Authors: Miranda Jarrett
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General
Nick's head whipped up, his fingers stilled in mid-caress. Lily was sitting cross-legged like a Turk on the pillows at the top of the bed, her wings behind her echoing the curved headboard, her hands draped across her bent knees.
Why now? he thought wildly. Why in blazes did Lily have to come
"Damnation," he rasped as he glared at her. "I thought you wished to make me happy."
As she lay beneath him, Rose's eyes flew open, wounded and uncomprehending. "I thought I was making you happy, Nick, truly," she whispered uncertainly. "But if somehow I've done something wrong—"
"Nay, sweetheart, not a blessed thing," murmured Nick quickly, sweeping his mouth down on hers to reassure her. He shut his eyes and tried to concentrate on Rose, not Lily. If he tried hard enough to ignore her, perhaps she'd give up and go away.
"Of course I wish you to be happy, my dear captain," said Lily. "But you won't shed me until I've said my piece. Randy and virile you
doubtless are, but lust alone isn't making you do this. And until you can sort out your reason, you truly must not be in this bed with my sister!"
Off the coast of South Carolina July 1779
or the first time the odds didn't favor him, not on this pitch-dark morning in the last hour before dawn.
Furiously Nick swiped the sweat and blood from his forehead with his sleeve as he struggled to make out more of the English ship than the ten gunports bringing fire and death. Pale clouds from the flames in his
's hold billowed up through the hatch and mixed with the acrid powder smoke from the guns and the screams of dying men. Splinters of oak and bits of tarred cord and canvas rained down onto the deck with every uneasy sway of the sloop in the sea. Already he could feel how the
was settling lower into the waves as the sea rushed in through the jagged holes left by the English broadsides. Another five minutes, ten at the most, and then the ocean would claim them.
If five minutes were all he had, then so be it, but he wouldn't go down without a fight, and he sure as hell wasn't going to surrender. With grim satisfaction he glanced up at the two tattered flags overhead—the red, white and blue stripes of the American cause and below it the scarlet pennant of Sparhawk and Sons. He'd sooner cut his own throat than strike either one of them to the British.
Though maybe that was what they expected. Maybe that was why the English captain, the devil take him, hadn't fired at all on
this past quarter hour, believing instead that the Americans were too battered by now to do anything but surrender. Softhearted coward, thought Nick scornfully. If he'd been the one blessed with twice the men and guns,
wouldn't have been so overnice.
Nor would he be now. With a roar of pure fury Nick hurled himself down to the lower deck to one of the last functioning cannons.
Intent on firing at least one more time at the enemy, the five men in the gun crew only barely acknowledged their captain as he helped them muscle the heavy cannon into position. He'd done it before; it was one of the reasons they'd follow him anywhere. With his long black hair held back by the makeshift bandage around his forehead, his coat gone and his ruffled shirt torn and filthy, the captain was no different from the rest of them, all joined together in their hatred for the English.
Shielding the faint spark of the linstock's slow match in his cupped fingers, Nick concentrated on his target, the English ship that was only a faint outline in the early dawn.
"Steady, lads, steady!" he shouted hoarsely, holding the match over the little ring of gunpowder on the back of the gun. "We've got her now, don't we? Now—
The cannon roared to life, spitting fire and smoke as it jerked back with the force of firing. But in the same instant came another explosion, bright white and blinding and louder than thunder. Nick felt himself being thrown into the air, high into the sky and then higher still, far above the top of the
's mainmast until the sloop and the English brig looked like carved toys on the water so far beneath him, and yet still he rose, all six feet and more of him floating weightless as a feather, with the pale light of dawn turning the clouds around him pink and orange, and suddenly he knew, he
, that he wasn't going to fall back to the
's deck or the waves around her or to earth at all.
So this, then, was how his luck would end. His luck and his life and his run as the most fortunate American captain in a notoriously unfortunate war, every last bit of it done and over in one bright blast of gunpowder. Already he could predict the notice in the Charles Town papers: "Captain Nickerson James Sparhawk, master of the twelve-gun privateering sloop
, lost at sea with all hands after a most gallant engagement with the enemy."
