North Carolina, May 1718
Celeste sneered at the object of her hatred. The pirate captain—Blackbeard. Tall and confident in the dimming daylight, he gripped the hilt of his sword as he debated with the greedy merchant.
“Ye’ll have more than enough profit,” Blackbeard snorted. “And ye’ll see no better price from the British.” The hand on the sword flexed. “Take it or leave it.”
The merchant rubbed his hands together nervously for several seconds. “Done.”
Blackbeard’s reputation was well-known. He intimidated anyone who looked upon him, including her. But her anger was strong, her hurt raw.
Her hands squeezed into fists. Fingertips itched to embed a dagger into Blackbeard’s chest, but only after he revealed the whereabouts of his treasure. One day I will be the thing he fears. Her stomach clutched with the murderous thoughts. A lady would not think such things. There was surely no hope for salvation.
“Come on, Cecil,” Gruber, the bo’sun barked. “There be work to be done, boy.”
“Aye,” she grunted.
Bare-chested, with a knife strapped to each bicep and a cutlass hanging at his hip, the bo’sun yelled too much and stank of scented oils they’d lifted from a British frigate. Like the rest of the haggard crew, he believed her to be a lad who’d lost his family and land during the War of Spanish Succession, a deception required to get on board ship. How she'd managed, filled her with amazement and a certain measure of dread.
Trudging up the plank to grab another sack, she narrowed eyes on the blackguard captain. The torches mounted on the rail kept back the darkness of night, but not the darkness in her heart.
“Gruber,” Blackbeard bellowed in a deep-timbered voice.
Celeste unsteadily heaved another sack to her shoulder, hiding her face as she passed the heartless pirate and his thunderous glare.
“Aye, Cap’n,” Gruber replied.
“I wish to make way afore we lose the tide.” Blackbeard lifted his nose into the salty air. “A storm is brewing. We needs be gone afore it arrives.”
“Yes, Cap’n. Move yer arses, lads. Blackbeard wants to set sail,” Gruber hollered.
And I want to see Blackbeard swinging from the mast on a short rope. Celeste kept the thought to herself, but the imagery in her head was vivid.
Blackbeard took his sloop Adventure and slipped out of port. He made haste in returning to the Queen Anne’s Revenge, the lead ship in his armada which sat anchored in the distance, silently awaiting his return.
The stench of dung rose from the hold where the livestock shifted restlessly. Four swivel guns on the plundered ship pointed at the dock. The trigger-happy pirates itched to fire upon the small contingent of armed townsfolk standing guard.
Sweat beaded her forehead as she grabbed one side of a barrel of flour, and another pirate the other. They set it at the top of the plank, and she rolled it to the deck and down to the accumulating contraband. Other members of the crew lowered boards by pulley into the hold to unload the traumatized livestock. During the voyage, she’d slipped unnoticed into the hold as often as possible to care for and soothe the animals.
One crew member handed over two jittery goats. She took the lasso and guided them to a young lad who waited anxiously on the dock.
Hours of relentless hauling caused a backache. Grainy eyes itched. Rubbing them caused blurred vision. Even the cramped quarters on the sloop and a threadbare hammock sounded good to her right now.
“One barrel left to unload,” Gruber said. “Get it done so we can haul anchor.”
Celeste rolled the last barrel to the dock, and the townsfolk scurried away with the goods. Blessedly alone, she glanced at the ship where the others readied to leave.
An eerie calm stilled the air. Her salty lips thinned. Shaking off the jitters, she breathed in a dose of fresh air before heading back to the ship.
A shadow moved in the corner of her eye then a dagger pressed against her throat piercing the skin. A trickle of warm blood dripped down her neck. The assailant looked like a cloud of peat smoke bundled into a person. Its black eyes had no substance.
Bedtime stories her papa used to tell her about wicked magickal creatures that snuck up on children at night played through her head. “What are you?” she said.
A crackling rumble came from him as he raised the other hand which held some sort of small pick. No doubt he meant to stab her with it. Celeste kicked out, catching him off guard. She dropped to the ground grabbing for the dagger in her boot.
Before she could grasp the handle, a tall, striking man engaged the blackness. With the grace of a sword master, he twirled and sliced off the assailant’s arm then his head. The bedeviled creature disappeared. Her brain barely pieced together what had happened, certain her tired eyes were playing tricks. Mere seconds expired until she stared into the frowning countenance and turbulent, brandy-colored eyes of the stranger. He raised two fingers to her temple and pressed.
“Cecil,” the bo’sun called.
Celeste jumped, dazed, and looked around. Why was she still standing alone on the dock?
“Get your arse up here or be left to swim with the fishes. We be breaking way. Release the bowlines.”
“Aye, aye, Gruber,” she yelled and raced to slip the lines loose before they pulled the plank.
The hi-jacked schooner and Revenge, the smaller sister to the Queen Anne’s Revenge, joined the rest of the flotilla. If the wind held true, it would take two days to reach New Providence. Celeste prayed for good weather.
She varnished and tarred over the caulk used to repair holes in the hull of the ship. A sailor’s life left her with callused fingers and dry, sun-drenched skin—conditions an upstanding lady should not have. A wig and gloves helped, but the coloring on her face and neck were hard to conceal when she wore a gown. The socialite women often stared and giggled behind their fans. Celeste wiped the sweat from her forehead. It would be worth it in the end. She hoped.
“’Twas a good voyage, boy.” Gruber offered a grimy smile. “I canna wait to get me a woman, though. Too long at sea can addle a man.”
