If pirates were to be the bloody, savage end of Nathaniel Bainbridge, he wished they’d get on with it.
The windswept deck was damp beneath his bare feet, prompting thoughts of the dewy grass of home. What he wouldn’t give for the freedom to run across the fields of Hollington Estate, wind rushing in his ears over the steady thump of his heart, the world falling away in his wake.
Instead he was confined by an endless, restless sea taunting him with its wildness. In England, he’d heard countless tales of villainous pirates and their dastardly deeds. People spoke as if the ocean teemed with the brigands, but the voyage had been mile after mile of…nothing.
Nathaniel shook his head at his foolishness. Not that he actually wanted pirates to attack their ship and massacre them. If only he could move, he would keep boredom at bay.
He gripped the railing, longing for dirt beneath his nails, scratches on his palms from tree bark as he climbed and explored, wonderfully aching muscles from hours in the lake. If he could only run a simple mile. Hardly any distance at all, but trapped on the ship, that much clear land would be a marvel.
He wiped sea spray from his eyes. If only the ability to run and jump and swim was worth anything at all in his world instead of being childish folly he was supposed to have outgrown. Men did not climb trees or swim for hours, and certainly they didn’t run for the sheer pleasure of it the way he had at Hollington.
Of course, the estate wasn’t theirs anymore, sold off to pay debts, so even if he made his way back to Kent one day, he would never return to those rolling hills. Its verdant trees and round, tranquil lake would now be home to another family.
No, for the foreseeable future, home would be Primrose Isle, a new colony his father desperately wanted to see flourish. Walter Bainbridge had found his fortunes in England not the least bit fortunate, and as a governor in the New World had the thing he loved most dearly: power.
Nathaniel’s future bride waited there. Elizabeth Davenport stood to inherit quite a fortune, and for the colony—and Walter—to thrive, alliances had to be made. So Nathaniel would do the only useful thing he could and marry.
He brushed a fresh spray of briny seawater from his face as he stared out at the endless night, keeping a firm hold on the rail. His untucked shirt flapped in the breeze, the lower fastenings on his breeches unbuckled under his knees.
In the dark, there was no one to comment on his state of undress, and he supposed the crew didn’t care a whit anyway. His trimmed hair curled at the ends in the dampness, and he tucked a lock behind his ear. It had been his little act of rebellion to cut it much shorter than most gentlemen. He certainly wouldn’t be wearing dreaded wigs, either, if he could help it.
Clouds conspired to hide the stars and razor-thin crescent of moon. He shivered in the late September night’s chill; he really should have worn his hated shoes and jacket.
At least the wind was no longer the bitter cold of the mid-Atlantic as they neared the West Indies. He shifted back and forth on his feet, lifting them like a racehorse stamping at the starting line.
The Proud William was fairly large, a merchant ship carrying a cargo of salt fish and forged metal tools to the colonies. But when he’d attempted even a light trot around the main deck, the crew had reacted with consternation at best, hostility at worst.
Running was his very favorite activity and the thing he excelled at most in life—much to his father’s disgust. Swimming in the lake in summertime, cutting through the placid water with sure, even strokes, was a joy as well.
To be surrounded now by endless water but unable to dive in and soothe his cramped muscles was the worst torture. He’d asked the captain if he could at least climb the mast or sail rigging and had been flatly refused.
So he stood by the starboard rail and sometimes paced, careful to stay out of the crew’s way. At least he had been told their progress was swift, and that after a month’s voyage—thirty-one days and some thirteen hours since they left England, to be exact—they would reach the island in a fortnight if the wind held.
He was informed that some ships took several months to reach the colonies. Ships could leave London the same day and arrive weeks or more apart. Such was the way of the sea.
Staring out at the nothingness, he stopped his restless shifting and squinted. The weak sliver of moon had valiantly escaped the clouds for a moment, and Nathaniel thought he spotted a strange kind of movement. The night took on shape before becoming uniform once more.
Perhaps it had been a great ocean creature surfacing—a whale or giant squid, or some kind of mysterious monster.
He chuckled. Earlier that evening, Susanna had read aloud fables from one of the old leather-bound tomes they’d brought from home, and his imagination was clearly running wild.