Lost, hell. He'd never lost a blessed thing since the day he'd been born, and he didn't want to begin now. He wasn't ready to die. He was only thirty-two, in his prime. Damnation, he would
"Oh, bother and hush, you're not going to!" declared a woman's voice. "Do you truly believe I would have squandered so much time and effort on your well-being heretofore only to watch you tumble off now?"
Nick twisted about, searching for the source of the voice. He found her perched on the edge of one of the clouds as if it were as solid as stone, her legs crossed gracefully at the knee, and without a doubt she was one of the prettiest young women he'd ever seen.
One of the most elegant, too. He'd never had much of an eye for female frippery, but he did have three younger sisters, and thanks to them he knew that this lady's gown—white silk taffeta over a painted China silk petticoat, edged with silver embroidery—was very fashionable, and doubtless very dear. Around her pale throat lay a double strand of pearls hung with a Roman cameo, and more pearls swung from her ears. A pink sateen ribbon threaded through her extravagantly curled hair, golden auburn, he guessed, beneath the ladylike dusting of powder. Her eyes were large and blue beneath arching, elfin brows, and her rosy lips were winsomely curved for the kind of tempting little smile she was giving him now, her head tipped just so and one brow cocked as she twitched her wings—
? The devil take him, here he was ogling her like any other chit when the creature had wings like a swan's sprouting from her shoulder blades, right beneath the crossing of her sheer white-work fichu.
. He shook his head and swore.
"La, what a pretty greeting for a lady!" she scoffed. From beneath the curve of one wing she drew a fan of ivory
and spread it with a practiced flick of her wrist. "I'd thought better of you, sir."
But Nick was in no mood for bantering. "Just who—or what—in blazes are you?"
She laughed merrily over the fan. "I've blessed little to do with 'blazes,' Captain, for which you should be quite thankful."
"You're a bloody angel, aren't you?" he demanded hoarsely. "You're rigged out like some sort of Vauxhall doxy, but still—"
"But still you're quite right, my darling captain." Her eyes were as blue as
the Caribbean, dancing deliciously with the pleasure of teasing him. "I'm entirely what you wish me to be. Though that Vauxhall remark rather stings. I'd hoped for an effect more passing genteel than that."
"Blast your effect!" Desperately Nick looked down to where his ship had been, but the
and her enemy and the sea, too, had vanished entirely, swallowed up by the same ethereal wisps of clouds that somehow were supporting him. "I'm dead, and all you can damned well think about is the cut of your petticoats!"
"I know it will be difficult for you, Captain Sparhawk, but you really must learn to heed what I tell you." She sighed, the tops of her breasts quivering above her stays. "If you'd only listen, you'd discover how you have it in yourself to be the happiest man alive."
"I was plenty happy before this," he growled, shoving his hand back through his hair. His fingers brushed the blood-stiffened bandage tied around his head, and the wound beneath it throbbed so that he winced. But that was good, wasn't it? If he were dead, he'd be beyond pain, wouldn't he?
"I told you before that you're not dead," she said placidly, answering his doubts as if he'd spoken, "and you're not."
"I'm sure as hell not alive!" Furiously Nick grabbed for her, and as he did she seemed to fade into the intangible distance, melting away like mist in the morning. "Come back here, madam, and show yourself!"
"You must learn to heed what I say," she said again, softly, her voice but a whisper in his ear. "For your own good, you truly must."
He was slipping away himself, not falling exactly but drifting into something close to sleep. This was all her fault, he thought as he struggled to keep his wits, all the fault of some fancy jade trumped up with angel's wings. Why the devil should he heed her about anything? And as for happiness—war and happiness weren't made for each other, but he was still the most contented man he knew.
But the clouds were turning darker now, the sun behind them fading, and with a final, mumbled oath of frustration, he let the darkness claim him.
t's a hopeless case, Mr. Cole," the surgeon was saying sadly. "Quite, quite hopeless. Three nights and three days, sir, and look at him. Scarcely a mark on the man beyond this poppycock scratch to the cranium, yet already he's slipped beyond our reach."