She was not ignorant of the ways of men and women. Too often, men from the village where she’d grown up seduced young women into their beds, or behind the bushes. Not her, though. She was invisible to men’s eyes with her less than ample bosom and narrow hips. “Will be good to sleep in a bed,” she replied.
Gruber nodded in agreement. He had been instrumental in teaching her to become a better sailor, and how to survive on a pirate ship. With shorn hair, bound chest, and breeches and shirt two sizes too big, she played the part. Sadly, he’d been the closest thing she’d ever had to a friend. She gazed longingly at the flag ship for the armada. Her ultimate goal was to earn her way onto the crew of the Queen Anne’s Revenge. Only then would she find the opportunity to slit Blackbeard’s throat.
Two days later, the flotilla anchored off the reef at New Providence, and smaller boats loaded with provisions rowed to shore. The process took most of the day. The quartermaster, Mr. Pesto, was honest and fair in the division of gems and coins between the crew. That’s why he held the job.
Pesto tossed her a bag of coins as her share of the haul. She saluted him and stuffed the bag into her waistband.
“Come on, boy.” Spearman shoved her sideways. “I will show you how to be a man.”
Every jack-man headed straight to the brothels and bars when the armada anchored at New Providence.
Celeste shivered and covered her distaste with a snicker. “Seeing you rut with a female would blind me for certain.”
The others laughed. They walked into the forest of palm and coconut trees with her right in the middle as the men spoke of their expectations for the evening’s exploits. She stayed at the tavern through one round of drinks. Her fellow pirates became enamored with the floxy women and more rum, so she snuck away at the earliest opportunity to the other side of the island and the town where she temporarily resided.
Surging relief plowed through her nerves at the site of her Aunt Adele’s house. A small stream of smoke billowed from the chimney of the narrow, two-story structure, and a single candle flickered in the window. Rafael and Beatrice awaited her return, and she couldn’t wait to see them.
They were more than the servants she’d brought from France. They were family, the only family she had left in this wretched world. In her heart of hearts, she felt duty bound to see their lives were not forfeit for attending her on this wild trek, and that they never wanted for anything again.
Raising a shaky hand, she lifted the knocker. Her instruction to Beatrice and Rafael was to always keep the door locked. Le Crosse no doubt had his people snooping around the property.
The door creaked open. “Pleased to see you home safely.” Rafael greeted her with a kiss on the back of the trembling hand and a wink.
“‘Tis good to be home.” Native French spilled from her mouth as the door closed.
“I took the liberty of setting up the bath in front of the fireplace upon news of the fleet’s arrival.”
She sighed. “A bath sounds lovely.”
“You are home,” Beatrice said excitedly and crushed her in a hug. Her round face flushed from the dash down the hallway.
“I have missed you both.” Celeste pulled the smelly shirt away from her body. “Please soak these distasteful clothes in lye.” Unfortunately, burning them was not an option.
Celeste smiled as she eased her aching body into the steaming water, cursing the man responsible for her being on this blasted island. She longed for the small French town where she’d been born, the life she’d once had. To see her mother smile at the knotted, uneven stitches Celeste had sewn into a cloth while attempting to master proper technique.
The worst part of being aboard ship—the filth. Freshwater ran out quickly, leaving no clean water to drink or wash, sometimes for weeks. The pirate crews plied themselves with rum often enough. She hoped it wouldn’t be much longer before she fulfilled her vow and ended this quest.
“Blackbeard,” she spat. The bastard trusted no one, so she’d been unable to accomplish her goal. She leaned her head against the side of the tub and sighed.
Her mother used to scold her for worrying too much. “A lady should not have worry lines,” her mother would say.
Tears filled her eyes. It had only been a few months since she’d lost her mother and started on this vengeful trek.
Of course, she had worried. The stipend from her father ceased, and her mother’s weakened condition worsened. The duty to find ways to bring in food and money fell on her young shoulders. Her stomach grumbled as if the memories brought the hunger she’d battled, on days when food and money were scarce. Other women who were alone with no money sold their bodies. She chose to be a thief instead.
She closed her eyes and let the warmth seep into her bones, and tight muscles, loosening her body. Drifting in the place between sleep and awake, she had no worries.
A bright light flared behind her eyelids. Her mind flashed to the dock in the North Carolina port—a steel tip at her throat, a scream lodged beneath the fear—a dashing rogue. Try as she might, Celeste couldn’t conjure his face, but the eyes were unforgettable. A hand went immediately to her neck feeling the scab where the knife had broken skin. How had she forgotten?
No longer able to enjoy the bath, she rose from the tub and wrapped in the soft linen lying on the bed next to her robe.
“Food is waiting,” Beatrice called from the doorway.
“Mèrci, Beatrice. I’ll be out in a moment.”
At the small table in the sitting room, they ate soup while she regaled Rafael and Beatrice with splendid stories of her adventures as a pirate. Rafael brought missives received while she’d been away. She half-heartedly glanced at them. One, however, caught her interest—an invitation to a ball in two days from Pierre Le Crosse. A man of ill-gotten wealth, Le Crosse made his money in shipping and trade.
“Rafael, send word I will be attending the ball and set an appointment with the dressmaker for a re-fitting of my gown.” Weeks on board the pirate vessel whittled away at her less than adequate female form.
“Le Crosse is a blow-hard, a louse, a criminal,” Rafael said.
Celeste smiled at the gray-haired, loveable old fellow. “A ball will be an excellent addition to my plans. Why spend my coin if I can use someone else’s?”