, "Meg whispered, frowning. "This all rests on Thurborne, then."
"Who isquite angry at me for ordering him hanged."
"Aye, well." Shemade a face, then straightened her shoulders.
‘ThenIthink you shoulddoasthe menhave decided: don your loveliest dressand try to charm the stockingsoff ofhim."
"Do I have a choice? " Valoree asked. Meg’s expression softened again.
"Oh, Valoree. You fight so hard notto be the things you are."
Valoree stiffened at the soft words. "What I am is thecaptain of a pirate ship, "she said quietly.
"Nay. Thatis just a role you tookwhen forced.What you are is alady, born of nobilityand soonto return to yourhome."
"I am a pirate captain, " Valoree insisted."Andhave been for five years."
"Areyou a man then, too? " Meg queried, arching aneyebrow.
"Nay, ofcourse not."
"Nay, " Meg agreed with a nod. "You have lived as and pretended tobe amanfor thirteenyears, but that does not make youone. Youwereborn a female member of nobility, and will die one. Playing at pirates isjust something you did, not who you are. It is high time you realize that and stop playing. Pirate captains retire, die, or are votedout.Being noble lastsa lifetime.
This ship may sink, but Ainsley will not, and so longas you marry andprovidean heir, itwill always be there foryou." She paused, breathing heavily in herexcitement, thensighed."I suggest you stop deliberately doing everything in your power to look and soundand actlike a seadog, andstart using the ladylike words, manners, and abilities I know youhave."
At Valoree’s startled expression, she nodded solemnly. "Oh, aye. I figured out quitequickly thatyou werestomping about and muttering your curses, using slang and poor manners just to try to put off your suitors. I recognized you just as you recognized me for a true lady. What Ididnot understand at first waswhy. Now I think Ido."
"Oh? " Valoree said warily. Meg nodded.
"You were hoping to avoid marriage. Having a family and children is risky.You might love yourbabies. Youmighteven come to love Thurborne, which is why you refused to even consider him. Lovingsomeone means risking heartache should youlose them, and you have had quite enough of that in your younglife, have you not? "
Valoree made a face and shookherhead. "Nonsense. As you said that day outside Whister’s office, my crew aremy family. I care forthem. I amnot afraid tolove."
"I was wrong, " Meg saidsimply. "Becauseif you lovedthem, you would havemarried Thurborne the moment he offered, and notchanced havingto return to pirating, wheretheyareall at risk of beinginjured or dying." Standing, shemovedto the door, then paused to glance back andsay, "They careforyou. So much so that they will take away your captaincy if theythinkitwill make you do what they ultimately believe will make you happy. And they believe Thurborne will do that. So do I." Then shestepped outand pulled the doorclosed behind her.
Valoree releaseda breath andsank backintoher seat, a frown tugging at herlips. Meg was right, at least about her manners. She didknowhowto speakproperly, how towalk properly, and how to dine and behave in company. She may have been forced into theroleof cabin boy whilethey had worked to remaketheirlost fortune, butJeremyhad seento it that she knew howto behave.
There were no great dining halls on the Valor for all of them to eat together, sothemen ate in shifts. But Jeremy and she had had their meals in his cabin, where he had madesure she retained her proper eating habits, and had insisted they hold polite conversations. He had also insisted onherusing proper English allthetime, even around the crew – something the other men had teased and harassedher for at first.
Aye, She had been behavingbadly mostly on purpose, but she hadtold herself it wasfor the benefit of both herself and the men.
Theywould have grown boredin no timeliving the quietlifein the country, she’d assured herself.Thenthey would pine for their lives of privateering, but it would be toolate. In truth, . Valoree hadresented the men’s voting to retire. She had been actually relieved when Whister had said she had to be married and produce anheir. Then she had thoughtthat they would give up this foolishness andreturnto the sea.But they had voted she should marry. So aye, mayhap she hadplannedto behave badly in the hopes offrightening off suitors, butshe hadn’treally had to. Not much, anyway. Fate had stepped in, tossing those calamities with the facewhitener and fucus at her, and things had seemed tobe going her way without her aid until Thurborne had stepped in to puta fly in her pie. Shecouldn’t turn him down without risking the men’sgettingirate andrefusing tofollow her.
Itwasn’t as if hewere anold troll or something. Soher plans had changed again, andshe had decided she must find areplacement wereshe to refusehim. Beecham hadseemed theone least likely tocauseher problems.
Butthe rest ofwhatMegsaid, thatbit about being afraid to love lest she get hurt, and her notreally caring for the men or she would wish them out of the risky business of pirating – well, surely thatwas not true? Shewas no coward.Besides, shedid care forthecrew.
