The acrid smell assaulted his senses. Struggling to his feet, he shouted orders into the dark and braced for them to be followed through. The ship swung wildly to starboard amid a flurry of action, the turn and the dropping of sails occurring in one fluid motion. Direction set, he ordered all hands to re-hoist sail and outrun the frigate in pursuit of the fourth ship in their small fleet. Despair flooded as he watched the ship, at least half a mile ahead of them, take a direct hit and begin to sink.
Screams and smoke filled the air and the panic of the loss, defeat snatched from the jaws of victory threatened to overwhelm him. The silent tears that came were as much for those that were lost as they were for the stinging, searing heat that surrounded the ship. Bodies were pulled from the dark, turbulent waters. Dead and alive. The vengeur limped back into Dover under cover of darkness, its decks littered with injured and frightened faces of those who should never have been caught in this bloody war. He approached the small pile of canvas lying by the rain barrel, willing himself to check one more body. Lifting the cover, he swung the lantern over the top of the unseeing and bloated face and felt his heart explode with pain, a burning bile welling up in his throat as he dropped to his knees and cried out, “Ana!”
“Christian!” A hand shook him awake. Her frightened voice coupled with trembling hands. “Christian. Wake up!”
Shaking off the last vestiges of his nightmare he sat up almost immediately, his breathing coming in hard and heavy gulps as it always did. The hammering in his chest took over as he fought to bring his body under control. She was there. She was there. He grasped her face in his hands and brought her lips to his, searing her lips with hot, tear-stained kisses.
“Ana.” His body shook with relief, as the emotion flowed down his face in rivulets of salty agony. “Oh, my love. My Ana.”
“Yes, darling. I’m here. I’m here.” Kneeling up, she pulled him toward her body and allowed him what he needed, her lips, her face in his hands, even though his grip was hurting her. Fisting her hands in his hair, she sought to pull him closer and closer still, somehow knowing that his comfort lay at her breast. His sobs cracked the core of her heart as he came fully awake in her arms. “I’m here, my love. I’m here.”
Face buried in her breasts,he clung to her, wrapping his arms around her body as if she could save him. Without any other option, she cooed and caressed, soothing his tremors until he could be still and silent. Whatever the nightmare, it had unsettled them both completely and there would be no peace until they had calmed each other’s bodies. She turned and lay back on the bed, pulling him over her. They did not speak as he quietly entered her, sheathing himself in her comforting heat and began to move, gently thrusting away the last of his fear. For her part, Ana sought to pull him in and in further until his release became her relief. So in tune was she with his need that she followed him over quickly, pulsing her own release around his heavy shaft as he pumped the last of his seed into her. When he pulled out he wrapped her in his arms, their love a protective force against the night.
“Will you tell me about the dream?” Her voice was no more than a whisper in the dark that cut across his thoughts. What could he say? How could he ever explain?
“A recurring nightmare. Nothing more.” His lips touched her hair, hoping to draw some much needed strength from her.
“Yet, one that haunts you even now you are awake. Please Christian.” He wanted to tell her about his turbulent past. Although so much had changed between them in recent days, their relationship was not yet strong enough for him to open up that wound.
“I am merely worried about the Ruby Queen. My cousin has taken her on a fact finding mission along the French coast and I have not heard from him for two weeks. It is playing on my mind. Go to sleep. I promise I won’t bother you again.” His words had a finality about them that both hurt and challenged her. Her heart knew he would not speak about it now. She felt the kiss on her head again and several times after before she drifted off. For his part, Christian kept his promise through the simple act of staying awake until dawn.
Warm sun streamed through the porthole, waking her from her sleep. Stretching one naked arm across the sheets, Ana was disappointed to find she was alone. Her hands touched paper. Instantly, she sat up, the sheet wrapped around her and unfolded the note.
Good morning, my darling captive. Bathe, get dressed and come up on deck as soon as you have broken your fast. Yours always, C
Clutching the words to her lips, she smiled before dropping a kiss on the paper. Moving quickly through her ablutions, she forewent her normally extensive undergarments for something simple that she could manage herself. The soft blue muslin of her gown draped over her form, felt different to her now. Her skin was aflush with the memory of Christian’s touch, giving her a fullness and confidence in her femininity that she had never felt before.
