"Aye. A reminder not to mention this night. To anyone."
One-Eye smiledwidely then, an expression that did not quite reach his one good eye. "Keepit nice andsharp, " he said in a menacing growl. "Orkeepyour tongue from wagging."
The shopkeeper seemed to understand at once; he was nodding vigorously when his wife suddenly piped up with a nervous, "Why? "
"Because I’ll becuttin’ your tongues outwithit if I hear ye donegoneand mentionedus toanyone. Anyoneatall."
Valoreealmostsighed aloud at his words. One-Eye trulydid enjoyhis work. And he did itwell, too. Toowell. Withasmall gurgle, the shopkeeper’s wife went intoafull swoon, hittingthe floor with aresounding crash.
Shaking her headat One-Eye in reproof, Valoree turned and led the wayout. Ittook them verylittle time in the empty London streets tofindtheir waybackto the ship.
Themoment Valoree awoke and stepped out of her cabin into the sunlight, abarrel-chested olderman hurried toward her. At his approach, she sighed.Henry. Her quartermaster. He had held the position for her brother when Jeremy was captain, and continued to hold itfor her. The rank put him right below her, second in command. Insome ways, it gave him morepower. He was her right hand, and though she was loath to admit it, she doubted she could control the men without him. She had left him in charge of them last nightwhile She had gone in search of a dressmaker, and he’dsurely had his hands fulltrying to prevent anyonefrom slipping overthe side to follow thelure of rum and womenthatgoing ashore promised. Theyhad been at sea a long time, and mostof the crew were eager for leave. But ifanyone knew howto helpcontrol these cutthroats, it wasHenry.
"Some of the men are wanting to go ashore, " the man announced at once, barring her way onto the deck.
"Ah, now, Cap’n, girl, "hewheedled, tuckinghis thumbs into the frontofhis belt and rolling backon his heels. "Yeknow as well as I thattheboys have worked right hardthe last fewweeks, and they been real patient’bout goin’ashore, waitin’till you was ready toletthem. But I’m thinkin’ ifye’re awantin’ them to stay patient, ye best belettin’ em have a littleleave."
Drumming her fingers against her leg, Valoreeglancedatthe crew gathered on deck. They were all looking pathetically hopeful. She supposed She had kept them aboard long enough.
But she’dwanted to avoid trouble, andonce the mengotsome drink into them, they could be a whole passel of that.Still, they were going to bein port only one more day. If her appointment withthe lawyer hadn’t been set for so late in the afternoon, they would have left already. However, she had not been able to secure an earlier meeting, and none but a handful had been allowed leave since they had left the Caribbean more than a month ago.It wasno wondertheboys werelooking sohopeful.
Pushing Henrybacktoward the men, she looked them over slowly. "No stealing, no brawling, and no killing. If you break anything, you fix it or pay for it. And leave all but tavern wenches alone. If I hear of any ofyou bothering shopkeepers’ daughters, you’re off the ship. Understand? "
She suspected bytheir eager nods that they would have agreed tonearly anythingto goashore.Her gaze moved to thelargest of the men, a Scot nearly as largeas Bull, with hair thecolor of a carrot. "You’re in charge, Jasper. Anyonegets outofline and I’ll beafter your hide."
She waited untilhe nodded, then continued. "Leave enough men behind to guard the ship; let the rest go. Then switch.
Richard." Her secondmate stepped quickly forward. "You decide who goes first."
Henry moved forwardto join the groupas Richardbegan to pick and choose, but Valoreeshook herhead. "Not you, Henry."
"Ah, now, Cap’n, girl – "
"I need you." It was all shesaid, then turnedand headedback belowdecks. It was all she hadtosay, and sheknew it. Henry’s wheedlingdied at once, and she heard him follow her to her cabin. He would dowhatever she requested without complaint.
He always had. He, Bull, Skully, Pete theGreek, One-Eye, and Richard were the most loyal of hercrew.She wouldn’t havebeen able to manage the men without them, and she was just as grateful as they were trustworthy.
Stepping intothe captain’s cabin, Valoree glancedat the dress lying onthe small cot built into the wall, thenturned to glanceat herquartermaster. "Canyou drive a carriage, Henry? "
The man’s face scrunched up at the question, his doubt obvious. "Well, now, I ain’t never had no reason to drive a carriage – but I reckon if Skully can drive one of them things, so can I."
Arare smile briefly touched her lips atthat. Skully and Henry werethebest of friends, but it wasa competitiverelationship.
