Sighing, Valoree spoke. "Youmay sail with us if you like." It wasn’t exactly a cottage onan estate, but it wasall Valoree had to offer. "You could help Petey cook, " she added, just to let the woman know that her positionwould be a respectable one.
"Where do you planon sailing to? "
Valoree frowned and considered briefly before answering, "Back to the Caribbean most like."
The woman shook her head. "Will younot even try? "
Valoree blinked in surprise. "Try what? "
"To find a husband? "
She did not even bother to answer, merely turned herfaceback tothewindow andstared at the passingstreet. Itseemed obvious that She had little if any chance of findinga husband, not withthe prerequisites her fatherhadleft her: find a man, intelligent and noblyborn, who would be willingto marry her. That wouldhave been hard enough, but she also had to be with child or have birthed one by her next birthday. No, it was all quite simply impossible. Ifthe "noblyborn" parthad not beenincluded, well, then, that would havebeen one thing. But where the devil was Valoree to find a noble whowould be willing to both marry her andleave herin chargeof her own estate? And wherewould she find oneshe was willing tolay down with to beget a child? Valoreewasn’t the timid type. Being raisedon a shipfull of pirates had seen to that. But she wasn’t anywhere near experienced whenit cameto sex either. She had never evenbeen kissed yet.That was something elsethat being raised on a ship full of pirates had seen to. Or morespecifically, that’s what hiding hergender on a ship full of pirates had seen to.
Still andall, she had heard quite a bit of bragging fromthe men abouttheir exploits. She had evenstumbled across one or two of the men withprostitutesthey had sneaked aboard-shipoverthe years. Between those twothings, Valoree had agood grasp on whatit was all about. As far asshe could tell, it all appeared rather awkward and silly to her. All that mushy mashing of mouths, humping, and moaning. It didn’t appearvery exciting to her. But if the men were to be believed, itfelta whole lot better thanitlooked. That beingthe case, Valoree wasn’t against trying it out. She just hadn’t yetmet a man who attractedher in that way. She was rather hoping that she would be luckyenough to find a manlikethat, though, for shesuspectedsex was one of those things that could be a chore if therewasn’tsome attraction involved.
Theidea had her so caught up, it took her a momentto realize the carriage had stopped. Glancingabout distractedly, she peered at the open door of the hack where Henry stood patiently waiting.
Sighing, sheshiftedalong theseat, thenleapt clearof thedoor, landing in apuddle with asatisfying slap of herboots.
Ignoring Henry’s startled and even slightly disapproving look, she turned and strode up the dock, uncaring ofhowit looked for awomanina dressto bestriding about like a man. This was how she walked: purposeful, commanding, with someplace to go. This was her life.
Pausing at the end of the dock, she waited as Skully and One-Eye hurriedtocatch up to her.Shescowled. They looked ridiculous in thelivery. Pale pinksimplydid not doathing for Skully’s peg legor One-Eye’s patch.Their hair was toolong, their faces scruffy andsunburnt.Theydid not fit insuch finery. They looked better and were more comfortable in their worn and ragged pirate garb. Mayhapit was better that they wouldnot be forced into the roles ofgentlemen farmers.
"I want you torally the men, Henry. Weleave as soonasthe last of them return."
"Leave? "her friendasked in shock. "For where? "
"The Caribbean.I shallnot inherit.It looksas ifwe havea few more years of sailingleft before us."
Valoree had changed outofher gown and backinto herusual dress ofbreeches andtop, yetthis time she nolonger bothered to bindher br**sts. It was thefirst timeShe had wornher captain’s clothes without doing so.She had beenbinding her br**sts since she’d developed them.Younger brothers and cabin boysdid not have br**sts, and that was howthe crew hadthought of her for thirteen years – until now.
Henry had announced to them that shewasa girlthe afternoon they had sailed intoLondon. It had seemeda good ideaatthe time. Now that things had gonedifferently, then they’dplanned, Valoreewished he hadkept that informationto himself. The men hadbeenshocked, of course, and one ortwo had nottaken it well that theircaptain had turned out to be a girl.Still, they were probably over it bynow.
Right, she thought sarcastically, then leanedback in her chair with a sigh and propped her feet upon thetable. Grabbingthe bottle of rumShe had brought tohercabin withher, she took a swig. She was working very hardatemptying it.
Valoree was morethan halfway to being sottedwhena knock came at the door.Sighing, she started tosit up, then changed her mind and slouched even further in her seat.Surely theyhad come only to tell her that they had voted someone else captain, anyway. They would hardly keepher nowthat everyone knew she wasa woman, nor could she supply the longed-for homein thecountry that had been promised yearsago when theyhad all signed onwithher brother.