A knock sounded on the door and she called for him to enter. Only when the door opened, it wasn’t Christian who stood there, but a surly and rather unruly looking urchin with olive skin and dark eyes. The boy carried a tray laden with a bowl of warm gruel and a mug of hot tea. Her disappointment was overrun by her need for sustenance.
“Thank you.” Ana was effusive as she bounced over to the table. The boy, however, said nothing, stepping back away from the table quickly. Ana sat and blew with unladylike enthusiasm across her tea, taking a sip before addressing the cabin boy. “What is your name?”
“Williams, m’Lady.” The boy was obviously trying to deepen his voice in an effort to seem older than he was but he could not disguise his thick accent.
Ana frowned. “That’s not a very French name.
“No, m’Lady. My father is … was an Englishman.” Ana sipped her tea before she continued her interrogation.
“Yet you grew up in France. With your mother?” A nod of the head as the boy glanced down at the hands in front of his lap, wringing fingers betraying a raft of unspoken emotion. “Is she still there?”
Another nod and that emotion was checked as he raised his head to look ahead, his back ramrod straight. She had touched a nerve.
“How long has it been since you saw her?”
“A while, m’Lady.” The words were harsh and Ana heard the ‘not long enough’ implicit in the tone of disgust and anger. Curious.
“How long have you been with Captain Blackheart?” Hesitation as the boy’s eyes slid to Ana’s.
“A little while, m’Lady.” It was not much of an answer and the boy returned to staring straight ahead, avoiding her gaze. Although he would not look directly at her, Ana studied the boy closer. The soft skin underneath the thin layer of dirt and the large brown eyes and youthful, almost feminine features. The boy didn’t look more than 15 years old. “If you’ll excuse me, M’Lady.”
The lad turned swiftly and exited the room with all the smoothness and light of a girl in a ballroom. Ana smiled until the door shut and then allowed the frown to come. The boy was extremely taciturn and acted as if he didn’t quite approve of her.
Later in the morning, Ana watched Christian as he strode about the deck calmly giving orders. He was simply breathtaking, clad from head to toe in his black clothes, breeches tightly outlining the muscular form of his legs. The memory of the ripples of muscle down his stomach, the dusting of hair on swarthy skin across his hard chest, caused molten responses in her own body. The effect of his presence had her weak at the knees. Quite simply, he was beautiful. He was also exhausted. The mask was off but at the ready should the pirate captain be required to appear quickly and she wondered as she studied the shadows under his intoxicating eyes, how often he was required to play the part.
“Are you warm enough, Mrs Grey?” Taylor’s concentration was on the helm but he had one eye on his mistress as she stood at his side. He had been charged with watching her while Christian inspected the ship. From the stern look in his eye, he seemed to be taking his role seriously.
“I’m fine, thank you, Mr Taylor. When will we turn back toward Brest?” Thinking that a change in topics might help her to keep these involuntary urges to rush into her husband’s arms at bay, Ana tried to engage the first mate in conversation.
“We need to sail through the French cordon first. If we get boarded we will show them papers for Cadiz.” He nodded his head toward the open sea where several ships could be seen at least half a mile away from the ship. They seemed to be traveling slower than the Black Diamond, sometimes turning back into fleet as if circling back around to keep the fleet in place. “Once we are safely through, we’ll go down the coast toward Bilbao and once we are level with Saint-Nazaire we will turn back and hug the coast to Brest.”
Alarm spread through her body when one of the ships turned straight toward them. “Will they board us?”
“Maybe, maybe not. Either way it doesn’t matter. We have enough cargo to buy our way out of trouble.” Taylor’s almost laconic attitude calmed her nerves. The romance of the sea enticed her, as much as being married to a notorious privateer, but the reality of the danger with which they continually flirted, set her on edge.
