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Within A Captain's Hold
A Captains of the Scarlet Night Novel
By Lisa A. Olech
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2015 Lisa A. Olech
All rights reserved.
Captain Jaxon Steele buttoned the flap of his breeches. He turned and tossed his favorite wench a coin. She slipped the gold piece into the tight cleft of her cleavage. How many coins had disappeared into that fleshy purse?
"Madam, a pleasure."
Giselle rose, pulled the edges of her worn silk robe closed, and tied the belt loosely about her waist. She handed him his linen shirt and stayed close as he pulled it over his head.
"Can't you stay?" She ran her hands over his shoulders, smoothing the fabric and pressing her body against his. "You smell like fresh sea air. So handsome, too. Your whole body's been kissed golden by the sun." She toyed with his earring and ran her fingertips down his chest, tugging gently on the dark hair. "Do you have any idea the pale, ugly creatures I'm called to service?" Her voice purred low and graveled like the sand beneath his feet when he walked along the shore.
Jaxon caught her hand as she slid it boldly past his waist. The silver bracelets crowding her wrist clattered.
"The Scarlet Night sails on the tide."
"Leaky tub. Sail tomorrow."
He put her away from him and continued dressing. "Set sail on a Friday?" He wound a crimson sash snug about his waist. No seaman would take such a risk. "It's bad luck."
"Well, how about another go? I won't even charge you."
"I've dallied too long already." Jaxon crossed the cluttered room to the looking glass. Paste beads and a length of faded pink feathers hung from its corners. He pulled his hair back into a tidy queue.
Giselle went to the mirror and pushed at the stray curls circling her painted face. She fixed a smudged red lip and splashed more foul-smelling, floral stink behind each ear from a crystal stopped bottle. "Fine." She flicked her hand at him. "If you're going, go. I've more important things to do. I may have to strangle a man." Giselle moved back to the bed, jerked up the faded cover, and punched at its garish pillows. "I swear if I cross paths with a certain duke, I'll kill him with my bare hands."
"You've lost me."
Giselle heaved a dramatic sigh and pouted as she examined her fingernails. "Weren't you in a hurry to leave?"
You're between me and the door, woman. "Nay." Impatience clipped his words. The muscle in his jaw twitched. "Tell me about this soon-to-be strangled duke. Did he forget the proper gratuity?"
"If only it were that simple, I'd just have his noble nose broken." She rolled her eyes. "No, he came to the house two nights back and paid three times the rate for an innocent. He told me he only wanted the girl if I could swear she was a virgin. A real popinjay with lace cuffs, high wig, and red-heeled shoes."
Giselle poured herself a glass of wine and took a healthy swallow. "We found her almost dead next morning. He'd torn her and beat her. She was a bloody mess. Cost me a pretty coin to call a surgeon, too. He didn't think she'd survive. I'm not sure she'll ever be right in her mind again. Next day, the duke sends his man. Stuck-up jackanapes. With a damn sack of coins. Said he'd shut me down if I talked, or worse."
Disgust turned sour in Jaxon's stomach. "Bloody hell. What's the bastard's name?"
She scoffed. "I don't ask names, and they sure as hell don't pull up to my door in their crested coaches. Our doorman said his hitch bore a gilt monogram on its door. It read BW."
"I could leave a couple of my men behind."
"He wouldn't be fool enough to come back. I told his man I'd dump his satined arse in the Thames with the rest of the filth if he ever crossed my threshold again, and no amount of gold would save his hide." Giselle finished her wine. "Besides, I've got my own protection. The last thing I need is two of your pirates around here sniffing after my girls."
"Privateers now, my dear." Jaxon picked up his buff leather coat and thick baldric.
"Pirates, privateers. You mean to tell me there's a difference?"
Jaxon puffed his chest a bit. "Means King Willie can't fit me for a necktie and the well-heeled gentlemen of the ton tolerate my presence for a scant minute longer than before."
"How lucky for you." Giselle flipped the end of her nose with a finger. "Would you care to hear how long they tolerate me?"
He laughed as he bent to slide his feet into tall, black bucket-topped boots. "I'd guess about thirty seconds longer than it takes them to drop their pants."
He dodged the pillow she threw at him.
"Take your smart mouth and get out before I forget my fondness for you."
"Are you sure you don't want me to leave some protection behind? Suppose he is fool enough to come back?"
Giselle shook her head. "I'm not afraid. He would never get past the boys downstairs. I'm safer than the bloody crown jewels."
* * *
Jaxon walked back through murky streets toward the dock. Muffled music from nearby taverns wove through the heavy mist. Two large shadows up ahead were tossing a third unceremoniously into the gutter. The drunken man sputtered slurred obscenities at their backs and tried to stand.
Scattered lantern light bathed the dock in an eerie yellow glow. He could just make out the ghosts of ship masts up ahead. The air lay thick as wool.
Giselle's tale nagged at him. What kind of cowardly swine beat upon a woman? And a virgin, no less? Paid three times the price for one? He must be a half-wit as well as being spineless. Jaxon wouldn't pay a farthing for an inexperienced whore. He'd sworn off virgins a long time ago, and for good reason.
