"All right. You haveconvinced meit istoo risky to surrender.
So what is your plan? "
"I am not sure, " she admitted.Pausing, she turned to see that hehad frozen, gaping at herand horrified."What? " she asked.
"What? " he repeated in disbelief."You just toldme that you do nothavea plan!"
"Nay, I – "
"Aye, you did. I heard it quite plainly, " he argued. Valoree rolledher eyes.
"Ididnot say I did not have a plan.I said that I was not sure of it.I am still working itout." Valoree explained patiently.
"Oh." Some of his anxiety eased, though not much. "Well, whatareyou thinking of, then? "
ShruggingValoreeturned away andcontinued on towardthe helm."I am thinking that we will appear to surrender and allow some of them to board. Then, when they areleast expecting it, we will attack."
‘That’s it? "hecried, following her to the helm. "That is your whole plan? "
"My lord, the simple plans are usually the most successful, " she said exasperatedly, forcinga smile for Bull’s sake as she arrived besidehim. "Go as quicklyas you can. Iknow we are weighed down right now, but I want you togetevery last bit ofspeed out of the Valor that youcanmanage."
"Why? I thought wewere going toseem tosurrender? " Daniel asked worriedly. Valoree had to count to ten to keep from snapping at him.
Once she feltsure she would remain calm, she turned to him with adecidedly forced smile andexplained. "If we appear to surrender too easily, withoutmaking atleastan effort at escape, they willsurelybecome suspicious. Do younot think? "
"Oh, aye, " hemumbled. She shook her head sympathetically.
"Husband, you appear to have difficulty with giving up control of this situation. Mayhapyou should gobelowand have a drink."
Danielsmiled wryly. "Iam not behaving well, amI? Well…"
He glanced towardthe ship that drew nearer with everypassing moment.Itcertainly sailed under a black flag. "Iwilltry to do better. I trustyou. Truly I do.You areanexcellentcaptain. All the men sayso."
"Aye.And I am, " Valoree agreed proudly."Andas captain, I think youwould feel better if you have something todo."
"Aye, mayhapI would, " herhusband admitted.
Valoreeglanced around. "Why doyou not go tellHenry that oncehe has finished handing outthe weapons, Iwant the crates they werepacked in for the tripbroken andthrown overboard. In fact, mayhap youcould oversee that."
"Aha."Daniel nodded."Icando that." He started to turn away, then pausedand swungback. "But why? "
Valoreealmostsnappedat himthat it didn’tmatterwhy; she was captain at the moment and that meant he was to follow orders withoutquestion. But then shereconsidered and forced herselfto explain. "If we weretruly trying to escape, we would attempt to lighten ourload by throwinggoods over."
"Ah, so youhope to fool themby throwing the parts of the crates over."
"Aye. But empty crates would float for a minute or so ere sinking, so youaregoing to break the crates into single slats, then have mencarrythem with the flatand largest sides facingthe oncoming ship. And drop them into the water as if they are heavy."
"Clever, "he said with a suddengrin. "I shall seeto itatonce."
"Great." Valoree felt some relief as he finally walked away, then chuckledunder her breath.
"What’s so funny? " Bull asked beside her.
"I was just thinking that as much trouble ashe ishavinggiving up control in this crisis, I would beworse wereit me."
"Aye, " Bullagreed solemnly. At the rather stiff lookshe threw his way for agreeing so quickly, he shrugged. "Just look how much troublewe had getting ye married tohim."
Muttering under her breath, shewalked awayin searchof the women.
"Oh, God.I should have insisted you staybelow."
Valoree tore her gaze away from the smalldinghypaddling toward themacross theshort spanof water separating the two boats, and frowned at Daniel.
They had pretended to attempt to outrun the pirates now crossing the water eagerly toward them, then appeared to surrenderreluctantly when it was obvious that they could not.
Pulling theEnglish flag down, theyhad replaced it with a white shirt, the best they coulddo for the colorlessflag that wasthe traditional signalof surrender. In response, the other boat had fired one singlecannonoff the starboardbowas a warning not to tryto flee, thenlaid anchor a safe distance away, just farenough not to haveto worry about the two swinging aroundin a current or stiff breeze and hitting each other. Then the pirates had lowered thesmall ‘boat, filled it to overflowing with men, and begun tomake theirway acrossto mounttheValor andclaim her as their own. They leftsome of their crew aboard their own ship, of course, with the cannons trained on the Valor as an obvious threat.