“When will we arrive in Brest?” She was anxious to retrieve Ethan and be gone back to her home. Not that she had any illusions that his rescue would be, in any way, easy. The ship she had been watching turned to starboard and tacked away from them, allowing her to let out a breath.
“The Captain wants us to sail into port tomorrow at dusk.” Yes, she thought, and leave under cover of darkness.
“How long has he been doing this?” Her voice was quiet, restrained. She did not want their words to be carried on the wind. Christian, was half a boat length away from her, but he paused and looked at her as if he had heard. A breeze ruffled his hair as he coiled a thick rope, his hands moving with efficiency. Smiling briefly at him, she turned her gaze out to sea, searching for another distraction, lest his crew see how much she lusted for her husband. Or how much she feared for his safety.
“Being Blackheart? For the Captain, it started during the wars but there has been a Blackheart sailing these waters of and on for the past four decades, I would say.” That statement was distraction enough. Ana’s face flicked back quickly to study Taylor’s and he was deadly serious, if a little amused. For his part, Taylor chuckled, enjoying the shocked look on Ana’s face.
“There has been a need for Captain Blackheart for three generations, now. The first Black Diamond sailed these waters under the command of the Captain’s grandfather.” His words cut across her unformed questions with a rueful smile.
Ana’s eyes were so wide they looked like they might pop out of her skull. Taylor wanted to roar with completely inappropriate laughter.
“Aye, m’Lady. The late Duke was the first Captain Blackheart. His sons took over from him toward the end of the last century. Or so I’m told.”
“Sons?” Ana had thought the Duke of Carrick an only child.
“The current Duke had a younger brother. Went down with the second Black Diamond back in 1802, when you were still in the nursery.” He looked thoughtful. “There was a hiatus then, where Blackheart disappeared. He was brought back into service nigh on seven years hence.”
“But Christian would have been only 20.”
“Aye, back then he was entrenched in service to the navy and working toward his first command. So, no, he was not the reincarnated Blackheart. That honor went to Lord Elliot.”
Ana’s full attention was on the first mate’s handsome face now. The waves of revelation kept rushing over her. “Elliot?” Christian’s father, uncle and grandfather before him? “Decades of privateering? Why?”
“There has always been need of privateers for one reason or another, m’Lady. In the Grey’s case, usually in service to the King, even though that can never be acknowledged. They do the work that the naval command cannot, taking back what belongs to England, moving spies, exiles and diplomats between countries as needed. Not everything that needs to be done is legal and if caught, they are on their own. No crown, no country to save them.”
Ana gasped. “So you do this work for your country knowing that the government will disavow all knowledge of your existence in times of trouble?”
“Aye, it is the risk we all take.” Taylor’s gaze swept the deck, taking in all of the men currently moving about their tasks. Ana wondered at their lack of concern, simultaneously understanding that continuous worry was pointless and exhausting, taking their focus off the important work that they had to complete.
“But, why do they do it?” Ana’s world had never been completely black or white. She did not question the morality of the situation, simply the motivations of men who might choose another life.
“Some do it because the spoils of war are worth the risk.”
“But not Christian. And not you.” The question implicit in the statement.
“No. He gives away more than he ever takes.” The emigres who populated the Trevelyan Grange property were obvious recipients of his generosity. She wondered who else had benefited from Blackheart over the years.
“And you remain loyal because of that?”
His hard eyes met hers. “My task is to keep him safe.” She contemplated his words for a moment, latching on to what she thought was his hidden message.
“So you don’t work for my husband?”
“I didn’t say that.” A glance away. A grim look. Then she watched as he focused completely on Christian, who was now climbing a mast to join a group of men who were tying off a sail. An unnameable emotion swept across his eyes. “I owe him more than he could ever pay me in a lifetime, m’Lady. I’m not here for money.”
The loyalty and pride the flooded through his body warmed Ana. This man loved her husband like a brother. Emotionally and mentally, she stepped back for a moment, permitting him this private moment, until her curiousity got the better of her.
“May I ask why?” The warmth of her hand on his arm, reminded him that she was there.