Jaxon climbed the wide-boarded ramp and dropped onto the gleaming crimson deck of the Scarlet Night. The creak of wood and rigging greeted him like a favorite song. Lanterns lit the ship to aid in the loading of provisions. Two crewmen laughed as they passed him, pulling a handcart heavy with supplies. Their jovial mood matched his.
In all his twenty years upon the sea, he'd never lost the adventurous rush he got before setting sail. Now, he sailed a protected man. A favorite of the crown. A king in his own right, with the finest ship and crew to sail the Atlantic. None of it was a gift. He'd fought, scratched, and battled his way to the top. His reward was the respect of those who knew enough to fear him--and the hatred of those fool enough not to.
One more sail to Port Royal, where he and his crew could put up for the winter months in warmth, rum, and women. Another sweep of the ocean to fill their chests with gold and silver that would allow them to live like princes on that pirate island. The sea whispered like a lover in his ear. Time to weigh anchor and be away.
Jaxon stood at the helm as the Scarlet Night moved out of the crowded harbor. The sea stretched out dark and wide before him. He sighed the sigh of a man happy with his lot. London quickly lost her sheen. Even with good news from the Admiralty concerning his Letter of Marque and Reprisal, he'd had it with the feel of solid ground beneath his feet.
The crew followed his shouted orders to weigh anchor with practiced efficiency. Men heaved ropes, secured lines, and soon the sails were set. The heavy canvas snapped before catching the wind and bowed like a rich man's belly as the Scarlet began her impatient leap through the moonlit tips of the waves.
A familiar thump, thump, thump announced Cookie's arrival. Samuel "Cookie" Burrows, the finest quartermaster Jaxon had been privileged to captain, but a ten-pound ball removed his left leg during a skirmish with a French merchant ship. The two fingers on his right hand were lost soon after when the surgeon was in too much of a hurry to remove the mangled end of his leg and Cookie was in too much of a hurry to stop him.
Keeping with pirate custom, he received ample compensation for his leg and fingers, and earned the security of lifetime status within the crew. Fortunately, Cookie turned out to be an accomplished cook and a decent surgeon. Lucky for him and his fellow crewmen he worked left-handed and no man was fool enough to call him Pinkie.
Cookie breathed deep, scratched the scrub of graying beard decorating his chin, and beat on his chest with both fists. "Nothin' like the first breath o' open sea air."
"Aye. Never gets old." Jaxon filled his lungs.
"Think we could be sailin' toward some weather, though, Capt'n."
Jaxon shook his head. Sailors were a suspicious lot, none more than Cookie. "You worry like an old woman."
Cookie raised his wooden leg and tugged at its leather straps. "Me foot's been itchin' fierce since we raised anchor. It ain't ne'er lied to me before."
"Only that it's still attached to your leg."
"I'm tellin' ye. We be in for a wild ride."
"Then best tell the crew to secure the deck. Make sure everything is lashed tight below."
"Aye, aye, Capt'n." Cookie tapped his forehead in salute.
Jaxon lifted a heavy brass spyglass. Off the starboard bow, things were clear to the horizon, but he knew better than to doubt Cookie's phantom foot.
* * *
Their hellish first day at sea howled into night. Water crashed over the bow and swept over the decking. Men wrestled to stay upright. In these high seas, even the most seasoned man struggled to keep his footing against the fierce roll and yaw of the ship.
Shouting orders to lower the last of the sails before the force of the storm could snap the masts, Jaxon turned just in time to catch a loose bunk line across his face. The heavy rope flayed him like a flogger's whip, opening a gash over his left eyebrow and knocking him to his knees. He fought to remain conscious. A wave breaking over the deck threatened to wash him out into the churning waters. Blood flowed hot and blinding into his eye as he battled his way back to retake the helm.
Jaxon held tight to the ship's thick oak wheel. The Scarlet Night thrashed its way through rising seas, with winds near sixty knots. After several grueling hours, his quartermaster, Gavin Quinn, came up behind him and grabbed at the pegs of the wheel.
He shouted against the howling winds. "Got it, Capt'n."
The muscles in Jaxon's arms screamed from abuse as he gave over control of the bucking ship. He pointed off the port bow as the bowsprit rose and fell into deep troughs.
"Keep her nosing south," he bellowed into the gale. "Let's try to skirt this blow."
"Aye, aye." Quinn jerked his head toward the ladder. "Get below, sir. Let Cookie close that wound."
Jaxon reached up to the knot above his eyebrow. Past the sting of pain, the dull throb barely registered against the whip of wind-driven rain and seawater.
"You're still bleeding, Capt'n. Best stop the flow. Ye got us through the worst. I can take it for now."
He slapped Quinn on the back and shouted into his ear. "I won't be long." Cookie could stitch a cut faster than a whore could snatch a coin from a randy mark. Quinn would fare well for a time.
Gripping the rigging, Jaxon swung down into the galley way without touching a single worn step. He found Cookie heading aft in a rush with a lantern swinging in his hand.
"What's the hurry, man? Are we taking on water?"
