Black Hawke's eyes narrowed as he scanned the watery horizon. His heartbeat quickened, and he forced himself to breathe calmly. The moment was at hand, the moment for revenge. He'd waited three long years for it.
There, on the edge where sky and water met, a smudge appeared. He watched it grow into the imposing lines of the seven hundred ton, merchant ship, Brighton Star. His sources had been correct. She was right on schedule. His sources had also revealed that although she was originally meant to carry fifty-four cannons and nearly three hundred crewmen, she had neither. Her owner, God rot his soul, had used half the guns and only a partial crew. The Brighton Star was ripe for the plucking. Her cargo alone would do much to restore Hawke's fortunes and deplete those of her owner.
It wasn't enough. He wanted more than the rich cargo. The Brighton Star carried something of far greater value. Mademoiselle Abella Roche, daughter of one of France's most influential noblemen was sailing on the English ship to Spain, where she would be united with her betrothed, Lord Burgess Lindleigh.
Hawke's visage changed to a wolfish grin. Soon, he thought. Soon, all would be made right again, if ever it could. For one brief moment the memory of Callie, his dead wife, stung him with pain, but he forced it aside.
"Get ready," he called to his crew, and the men who'd been armed and lined up along the railing shifted into a better position.
"She's spotted us, sir." His first mate's voice betrayed his excitement.
"It doesn't matter," Hawke replied evenly. "It's too late for her to do anything." Silently, they watched as the clumsy merchant ship tried to maneuver out of their path. "Run up the colors."
One of his men sprang to do his bidding, and soon, the flag was raised, a white field with a black skull and crossbones. They could make out the crew of the Brighton Star as they hurried to ready their cannons.
"She's heavy with cargo," Dilly observed. "She'll be a rich taking."
"Aye, lad, she will." Hawke turned to his helmsman. "Keep to her leeward. Stay ahead of her by two lengths."
"Dilly, prepare to shiver the sails, when I tell you."
"Aye, sir." The young pirate signaled to the men in the rigging.
"Hard a-lee," Hawke commanded, and the brigantine, Revenger, cut sharply, locking the merchant's bow in their rigging. "Ready your grappling hooks, and prepare to board," he ordered.
He led the boarding himself. While his men dispatched the English crew, Hawke moved directly to the Captain's cabin. What he sought was there.
When he'd located the cabin, he threw open the door and heard a scream of terror. He paused, peering inside at two women who stood clutching each other, their eyes wide with fear. As Hawke approached one of them, a beauty with gold hair and a heart-shaped face launched herself at him, her hands raised in small fists, her delicate features twisted in determination. She reminded him of a gentle baby rabbit he'd had as a boy, but her punch was anything but gentle.
As petite as she was in stature, she managed to land one small fist squarely on his nose. He felt a welling of pain, and blood dripped from one nostril. He wiped it away with the back of his hand, all the while staring at his attacker.
She hesitated, taking small steps back and forth in front of him as if looking for another opening. When he looked down at the blood on his hand, she sprang forward again, this time her blow aimed for his eye. It landed on one corner, making him back up until he stumbled over the jamb of the door he'd just entered and fell to the floor of the deck.
At once, she hurried to the other woman and urged her forward, stepping over his sprawled feet. He made a lunge for the hem of her gown and had the satisfaction of hearing the fabric rip.
She kicked out, catching him under the chin with one slippered foot, and although none of her blows had incapacitated him, the surprise of her attack had undermined him.
With a roar, he leaped to his feet and grabbed her arm. She flailed out at him, but he caught her slender wrists in his hands and twisted her around, so she was held hard against him, her back against his chest, her buttocks tucked against his groin. The warmth and womanly softness of her body pressed against his cock had an unexpected effect as he felt himself harden.
Still, she fought on, kicking and scratching. Roughly, he turned her around so she faced him. She struggled more, flailing out at him. Impatiently, he settled his mouth on hers and felt shock ripple through him at the sweetness of her lips. Their moist softness captivated him; the honeyed taste made him crave more. He plunged his tongue between her lips and grew dizzy from the taste and warmth of her. She'd fallen still beneath his onslaught so he deepened the kiss, probing, exploring, tasting while his cock hardened and his belly twisted with a need for a woman's body that he hadn't felt in a long time, not since Callie. He flung the woman aside and heard the other woman scream piercingly while she gazed wildly around at the faces of the pirates who circled her. Cramming one fist against her mouth, she gave a final gasp and collapsed on the deck.
"Mon ami, you must be strong." the woman pressed against him called to the other. "Be brave." Suddenly, she sagged in his arms. "S'il vous plait, monsieur, I throw myself on your mercy."
Hawke's lips curled in disdain at such weakness. He released the woman and shoved her forward. "Go tend your mistress."