“I was caught on French soil. Would likely have been put to death. As the crew of a privateer, one that did not exist to the crown, I should have been left for dead.”
“He rescued you.”
“Aye. Rode into Paris and ripped me out from under the nose of the authorities. What’s more, he did it alone. He’d been ordered to leave me behind, but he didn’t. So yes, I owe him more than loyalty.”
A tear slipped down her cheek unbidden. At that moment, Christian was halfway up the mast, checking the rigging, the wind blowing his shirt tight and outlining his taut muscular chest. He was tugging on a rope and talking to three men who were up there with him. The man closest to him responded to Christian’s words by tipping his head back to laugh as he clapped his captain on the shoulder. The good natured banter and fresh wind in his face made him look happier than she had seen him all morning. The more she learned about this complex beautiful man, the more in love with him she fell. His eyes sought hers and the flash of uncertainty she saw in them caught her breath.
In a quiet voice, laced with new understanding, she spoke again. “He told you to tell me.”
“Aye, m’Lady, that he did.” Wondering about Christian’s motives was more than she felt capable of in that moment. She kept her gaze fixed on Christian as he wrapped a rope around his wrist, grabbing hold with both hands and swung down from the mast, landing smoothly on the deck below. Three men on the deck were standing at the ready to catch him if he should have fallen or swung too far. He didn’t need them but it was reassuring to see that they were all there, looking out for each other. Moving toward him with the determination of a woman who needed to be with her man, Ana stepped quickly into his embrace. The kiss was pure delight marred only by good-natured the jeers and cheers of the surrounding crew. Neither of them cared.
When Ana broke from his lips and turned in his arms to gaze out at sea, she noted that the cabin boy stood to her left with a look of disgust. With barely a dozen words spoken to each other in the time she had been on the ship, Ana was at a loss to understand that disapproval.
“I don’t think your boy likes me very much.” Christian arms were wrapped around her waist, pulling her back firmly against the front of his body as they both looked out to sea. He chuckled as he glanced at the petulant look on the boy’s face.
“No, I think you’re right. What on earth have you done to offend him?”
“For the life of me, I do not know. Nothing comes to mind. Perhaps it is hero worship and I am taking too much of your time.” She felt his lips on her hair just as she felt the boy’s angry eyes heat her skin.
“Perhaps.” Ana almost missed the odd note in his voice.
After the luncheon had been served and eaten, Christian gathered a small group of his most trusted men in his cabin to discuss the plan for Brest. Maps were laid out on the table indicating the main roads away from the city and the prison.
“If our information is correct, there will be a convoy leaving the prison tomorrow evening.” Christian’s voice a calm authority in the room as the men began to debate the merits of one approach or another.
Ana sat quietly in a chair and listened. The cabin boy was adjacent to her, standing ready to take orders by the door. Ana motioned to the chair beside her.
“Come, sit with me.” Christian glanced up at her words and nodded to the boy, giving him permission to move. The young man shifted uncertainly and slowly sank down in the chair next to her without taking his eyes off his captain.
“Do you have an opinion on the plan?”
The boy’s eyes shifted to hers quickly and then back to Christian. Once more Christian had heard and gave the permission for the boy to answer her before carrying on the discussion. Ana noticed the boy’s wide-eyed but subtle shake of the head. As if he did not want to obey his captain’s orders.
“You do not want to disrespect the Captain?” Ana kept her voice soft.
The boy shook his head and looked down.
“How did you come to be in his employ?” Just then a knock on the door sounded and Williams jumped to his feet to answer it, successfully avoiding any more of Ana’s questions. Christian glanced at her and she shrugged, shaking her head in response. She had not gotten anywhere with the lad and she almost felt compelled to take Christian to task later for indenturing this child on his ship. However, she knew that children were too often pressed into service, the ships providing a better life than being along on the streets of London.
“Captain, we’re at Saint-Nazaire.” Williams stepped closer to Christian to announce the message that had just been delivered.
