Prologue

Bridlewood Manor
Clifton, England
December 2, 1829

“The babe’s deformed,” the midwife gasped, nearly dropping the slippery newborn.

“What do ye mean?” Martha Haverson rounded the bed in alarm.

“Look at ‘is arm. ‘Tis no more than a stump.”

The housekeeper stared at Mrs. Telford’s moon-shaped face before letting her gaze slide down to the squalling child. Just as the midwife had said, one tiny limb flapped about, ending just above the elbow, as though a surgeon had amputated the rest.

“What?” The mother of the newborn craned her neck to see the child. A moment earlier she had seemed oblivious as she moved listlessly on the bed, all color gone from her fine-boned face, her lips a pallid gray. Now her eyes sprang open with a look of panic in their violet depths. “Deformed did you say? My son’s deformed?”

Martha watched anxiously as Her Grace’s eyes sought the child in the midwife’s hands. After five years and as many miscarriages, the duchess had finally produced an heir. And what a long, difficult birth it had been! Martha thought her mistress deserved a moment of triumph before further worries beset her, but Her Grace spotted the baby’s club-like limb before the midwife could shield it from her view.

“No! No!” she moaned. “My husband hates me already. What will he do?”

Martha took the baby into her strong arms, and she and Mrs. Telford exchanged a meaningful look, sharing the lady’s trepidation.

“‘E won’t do anythin’ but be glad the wee babe’s a sweet, healthy boy,” Martha assured her, reaching down to squeeze her mistress’s hand.

The baby let out a piercing howl that seemed to contradict her words.

“You don’t know him,” the duchess whispered. The revelation of the baby’s flaw seemed to sap what little strength she had left. She let her head fall back and her eyes close as a tear rolled back into her thick, dark hair.

“Don’t fret so, Yer Grace,” Mrs. Telford advised. “Yer in a bad way an’ need yer rest. ‘Tis not good for ye to stew so.”

But Martha knew that the duchess no longer heard, much less understood, either of them. She remained somewhere inside herself. Her lips moved without making a sound, as if in prayerful supplication, and she tossed restlessly on her pillow.

“Don’t just stand there. Help me.” The midwife scowled at Martha, making her realize she’d been standing motionless, staring at the duchess. Her mistress did not look well. The housekeeper doubted she would last the night.

“Will she live?” Martha whispered.

Mrs. Telford sent an appraising glance at the duchess’s face, the harsh lines around her own mouth deepening into grooves. “I don’t know. But ‘tis not doin’ ‘er a bit of good, ye standin’ there like that. happen now an’ again. From the look of it, the babe will never ‘ave the use of ‘is right arm.”

‘Tis time to clean the whelp up.”

Sternly reminded of her duty, Martha pulled away from her mistress’s bedside and headed off to bathe the new arrival. His small weight felt good in her arms. She had been unable to bear children herself, at least any that lived beyond their first month, and had been looking forward to having a little one in the house. But when she reached the small antechamber where a bowl of tepid water waited and began to sponge the child off, she couldn’t escape a heavy sense of loss. Poor Duchess. Heaven only knew that her life had not been easy since her marriage to the Duke of Grey stone.

“Mrs. ‘Averson?” It was the tweenie, the least among the least of the maids.

“Yes, Jane?” The housekeeper paused from her ministrations to look up at the gangly young girl. Only twelve, Jane was all arms and legs and as shy as she was young.

“The master would like to see ‘is son,” she said, slightly out of breath.

Martha could tell by the uncertainty in Jane’s eyes that all was not well. So the duke already knows, she thought, wishing Mrs. Telford had kept her voice down. The walls had ears. Evidently someone had already carried tale of the baby’s arm to the master.

“An’ where is ‘e?” she asked. “I’ve barely begun to bathe the babe. An’ ‘e should be allowed to suckle before—”

“I’m beggin’ yer pardon, Mrs. ‘Averson,” the jittery girl interrupted. “‘Is Grace demands we bring the child right away, lest we both lose our positions. ‘E’s waitin’ in the library. Mrs. Telford is on ‘er way there.”

Martha bit her lip and glanced over her shoulder in the direction of the duchess’s room. “Very well. Fetch a blanket. It won’t do for the babe to catch a chill, poor little love.”

* * *

Albert Kimbolten, Duke of Greystone, was pacing across an exquisite gold and blue Turkish rug when Martha entered. Massive mahogany bookshelves crowded with leather-bound volumes lined three walls. They were dusted once a week, though rarely used. A fire crackled comfortably in the fireplace. The midwife sat in a Chippendale chair near a long, rectangular table, the fingertips of both hands pressed together, her lips pursed.

At Martha’s entry, the duke turned to face her. His brows knitted together, a solid black line atop flashing blue eyes, making Martha shiver as though a cold draft suddenly swept the room. The heir had been born, and she was to present him to his father. But this was nothing like the moment she had long anticipated. There were no smiles of delight, no proud glances—only anger, seething from the man before her with all the force of a tidal wave.

Martha drew a shaky breath. “Yer son, Yer Grace.”

“Lay it on the table.” Greystone did not bother to watch as Martha reluctantly deposited her charge as directed. Instead, he stared into the black night beyond the window that mirrored his savage looking visage. “That will be all.”

