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Chapter One

Catherine Peters stood in the shadow of the inn, enjoying the bustle of the busy quayside all around her. Noise and activity was everywhere. The stevedores’ shouts competed with the rum-fueled shanties from half a dozen taverns on the dockside. Hawkers and whores pitched for business and the air was heavy with the scent of sweat and sweet fruits.

The busyness today was caused by the arrival of the Bounteous Lady on this morning’s tide. It had coasted into the port as if it owned the whole island, regal and proud despite the obvious damage to its starboard side. It flew no flag, but no-one doubted that the skull and crossed bones had been in place just hours before, and judging by how heavily the ship sat in the water, it had just returned from a very profitable journey.

Within a few minutes of docking, the crew was unloading the hold’s contents onto the quayside. Several dozen barrels and wooden cases were hauled off the ship before being passed to stevedores and carried further into the town. Meanwhile a handful of shipwrights and sail-makers were busily inspecting the damage to the ship itself and starting to make some repairs.

Despite all this activity, Catherine’s eyes were drawn to the stillness of the Lady’s poop deck. The ship’s captain stood there directing his crew. He was completely motionless, moving only to bark out occasional orders or admonish a tardy sailor. Even from this distance she could feel the confidence and total command that exuded from him. He was tall with dark hair that hung to his shoulders and a look of firm concentration fixed on his face. Sunlight gleamed off the buckles on his belt and bandoleers, and a silk shirt and well-cut white breeches showed him to be a man of expensive tastes. Her eyes roved over his muscular physique and drank in the way the men obeyed his every word as if it were law. This was a real man, she decided. A man who was born to lead, not like the simpering accountants and businessmen her father insisted on trying to match her up with.

The captain’s name was Thomas Bellamy. At least, that was what he went by when he was on land. The whispers were that at sea he was the famed Black Falcon. Catherine felt a twinge of excitement shoot through her. A real life pirate captain, barely thirty yards from her! Tortuga was hardly a quiet town, but a man like Bellamy with his swagger and raw animal confidence felt a long way from her own sheltered upbringing.

The Bounteous Lady and her captain had come to Tortuga several times over the last few years, she knew. So far Bellamy had stuck to the same routine. He would take a day to supervise the unloading of his ship, then invite a motley collection of Tortuga’s finest fences of stolen goods to dinner. They would each arrive with a bulging coin purse, and leave a few hours later with a full belly and the smile of a contented businessman.

Later that night Bellamy would pay off his crew, placing a gold sovereign in each hand, or sometimes two for those who had been injured seriously in their most recent voyage. And for a few days the taverns and whorehouses of Tortuga would resound to the sounds of a crew with money to burn and months of celibacy to put out of their minds.

No one knew what Bellamy did for that week while his men caroused. He certainly didn’t join them in the cheap waterfront taverns. But after a week, or perhaps two, he would stand proudly on the dockside once more, his money pouch now noticeably bulging as it swung from his belt, and loudly proclaim that he was hiring for a new crew.

In her wildest dreams, Catherine had imagined herself joining the line of sailors on the dockside as Bellamy walked slowly up and down, looking each man in the eye and picking out his crew for the next voyage. Of course, she knew that could never happen. No self-respecting sailor, much less a fearsome pirate captain, would knowingly let a woman join the crew. Women were bad luck on board ship. They brought storms and mutinies, and if they absolutely had to be allowed aboard then they should stay below decks until land was spotted once more.

Catherine didn’t believe such nonsense, of course, but many sailors did, and even the most enlightened captain had to tread carefully when dealing with his crew’s superstitions. Not that she imagined for an instant that Bellamy was enlightened in any way. She had heard the stories. He may be handsome and well dressed but he was also a ruthless pirate. And everyone knew what pirates did with young maidens like her.

She sighed. If she had been born a boy, she would have had no problems getting a job on board ship, and escaping this island that had been her home since she was a girl. Instead, she was trapped here until she finally admitted defeat and agreed to marry one of the many dull suitors that came to visit her.