She’d always been the far more indulgent of his two older sisters, and he knew she’d packed books he’d favor, although she certainly had a taste for adventurous tales rather than the sentimental stories ladies were supposed to read. They’d both enjoyed the diary of a naval captain who’d served on several ships of the line and described life aboard in vivid detail.
Although the cabin Nathaniel and Susanna shared was tiny, at least they had privacy. He really should rejoin her in their cabin to sleep and end another interminable day, but the walls closed in on him, and it felt like a prison. Susanna’s thunderous snores didn’t help matters, but he couldn’t begrudge her anything.
For the hundredth time, he wondered what his life on Primrose Isle would be like. The colony was only a few years old, and there had been whispers of struggles with agriculture and trade, rumors of corruption and settlers packing up already.
He’d be forced to work for his father or at some other respectable job procured for him, like Susanna’s husband, Bart. Handsome Bart was thirty and penniless, but of good breeding and an agreeable disposition. He and Susanna had insisted on each other, waiting several years until both their fathers gave in and agreed to the match.
Bart seemed happy enough to do Father’s bidding, including leaving early for Primrose Isle some months ago, not knowing at the time Susanna was with child. When Walter Bainbridge made a demand, it was met. Sometimes Nathaniel marveled that a man he had rarely seen since childhood could loom so large.
Susanna and Bart had hated to be parted, but she was needed to oversee the packing up of the estate and auction of the more valuable items. Certainly it couldn’t have been left to Nathaniel, who wouldn’t have known where to begin given he’d spent as much time outside away from the ornate house as he could.
Nathaniel had considered refusing when he and Susanna were summoned. But what would he do? Where would he live? His marriage to Elizabeth had been agreed upon by their fathers, and should he fail in his duty, Walter would disown him. He’d have nothing, not even a roof over his head.
Bile rose in his throat. No, that would not do. So onward to Primrose Isle he went, to marry as his father saw fit. All he knew of Elizabeth Davenport was that she’d lived with her wealthy family for some years in Jamaica before her father joined forces with Walter to establish a shipping company on Primrose.
Well, he also knew her writing was unfailingly neat, and from Susanna’s recounting of the letter, that Elizabeth enjoyed needlework and greatly looked forward to sharing her life with him.
He’d received her letter just before leaving England and had burned it in the grate in his room. At least the voyage was a worthy excuse for not responding. And as much as he’d wished to stay in England, he couldn’t allow dear Susanna to sail the perilous Atlantic alone.
Although with how smooth their journey had been, completely lacking in beasts of the deep or even a gale of note, he apparently hadn’t needed to fret. Still, it was done.
He’d accepted years ago that he was feeble-minded, and although he knew he should be grateful for the opportunity to hold a position of at least some stature on the new colony, he dreaded the notion of truly being under his father’s thumb once more.
It had been blissful having his father overseas for years. He supposed he should feel remorse for such churlish thoughts, but there was so much else to consume his stores of guilt.
So much else indeed.
He turned away from the rail, resigning himself to another long night in the swaying hammock. Susanna was of course sleeping in the cot in the only cabin their father could afford now that he’d squandered so much money.
The cry from above pierced the night, and Nathaniel jumped a mile.
In the flurry of activity and shouts, he pressed himself to the ship’s side as the crew emerged from the hull like ants. Nathaniel squinted into the darkness, turning to and fro and seeing nothing.
Then he spotted it—the hulk of a ship emerging from the night, not a single light flickering upon it, drawn to The Proud William like a moth to flame. With a sickening twist of his stomach, he realized he had indeed spotted a monster, and it was upon them.
He raced down to the cabin, bursting inside. Chestnut curls unpinned and tumbling over her shoulders, Susanna bolted up on the cot, her book thudding to the floor. One hand pressed to her round belly, she cried out, “What is it?”
“I think it’s pirates.” He could hardly believe the words as he uttered them. Had he wished them into existence by grumbling over boredom? Oh, what a fool he was.
The blood drained from Susanna’s sweet, round face. “Pirates?”
“I don’t know what else it could be.” He threw open a trunk and dug for his sheathed dagger, cursing himself for not raising the alarm sooner. His mind raced, thoughts jumbled as he grasped the hilt of the weapon and tossed the leather scabbard aside.
The thunder of the crew’s footsteps shook the ceiling, dust motes shaking loose and shouts filling the air. Susanna looked down at her nightgown, despairing.