Martha backed away. Only the fear of making matters worse forced her to take one step and then another until she passed into the hall. After closing the door she paused on the other side to listen to the words floating to her ears from within the library.

“What are you telling me?”

Martha could hear the tremor in the duke’s voice even through the door.

“As I said before, yer son is deformed,” the midwife explained. “‘Tis not uncommon. Such things happen now an’ again. From the look of it, the babe will never ‘ave the use of ‘is right arm.”

“And his mind? Is it similarly… defective?”

An interminable pause.

“I cannot tell, Yer Grace. ‘Twas such a difficult birth…”

“I see. Will he ride? Hunt?”

“‘E may do neither. I ‘ave no way of knowin’ ‘ow the child will develop. In all ‘onesty, Yer Grace, I am far more concerned with yer lady—”

“My lady? After five years, this is what she gives me. A cripple. A laughingstock!”

The sound of shattering glass made Martha jump. The baby began to wail, and she fought the urge to march in and fetch him.

“But Yer Grace, the duchess ‘ad no—”

“Leave me!” he shouted above the cries of his son.

Something—his fist?—crashed down onto a table. A startled yelp escaped the midwife, followed by the thud of other articles being hurled against the walls or fireplace. Then the midwife scuttled from the room, slamming the door behind her.

Martha acted as though she were just approaching. “Mrs. Telford, is somethin’ wrong?”

“‘E’s gone mad, I tell ye. Simply mad.” The midwife threw up her hands. “Ye’d best leave ‘im for a time. I’ve got my work cut out for me with the duchess.”

Martha wavered as Mrs. Telford fled down the hall. She longed to enter the room and rescue the crying infant, but was loath to further fuel His Grace’s anger, for the baby’s sake as much as her own.

Silence jolted Martha out of her quandary. One minute the baby had been wailing uncontrollably; the next, nothing. She pressed closer to the door, holding her breath. Not a single sound reached her ears.

Panic propelled her forward. She burst into the room and her eyes took in the tall, immaculately dressed duke leaning over his son. One large hand covered both nose and mouth of the newborn infant.

He’s killing the lad. He’s killing him! her mind shrieked as she flew at her master. Scratching and clawing at Greystone’s manicured hand, she tried to provide the child with air.

“Get away!” he snarled.

But Martha fought for the child’s life with the same desperate longing she felt for her own dead sons, and finally the infant let out a howl.

The duke backed away, his face red, the veins in his neck bulging above a white collar. “I’ll kill you for this!”

“Please,” Martha gasped. “‘E’s yer son.”

Greystone gave a derisive snort. “I could not have fathered this… this deformity. I will not have him. Do you hear? He will never be my heir.”

Martha gulped air into her lungs as the duke’s words registered in her mind. How could a man be so cruel? Finally she asked softly, “May I take ‘im, then?”

Crimson suffused the duke’s face. “Without me, without my reference, you will be unable to find work. How will you provide for a sick husband and a deformed babe?”

“I don’t know.”

“Fool! I’m tempted to let you starve the child for me, let you watch him die a slow death, but I cannot take that chance. Should you manage it somehow, as soon as he grew old enough, the two of you would be on my doorstep crying ‘Inheritance!’ ‘Heir!’“ He lunged at her. “Never!”

The air stirred near her ear as Martha whirled away. She fully expected to feel the duke’s long fingers close about her neck, pinching off her own breath, when suddenly she heard an odd gasp and turned in time to see him trip on the plush rug. His head struck the corner of the table as he toppled over like a felled tree.

Martha stared at the limp body lying unnaturally at her feet. Blood oozed from a wound at his temple. What now? she thought as panic rose like bile in her throat.

Bending to search for a pulse, she felt a faint beat at his throat and slowly let out her breath. But the fact that he yet lived posed another problem. Suppose when he awoke, he blamed her for his fall— blamed her and the baby.

Martha’s gaze left, the duke’s ashen face and moved to the squirming bundle atop the table. Its cries registered in her mind. Greystone had tried to kill the baby. The duchess was likely dead already.

Without further deliberation, Martha pulled the infant into her arms and fled the room. She ran through the long halls of Bridlewood Manor, past bedrooms and sitting rooms and libraries, to the back stairs and down, and finally through the kitchen and beyond into the cold winter’s night.

Chapter 1

Manchester, England
March 5, 1854

“Let me out! Please, Willy, let me out!”

Alexandra’s voice rose to an unnatural, high-pitched scream. The walls and lid of the trunk pressed in upon her like a coffin, the heavy darkness crushing her chest like a thousand pounds of sand. Stifling. Suffocating. Terror gripped her as she struggled for breath, pounding her fists on the locked lid of the old steamer trunk.

In her panic, she almost failed to notice the sliver of light that penetrated the blackness. When she did see it, her gaze clung to it as tightly as a drowning man might clasp a life preserver to his breast. Age and use had left the dome-shaped lid slightly warped. Surely air could pass as well as light.

Still, Alexandra had to force herself to breathe slowly, to resist the hysteria that threatened to

overwhelm her.

She ceased her pounding.