Cautiously Nick dared to open one eye, and then the other. Dr. Barker's broad back in the worn blue coat was unmistakable as he turned away to fold his spectacles, and beyond the surgeon stood the
's lieutenant, Gideon Cole, with his hands folded and his face as solemn as if he were already staring into an open grave. If Nick's head hadn't ached so badly, he would have laughed out loud, for solemnity from Gideon was as rare as piety from a brothelkeeper. Did Gideon really believe he'd cock up his toes so easily?
Nick shifted slightly in the bunk, intending to reassure his friend, then stopped and frowned. The bunk wasn't his. The mattress was newer and softer than the old wool-stuffed one he'd bought years ago when he'd first outfitted the
, and there were two—no,
plump pillows beneath his head, each in pressed linen cases that certainly had no place aboard any sloop of his.
Uneasily he forced himself to focus on the cabin around him. There was his own battered, familiar sea chest, and the spindle-back armchair with the black paint worn off the front rail from his boots. That was his spyglass on its high-front shelf, his logbook and his sextant in the leather case, his favorite gray coat hanging from the peg on the back of the cabin door, and there was certainly no mistaking either Gideon or Barker. But as for the rest of it—the sweeping windows across the stern, the massive wooden desk with the stars carved into the front, the polished brass lanterns swinging in their gimbals, this bunk—none of it belonged to the
, and none of it was his.
He closed his eyes again, trying to remember how he'd come here. They'd been surprised in the night fog by an English frigate or privateer twice their size. There'd been no place to run, and they'd been forced to fight or surrender outright. And Nick, of course, had fought.
But then things grew muddled. They'd been losing, badly, and the sloop was sinking, and he and Jemmy Roberts's crew had tried to fire one last shot when the gun had misfired, and finally that infernal woman with the wings, the angel, had hauled him up into the clouds and promised him all manner of claptrap before dumping him back to earth to wake in some stranger's bunk.
He'd been dead, or mighty close to it. And now, somehow, he wasn't.
He could just make out his reflection in the glass of a small framed map of the Mediterranean bolted to the bulkhead beside the bunk. He looked like hell, true enough, but that wasn't particularly out of the ordinary. His thick black hair stuck out at crazy angles from the bandage, and the heavy brows that came together over the bridge of his nose seemed even more inclined to scowl than usual. Someone had washed the gunpowder and grime away from his face since the battle, but his green eyes were ringed with red and his jaw was unshaven and bristling with those three lost days' worth of dark whiskers. More the face of a pirate than one to set the maidens swooning, but then the only difference between him and, say, Blackbeard was the scrap of paper from the Continental Congress that promised he'd fight and plunder for the good of his country and not just his own pocket.
Gingerly he reached up to touch the bandage around his forehead. At least that much was real. He hadn't imagined that. But hadn't he thought the same thing when he'd been up there in the clouds?
"Captain Sparhawk!" Dr. Barker rushed to his side, his jowls quivering with alarm and surprise. "Please, sir, you must not disturb yourself when your situation is so delicate!"
"There's not a blasted thing about me that's delicate, Barker," growled Nick, his voice gravelly from disuse. "You know that as well as I."
Gideon came to stand beside the surgeon, his face returned to its customarily sly expression. His hair was as thick and red as a fox's brush, and the quizzical sharpness of his features, too, gave him a vulpine air. He'd grown up with Nick in Newport, even as a boy willing to play the small, quick fox to the larger, more menacing wolf that was Nick.
"What Barker means, Nick," he said cheerfully, "is that he'd just about given you up for dead. Ready to toss you over the side to the fish, he was."
"Certainly not!" declared Barker indignantly. "I was properly concerned by the gravity of your condition!"
Nick grunted, unconvinced. He'd given himself up for dead. Why shouldn't the surgeon feel that way, too? "Then you'll get me a drink, Barker, and be quick about it."