That was why she was here now, wasting time gazing longingly at an unobtainable pirate captain. She was putting off meeting another boring merchant’s son that her father had invited around for dinner. She glanced up at the old clock tower that dominated the Tortuga skyline. It was nearly five o’clock. She sighed again. She really should be heading back now. Her father might be a dreary old man, but he was a stickler for time-keeping, and she’d rather not spend the evening with a sore backside from his slipper if he caught her sneaking in late again.

She looked over at Captain Bellamy one more time before hitching up her skirts and running back up the hill to her father’s townhouse. If only her father could introduce her to someone who was at least a fraction of the man that Bellamy was. All the confidence and power, but without the cruel streak would do her just fine. But in her heart she knew he wouldn’t. It would just be a long line of dull but worthy suitors until she gave in or somehow managed to escape this island.

***

Catherine pushed the last few morsels of food around her plate as the conversation droned on around her.

“…don’t you think, Catherine?”

She looked up with a start. “Oh, yes, I suppose so.”

Her father gave her a stern look before turning back to the rather serious looking young man sitting opposite her. “My apologies, Mr. Winterton. My daughter has been hard at work today learning the business, and is rather tired.” He flicked his eyes back to Catherine again, as if daring her to contradict him before he continued. “Despite her rather non-committal response,” he said, “she is fascinated by the world of marine insurance and would be delighted to hear your thoughts on it in more detail another time. Isn’t that right, Catherine?”

“Yes, father,” she said, stifling a yawn. In fact, she could think of few things she’d less like to do.

Of course, this was another one of her father’s matchmaking efforts. As usual, the man he was trying to set her up with was almost entirely lacking in charisma. His dress shirt was impeccable if uninspiring, and a rather preposterous attempt at a moustache lay across his top lip. She could probably have overlooked all of that if his conversation had veered for even one minute from his ship insurance business. He had talked about it incessantly and in great detail since he had sat down, always in a rather nasal monotone that set Catherine’s teeth on edge.

“Well,” said the young man, still in that monotone, “I am sure there will be plenty of time for that once we are married.

What?”This was the first she had heard of marriage. What had her father agreed to? She glared at her father with as much venom as she could muster.

“Catherine, please. Nothing is yet agreed.”

“But it will be soon enough, my love,” said Winterton. “Your father and mine are near to agreeing to a suitable arrangement.”

Your love?”She was livid. “I am not your love. I only met you this evening, and I’m sure my father would never agree to such a thing without telling me!”

“It’s hardly the first time we have met, Miss Peters. Surely you remember the Governor’s Ball last summer, or that lovely dinner at the Marshalls’ townhouse last Christmastide?”

She stared at him dumbfounded for a moment. Had they met at the ball? Perhaps they had, but it had clearly left more of an impression on him than it had on her. Not that it mattered. She needed her father to tell this young man that there was no way they would be marrying.

“Tell him, father. Tell him that you wouldn’t arrange my marriage to a complete stranger without talking to me first.”

Her father just stared back at her for a moment, as if unsure quite what to say. Had he really agreed to marry her off without talking to her at all? He was just opening his mouth to reply when he was interrupted by a loud and insistent banging on the front door.

In a heartbeat her father’s expression changed completely. The uncertainty was gone, and in its place was an expression Catherine had seen only a few times before. Was that an edge of fear in his eyes?

He pushed his chair back and called out for Rebecca, their maid, to get the door. He then turned back slowly to Winterton. “I am sorry, Mr. Winterton, but I’m afraid that I shall have to call an early end to our evening.”

Winterton coughed slightly, clearly taken aback by the interruption. “I hope nothing is amiss, Mr. Peters. I was having such a pleasant meal.”

“No, nothing. It is merely a business associate. He has a rather distinctive knock, does he not? If he has come here at this hour, and completely unannounced, then I can only assume that it is an urgent matter. I would hate for you to be waiting here for hours while I tend to business. I will get you your coat, and make arrangements to see your father again of the morrow.”

Rebecca opened the door to the dining room, her dark hair framing her face in the doorway. “It’s Mr. Bellamy, sir. And he is most insistent on seeing you.”

“Yes, yes, of course it is, Rebecca. Only he knocks so boldly like that on the door when there is a perfectly serviceable bell-pull available. Just… keep him entertained in the parlor while I wish Mr. Winterton a good night and gather my papers from the study.”