“Papa?” she wept. She hadn’t called Willy “Papa” for years, but she felt like a child again, like the little girl who used to love him, trust him. “Are you still there?” Silence. Alexandra concentrated on the beam of light. The tiny slit didn’t provide much air. She could hardly breathe. Where was he? There had been no sound for several minutes. Had he left her?

“Oh no, please,” she whispered. Certainly even Willy wouldn’t abandon her this way. Her stepfather never hurt her when sober, rarely spoke to her, in fact, but his love of gin exposed another side of his nature. The beatings that had begun shortly after her mother’s death five years ago had become increasingly common and more violent as Willy’s dependence upon alcohol grew. Now drunkenness was his way of life.

Alexandra tried to shift her weight, but the trunk was too small to hold a nineteen-year-old. She was crammed into it with her long legs tucked under her chin, her arms squeezed tightly against her sides. Her right hip supported the whole of her weight, causing pain to shoot down her leg until, mercifully, the restricted blood flow made it go numb. Still, her head throbbed; whether from the punishing blow Willy landed when he had first set upon her, or from the fit of weeping that had overtaken her when he had forced her inside her mother’s steamer trunk, she did not know.

A shuffling sound alerted her to the fact that she was not alone after all. She tried to hold her breath so she could hear from whence the movement came, but her involuntary gasps continued.

“Willy? Please, open the lock.” Alexandra hoped a calm appeal would evoke some response, but she received no answer. She felt as though she were walking a tightrope of sanity. One wrong word could turn her stepfather away and send her plummeting into panic once again.

“Are you still there? Don’t leave. Please. If you don’t let me out, how will I work? You know we have a half dozen shirts to finish today.” She paused. “Don’t you want to get paid?”

“Shut your trap, wench,” Willy growled. “I can’t stand the sight of you.”

“But I’ll go directly upstairs. I promise. You won’t so much as see me.” Her body ran with sweat, but Alexandra fought to control her fear. At least Willy was there. At least he was talking to her. So the lock clicked. Alexandra heard it above the crashing of the waves in her ears, though the sound far, she was managing to keep her precarious balance.

“We’ve got only until noon to finish the shirts. The skirts for Madame Fobart’s are due right after. You said so yourself,” Alexandra pleaded. “I’m the quickest seamstress you’ve got, aren’t I? I’ll work hard, you’ll see.”

Willy cursed, but Alexandra could tell his anger had lost its edge. Her approach was working, it seemed. “Madame Fobart gives us the bulk of our work. We certainly don’t want to lose her.”

“To hell with bloody Madame Fobart!”

Willy kicked the trunk, causing Alexandra to yelp in surprise as he bellowed in pain. “To hell with it all!” he croaked.

“You don’t mean that.” Alexandra forced the words out above the heavy thumping of her heart. “We’ve got a lot of business now, and soon we’ll be making good money. But I can’t finish our orders if you don’t let me go.”

For the briefest moment, she wondered if they could finish their work on time in any event. The order Willy had brought from Madame Fobart’s was double the usual, and with the work came the demand that the skirts be made up and delivered in less than two days. Though Alexandra and the other needlewomen had sewn well into the night, they still had much to do. But how would Willy know that? He had left for the tavern while the candles yet burned in the garret above, and she and the other women worked tenaciously on. Could he even begin to comprehend the mounting pressure of each new deadline when his time was spent sleeping off the effects of the previous night’s bottle? Willy never appeared until late in the day, and then only to criticize, grumble, and complain. That he procured any clients at all was indeed a great wonder.

Silence again.

“Willy?” Rational thought bled slowly from Alexandra’s mind as her head began to spin. There was so little air. Work. She had been talking about work. But why? She no longer remembered, except that her life was one monotonous round of stitch, stitch, stitch. Even now her mind called her fingers to sew—but it was so dark.

The lamp is out, she thought. I must relight it.

“Someday,” Willy said, his voice grating low and cutting through her fuzzy thoughts, “someday I’ll snuff out the light in those eyes that are so much like your mother’s.”

Alexandra had long since given up trying to understand the unrelenting anger that poured out of Willy when he was in his cups. What had she done to deserve such punishment? And Willy had loved Elizabeth. More than loved her. He had worshiped her. On her deathbed, her mother had asked Alexandra to look after him.

A roaring, like the sound of the sea, filled Alexandra’s head, and she felt as though her body were being gently buffeted by the water’s currents.

I don’t care what he says… I only want to sleep.

Then another thought surfaced. The others will be here soon. Of course! That’s what she had been trying to remember: The six women who climbed the rickety stairs to the workroom garret each day before dawn.

They would soon arrive to begin the long day’s work of sewing trousers, linen shirts, and skirts. The pittance they received for their labor, along with the demands placed upon them by Willy and his impatient buyers, required that they work sometimes eighteen or more hours in a day. Alexandra knew she could depend on them to help her if she could only last a few minutes more. But a peaceful, black abyss beckoned, and she began to move toward it.

The lock clicked. Alexandra heard it above the crashing of the waves in her ears, though the sound had no meaning until the battered lid was thrown open. Then the cool morning air rushed upon her like a good, strong slap in the face.

Her chest heaving as she sucked air into her lungs, Alexandra glanced wildly about until she saw Willy.