"Water, sir, that is all," ordered Barker as he went to pour from the pewter pitcher on the table. "No spirits, though perhaps I'll permit a thin broth later if there's no fever."
Glaring at the surgeon, Nick bit back a groan as he pushed himself higher on the pillows and took the tankard. Even that tiny effort made his head throb like the devil, but he refused to give Barker any more reason to fuss over him. What he needed now were answers.
"So where the hell are we, Gid?" he demanded. "Where's the
"In Charles Town by now, God willing." Without waiting for permission, Gideon pulled one of the chairs close beside the bunk and sat, leaning forward eagerly with his hands on his knees. Though he'd signed on as Nick's lieutenant, the two men had been friends too long to stand on ceremony. "And us—ahh, we're aboard as fine a little privateering brig as you'd ever fancy."
Nick scowled. "The truth now, Gid. I'm in no humor for fancies, mine or yours. Last I recall we were on our way down."
"Aye, and that's the beauty of it, Nick! We were going fast, like you say, and you and Jemmy's boys fired that last ball, and those hen-wit Britishers up and struck!"
"Struck?" Nick stared in disbelief. "You mean we
Gideon grinned with delight. "Her captain was killed early on, and the feather brains left in the crew hadn't a clue what to do next, so they struck. Gave it up, just like that. 'Twas a rare sight to watch their faces when the sun come up, and they could see how sorry the poor
"Struck," repeated Nick again, stunned by this twist of fortune. "What was the cost to us?"
Gideon's grin vanished. "Twelve of our people killed outright," he said soberly, "four more dead since, another ten in their hammocks, may God keep them all."
"Amen," said Nick softly. Though every man who signed on to a privateer knew the odds, as captain he still hated grim accountings like these, and mourned the men he'd lost. Yet this time Gideon's tally seemed somehow worse. Why, he wondered, had these men died while he'd been spared? Why hadn't they, too, been sent back by that silly Vauxhall angel?
"If it's a comfort," said Gideon, "the Britishers fared worse. Lost their captain and their two lieutenants and the gunner's mate and a dozen others besides. I sent the rest as prisoners in the
to Charles Town, and then shifted us over here. I figured you'd want it that way."
Nick nodded. How could he want it otherwise? Switching vessels like this in the middle of a cruise wasn't covered by either his commission or his Articles of Agreement and he'd have the devil of a time sorting it out through the prize court, but he'd be a fool to let a chance to improve his lot like this slip through his fingers.
Swiftly he glanced around the cabin with new appreciation. So it all really did belong to him now. Three years of wartime scarcity and blockades had put luxury on this scale beyond the reach of any American privateer, and his excitement grew when he remembered how heavily the brig was armed, long guns that now would fire at his command, beneath an American flag instead of English. Lord, what he'd be able to accomplish for the cause with a ship like this!
"She's only six months out of a shipyard in Portsmouth, Nick," continued Gideon, gloating. "Twenty guns, all of 'em new. Don't think she took even one prize under that fool of a captain. But I expect that'll change now that you're master of the fair
?" repeated Nick uneasily, his pleasure in his good fortune thumping to a halt. "That's her name?"
Gideon shrugged. "Queer sort of name for a privateer, I know, but that's what the brig was christened, and that's what she'll stay, unless you wish to risk ill luck and change it."
is most appropriate," intoned Barker with pious conviction, spreading his fingers wide across his waistcoat. "Considering it's a veritable miracle that the captain's alive to enjoy his victory, the celestial name seems altogether proper."
Proper or not, Nick didn't like it. An angel named Lily, a dream more real than reality, a miracle bringing him back from the dead—no, it was far too much coincidence for comfort. Though he wasn't as superstitious as many sailors, Nick still didn't like things he couldn't explain, and this all made so little sense that he was ashamed to confide it even to Gideon.
Instead he threw back the coverlet and swung his legs over the side of the bunk. His head still throbbed as if a thunderstorm had settled into his skull, but what was that beside his sanity?