“There’s no time for petticoats or any of that nonsense.” She threw her flowing green gown over her head, her voice muffled by it. “My God, it really is pirates, isn’t it? Oh, I think I’m stuck.”
Nathaniel helped tug the material down over her swollen belly. She emerged from the folds of soft fabric and peered up at the ceiling, as if she could see through the hull. Footsteps scuffled and thumps reverberated, tense voices shouting commands too distant to make out clearly.
Susanna whispered, “No gunshots. Must be too many. The crew isn’t fighting them. Help me pin this shut.” She had stopped wearing her corset, adopting what was apparently a new French style while she was with child.
After he’d pinned the material enough that the robe-like gown would stay put, drawing a prick of blood from his fingertip in his haste, Nathaniel yanked on his stockings and refastened his breeches below his knees before jamming his feet into his buckled shoes. He wouldn’t face these brigands in a state of undress.
He tucked the dagger into the back of his trousers and whipped on his sleeveless waistcoat, fingers clumsy on the buttons. But there was no time for his cravat or jacket. Raised voices already echoed down the corridor. He spun about, belatedly hoping to find something to bar the door.
Susanna had apparently had the same thought. “The trunks aren’t heavy enough. Besides, it will only anger them. It’s no use.”
“Get behind me.” He urged her to the back of the cabin, which was barely wider than the breadth of one’s outstretched arms.
“Be sure to mind your tongue,” she said. “You know how thoughts can sometimes go right from your head and out your mouth without pausing for assessment.”
He huffed. “What exactly do you think I’m going to say to pirates?”
“Shh!” She slapped his shoulder. They waited, listening.
More pounding footsteps, and shouts that possessed an undeniably feral quality. The hair on Nathaniel’s body stood on end, his mouth going dry. Perhaps the pirates would pass them by. Perhaps they’d plunder the cargo and be done with it. Perhaps—
The door burst open, almost flying off its hinges, and Nathaniel barely held in his yelp. His heart drummed so loudly he was certain the two invaders could hear. One of them brushed matted hair from his eyes. They both wore ripped and stained trousers as baggy as their shirts, and their boots were worn out.
The long-haired man’s beady gaze raked them up and down, and he asked his squat companion, “You ever fuck a bitch with pup?”
Nathaniel’s stomach swooped. How do they know? Susanna was hidden behind him. He lifted his chin, forcing strength to his words. “You shan’t lay so much as one filthy finger on my sister.”
Ignoring him, the squat man leered, baring snaggled, yellow teeth. He answered his friend’s question. “Good and juicy, I tell you.”
Behind him, Susanna dug her fingers into Nathaniel’s shoulder. Heart in his throat, he yanked the dagger from the waist of his breeches, brandishing it toward the pirates. “Stay back!”
The two blinked at Nathaniel, then each other, before bursting into raucous laughter. The long-haired man said, “Oh no, we’re done for, Deeks!”
Heavy footfalls sounded in the corridor, brazen and commanding. Spines snapping straight, the pirates stepped aside as a man filled the doorway, shoulders almost brushing the frame. He was tall enough to duck slightly as he entered, and his sharp gaze swept the cabin, which had never seemed quite so small.
He wore black from head to gold-tipped toes—open-collared shirt, trousers tucked into knee-high boots, and a long leather coat that flared out behind him. A pistol was tucked into his wide belt, and a cutlass winked from his hip. Gold gleamed on the belt buckle, matching the small square earring in his left ear, rings on his fingers, and the tips of those black boots.
The ends of a red sash dangled over his hip, the only splash of color aside from the gold. He had to be twice Nathaniel’s age, his face weather-worn, a scar jagging across his left temple. His dark hair was cut fairly close to his head, a surprise since Nathaniel had expected all pirates to have long, unruly hair like the animals they were.
His trimmed beard shadowed his strong jaw. In the low light, the color of his narrowed eyes was impossible to ascertain, but Nathaniel imagined they must be as black as the pirate’s soul.
He might have been the very devil himself.
Nathaniel’s palm sweated around the handle of the dagger, and he hated the tremors in his outstretched arm. His throat was painfully dry, and he croaked, “We—we don’t have anything of value. No gold or jewels worth your effort.”
Susanna added, “Even my wedding ring is plated.”