Still, they thought the Valor a simple merchant ship, carrying goods, perhapsa dozenor so men, and few if anyweapons. They were in for a surprise. And at that moment, Valoree was experiencing the same mounting tensionand tingling expectation she had always enjoyedwhen climbing silently up the sides of the craft they had taken themselves. Anticipating the battle ahead, she thrilled at thedanger. She felt incredibly aliveasshealways had.Yet this time, she feltalmostanequal amount of terror as well. That was new.Always beforeshe had felt only a burning sort of rage, a desperate desire for revenge, a longing to find herself facing the scarred Spanishbastard who had killed her brother, and a complete lack of concern with death. Now, however, sheknewwith a certainty that shewouldnever again beBack-from-the-Dead Red – and never couldbe.
Now thepossibility of death was like a cloud inside her head, numbing thepart ofherbrain she needed mostandmaking her hand tremble slightly with the fear of it. She wanted to live. She wanted to spend herlife with Daniel, to see her babe born, to watch it grow. And she knewinstinctivelythather fear was what could get her killed.
"Aye, I shouldhave lockedyou inthe cabin. Awoman has no place amid this men’s work.And thisplan is madness, pure and simple. Itwill never work. Iwasa fool tolisten to a woman and her hare-brainedschemes. Here I was lettingyou act ascaptain outof pity and – "
"Pity!" Valoree turned on him in amazement as his words finallysankthrough her fear and she realized whathehadbeen saying. She couldn’t believe the words had spouted from his mouth. After allhisproclamationsof love and admiration, after findingher so intelligent!Now the truth was out. Eyes narrowing to glowing orbs of rage, Valoree puther nose to his and said in a hiss, "You’d best be saving some of that pity for yourself, husband, for afterwe take careof these bastards. ThenI’ll be turning my attention to you, and you can count yourself luckyif yeain’t hanged from the crow’snest afterall."
Then she turned away to move toward the other women, pausing after only astep to whirl back. "And ye’d bestnot mess your part up, sirrah, or I’ll cut your tongueout and feedit tothe fishereI have ye hanged."
Unfortunately, unlike her men, who were now watching the exchangewarily, Daniel didn’tlooka bit cowedby her threat. He merely grinned and gave her a wink, which served only to infuriate her further.Hand clenching around thecutlass she held hidden inthe folds ofherskirt, she turned herattention tothe other men and said in asnarl, "Look lively;they’reboarding. You know what todo."
The men turnedto see thatshe was right. Theropes that had beenloweredover the sideof the boatwere moving slightly and creaking under the weight of the menclimbing them. Her crew immediately began to take their positions, and Valoree turned away to stompover tothe other women. Eleniwas oneof them.
Sheand Petey had more than resolved their differencesinthe Thurbournekitchen over whowas in charge – theyhadmarried just two weeksbefore setting out forAinseley. Megwas there, too. Though John had begged her to stayand live with himat Beecham, Meg had feared causing him problems. Instead, she claimed shepreferredthe idea of anicelittle cottage at Ainsley.
"Close to Henry and his roses would be nice, " she had told Valoreeinconfidence.
Therest of the women were the wivesor thesoon-to-be wives of other crew members – except for Helen, the sweet, dark-haired girl who had taken up the role of lady’s maid to Valoree. She was the only single young woman onboard. Still, the way One-Eye kept trying to charm her madeValoree think thatthe girl wouldn’t be unwed for long. Eleni, Meg, and Helen were the only femaleswho were keeping a brave face on. The others were all shaking in their skirts, a couple even giving in to terrified sobs.The ruckus rubbed Valoree’salready raw nerves.
"Quit yer sniveling, " she snapped. "Ye’ll just be drawing attention to yerselves that way."
That seemed toscare thesobs right out of them, she sawwith somesatisfaction. Turningherselfslightlysothather sword hand washidden between herself and the group she stood in front of madeheradvanced stage ofpregnancy more obvious, and that was fine, too. It made her appear harmless.
"You menreadybackthere, One-Eye? " she said in ahiss.
"Aye, Cap’n, " camethesoft answer.
"Good. On my signal."
"Nice work, " Henry muttered, moving to Daniel’s side once Valoree was out of earshot. When he simply raised an innocent eyebrow atthe remark, the older man said, "Shewas losing her nerve. You gave it back to her by making her too mad to remember to beafraid."