"Enter!" she snapped, thenwatched calmlyas Henryducked inside. He was followed by One-Eye, Skully, Bull, Petey, Meg, and asmanyof therest of the crew as could fitinsidethe room.
Shecould hear the restclustered outsidethedoor.
"What? " Valoree asked wearily, then waited for the announcement to come.
Themenall turned to Henry. He grimaced at being stuckwith the job of speaker, but stepped forward, clearing his throat.
"Well, now, ye see, Cap’n, Meghere told usall about what that there Whisterfellersaid."
"Of course shedid."She had expected as much.
"Aye. And thenOne-Eye here andI, we wentand rounded up allthemen andbroughtthem back."
"As youwere ordered to do."
"Aye.And thenwe …er… Well, we informed them of what was said."
There was silence fora moment;thenOne-Eyenudgedhim.
Henry sighedand continued. "Well, themen… we all discussed it some, ye see, and then we…er … We had a vote."
"Here it comes, " Valoree murmured to herself. So much for five years of successful piracy.
"And we vote yemarry."
Valoree blinked."What did you say? "
"He said we voted, youmarry, " Peteyrepeated helpfullyfrom hisposition near the door.
Valoree frowned at the cook’s words, then glanced over the restof the men. Every singleone of them wasnodding solemnly.
"You voted thatI should marry? " she murmured with disbelief, unsure whether tolaughorscream. It would almost be easierif they had voted her out of position ascaptain. Were they mad? Did theynot understand things? No, of course they didnot, she realized suddenly. They had no concept of what a monstrous undertaking marriage was. Especially in noblecircles. Hell, she was not even sure of the full details.
Shaking herhead, she droppedher booted feet to the floor and calmly stood. "Gentlemen, while Iappreciate what is at stake, you do notseem tounderstand – "
"We understand, " One-Eye assured her with a grin. "We understandthatyou gotta marry to gain Ainsley, so we voted ye get married."
Valoree paused atOne-Eye’s words, then frowned."Now, see here. As my crew youcanvoteon a lot of things – where wesail, whether to takeaSpanishship or not, whether to kill its crew even – but youcannot vote on whether I marry."
"Well, now, that’s no’ exactly true."
Valoree frowned at that announcement, coming asit wasin a Scottish brogue. Jasper stepped forward unfolding several contracts he held. "According toArticlesix of the contractwe all signed uponjoining up with you, and Iquote, ‘Every seaman shall havea vote on such matters as affect the welfare, safety, health, and future of the crew.’" Lowering thecontract, the Scot raised his headand smiled at her, an expression revealing anumber of missingteeth."This here affectsthewholecrew."
Everyman present was again noddingin solemn agreement.
WhenValoree merely stared at them, baffled, Henry explained.
"To getAinsley, ye got to marry.Gettin’ Ainsley or not affects all of us. It’s why we all threw in together – first withJeremy, then with you."
"Aye, " One-Eye agreed, drawing her gaze. "Jeremy said he wouldgive each of us acottage at Ainsley wherewe could settle down."
"Where we couldget married, " Petey addedalmostdreamily.
"Have a wife."
"And bairns, " Jasper putin.
"A garden, " Henry added. Everyone turned to stare at him.
Straightening his shoulders, he scowled at them defensively.
"Jeremypromised me a garden."
"So’s you can grow vegetables, "Skully added hopefully, but Henry shookhis head.
"Flowers? " They gapedat him, but he shrugged, indifferent to their scorn.
"I’m thinkin’ on growingme some roses.I’ve got a green thumb, don’t ye know. ThinkI’ll try me hand atmakin’ one o’ them new roses.I’ll call it the Grand Valoree."
Valoree shook herhead in disgust and sankback into her seat.
Staring at her motley crew, she shook her head again and shrugged. "Fine, " she said with feigned indifference. "I shall marry.I suggestyou go out and find me ahusband. All youneed is a noblemancapable ofgettingmewith child. However, I warn you, hehas to be willing tolet me make allthe decisionsand run the roost. Otherwise, do you thinkhe’ll let mesetyou all up on hisestate? Good luck to you. I shall just wait here foryou to accomplish the deed."
Grabbingher bottle of rum once more, shesankback into her seat.
The room was silent for a moment as Valoree studiously ignored her men;thentheyslowlybegan tofile out.
"Marry, " she muttered, raising the rum to her mouth and gulpingsome ofitdownbefore shaking her head. "Me." She was awareof her shortcomings. More than aware. Theywere all tied up in her past andwho she was.