"Enough of your nattering," he said as he reached for his breeches and Barker blustered with disapproval. "If I'm captain of this angel of a ship, then it's high time I met her properly."
He spent the rest of the afternoon with Gideon at his side, inspecting every inch of the brig from the depths of her hold to the tallest tip of her foretop. He critically sighted one of the new guns with the gunner, and he grinned like a boy on Christmas morning when he saw the cache of other weaponry the English had stowed below. He congratulated the crew members who'd come over from the
on their victory and tossed back a dram of rum with them between decks, and he welcomed the handful of Englishmen who'd decided to cast their lots with the Americans rather than sit out the war in a South Carolina prison. He drove himself mercilessly, intent on learning everything about his new command and determined to banish the ill-gotten memories of angels and miracles.
He nearly succeeded. Almost, but not quite. As the sun was dropping low to the horizon, Nick ordered one of the boats lowered so he could be rowed around the brig to see how she sat in the water. At Gideon's suggestion he'd brought along one of the English turncoats to answer any questions. The man's name was Hobb, and he took the first oar so he faced Nick sitting in the sternsheets. A fisherman from Guernsey Island, Hobb had hoped a turn at privateering would improve his station enough to marry, and because he was new at it, he'd none of the careful reticence of the more experienced hands around officers. He needed no prompting from Nick to begin a monologue of all that was right—and wrong—about the brig and her former master.
"Th' ol' cap'n didn't know what-for th' jewel he had," said Hobb sorrowfully as he pulled at the oar. "Master Everard, he be th' owner, he spared nothing on 'count of
'Her' being the brig?" asked Nick absently, suspecting that he'd drifted off while the man had droned on about the wickedness of the dead captain.
bein' Miss Lily, o' course!" Hobb smiled, pleased that his new captain was listening after all. "Miss Lily Everard, Sir Edmund Everard's first daughter, th' one what he named this brig for, sir, an' th' one that died so tragical. She be there now, sir, if you only but look."
Hobb cocked his head toward the
's bowsprit, and even before Nick turned to look, he knew what he'd see. Part of him had known ever since he'd learned the brig's name. With a sigh he pushed back the brim of his hat and forced himself to look at the
The carving was life-size, a beautiful young woman gazing out to sea with the hint of a smile on her painted lips. Her auburn hair was piled high on her head, one wooden curl artfully tossed across her shoulder, and her white gown swirled against her body as if blown by the same wind that filled the brig's sails. Behind her her wings were raised and spread against the bow, each white feather neatly carved, and over her head hung a halo bright with the same gold leaf that trimmed the hem of her gown. Apparently Miss Lily Everard had inspired the wood-carver to the limits of his craft, for Nick had never seen another figurehead more real, and as he stared at it he could almost hear the merry laughter rippling from her lips.
It wasn't until the boat had finished circling the brig and Nick had climbed back on board that he realized he was damp with sweat and that his heart was pounding with something perilously close to fear. Alone at last in his cabin, he sank into his chair with his head cradled in his trembling hands.
Of course there must be an explanation. There had to be. Even if he'd been unconscious, he still could have wakened enough to glimpse the figurehead when they'd brought him aboard. He could have overheard Gideon or Barker talking about the brig, maybe one of the Englishmen, maybe even Hobb himself, discussing Edmund Everard's tribute to his daughter Lily.
"Well, then, do you approve of my namesake, Captain Sparhawk?" asked the woman's voice behind him. "You've certainly been more thorough in your perusal than Captain Fotherill ever was. Whatever your conclusions are, you may be sure that
This time Nick didn't turn toward the voice, nor did he answer. He closed his eyes, willing himself to be calm. It was his imagination, that was all. He was giddy now from exhaustion and the head wound, but in the morning, once he'd rested and—
"You don't believe in me, do you?" The edge of irritation in her words was clear. "You've only to look my way, you know, and trust your eyes to tell you the truth."
But Nick kept his eyes resolutely shut. "I don't believe in you because you're not real. You're no more than the rum I drank this forenoon, come back to addle my wits."