Tully, one of the Proud William’s young crew, had entered the cabin. The man—the pirate captain, undoubtedly—glanced to him. Tully nodded. “’Tis true. Only clothin’ and trinkets in their trunks.” He sniffed dismissively, tossing his reddish hair. “Nothin’ hidden anywhere in here we could find since we left London.”
Nathaniel had thought better of the crew, but saw now how naïve he’d been. It must have been Tully who had informed the pirates that Susanna was with child. “What a coward you are, Tully.”
He snorted. “As soon as I got a good look at the flag, I knew we were done for. Everyone knows the Sea Hawk will gut you from stem to stern once you’re in his talons. I ain’t dying for cargo I don’t give a fuck about and a captain who treats us like garbage.”
“Your destination is Primrose Isle?” The pirate—this Sea Hawk—demanded, his tone low and calm.
“Yes,” Nathaniel answered. “It’s a new colony.”
Tully nodded. “Her husband’s there. We’re to drop them off with their father. The old man’s the guvnor or some such thing.”
At this, the Sea Hawk seemed to jolt, but a moment later the ripple had vanished and he was still again, fearsome and dispassionate. Nathaniel thought he must have imagined the hiccup.
Yet a gleam entered the captain’s devilish eyes, and dread slithered through Nathaniel. The Sea Hawk loomed nearer and demanded, in the same deliberate but undeniable manner, “Your name, boy.”
Heart hammering, all he could manage was, “Uh…”
“This one’s called Bainbridge,” Tully offered.
“Bainbridge,” the captain repeated, barely a whisper now. “As in Walter Bainbridge?”
Fingers going numb around the dagger, Nathaniel nodded. He’d have bruises where Susanna clung to him, her sharp exhalations ghosting over the nape of his neck. There was no sense denying it. “Our father.”
“You’re the son Walter Bainbridge killed his wife to achieve?” The captain’s focus sent chills down Nathaniel’s spine.
He couldn’t hide his wince, and had to nod. His mother had never even held him before the rest of her lifeblood drained away. Susanna had been but six, spying through the keyhole, and she’d confessed it all after Nathaniel’s endless badgering when he was a lad.
Strange how he could experience the aching, hollow absence of a touch he’d never had, even after eighteen years.
The captain’s eyes glinted. Good God, the man was enormous. Nathaniel was tall enough, five feet and seven inches or so, but this monster towered well over six feet. It was all Nathaniel could do to hold his ground and not stagger back against Susanna. The tip of his blade quivered mere inches from the villain’s black heart.
The Sea Hawk gazed down at them as though they were prey he was most eager to consume. “Your father is a liar. Corrupt. An evildoer in silk stockings and a curled wig.”
Nathaniel swallowed hard, hand shaking. Could he lunge and push the dagger into this vile man’s heart? Not that he had much love for his father, but who was a pirate to talk of evildoers?
The Sea Hawk’s eyes glowed with hatred. “Your father cheated me. He was tasked with justice, with fairness. Instead he conspired to steal from me. He branded me a pirate when I was a privateer.”
“Aren’t they the same thing?” Nathaniel blurted. As the Sea Hawk’s nostrils flared, Susanna dug her nails into Nathaniel’s shoulder.
“No, they fucking are not,” the pirate gritted out. “Privateers are licensed. Legal. Privateers follow rules. Laws. Just as your father was supposed to as a judge in the Court of Admiralty in Jamaica. Your father tried to strip me and my men of everything we’d worked and suffered for. We escaped him, but in the years that have followed, he has never paid the price.”
Dread consumed Nathaniel. His father’s greed and avarice would once again bring suffering. If not for Walter’s mounting debts, Nathaniel and Susanna would still be safe at home, waiting until she had her babe before making the journey. Hollington wouldn’t have had to be sold at all, and now they faced God knew what at the mercy of pirates.
Oh Lord. Please spare Susanna and her child!
Bile rose in his throat at the thought of any harm coming to his sister, terror clammy on his skin. Sweat slipped down Nathaniel’s spine. “I…” He racked his brain for something—anything—to say, some means of escape. His dagger shook, and he licked his dry lips. “I’m sorry.” He had to fix this.
A slow, ghastly smile curled the devil’s lips. “You will be.”
“The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.”