“Taylor, go atop and give orders to bring her about. We’ll need to find a sheltered bay to anchor for the night.” Taylor nodded and left the room taking the other men with him. “And check that there are no witnesses to our movements. I want no pursuit from a French frigate.”
Once the men had departed, Christian returned his attention to the table and had resumed studying the maps when Ana approached. “Do you think your plans will work?”
“To be honest, I don’t know. The wagon will move from the prison gates, through to the main town square where they could take one of three main roads all of which offer opportunity but also present problems. The biggest risk is that we could assume that they will take one at the risk of losing them on another. The square is too open for my liking, but to delay them directly outside the prison gates holds the greatest risk as it is likely heavily guarded.”
“So you will delay them in the town square?” Christian nodded unhappily at her question.
The tension in Christian’s movements indicated that he wasn’t completely happy with this plan. Out of the corner of her eye, Ana noticed Williams surreptitiously moving closer to them. She wanted to draw him in to the discussion but hesitated to spook the lad.
“It would seem that it is our best option. If we are bold, we can rip the wagon out from under their noses and rescue more than just Ethan. That is, if Ethan is even on the transport.” A shout came from on deck and Christian excused himself to assist with the ship but the cabin boy did not leave with him.
Edging nearer, Williams peered at the maps. Ana noticed his approach and stood back a little, to let the boy see. He fidgeted anxiously. His small fingers traced the road from the prison to the town square where the three main roads branched off.
Ana watched over his shoulder. “I know you have a concern?”
“I know the square. The captain is right, it is too exposed.” Ana studied the map as the urchin snaked out a delicate hand and touched a point on the map. “These are government buildings.” Williams pointed to the southern side of the square. The placement indicated that the buildings faced both north on to the square and west to one of the exit routes.
“But they could take the wagon on the other side of the square and escape east?” Ana asked. The boy shook his head.
“By that time the guard will have increased to 6 cavalry, the driver and the wagon guard. The cavalry guard will join them at the square.” The boy pointed without hesitation at a narrow band of road that led from the prison to the square. “This road is very confined. The wagon cannot turn if it were stopped. See how it bends? Right here is where they should stop the wagon. It is a blind spot, out of sight of the prison and the square. They could empty the wagon and then release the horses through the square by way of distraction while making their escape down here.” He pointed to a narrow track that ran East.
“They would need to position horses here to get back to the ship.” Ana pointed to the place where the track opened into a cul de sac.
“Yes, there is only one problem with that plan.”
“And that is?”
“There may be more prisoners that the Captain will wish to release than just Lord Kavanagh.” The boy’s lips tightened.
“The Captain is very generous but even he will not free men who might be hardened criminals.”
“Every Frenchman has had to become a hardened criminal, Madame. That is a matter of survival in these times of unrest. Besides, it is not the criminals but the poor and their champions who end up in French jails nowadays, Madame.”
Ana could have bitten her tongue. This young man had obviously seen more than his fair share of hardship in his young life. And like most young people, probably had little knowledge of a world without war. Her heart ached for him.
“Yet, you would assist in helping Lord Kavanagh?” Placing a hand on the lad’s shoulder she turned him to face her. The large brown eyes were on the verge of tears as the boy swiped an angry hand across his face.
“I would help Captain Blackheart, Madame. My loyalty is to him.” The boy announced so fiercely that Ana almost stepped back from him. The boy stared her down defiantly and then turned back to the maps, almost self-consciously.
“So what do you suggest?” The men had agreed on taking the wagon outside the prison gates. “What about the prison? What do you know of the gates?”
“There are two sets of gates. The ones inside are heavily guarded. The prisoners will be transfered into the wagons inside these gates and then they will proceed out through to the outer holding section. There are usually less guards here but still enough to cause problems. Once the wagons leave they are manned by one driver and one guard until they reach the square and then a 4 to 6 man horse guard will join them. Our opportunity to seize and empty the wagon is in the 20 minutes that it takes to get from the outer walls to the square.”
“So the horse guard will not advance down the prison road, willingly?” Williams shook his head.