"No, Capt'n. Been up to the forward hold to see if the ballast be tight. Can't have a cask running loose in these seas. Door's jammed. Lookin' for a might more muscle."
"I'll do. Let's see to it, and then you can fetch your needle and sew my brow back together."
"Right, good deal."
Once in front of the door Jaxon gave it hearty shove. The entrance to the hold pushed open a few inches.
Jaxon motioned to Cookie. "Drop that light and come here. Put your back into it. On three."
Cookie fit behind him while Jaxon started the count. "One, two, three." Both men threw themselves against the stubborn door shoving it aside. Cookie retrieved the lantern and hung it on a chained hook. The weak flame swung wildly in its holder casting a dizzying sweep of shifting light across the room. Behind the door, Jaxon found a strange pile of ropes, spare canvas, hogs heads of ale, and boxes of nails. How the hell did all this get trapped against the door?
Jaxon caught a whiff of something rotten. "What is that foul smell?"
Cookie didn't answer. He scurried off to check on the huge barrels filled with fresh water they used to keep the ship stable.
Moving farther into the hold, Jaxon tripped over a heap of dark sodden wool. He pushed at the mess with his boot. Crouching, he moved aside some of the cloth and exposed a bloody leg. A deep cut opened the flesh four to five inches down the side of their calf. "Cookie, get over here."
Jaxon rolled the body over and pushed what he now recognized as a cloak away from the figure's face. Shock was quickly replaced with rage. "Bloody hell and back."
Behind him, Cookie swore under his breath. "The devil 'imself must be dancin' on our decks tonight. 'Tis a woman."CHAPTER 2
Jaxon stared at the soiled pile of stinking wool. "Blast. What in hell is a woman doing on my ship?" Her skin glowed near white in the sway of the light. "Is she dead?" Cookie knelt and checked her neck for a pulse. Jaxon waited, hoping. "Tell me she's dead."
Cookie scratching at his ratty head cloth. "Nay, but she's knocked out cold as a haddock, and that's a nasty gash she's got on her leg."
"She's covered with blood and vomit."
Cookie bobbed his head in agreement. "'N soaked in bilge water."
"Good Lord, she smells like the arse end of a London sewer rat."
"Ye thought I smelled bad." Cookie cackled.
"You do smell bad." Jaxon stood up. Now that he was out of the numbing reach of the storm's wind, the knot over his eye throbbed. He needed a stiff belt of brandy to ease some of the pain, and he needed to get this blasted woman out of his hold.
"That leg's gotta be tended. How'd ye suppose she got here?"
"I don't bloody know. Help me carry her back to my cabin."
Jaxon grasped the fetid woman under each arm, and Cookie lifted from her feet. They carried her to the door. Cookie set down his end long enough to extinguish the lantern and check the passageway. The ship still rode the storm like a drunken man on a three-legged horse. Wrestling an unconscious woman between them left them both breathless by the time they reached the safety of Jaxon's quarters.
"Set her here on the floor." Jaxon used his knife and began to cut her reeking garment away while Cookie flushed and bound her wound.
How the hell had a woman gotten on his ship? Beneath, she wore rough brown wool skirts. "She's a serving wench." Who could have brought her aboard? Hell, half the crew tossed serving wenches every chance they got, but none of them would be stupid enough to defy the rules. Dammit, why couldn't she be dead? They could just toss her over the rail and be done.
Pulling the mobcap from her head, a wealth of coppery hair spilled out. "Blast my eyes."
Next to him, Cookie "oofed" like he'd been punched in the gut. "Saint's blood. A woman and a ginger. She couldn't be more bad luck to ye, Capt'n, if she had a dead albatross hangin' 'round her neck."
Jaxon stood and crushed the woman's cap in a tight fist. "No one can know we found her. I want to hear about anyone who goes anywhere near that hold."
"Aye, aye, Capt'n." Cookie scrubbed at his chin. "What'll we do with her?"
"I don't bloody know." Jaxon pushed his fingers through his hair in frustration. The smell of her curled his lip. "Help me get rid of her clothes."
"Now, Capt'n, I may be a crusty ole bugger, but I ain't gonna stand by and watch ye--"
"Hold your tongue or I'll rip it from you, myself. Do you think I'm standing here in the middle of a damn storm thinking to violate some unconscious chit? Are you daft, man? Her clothes are past saving. We're tossing them out the window, along with the stench." He glared at Cookie, daring him to raise a single bushy hair of his eyebrow. "We can't leave her on the floor. I'm cutting her skirts, and then you'll see her cleaned up and put in the bed."
Cookie wisely kept his mouth clamped shut.
"I'm needed back on deck if we're to have any luck getting by this weather. You stay with her and let me know the minute she wakes. See if she'll tell you who the blazes she is and which crew member I'll be hanging come mornin'."
Jaxon dropped to one knee to cut away the girl's cincher and skirt. Why can't you be dead?"What the hell is this? No wench wears satin slippers. She's wearing a chemise. A fine milled one." He looked into her face. Why can'tI be dead?
Filth obscured her features.
Excerpted from Within A Captain's Hold by Lisa A. Olech. Copyright © 2015 Lisa A. Olech. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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