He stood not three feet away, the imprint of a hat still matting his gray hair above a heavily lined face. Bloodshot eyes, yellowed with age and bad living, peered at her with loathing. He seemed to stare into her very soul, then he staggered away toward his own room, a string of epithets spewing from his alcohol-numbed tongue.

It was over, for now. Alexandra closed her eyes and breathed deeply, her nails curling into her palms. No, she promised herself. Not for now. For always.

* * *

By the time Miss Harper arrived, Alexandra had composed herself. Though the others knew about the beatings, she did her best to conceal what she could for fear her fellow seamstresses would jeopardize themselves on her behalf. After all, they were powerless to offer any real help. They needed every penny they earned for the most basic wants—food, clothing, shelter. And it was a fortunate needlewoman indeed whose income provided enough for all three.

As the aging spinster entered the small attic with its peaked ceiling, sloping walls, and single window, Alexandra was already hard at work on a full-dress shirt with a pleated front. Shirts required some of the most exacting needlework, forcing her to bend toward the tallow candle to better see each intricate stitch.

“Good day.” Alexandra glanced up to smile at the woman with a cheer she did not feel. She was in charge of the small shop, and felt obligated to greet each needlewoman in a welcoming manner, though today that simple duty contended with a strong desire for comforting. Those with whom she worked were her only friends. Had anyone but Myrtle Harper been the first to arrive, Alexandra might have blurted out the whole terrifying experience. But the sight of her feeble comrade, whose steady decline she witnessed day by day, stemmed the tide of her self-pity.

Miss Harper tilted her head in acknowledgment, but did not speak.

Noticing how drawn she looked, Alexandra halted her work despite the pressing deadlines. “You’re ailing again?”

The spinster nodded as she crossed the room to hang her bonnet and shawl on a hook before settling down at the large deal table that stood in the center of the floor, surrounded by seven chairs.

The only other furnishings were an old clock, a coal stove, and two tallow candles.

“What we got?” Miss Harper flexed her fingers before taking up her thimble and needle.

“Skirts.” Alexandra pointed to a pile of burgundy velvet in the corner. Skirts were comparatively quick and easy, so Alexandra had set aside her share for the ill woman.

“Morning,” several soft female voices called as the other seamstresses entered the room in a knot, and the room shrank instantly to the stuffy quarters to which they were all well accustomed. It was barely large enough for its scant furnishings, let alone the women who had to work in it. But they jostled about and managed to slip into their seats and position their few belongings in a relatively short time.

Alexandra worked quietly as the other women chatted and laughed, her own thoughts returning to the morning’s episode with Willy. He was getting worse, she realized as anger and humiliation flooded her senses. Through her early years, she could have accused her stepfather of nothing beyond indifference. But he was becoming truly vindictive. She had hoped that his antipathy would go away. She’d blamed his behavior on the bottle, his bad knee, his unhappiness since her mother had died. After this morning, however, she knew such hopes were childish fantasy. He hated her.

“Another beatin’, Alexandra?”

Alexandra glanced up to see Libby, a frail-looking widow with five children, focus her allknowing eyes her way.

She shook her head.

“Then what?”

The others paused in their stitching to gaze expectantly at them both.

“Come on, dear, spit it out,” Libby prodded. “Ye can’t ‘ide it from us. There might not be any telltale scrapes or bruises this time, but that devil of a man’s done somethin’.”

Alexandra swallowed against the lump that swelled in her throat. “I have to get away from him, that’s all.”

“An’ we’ve been tellin’ ye that for months. ‘E’s not goin’ to get any better, livin’ on the bottle the way ‘e is,” Libby agreed.

Miss Harper made a tsking sound. “I knew Elizabeth. Yer mother would never ‘old ye to a promise to care for ‘im if ‘e wasn’t returnin’ the favor. ‘E uses ye to earn ‘is bread, that’s all. An’ abuses ye in the bargain.”

Any mention of her mother evoked a poignant longing in Alexandra. Everything had been so different when Elizabeth was alive. Alexandra’s mother had been kind and beautiful. She’d taught her only child to read and write and speak like a lady. And when Willy had finally intervened, insisting Alexandra leave books to the lads, Elizabeth had taught her to sew. Though they stitched endless hours together, those times had been nothing like the drudgery of the present. Her mother only picked up piecework when Willy fell from a ladder at work, badly injuring his right knee. When he couldn’t stand for any length of time, the mill let him go, and finding new employment was difficult. But the worst was yet to come. On the heels of his accident, Elizabeth succumbed to scarlet fever and died, turning Alexandra’s life upside down. Without her mother, the pillar of strength who had kept the family together and reasonably happy, her stepfather was not the same man.

“He thinks he earns our living by lining up our accounts,” Alexandra said.

“Any God-fearin’ man wouldn’t be able to justify takin’ the lion’s share of our meager profits for an ‘our’s work ‘ere an’ there,” Miss Harper replied.

The others nodded as Libby jammed her needle into the shirt she was sewing. “‘E ‘eld back ‘alf my pay last week because Mary Jane got sick an’ I came in a few minutes late, remember? Someday, I’d like to—”

“We’d all like to take a stick to Willy,” interrupted Sarah, a young woman trying to earn enough with her needle to provide for three younger siblings. “But we can ‘andle ‘is miserly ways because ‘e keeps ‘is distance from everythin’ but our money. That’s not true for Alexandra.”