“No, because it is so narrow that traffic cannot move in both directions. This is why they move prisoners at night, when there is no one else using the road. If the horses were upset in any way it would be a disaster.”
Ana grinned. “Well, that would be a distraction.”
“And a terrible waste of good horse flesh.” Williams frowned. Ana felt herself warming to the boy. “The danger is that the gate guard will be within shouting distance of the delay point. If they hear the wagon stop or the driver becomes alarmed, they will come running.”
“Will the internal gate guards hear as well?” Ana studied the boy’s face.
“They might but it will take them time to get the gates open again. By the time they have done that we would be gone.”
Ana didn’t miss the ‘we’ but didn’t comment on it. She was now too distracted by what she saw and heard in Williams descriptions. The voice had become lighter, the movements more feminine. As Williams warmed to the topic she was forgetting who she was talking to.
“What is your name?” Ana asked quietly.
Williams stopped and faced Ana. “I have already told you, Madame.”
“Your first name.” Ana took the girl’s hands in reassurance.
The girl swallowed. “Leila, Madame.” It was no more than a whisper.
“And how old are you, Leila?” Ana was careful to suspend judgment and emotion. She didn’t want to frighten the girl.
“I am 22 years old, Madame.”
“Does the Captain know that you are a girl?” The young woman’s eyes dropped to the floor. Ana made her voice firmer, harsher. “Does he?”
“Oui… non…. I do not know.” The woman, Leila, was on the verge of tears. Ana dropped her hands and turned away, trying to keep her emotions in check. This boy, was a girl, a young woman. Who slept in the outer room of her husband’s cabin and had been with the Captain for an indeterminate amount of time.
“Are you in love with Captain Blackheart?” Ana spoke to the wall. She dreaded the answer but when none came, she found her anger building at the silence. Whirling back to face the young woman, she restated her question. “Are you in love with my husband?”
Leila had her head bowed. Heavy tears dripping to the floor. At Ana’s second question she raised her head suddenly with a flare of anger and shock in her eyes.
“No, Madame. I am not in love with your husband.” Ana studied her face for a moment and saw the truth with a great sense of relief. Leila Williams did not love Christian. Either that or she was a consummate liar.
“Yet, you hesitated when I asked about Captain Blackheart.” Leila held her eyes for a second and then glanced away to the side of the room. Ana thought about her conversation with Taylor earlier today. The history of Captain Blackheart had been playing on her mind for most of the day. She stepped toward Leila and retook her hands. “Leila, are you in love with Lord Elliot Grey?”
Leila glared at her. “No. I do not love Captain Grey or Lord Grey. I don’t love Captain Blackheart, either.” She was about to storm out of the cabin when Christian entered. Leila crashed into his arms, almost falling over. He held her up and looked into her frightened face.
“Leila? Miss Williams? Are you alright.” Christian redirected Leila’s shaking body back to Ana who wrapped a motherly arm around her. He was grateful that his wife seemed to know exactly what to do.
“You knew she was a girl?” Ana hissed over her shoulder as she sat Leila down at the table. He supposed he had authored his own demise, but it wasn’t what Ana thought. However, that didn’t make it any easier to admit his sin of eavesdropping to his wife.
He shook his head. “I know now, although I suspected from the moment I took over the ship that she was a girl. As to her name, I listened at the door.” Both women frowned at him and he knew he was in trouble. From the look on their faces, his explanation might not be assisting his cause. “I’m sorry. This is my ship and I like to know what’s going on.”
“You, Sir, like to have too much control.” Ana scolded. Christian shrugged. “Well, did you hear the plan?”
“Most of it. Perhaps you would like to take me through it?” Christian directed his question at an open-mouthed Leila. God, she looked like a stunned mouse.
“Sir, I did not mean any…” Ana squeezed her hand hard and scowled at Christian. It was becoming very obvious to him that he needed to let her take the lead.
“No, you misunderstand, Leila. My husband actually wants you to explain the plan.” Leila looked around in disbelief. Ana nodded and Christian grinned. His wife was taking over and he found himself more than willing to follow her lead. Her dominance and strength in this situation enticed him.