Rebecca flushed for a moment. “Yes, sir. I’ll see that he is well tended for. I have already laid Mr. Winterton’s coat on the dresser by the door.”

Her father’s voice softened for a moment. “Thank you, Rebecca. You are a life-saver, as always.”

Rebecca ducked back out the room, leaving the three of them alone once more. Catherine stared at her father. Had Rebecca really said that Captain Bellamy was here? What sort of business could her father possibly have with a man like Bellamy?

Her father was already bustling Winterton out of the dining room and into the hallway when he turned briefly back to her. “Go up to your room, Catherine, and stay there until I tell you to come down. We will finish our conversation later.”

She waited a few moments for her father to show Winterton out before leaving the dining room herself. The hallway was deserted. Winterton had gone and her father had obviously headed to his study to prepare some papers.

Suddenly, the quiet of the house was broken by the sound of a loud slap coming from the parlor, followed by a giggle. It must have been where Rebecca had taken Bellamy to “entertain” him until her father was ready. She could only imagine what a man like Bellamy would take as entertainment. Her mind filled with images of the handsome pirate standing over Rebecca preparing to have his wicked way with her.

She knew that she should head up to her room as her father had instructed her, but curiosity got the better of her. She crept up to the parlor door and put her ear to it. Whatever Bellamy and Rebecca were doing in there, they were certainly making a racket. There was another slapping sound and a short shriek from Rebecca followed by what sounded like a moan of pleasure.

“Easy now, Captain. It’s been a while.”

“It’s been longer for me, wench. Six months at sea with no woman for company… the only downside to a pirate’s life!”

She heard another slap, and another. The cracks of hand against flesh resounded around the house. Catherine put her hand on the door handle. Should she interrupt them? It certainly sounded like Bellamy was spanking Rebecca, or worse, but… judging by the noises Rebecca was making, she wasn’t exactly resisting.

Whatever it was they were doing, Catherine found herself wishing that it was her, not Rebecca, who was entertaining the captain in that small parlor.

“Catherine!”

She twisted her head around in surprise to see her father standing in the study doorway looking at her. “I told you to go to your room. Go! Our guest is no man to be trifled with.”

“Yes, father.” She turned and headed up the stairs as he asked. Not that she intended to stay in her room. Not when there were so many unanswered questions. Was her father really planning on marrying her to Winterton? And what possible reason could a man like Bellamy have for visiting this house?

She reached the landing at the top of the stairs and stopped for a moment, hiding in the shadows out of her father’s sight. From her vantage point she had a perfect view of her father hovering before the parlor door. He coughed loudly before slowly opening the door.

A few seconds later Rebecca came out, looking rather disheveled but with a happy flush on her cheeks. Catherine bit her lip nervously. Whatever they had been doing in there, Rebecca had certainly been enjoying it.

Then a few moments later her father and Bellamy crossed the small hallway to the study. Bellamy’s dark hair hung rakishly over the collar of a scarlet coat. His knee-length boots had rows of silver buckles up the side that sparkled in the firelight, and a feathered tricorn hat sat atop his head. Catherine’s breath caught in her throat. He looked every inch the pirate captain, both completely out of place here in her father’s house and yet completely in control.

He paused for a moment in the hallway and looked up the stairs towards where she was standing, almost completely hidden in the shadows. For a moment their eyes caught and she held his gaze. His eyes were piercing, and both cruel and tender at the same time. Then he smiled to himself and followed her father into the study. She slowly let out her breath. His smile had been so unexpected, as if he had sensed how completely she had been held captive by his gaze. It started a nervous tingle inside her.

If there had been any doubt in her mind that she wanted to know what Bellamy and her father were talking about, it disappeared in that moment. Her father was a merchant of the most dull kind – running a small fleet of ships around the Caribbean. He traded in the kinds of goods that people needed, but didn’t get excited by: food, clothes and sailors’ rum. He was respected in the industry, and she’d often heard him referred to as the only honest man in Tortuga. The kind of man that others told their secrets to. How could he have any business with a man like Bellamy?

As soon as the study door was closed, she ran back down the stairs and into the scullery. It was mercifully empty. Rebecca must have gone to her room after her encounter with Bellamy, which suited Catherine just fine.