“Don’t ye ‘ave any relatives who can ‘elp?” asked Merna, a new hire.

Alexandra bowed closer to her work. “Not many I know,” she said, not wanting to announce that her mother had been banished from her wealthy family when she’d found herself pregnant, at fifteen, by the village baker’s son. Elizabeth had gone to her young lover, hoping he’d run away with her, but her father had gotten to him first. For a few pounds and the promise of his own bakeshop someday, the boy turned his back on Elizabeth. So she left on her own, made her way to Liverpool, and went to work in a cloth mill, where she met Willy.

“Willy has family here, but they keep to themselves. They didn’t like my mother, accused her of thinking herself above them.”

“If they’re anythin’ like Willy, she was above them,” Miss Harper snapped.

Alexandra smiled at the spinster’s matter-of-fact tone. “I do have an aunt on my mother’s side.”

“The one Willy chased away when she came to visit?” Libby asked.

With a nod, Alexandra continued, “I hear from her every once in a while, but not often.”

“Where does she live?” asked Eliza, the young mother.

“In London right now. I received a letter not long ago saying her husband, who’s a military man, just received a post in India. The entire family is moving there—”

“When?” Libby pounced on the question so quickly, Alexandra paused from her work to look up in surprise.

She did a quick mental computation. “In less than a week.”

A sparkle entered the widow’s eyes at the same time a smile curved her cracked lips, and Alexandra began to shake her head. “No. I know what you’re thinking. I can’t go with them. I’ve thought of it, and thought, and thought, and I wouldn’t dare burden Aunt Pauline by foisting myself upon her. Besides, it’s probably the first place Willy would look—”

“They’re leavin’ the country. Ye just said so yerself,” Sarah put in.

“And ye could always work,” Miss Harper added. “Ye could be their servant, or the children’s governess, or just stay with them for a short while until ye found a post elsewhere—”

Alexandra held up her hand, trying to get them to stop because she feared the hope their excitement fostered in her soul. “And how would I pay for my passage to India? I’ll not expect my aunt to carry the cost!”

Libby and Miss Harper looked at each other, then at the others, and soon smiles curled everyone’s lips. “‘Tis almost noon,” Libby announced as Alexandra became the center of attention again. “The shirts for Mr. Cophagen are to be delivered after lunch, less than an ‘our away. Madame Fobart’s skirts are due shortly after. Payment on such an order would be significant, if ye get my meanin’.” The widow fell silent, letting the suggestion of her words hang in the air.

Alexandra’s heart doubled its pace, even though her head still insisted she could never run to Aunt Pauline. “I only deliver our completed orders. Willy collects the money. You all know that.”

“Convince Fobart’s manager that Willy sent ye to collect for ‘im,” Miss Harper said. “That mother of yers trained ye well. Ye could pass yerself off as a real lady if ye wanted to.”

“But Fobart’s manager has seen me dozens of times. He knows who I am. And I have no time to arrange anything with my aunt,” Alexandra argued. “She’s leaving in less than a week. It could easily take a letter longer than that to reach her.”

“Then ye’ll simply ‘ave to convince Fobart’s manager that Willy’s ill an’ needs the money. An’ ye’ll ‘ave to travel directly to London, and catch yer aunt an’ ‘er ‘usband before they set sail,” Libby replied.

“What better chance ‘ave ye got?” asked Miss Harper.

A lump of fear congealed in Alexandra’s stomach because she knew Miss Harper and the others were right. Aunt Pauline might be her only hope. But what if the manager at Fobart’s refused her and told Willy what she had done? What if she didn’t make it to London in time?

She shuddered at the memory of the beating she’d received the last time she’d gotten the crazy idea to escape her stepfather, but slowly, she nodded and gave the others a shaky smile. Though the risks of their plan were great, it offered her a chance at freedom. A very slim chance. “All right,” she said at last. “I’ll try it.”

* * *

Nathaniel Kent strode boldly to the bow, his good arm gripping a rope cable to help him keep his balance on the heaving deck, the other arm hanging useless at his side. The thrill of the chase surged through his body, heightening his senses and causing his heart to pound within his chest. His quarry was close to surrendering. It had to be. The merchant brig had tried to run, but there was no escaping the sleek, fast-cutting Royal Vengeance , not on a day like this, when the sun was high in the sky, the water as smooth as satin, and the wind as steady as a camel plodding through the desert.

Still, Nathaniel wondered why the Nightingale didn’t return their fire; he knew she carried at least four thirty-two-pound cannons.

“What’s going on?” Mystified, he turned to Trenton, his lanky first mate.

Trenton shrugged. “Damned if I can say. I know we come as quite a surprise, but even the first ship we took offered up a better fight than this.”

“Still, I don’t see a white flag.”

“Should we blast ‘em again?”

Nathaniel thought for a moment. “Aye, maybe a direct hit will convince them.”