They were constantly trying to outdo each other. Shaking her head, Valoree pulled herpistolout of her belt and laid it onthe table, then began to shrug out ofhervest. "There’s no need for you to try if Skully knows how.Take him with you andgo rent a carriageand horses. The best you canfind.It must be a quality carriage, " she emphasized. "Then I want youto getclothes for yourself, Bull, Skully, and One-Eye.Make sure they fit."
"What kind of clothes? " Henry askedsuspiciously.
"Servant’s clothes. Livery."
Henry openedhis mouth torefuse, but Valoree forestalled him with one sentence. "Ineed men I can trust withme, and Ican trustyou four."
Closing his mouth, Henry nodded andturnedtoward the door.
"Havethe men bring me a bathbefore yougo, " Valoree called as the door closed behind him. She wasn’tsure he’d heard her untilthemen brought in an old wooden tub, followed by pail after pail of hot water.Once the tub was full, Valoree slipped quickly out of the rest of her clothes and slipped inside. She bathed herself quickly and abit impatiently, then started to dress.
Halfan hour latershe was grateful that she had left herself plenty of time for the task.It wasn’tas ifValoree hadnever worn a gown before, butthat had been somethirteen years ago.And good Lord! She didn’t recall donning a gown to be such a complicated task. There were stockings, and the fussy little garters that held them up; the chemise; the petticoat; the farthingale;the corset – a nasty pieceofwork, that; the part-let; the kirtle; theoverskirt; and finally the bodice and sleeves. Good Lord! And with allthose clothes on, she was still catching adraft up her skirt!It wasindecent to be walking around with nothing covering her nether regions under those damned voluminous skirts.Atleast, it certainly felt indecent to a girl whohadbeen well trussed up in breechesfor thirteen years.
Muttering under her breath, she grabbed her trousers and attempted topull them back on underher skirt, finding it quite a chore with allthebinding upperclothes, and thelayer upon layer oflower clothing. Dragging skirt afterskirtlaboriouslyupward, shetried to holdthem withherchin so thatshe could don her breeches, but that simply did not work. Giving that up, she droppedto the floor, dragged her skirts up, andtried again. A moment later, panting with the effort, she stuckonefootin one leg of herbreeches, then her other foot in the other.
"Nexttime I’llput these damn things on first, " she muttered to herself, dropping flaton her back.Archingher buttoffthe floor, she proceeded to wiggle, squirm, tug, and pullin an effortto don the damn pants.
"Captain? "One-Eye’s voice driftedthrough thedoor, followed by a brief tap.
"Hold yerarse!" Valoreeroared, rolling onto her sidebutstill struggling with her clothes.
There was a brief silence; then One-Eye spoke again. "Ah, Captain? Are ye all right in there? There’s an awful lot of bumpingand huffinggoing on."
"Thank God!" Valoree gasped as her breeches finally pulled intoplace. Letting her skirtsslide backdown over her legs, she droppedflat onthefloorand tried to catchher breath.Amoment later thedooropened and One-Eye popped his head in. Valoree gave hima surly look."Itold yeto – "
"Holdmearse.Aye, Iheard ye, "One-Eye said, peering at her flushed face withconcern, then aroundthe empty room. "And I am, see? "
Lettingthe doorslide farther open, he showedher thathe had onehand planted firmly onhis left arse cheek. Valoree released a weary laugh. That was the beauty of One-Eye. He would follow anorder literally, ifit would gain himhis purpose. She could hardlyflog him for entering when She hadnotsaid ‘don’t enter.’ He had done as she hadordered, after all.
Seeing her smile, he eased into the room, giving it a more thorough examination. "It sounded like there was a bit of excitement goin’ oninhere."
"Aye. If you call trying to get into me breechesexcitement, "
One-Eye’s hand went to his cutlass, his charming smile replaced with deadly intent ina heartbeat. "Who was it? I’llkill the bastard for ye."
Valoree blinked in confusion at him before understanding struck; then she grabbedone of the boots onthe floor nearby and whipped itat him. "Itwas me, ye silly souse!" she roared. The boot slammed into the door. Then she jerked her skirts up, revealing her breeches. "I was tryingto getmybreeches on!"
One-Eye blinked atthat, then relaxed with a grin. "Well, now, it’s a sad day whenacaptain can’t evenmanage to don her – "
His voice died as her eyesnarrowed grimlyonhim. He changed the subject. "Ah, well, Henrysent meto – "
"What the hellare youwearing? " Valoree snapped, sitting up on the floorsuddenly asshe took note that hisusual attire – tight breeches, flowing white shirt, andleathervest- – was gone. It had beenreplaced withpink hose, pink kneebreeches, and themost God-awfulpinkwaistcoat ithad ever been her misfortune tosee.
Sighing heavily, One-Eye immediately began to nod inmisery.