She went to the front wall and heaved aside the empty barrel that lay there. On the other side was the wall, bleak and bare, and at eye height a small crack just wide enough to peer through. She had found the crack some time ago, but after the initial excitement of discovering a way of spying on her father in his private study, soon realized that he spent his time there doing little more than scribbling in his many ledgers and drinking the occasional glass of wine with friends. Now, finally, she had a good reason to use it.

It took her a moment to take in the scene before her. Her father and Bellamy stood either side of the desk, deep in conversation. Bellamy had his back to her, towering over her father, who had positioned himself behind his desk.

“I have asked you not to come here during daylight hours.”

“What, are you afraid that your oh-so-proper business associates will not approve? Honest William Peters and the pirate captain… quite the scandal!”

“You know that my business relies on my good name.”

“I am sure that your reputation for dull conformity is unimpeachable, no matter how many times I pay a visit.” Bellamy moved slowly around the desk until he loomed over Catherine’s father. “Now, shall we get to business? This is no social call. I have heard tale of the San Gabriel sailing for the Americas packed full of spices from the East. If that’s true, then I should very much like to pay my respect to her upon the waters, if you catch my meaning.”

“What you do with the information I give you is your business, Bellamy.” Catherine could hear a slight quiver in her father’s voice. He was scared of Bellamy, but he was trying his hardest not to show it.

“Do you have a copy of the shipping manifest?”

“For the San Gabriel and a dozen other ships due to be passing through these waters over the next few months. Do you have the payment?”

Bellamy smiled. “Of course. Thanks to the information you provided, my last venture was extremely profitable.” He pulled a large coin purse from his inside jacket pocket and dropped it down onto the desk with a loud thunk.

Her father picked it up and peered inside. “It seems to be in order.”

Bellamy laughed. “Of course it’s in order. And there’s even an extra ten percent in there for your troubles. Remember, I reward those who serve me well. Now, where are the manifests?”

Her father reached into his desk drawer and brought out a small bundle of papers, handing them over to Bellamy and sitting back in his chair. “I think you’ll find everything you need in there.”

Bellamy just nodded and flicked through the papers until he reached the one he was searching for, pulling it out and spreading it across the desk. “Ah yes, the San Gabriel. So the rumors I heard were true. She set sail from Cadiz with…” He let a low whistle escape his lips in appreciation of what he read. “That is a lot of spice for one ship. The haul of a lifetime. Enough to set a man up for good, if he can get the right price. And if she set sail on time then I might still be able to catch her.” He rolled the papers back up briskly and tucked them into his inside pocket. “I’ll set sail on the tide tomorrow morning.”

“I told you, I don’t want to know.”

Bellamy smiled again. “No, but you will want to know when I next plan on visiting you. Because it may be some time. With a shipment this large and this traceable, I may have to go all the way back to England to find someone willing and able to take it off my hands.”

“I will keep an eye for the Bounteous Lady whenever you arrive back here.”

“Excellent. Then maybe next time you will let me meet this daughter of yours that I hear so much about. I see that you have secreted her away again.”

Bellamy had turned now to look at the large portrait of Catherine and her father that hung on the wall of his study. “And from what I can see, she really is quite the beauty. I could imagine that a pirate captain like me could fall for her charms quite easily.”

“Please, Mr. Bellamy, don’t taunt an old man like this. My daughter will be married before you return to Tortuga.”

“Really? That is a shame. Who to?”

“Master Winterton, the actuary.”

“That dry young fart? You know, he makes even you seem interesting by comparison. Well, it can’t be helped, I suppose. The heart chooses odd companions sometimes.”

“Her heart has nothing to do with it. This is a business dealing. And she must learn to love him if she can. Or not. It matters little.”

Catherine pulled back from the crack in the wall as if hit by a mallet. She felt as though she had been hit by two body blows in as many minutes. First, it seemed that her father was not quite the upright merchant that he had always pretended to be. And second, she could hardly believe it. Her father was planning on marrying her off to Winterton regardless of what she wanted.

She allowed herself to slump down to the ground as the realization sunk in. If she stayed here she would be married off and condemned to a life as an actuary’s wife within a year. She couldn’t allow that to happen.