The deafening roar of cannon clamored above the shouts of his men as four twenty-five-pound steel balls plunged into the sea somewhere near the stern of the Nightingale, sending large, drenching sprays of seawater across her decks. Smoke obscured Nathaniel’s view but soon cleared, rising like the ascension of a million ghosts.

“We got ‘er!” someone cried.

A chorus of cheers resounded.

Nathaniel glanced back over his shoulder. His men were busy cleaning cannon muzzles so they could reload. He doubted such action would be necessary. Since the invention of the steam engine, pirates were a thing of the past, but the tales of their bygone era were not forgotten. Any good sailor could recount, and usually did, at least a dozen hair-raising stories supposedly experienced by someone in his ancestral tree.

Banking on the fear those tales engendered, Nathaniel knew it would only be a matter of time before the Nightingale surrendered. He smiled, enjoying the feel of the deck moving beneath his feet, the wind rushing through his hair, even the smell of battle—especially the smell of battle, for it brought him that much closer to his goal.

“There’s the flag,” Richard shouted, pointing toward the other ship. As unpredictable as a wild boar and twice as mad, Richard had been a member of Nathaniel’s crew for less than a year. “We got the bloody bastards!”

Nathaniel turned to look. Sure enough, a white flag rippled wildly in the afternoon wind, hoisted high on the brig’s main mast. “Good girl,” he murmured to himself. “Now for your cargo.”

Moving quickly, he headed to the side of the ship where his men lowered a boat. He heard it splash in the water only seconds before he climbed over the side and jumped in. Trenton stayed behind to take charge of the Vengeance, but Richard and Tiny, a man the size of a bear, came with him.

Nathaniel listened to the rhythmic slap of the oars hitting the water as Tiny pulled for the other ship. The whine of voices from the Nightingale shifted on the wind. He couldn’t determine the words, but he could guess that expressions of surprise and dismay were chief among them.

When they reached her hull, Nathaniel turned to his men. “Are you ready?”

“I’m as eager as a sailor with his first woman,” Richard exclaimed. The barrel-chested Tiny merely nodded.

Surprise lighted the old man’s pale blue eyes. “How did you know who owned—”

“Let’s go.”

Nathaniel scaled the rope that dangled to the water, climbing with the ease and grace that came only from experience, despite his bad arm. He was the first to stretch his long legs on deck. Richard and Tiny came behind.

An older man with iron-gray hair and long sideburns, evidently the captain of the Nightingale, separated himself from his crew almost immediately. He wore a new frock coat, but his face and hands were as crusty and battered as an old sea chest. “What in damnation do you think you’re doing, firing on this ship?” he asked.

Nathaniel hesitated before making his reply, letting silence establish his dominance better than any amount of talking could ever do.

Evidently the Nightingale carried passengers. Trunks, stacked in front of the artillery in great rows several feet deep, rendered the cannon useless in an emergency, making it little wonder that the other ship hadn’t returned the Vengeance’s fire.

“I’ll have an answer.”

Turning back, Nathaniel focused on the man who addressed him. “You’re hardly in a position to make demands,” he said smoothly, motioning toward the plethora of baggage stowed in front of the cannons and allowing his lips to curl into a smile.

The captain’s face reddened. “You’re a fool if you’re doing what I think you’re doing. There haven’t been pirates in these waters for nearly thirty years, and for damn good reason.”

Nathaniel’s smile turned cold as he let the hostility that smoldered inside him show in his eyes.

“Considering your vulnerable situation, I’d certainly be careful who I called a fool, Captain—”

“Merriweather. Captain Thaddaeus C. Merriweather, and I’ve likely been sailing since before you were born.” The old gentleman opened his mouth to say more, then clamped it shut again, obviously struggling to contain the emotions that occasioned this unwelcome boarding.

“I am Dragonslayer,” Nathaniel replied. He was tempted to chuckle at the name, but he could hardly identify himself. Sobering, he scanned the faces of the Nightingale’s crew once again. He didn’t want any surprises. Captain Merriweather behaved like a proud old tar, and his men, collectively a hodgepodge of whiskers, tattoos, and handmade clothing, looked almost as tough.

Nathaniel wondered how they would have reacted had passengers and their attendant baggage not been a consideration.

“I’m glad you were sensible enough to surrender before there was any loss of life or limb,” Nathaniel said. “Especially because I mean no harm to your passengers or your crew. That is to say, we will harm no one as long as you cooperate,” he clarified, liking the old man in spite of himself.

Obviously a relic from the old school, Merriweather cared about duty and honor. Men like him were

entirely too rare. Captain Merriweather’s chest expanded as if to draw one last breath before hearing the worst of it.

“Providing your requests are within reason, we’ll cooperate,” he said reluctantly.

“Your destination is?”

“Liverpool.”

“As I thought. Your men will stand aside and keep all passengers out of the way. Some of my crew will board and unload what we can carry of your cargo. When we have what we want, we will leave.

Peacefully.” Nathaniel gave the man a benign smile. “You will then be free to repair your ship and continue on your way. And of course, to carry the tale of our visit to your benefactor, the most fearsome and noble Duke of Greystone.”

Surprise lighted the old man’s pale blue eyes. “How did you know who owned—”

“I make it my business to know,” Nathaniel interrupted. He turned to Richard. “Send the signal.”