She looked at him as if startled, her eyes wide as a wild doe who feared a predator. Her golden hair had come loose from its pinnings and hung in gleaming strands in her eyes and around her shoulders.
"When your mistress has recovered from her vapors, she is invited aboard my ship." Hawke did a mock bow and smiled, but his eyes were cold with purpose.
The dark-haired woman who lay supine on the floor was young and comely enough, a sheltered French beauty, whose only purpose was to grace her husband's table and drawing room without an ounce of honor or honesty in her. Perhaps, his greatest revenge against Lord Lindleigh would be to let him have his bride unscathed that she might one day betray him as his own wife had done. His lips tightened at the thought of Callie, his beautiful, scheming wife who had helped bring about his downfall and laughed in his face. Anger twisted his features so that even the stouthearted maid drew back in fear.
"Monsieur, I implore you. Have mercy on us." Her voice was dulcet soft, feathering across his skin, calming his rage.
"You have naught to fear from me, mademoiselle," he said with a slight bow. "Your mistress has everything to fear."
The maid's eyes widened, the tumultuous blue of a summer sky, the blue of his childhood when he'd run in the fields of Hawke's Aerie, his family estate in the wild Highlands of Scotland.
Impatiently, he pushed aside such thoughts. They were forever gone as were his land and the castle. Gripping the maid's arm, he nudged her to one side while he knelt and lifted the supine form of Abella Roche. She was a bit sturdier than he'd expected, but he lifted her without effort. Turning, he studied the maid. She was a beauty, he saw, with her soft, golden locks and pale ivory skin. Perhaps, for fun, he'd dally with the maid when he'd finished his purpose with Mademoiselle Roche.
"Gather as much of your mistress' things as you think she'll need, and be quick about it. The ship is about to be set fire, and it will burn quickly."
With a gasp, the maid drew back, her pale rosy lips forming a round circle of distress. She stared at him as if seeing the devil himself.
"Do as I tell you," Hawke snapped, and she jerked as if he'd struck her. He watched as she hurried into the cabin and began gathering petticoats and slippers and stuffing them into the two trunks.
Hawke carried his burden to the railing. "Have you cleared the hull?"
"Aye, we have, Captain," Dilly said. "D'ye want us to fire her now?"
"Have some men gather the trunks from the captain's cabin and bring the maid aboard without any harm done to her."
"Aye, Captain Hawke." Dilly sped away to fill his orders. Hawke climbed the railing to his own ship, carrying his prisoner with one arm as if she were naught. Once on his own deck, he ordered her taken to his cabin. Louis, a rough-looking pirate with one good eye and about as many good teeth, threw the Frenchwoman over his shoulder, slapped her buttocks gleefully and carried her off. Hawke didn't bother to call a warning. Each man aboard his ship knew not to step out of line.
Hawke turned to watch his men haul the rest of the Brighton Star's merchandise, barrels of spices, rich cloth and wine, to the pirate brigantine. The merchant ship rode high in the water now that her holds were emptied while the Revenger sat low. They'd make straight for the Cabo Verde Islands south of Portugal, Hawke decided. He wouldn't want to maneuver an escape from an enemy ship with such a heavy load.
"Set the crew adrift in the lifeboats then fire her up and cast off the lines," he called when the last barrel and chest had been loaded. Last to be brought aboard was the French maid. His men were hooting and calling ribald remarks to her. Her frantic gaze swept around the deck and stopped when it came to him. She made no sound, but her eyes made a silent plea for mercy.
"Shall I give her t'the crew, Captain?" Louis asked eagerly.
"Take her to her mistress," Hawke ordered and saw the disappointment on the faces around him. "Break open a barrel and raise sail. We're heading for home port."
The men cheered. The top of a barrel was knocked open and the men ran to get their cups, dipping them into the rich rum brew. Laughter rang out across the deck as the crew congratulated each other and calculated how much their take would be from this trip.
The life of a pirate was hard, often without enough food and water and not nearly as much loot as they would have liked, but with Hawke, their fortunes had made a turn for the better. For this reason, as well as the firm hand he used with them, he had won their trust, such as it could be counted on from a pirate crew. Hawke knew this, and had no qualms about the steadfastness of that loyalty.
The carousing men were far too busy to give the burning merchant ship another thought, but Hawke stood on deck and watched the smudge of black smoke on the horizon. Lord Burgess Lindleigh didn't know it yet, but he had just suffered another devastating blow to his fortunes. Hawke guessed he was undoubtedly feeling the pinch of his losses.
That brought his thoughts back to the woman in his cabin. Abella Roche, soon to be the debauched betrothed of Lord Lindleigh. How would the high and mighty Lord handle that? Every time he went to his new bride's bed, he would think of the man who had been there first. Perhaps, if the fates were truly with him, he'd send an unexpected gift to Lindleigh. Hawke chuckled. In the days ahead, he planned to do his best to plant his seed in the belly of the lord's bride.