Danielshrugged. Right at that moment, he didn’tknow if he haddone the right thing. He had seen the fear, had known it wasn’t normalfor her and therefore was notsomething she could easily overcome, and had instinctively donewhat he’d needed to do. Butnow he almost thought he should haveleft her afraid. He would rather she stayed out of the fray with the other women.
That wassomethinghe knewshe wasn’t likely todo now that her fear was under control again.
"Never seen her like that before, " Henry admitted. "Guess ye’re softening her upsome. A good thing, Ithink."
Daniellooked skeptical."What? Not sorryto see the end to CaptainBack-from the-Dead Red? "
Henry considered that seriously for a moment, then sighed.
"She surewas somethingto see. No fear. All rage. Takingon any andall comers, and that anger washer finestweapon.Her lack of fear scared the hellout of anyman with the sense to want to live."
At Daniel’sexpression, he continued. "More often than not that attitude convinced them of the wisdom of surrendering. Not every time, mind ye. She provedher worth with a sword, too – more times than I care toremember. Andsheshowed us that all those years ofus men training her weren’t fornaught. But she was lucky. We allwere. That luck couldn’t hold out forever.
Jeremy’s death proved that.Nay." Heshook hishead. "We’re best outof this business. Jeremy would want herout of it."
Daniel was silent for a moment, then said softly. "I am surprisedthat heallowed her to betrained with the sword."
Nowit was Henry’s turn to lookskeptical. "Considering the life we led, it would have been more surprisinghad he not."
Daniel murmured in reluctantagreement, thenstiffenedasthe first of the pirates clambered over the side of theship.
There were twenty in all, and every oneof them was armed to the teeth. Compared to them, the twelve men of the Valor in evidence besides Danieland Henry looked almost respectable.
And that, he realizedsuddenly, had most likely been Valoree’s intent. Thesemen weretheones still possessingall their limbs andbodily parts. Nota patch, a peg leg, or a missing nose among them. They were also wearing simple breechesand shirts with oneweapon each, generallya cutlass. They had nospecialleather vests or belts bristling with bladesor pistols.
Brilliant, he congratulated her silently as the pirate captain came over the sidelast.That, he thought, was telling. The man wasa coward.Daniel had heardvery little about Valoree’s days of high-seas robbery – by hisown choice, for while Valoree was quiet on the subject, the men had been eager to regalehimwith talesof their daring. But after learningthat she always ledthe attackand wasthefirstover the side of the ship, he had shied off hearing more. Perhaps when he was in his dotage, and already gray, he would bebetter equipped to handle hearinghowshe had putherself in danger.But nowhis poor heart could not bear it.
At that moment, however, he felt a thrill of pride at the fact that, captain or not – and having that choice – still she had always led the attack.This mandid not have thatcourage, and while thatlowered him in Daniel’s estimation, it alsomade Daniel extremely wary. There was nothing more dangerous, in his opinion, than acoward. One never knew whatlengths they would goto to save their ownskin.
These thoughts running through his head, he watched grimly as the pirate captain slowlyperusedtheship, takingineach man, thenthe women, before settling onDaniel andHenry. He moved toward themat once, asupercilious smileonhis faceashe took in Daniel’s matching maroon velvet waistcoat and the silly beribboned knee breeches Valoree had insisted hewear.She had said it would make him look more fey and less threatening.
Danieltried not to grimaceas theman’s gaze thendropped tothe pinkhose she hadalso insistedhe wear. He had recognized them at once as part of the livery the men had sported while they paraded as her house servants, but had donned them without argument, knowing therewas apurpose behind her every order.
Promising himselfhe wouldwipe that smirk off the man’s face at the first opportunity, hebegan to wave the hankie she had pressed into hishand, in what hehoped would appear a nervous fashion. Thenhe pressed it to his upper lip and tried to look as small and"fey" as a six-footman with broad shoulders could as the fellow paused before him.
"Ye’d be the captain of this herevessel, " the fellow decided, addressing Henrywitha barely discernible Spanish accent.
"Aye, "thequartermaster calmly lied.
The fellow accepted that readily, then nodded in Daniel’s general direction without bothering to look at him. "Owner? "
"Aye, "Henry said again. "And ye are? "
There was a tense moment of silence; then he smiled.It wasn’t avery pleasant smile."Have your mendrop theirweapons."