* * *

On the deck of the pirate ship, Nathaniel braced against the roll and pitch of the waves, listening to the hoots and hollers of his crew as they celebrated their victory. Rum flowed freely among them as first Richard, then his brother John, toasted everything from the speed of the Vengeance to Nathaniel’s estranged father, the very nobleman they had just confounded.

Nathaniel shook his head when Trenton brought him a mug. “Nay, I’ll not ask for a throbbing head come morning,” he laughed. “I’m sure the rest of you will drink enough for me.”

“Come on. ‘Tis only our third ship. Certainly you’ve got a bit of celebrating left in you.”

Nathaniel smiled and relented, taking the proffered cup. “To future successes,” he said, and another cheer burst from those who heard him.

“To Mary. We owe what success we’ve had to her,” Richard added.

Lifting his cup high, Nathaniel took a long sip of the warm brew, then reached out to stop Richard before he could volunteer yet another toast. “Speaking of Mary,” he said to the burly, redheaded Scotsman, “when do we learn the position of our next target?”

Richard’s freckled face took on a mournful pout. “Ah, Mary. I’m afraid the lass is being a wee bit stubborn.”

“What do you mean?” Nathaniel asked in alarm. “You said she’d do anything for money.”

“Och, well.” Richard looked longingly into his drink, as though reluctant to be sidetracked at this particular juncture. “Now she claims the money does her little good. She can’t spend it, or her father will know she’s up to something and give her a thrashing.”

“Why did you not mention this before?”

“Because I think she’ll still help us. She just wants something more than money, ye ken?”

“Like what?”

Richard exchanged a look with his brother John, who had come to stand beside them, before turning back to Nathaniel. “She wants to meet you.”

“What, does she think I can simply ring the front bell at Bridlewood and introduce myself?” Nathaniel asked.

Richard shook his head, apparently taking Nathaniel’s words at face value. “I’d not ask you to do that. Just come with me once. That’s all it would take.”

“But why does she want to meet me?”

“She’s heard rumblings among the older servants about your mother, and you, and she says she wants to know that you’re real.”

“No doubt she wants to have something to gossip about,” John put in. “She ain’t but seventeen or eighteen. Her days get long in that big house with nothing to break them up but a spot of tea and a juicy tidbit. What else could she want with you? She’s in this as deep as we are. If the duke ever discovers that she’s been stealing his controller’s books and schedules, and letting us take a look, he’ll send her to Newgate right along with us.” He grimaced at the reminder of prison. “Still I, for one, understand if you think it’s an unnecessary risk.”

Richard glanced at his brother. “I’d say Mary’s made it necessary enough. Unless we find another way to get the information we need, we’re out of a job. And nothing could be more simple than what we got going—”

“Of course Richard doesn’t want to lose Mary. He likes what she gives him along with the information,” John exclaimed.

Richard laughed, but Nathaniel didn’t find anything to do with his father amusing. “So what do you suggest?” he asked Richard. He had visited the duke’s lavish Clifton estate only once, when he was seven, but that day held enough painful memories to last him a lifetime. He had no wish to probe the wound.

“Mary always meets me in the woods near the pond. She can’t read so she brings the books with her. It takes me a few minutes to find out what we need to know, then I pay her and send her on her way… or I would if you were with me,” Richard added with a devilish grin.

Nathaniel thought for a moment. It wouldn’t be easy to replace Mary. As one of the housemaids, she had access to every room in Bridlewood Manor. And being uneducated, she remained above suspicion. “Very well, when we put in at Bristol, send her a message telling her I’ll come.”

Turning and finding Trenton gone, Nathaniel left Tiny and John to their revelry and went below, where his first mate was already scratching numbers in a large black book.

“Not bad,” Trenton said as Nathaniel entered the captain’s cabin. “Eighty crates of tobacco. Should bring a good price.”

Nathaniel didn’t answer. He was still thinking about Mary and Bridlewood and, as always, his father. “What?” he asked, glancing up.

“I said, according to the ledgers, we’re doing well. If every ship goes like the Nightingale and the one we took a few days ago, it won’t be long before we’re both rich.”

Nathaniel smiled. Rich had a pleasant ring to it. Not that he knew from experience. Before Martha was killed, he had grown up in a small shack with her sister, Beatrice, and Bee’s eight children.

Bee’s husband had run off after the birth of their last son—Nathaniel had never known why—but the formula of so many living off so few, namely Martha, destined all to a life of poverty. Though he loathed thinking of it, Nathaniel would never forget the hard, stale bread, the cold winter days without any coal, and the dark nights when they’d been too poor to buy candles.

Yes, Nathaniel thought, if one couldn’t be loved, one could at least be warm, comfortable, and full, always. “But it won’t be this easy for long,” he replied. “These ships were no challenge because their crews hadn’t any prior warning. They were at sea before we took our first ship. But word will have gone out now, and things will begin to change.”

Trenton grunted. “Nothing ever stays easy for long.”

“Like Mary, for instance.” Nathaniel stretched out on his bed, propping his arm behind his head.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Trenton’s face showed concern.

“She wants to meet me.”