Valoree grimaced as she realized she could not even thinkthe word love in regard to her own feelings. And she silently acknowledged that she had been selfish. The men wished to retire. She shouldwish to seethem safely out of thebusiness.
And shedid, but.. . wherewould thatleave her?
Her gaze moved to the signet ringon her hand. Jeremy had pressed it into herpalm as he had died, and She had worn itever since.It had been toolarge, of course, but string wrapped around the baseof her fingerhad made it stay on.It hadalways meant a great deal to her, even more thanthe land itrepresented. It was all she reallyhad left of her family – thatring andthe men who had survived when Jeremy had died. That was what she had always thought.She’d refused to includeAinsley, the home that hadwitnessedthe death ofboth parents – itcaused her too much pain.And that was when Valoreerealized thatMeg wasright.
She had closed off her heart whenJeremy had died, afraid to loveand lose. She had refused to marry Daniel, not because he wastoo strong or would notlether lead, but becauseshe liked, admired, respected, and maybeeven loved him alittle already.
And because sheknew that she could love him wholeheartedlyif given the chance.But that wouldmean risking the painoflossif anything happened to him, and that possibility frightened her more than losingher ownlife in battle ever had.
She had beenbehaving like an idiotand a coward, and it was high timeshe cutthatout.Standing, she moved to the chest that held the gowns she had ordered inLondon and began to sort throughthem. She would wear gowns. She would not swear. She wouldnot drink. Shewould be the best lady sheknew how to be, andshe would charm the stockingsoff ofDaniel. This time, when he asked, she would marry him in atrice. Then they couldstart making that baby she neededto reclaim Ainsley.
Thurborne was not in the mood to be charmed. Valoree came to that conclusion after wasting two straightweeksonthe effort.
She didn’t charm anything off him, let alone his stockings. She couldn’t, since he wouldnot even talk toher. Valoree worked hard at the effort, trying everything she couldthink of. She tried sweetsmiles. Shetried polite conversations. She triedteasing him for being so grumpy. In desperation, she even lowered her neckline until it was beyond decent, but all she gotfrom him on each attempt was a cool-eyed look and a grunt. He wasn’t charmed at all. And Valoree, who hadbeen incrediblypatient, in herown opinion, had finally had enough. It was time to take action. With that intent, she had calledHenryto her cabin.Now she facedhimacrossher desk and saidthe onlythingshe could think ofto save the situation:"Get him drunk."
"What? " Henry gaped at her.
"You heard me. Get him drunk."
Henry hesitated."But – "
"Henry, we do not have time for any more playing about.
There are barely seven months for metoget with child. Imust get moving on the matter, and to preserve Thurborne, hemust marryme. So gethimdrunk. Weshallhold the ceremony and I shall consummatethemarriage."
"You’ll be needing a little help from him with that task, Captain, girl, " Henry mentioned a little tentatively. "And who willmarry the two of you? "
"You will have to goashore and bring back a minister."
"Go ashore where? " the quartermaster asked. "We have not reached landyet."
"We will reach Port Royale by nightfall, " Valoree told him calmly.
"We made good time, " he murmured withsurprise, but knew hersense of thesethings. She shrugged.
"Aye. Oneor twostorms and only a couple days of lee wind. A good strong wind the restof thetime more than made up for it."
Shesighed. "Gethim started on the drink, Henry. I want him well sotted when we reach Port Royale and you fetch the minister back."
Less than twenty-four hours later, Valoree watchedthe men row back towardthe ship witha frown.Theyhad been preparing a "love nest, " asthey insisted on callingit, on anice secluded stretch of shore for her and Daniel. Calling it a battle arena probably would have been closer to the truth, she thought derisively as she watched the small boatreachthe Valor andthe two men begin to clamber up the rope ladder. She suspected Danielwas not goingto bepleased thismorning when he learned that theywere married. Why should he be? Nothing else she had planned had gone her way.
Oh, aye, Henry had done as she had requested and gotten Daniel thoroughly drunk theday before. He had challenged him to a drinking game, then cheatedhis piratehead off. By thetime they hadreachedPort Roy-ale, Daniel hadn’teven been able to standon his own, let alone see straight, and forget about any ability he might have had tothink.
Themenhad hadto prop himup for theceremony, which had made the minister, at first, refuse to perform it. It had taken a lot of talking, gold, andeven threats to get theholy man Henry had found and fetched to cooperate. Especially as Daniel had obviouslyhardly known where hewas. Still, he had kept raving on about how she was "my Valoree" and her passion was "soooo hot." Apparently the drink had made him forget all about his irritationover her tryingto hang him, and this helped reassurethe priest.