Herparents had bothdied by the timeValoreewas five – her motherbreakingherneck in a fall downthe stairs shortly after Valoreewas born, andher father during acholera outbreak when she was five.That had lefther and Jeremy. Jeremy had been six years older thanshe, atender elevenyears old when they had been left to fend for themselves.
Well, they hadn’t been leftentirely tothemselves; there had been LordSwintun.Hehad been aneighborandtheir guardian.
He hadbeen a kindand tender man who had beengood to them both. Unfortunately, he had been less kind to their birthright.
He’d raped the land, destroyed thepastures, and generally done his best torunthe place into theground, milking every drop of profit out of it that he could – as had been his right to do as guardianof the inheritance.
Still andall, Valoreehadbeen sorry when he had diedin her tenth year.He truly had beenkind and caring toward her and her brother. He had hired the besttutorsfor them, seentoJeremy’s training, and openly nurturedthemboth. Then he had died, and they hadbeen left inthe hands of his son, a fellow who’dhad a terrible tendencyto leer at Valoreeevenatthat tender age. It had been most uncomfortable for a while. Four years later, Jeremy had turned eighteen and taken Valoree home to Ainsley to reclaimtheir birthright.
And that had been worse. Neitherof them had been nearthe estate since their father’s death, and what they found was shocking.The manor housewas uninhabitable, with nota stick of furnitureleft. Swintun’s son claimed ithad all been stolen and, seeing as selling offthe goodsand household articles was not exactly accepted as a rightof the guardian, they had believed him. There hadbeen nothingto do about it by then anyway, as it was apparent thatthe furniture had been gone an awfully long time. Thehousehad obviouslybeen used as a squat forvarious passersby, including animals, birds, rats, and spiders.
Cleaning andrefurbishing had beenwhat itneeded. That took money, however, and that was somethingthey were sadly short of. In his mismanagement of the land, Swintun had made it almost unrentable.Farmers wouldnot rent landtheycould not work.
Valoree recalled that Jeremy had taken one stunned look at his inheritance, walked around the destroyed entry and great hall, then moved to the fireplace, removed asmall rock there, pulled out a bag, andturned away. He’d walkedstraightout, mounted hishorse, and riddenoff.
Knowing he was distressed, andtrying to help, Valoree had set her hand determinedly to cleaning up, hoping that she could make a difference. Unfortunately, after the wholedayandmost of the night cleaning, she hadbarely made adent in the ruin that wasnow their home.She had cried herself to sleep on a bed of rushes ina cornerof the great hall, the cleanest space she could find.
Thatwas whereJeremy hadfoundher late that evening when he returned, and thatwas wherehe had told her of their change ofplans. The bag he had removed from the fireplace hadbeen their mother’s jewels. They were to have gone to Valoree.
Instead, Jeremy had takenthem and boughtaship, and he had hired a quartermaster – Henry. He intended to enter the risky business of privateering. Hewould attack the king’s enemies, take their goods, and splitthem with the Crown. Then, when he’d made enough, he would return and legally claim his inheritance.
Itseemed the only way.
Valoree had protested, of course.But when her brother had gone to greatpains to assure herof thesafety ofhis undertaking, she hadrebelled at Jeremy’s next intention: to ask LordSwintun to continue her guardianship until he returned. She hated and feared theyoung nobleman, and anything would be better than a sentence of living under his care. If a seafaring life was safe enough for Jeremy, it wassafe enough for her. And that was how she’d become a pirate.
NowValoree knew allthere was to know about sailing, and she was quitea hand atbattle aswell. But that was where her talents lay – not in wifely duties. True, she’d been trained in Latin, English, and German whileunderthe older Swintun’s care, and her brother had continued her reading and writing lessons in those languages while he was alive, but those weren’t exactly womanly arts.
Even her speech was lacking. Jeremy had made her speak properly while hewasalive, but she hadslippedsomewhat since hisdeath. Especially whenshe was angry.
She certainly had none of the useful crafts that should be known bywomen. She was not very goodwith a needle. She could sew, but herstitches were nowhere nearas straight asthey couldbe. Sheknew nexttonothing aboutrunning a household, and was as good as useless when it came totendingillness. Her mother had beenan expert withhealing herbs, Jeremy told her, buthad diedlongbefore beingable to teachValoree anyof what she needed toknow. And for such pastimesasdance andmusic, the years she might have been learning those she had spent sacking galleons in the Caribbean. In short, she was terribly lacking. No nobleman would want her – let alone one who understoodher needs.