"Livery, " hesaidwithdisgust. ‘That’s what Henrycalled it. Said it was all hecould find."
"Dear God, " she said softly, shaking her head in horrified wonderat the uglinessof the outfit. Onewould thinkthepink clothes wouldmake One-Eyelook effeminateand dandified, but that was hardly the case. If anything, the fancy dress simply seemed to make him look more disreputable – like a pirate dressedup inthe fancy clothes ofaservant. Which he was, of course.
"See! Iknew you’d see that this was wrong. Shall I just go change back intome own clothes? "
Valoreeactually almost nodded atthe suggestion, then shook herheadwitha sigh.
"Nay. You cannotrunaround London looking likea pirate on the prowl."
"Oh, but – "
"Nay, "Valoree repeated firmly."You’ll wear these clothes."
At her tone, One-Eye nodded, though still appearing a bit disgruntled. "Well, I’dbest go tellHenryand Skully thatye’ll be along directly."
"Wait!"Valoreecalled as he started to backout. He paused, andshe gestured to the object lyingby the door. "My boot."
Eyebrows rising, he bentto retrieve the footwear, then moved tohand itto her.
"Nay. Put iton forme, " she ordered instead of tak-, ing it. She’d had enoughtroubleputting on the breeches. She coulduse help lacing uptheboots.
One-Eye’seyebrows rose sohigh, Valoreethought they were going to fly offhis forehead. "Do you not think some slippers might bemore appropriate? "
"Well, aye, they would. And if I had some, surely I’d wear them, wouldn’t I? ButI don’t recall stopping by a cobbler’s shop, do you? "
The corner of his mouth twisting at her testiness, One-Eyebent tograbthesecond boot as well, thenmovedto herfeetand knelt there.
Valoree watched him set to work with disinterest, her eyes wandering over Henry’s choice of livery. It really wasatrocious, and shewould guess it was just about killing One-Eye towear it.
Theman hadalways fancied himself a bit of a heartbreaker. He was tall, with dark hair and aswarthy complexion, and was as lean and strongasa captain could want for afirst mate. He had all his limbs and, really, other than a small scar or two from injuries gained working the ropes in storms, was stillin one piece – otherthan his missing eye, of course. And theeye patch didn’t seem to detract from his attractiveness to the ladies. In truth, whateverport they’d come to, One-Eye had alwaysmanaged to findmanywomen who foundhis rugged goodlooks and maimed face the object of desire.
Valoreedidn’t share thatattraction, herself. From the ages of ten tonineteen, she had beentreatedlikeayounger brother by the pirate, withall the harassment andteasing that included. And while she had alwaysknown in an objective way that he was a handsome fellow, She had lookedon him asanotherolderbrother as well. So seeinghim now, dressed in Henry’s awful choice of pink finery, Valoree couldhardly stifle her chuckle. It might do him good to bedressed in such.
"Thereye are, Cap’n, " One-Eyeannounced, straighteningfrom his task andgetting tohis feet. He eyedher with amusement."I suppose ye’ll beneeding helpup now, too, huh? "
She raised herhand in answer.Reaching down, he grasped her at the wrist instead, waiting until herfingers closed around his ownwristbefore pulling her to her feet. With that, she leftthe cabin.
"Ye look real pretty in that gown, " One-Eye commented as he followed her across the deck a moment later. "But I never thought I’d see the day that Back-from-the-Dead Red needed help putting hisown boots on."
His taunt did not go unnoticed. "One-Eye, "she said.
"Unless ye’re wanting to don one of the other two gowns I bought and spendthe day inithere with the men, ye’d be best to close yer trap now."
"Yelookreal fine in that there getup, " Henrysaid ashe helped her out of the dinghy and uponto the dock. Valoree was amused to note that the crusty old salt was blushing, andhisvoice was gruff.
"Like a real lady. Pretty, too. Never noticed ye lookin’ so pretty in breeches."
Valoreefound herself embarrassed by the compliment to her looks, whereas a compliment on her skill at swordplayor such had never given heranything but pleasure.Flustered, she waved ahand vaguely in the air as if swatting the words away, then turned to stomp toward the carriage where Skully waited.
One-Eye leapedto the dock behind her.
"Well, " Henrygrunted after her. "Ye’renot so much like a lady when ye stomp about like that."
Pausing, Valoreeturnedto glare at him, then sighed and started towalkagain, remembering tokeepher steps shorter and less determined. She’d have to remember to keep herbearing more feminine, she thoughtas shepaused by the carriage andpeeredin through the window. Inside sat Meg, the old prostitute Bull had found to play her aunt and chaperon.