It was then that a plan formed in her mind. It was probably the rashest, most ridiculous plan that she had ever had. She needed to act quickly, before her father suspected anything.

It would take her a few hours to find the things she needed, and probably most of the night to get herself ready, but if it could save her from a lifetime as Mrs. Winterton, the actuary’s wife, then it would be worth it.

***

Catherine skidded to a halt on the quayside alongside the few dozen men and boys who were already there, arraying themselves in a raggedy line facing the Bounteous Lady. A few of them looked up to acknowledge her arrival, but most kept their eyes fixed on the Lady’s poop deck where Bellamy stood, hands on hips.

She took a moment to catch her breath, but was relieved to discover that Bellamy hadn’t started his speech yet. She looked around at the sailors beside her. To her left was a flea-bitten old seadog dressed in faded leather breeches and a blue cloth shirt. He had the look of someone who had spent the last of his money on grog last night and was now looking for a way to earn some more. Perhaps he had even been one of Bellamy’s crew when he sailed in, and had already spent his whole two sovereigns.

To her right was a young boy of about fourteen. She looked him up and down. Something about him just screamed runaway. His boots were just too clean, and his clothes just too well tailored for him to have been brought up here in the docklands. And if he had, Catherine would certainly have recognized him. Not that I’m in any place to judge him, she thought. If he wants to make up a life story to get himself on board ship, so be it.

Finally she looked down at herself. She had only had time for a quick look in the mirror before she made her escape. The binding around her chest felt slightly restrictive but did a good job of covering the shape of her breasts, and her long blonde hair was tied up beneath a bandana. She had adjusted and readjusted the shirt and breeches before being finally content that they were baggy enough to hide the curve of her hips and legs. With a few smudges of dirt on her face to downplay her cheekbones, she looked every inch the young boy she was impersonating.

Just then she heard Bellamy’s voice resounding across the dockside. He had come down from the poop deck and was now striding down the plank to the quay until he stood before them, tall and proud, like a seafaring Adonis. His long hair hung down to his shoulders, and the muscles in his arms pressed against the material of his shirt. Every eye was on him and every man stood to attention as if he were a general or king.

Behind Bellamy and to his right stood an even taller man, his face gnarled and hoary, evidence of a lifetime at sea. Clearly Bellamy’s second in command, he had nothing of the captain’s muscular grace or charm about him, just pure brawn. Catherine took an instant dislike to the man. Here was someone to avoid on board.

“I need men for my ship,” said Bellamy. “Men who are willing to give their lives and souls for the Bounteous Lady. Men who do not fear the lash and will not shrink in the face of a cutlass or a musket. Men who seek their fortune, wherever that may lead. I am seeking men who will follow me wherever I take them, whether that is to a sea of emeralds or a hangman’s noose.” He paused for a moment to let his words sink in. “If you are not such a man, you should step aside now.” He waited for a moment to see whether anyone moved. No one did.

“Good. Then I will choose the best of you. I need twenty more men to fill my crew.” He paced up and down the line, staring each sailor in the eyes. Eventually he tapped one on the shoulder and motioned for him to head up the gangplank to the Bounteous Lady. Then he tapped another on the shoulder, and another. Catherine couldn’t help but mentally count as he did so. He had chosen thirteen, now fourteen. Still he headed down the line towards her.

Eighteen men. Now nineteen. And finally he was standing before her. The young lad who stood to her right, was shifting nervously from foot to foot.

“I need a new cabin boy, so one of you two is in luck.” He looked the other boy up and down before moving to Catherine and frowning slightly.

“Don’t I know you from somewhere, boy?” His voice was low.

“I don’t think so, sir. Unless you saw me in The Ship Inn. I’m new to Tortuga. I’m from Saint-Marc.”

“You’re quite fair-skinned for a Haitian.”

“My father came from England ten years ago.”

“Which explains the accent as well.”

“Yes, sir.”

“An English boy. Well brought up. Wet behind the ears though, I’ll bet. Why would you want to be on board on a ship like this?”

“It’s my dream, sir, since I was a young boy.”

“We’ll see.” His eyes flicked over her one more time before he seemed to reach a decision. “You’ve got your chance, boy. Get on board. We sail within the hour.”

 


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