His first mate’s chair scraped the floor as he shoved the ledgers away and stood up. “Don’t tell me you’re going to go along with that. If your father catches you at Bridlewood—”

“I know, but we can’t lose her. Our whole operation depends on the information she gives us.”

“To hell with the operation. You go to Bridlewood, and your life will depend on her, too.”

Nathaniel shrugged and gave Trenton a grin. “You, my friend, have a problem with trust.”

* * *

The hilltop village of Clifton, famous for its pure air and picturesque vistas of the Severn estuary and the Welsh hills, sat one mile to the west of Bristol, high above the River Frome. Nathaniel had long admired its beauty, and he was not alone. Some of Bristol’s wealthiest residents, most of them Quakers, owned homes in Clifton.

Nathaniel smiled as he memorized the schedule for the following two weeks, but the smile froze on Nathaniel and Richard made their way through Bristol, up to Clifton, and then to the duke’s country estate where they waited by the pond to meet Mary. They stood in silence, patting the noses of their hired mounts to keep them quiet, as the moon’s light peeked through the crooked branches of the many oak trees surrounding the water. Mary was supposed to arrive at midnight, but it was well past that, and Nathaniel was becoming uneasy.

“Does she usually come on time?” He tried to see through the trunks and limbs and leaves that completely blocked his view of the house.

“She’s not the most punctual girl I’ve ever met,” Richard responded. “But then, she’s never in much of a hurry to get back, either, ye ken?”

Nathaniel saw the gleam of Richard’s teeth as his mouth spread into a smile. “I’d find another maid to dally with, if I were you,” he replied. “There’s no telling what my father would do if he found you here. He’s certainly not a man of conscience.”

“You worry too much,” Richard said. “How could he prove my connection to you?”

“Entirely too easily. You’re not nameless and faceless when you board his ships, you know—”

The snap of a twig made Nathaniel fall silent. Someone was coming. His eyes bored into the darkness, but still he jumped when Mary popped out of the trees behind them.

“‘Ere I am,” she laughed. “Did I scare ye?”

Nathaniel didn’t answer. Mary was a wiry young girl with medium-brown hair and a heart-shaped face. She had sharp little teeth and a flat, shapeless figure, nothing much to recommend her, but Richard gave her a hug.

“Did you miss me?”

“No, an’ I know better than to believe ye missed me.” She laughed again, her eyes turning to Nathaniel with apparent interest. “Oooo, ye did bring ‘im. But ye never told me ‘e was so ‘andsome.”

“That’s because he’s an ugly bloke in the light,” Richard responded. “His hair’s as black as one of those American savages everyone talks about, not the flaming red of me own, and while I admit his eyes are blue, they sometimes look as pale as ice. You should see him when he gets angry, which I must admit, he does, and entirely too often.”

Nathaniel couldn’t resist a smile at this quick accounting of his attributes, or lack of them, but he hadn’t come to be inspected like a horse. He was ready to get hold of the heavy book Mary hugged to her breast, and doubly eager to be away from Bridlewood.

“Well, ‘e wouldn’t be ‘is father’s son if ‘e didn’t ‘ave a temper,” Mary responded. “The duke’s been a miserable soul ever since the two of ye took that first ship. I can scarcely keep a straight face when ‘e starts rantin’. I swear, the mention of ye makes ‘im apo—apo… what’s the word?”

“Apoplectic,” Nathaniel replied dryly, deriving a small bit of pleasure from picturing his arrogant father out of his mind with rage.

“That’s it. ‘E’s apoplectic near ‘alf the time.”

Nathaniel felt the maid’s hand on his forearm.

“But ‘ow did ye get so tall?” she asked. “Yer a full ‘ead taller than yer father.”

“Perhaps I’ve my mother to thank,” Nathaniel responded. “May I?” He put his hand out for the book she still held to her flat chest, and finally she shrugged and relinquished it.

“‘E’s in an awful ‘urry,” she remarked to Richard, a grimace claiming her plain face.

Nathaniel quickly lit one of the candles he had brought in his pack and laid the book open, searching for the information he needed. The pages were filled with the names of ships, the dates, times, and locations of their departures, their destinations, even a list of their anticipated cargo. his face when he heard voices, men’s voices, coming through the trees.

Nathaniel smiled as he memorized the schedule for the following two weeks, but the smile froze on his face when he heard voices, men’s voices, coming through the trees.

“There’s someone at the pond,” a stranger shouted, “Come on!”

Running feet pounded the ground, making apprehension prickle down Nathaniel’s spine. Whoever it was, they were close. And they were coming closer still.

He glanced up to see a look of shock, then fear cross Mary’s face. Snapping the book closed, he shoved it into her arms and pushed her back into the cover of the trees. “Run,” he whispered. “Go back another way and return this. The sound of our horses will draw them after us and keep you safe for a bit, but you must hurry.”

Nathaniel leaped onto his horse as Richard did the same, then he glanced around, wondering which direction to go. The water was on one side, their pursuers were on the other, and he had no idea what he might encounter in front or behind him.

“How do we get out of here?” he asked Richard.

Richard shrugged and pointed. “I’ll go this way, you go that way. We’ll meet back at the tavern, where Trenton is waiting for us.” Then he dashed away, leaving Nathaniel to charge ahead in the direction specified and to pray they could both escape.

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