“But James would never…” Leila’s voice tapered off and Christian became aware of the unspoken problem in the room. Leila had a more intimate knowledge of his cousin than he had first suspected. He wondered if they had made use of the various apparatus in the room for their…games. The image that flashed into his head was not of Leila but of Ana, tied to the bed or on her knees, and he had to suppress a groan.
“James?” Ana looked confused. Christian gave a grim nod, letting Leila know that he understood. Ana, however, would require a little more explanation.
“Mmm… James. My cousin. The other Captain Blackheart. Well, at least when he isn’t languishing in a French prison. That is what you were about to tell us, isn’t it?” Christian crossed the room to the table and sat opposite Leila. She didn’t answer, just looked at him. “Is that where he is, Leila? In the prison at Brest.”
The silence hung in the air. Finally, her frustrated words were uttered, an indication that she had decided to trust him. A little. “Yes, Monsieur. He and some of his officers were captured trying to break into the prison a little more than two weeks ago.”
Christian’s hand balled into an angry fist. James was meant to be scouring the French ports for information, not going off on some half cocked rescue mission. With his ship, no less. “What the hell was he doing breaking into the prison?” Christian didn’t quite yell but he certainly exuded enough force behind the question as to make both women jump. Ana’s instinctive reaction was to lower her eyes, but Leila became agitated and angry as she rose and began pacing the room.
“That was my question exactly, Monsieur. But your cousin is a fool. He would not listen to me. No, no, no. The idiot man, he thought he knew better than a mere girl. He would take no notice of the information that I gave him and took matters into his own hands. I am sorry to be speaking out of turn, Monsieur but…”
“What information?” Christian’s voice cut her short and Ana reached her hand out in an effort to calm him down. She was right to do so. It would not do anyone any good if the poor girl was frightened out of her wits. Mind you, she had been living on a ship for at least a week with a large group of men and didn’t seem to be any the worse for it. He wondered if the timid mouse was an act. A very good act.
“I had the confirmation that Lord Kavanagh was in Brest and that he was going to be moved tomorrow. Only James, he did not think about the bigger plan, instead he went ahead and tried to break into the prison. Trying to be the hero, I suppose.” Shoulders slumped in despair she turned away from the table wringing her hands with a slight tremor. The agitated stance made her appear far too emotional for this to simply be anger over not being heard. Christian wondered just what the relationship was between his cousin and this diminutive waif.
“Damn.” Christian thumped his fist lightly on the table, not so much in anger but in frustration. It didn’t stop her from jumping at the sound. “Where is the Ruby Queen, now?”
To her credit, the girl didn’t hesitate to answer. “She is hiding in a cove to the north east of Brest. When he left against my advice, I ordered the rest of the crew to wait there and caught the first packet to London to find your brother. He told me where to find you and what to say to get aboard the Black Diamond.” What the hell was Elliot thinking? Sending a girl to join his crew! However, the solid gut-punch came when Christian realised that this stick of female and given orders to his crew.
“But you had met James as Captain Blackheart.” Ana leaned in, obviously as curious about their relationship as he. Leila regarded her with a little suspicion. Given that his wife had seemed ready to strip her hide earlier, he supposed Leila had a point. However, he was still getting over her giving his crew instruction.
“Yes, I have had many an occasion to meet him in the past.” Many an occasion? This story got worse and worse. How many times had she been on the Ruby Queen? How often had his crew bowed to her command? Was he going to have an issue when he tried to board as Captain. He cursed his cousin for his reckless carousing. Leila’s closed look stopped his inner monologue. It indicated that there were secrets this girl would not share easily. Christian admired that quality in her, even as she frustrated the hell out of him.
“So you tried to persuade him to wait and he didn’t listen?” Ana continued the interrogation, which was just as well since Christian was finding it a strain to keep his emotions in check. Two women had managed to completely upend his world. He hadn’t felt so out of his depth since Nicholas arrived in his life. Christian sent up a silent but non-malevolent curse to that particular woman, too.
“Yes, he is, how do you say? A mule. Stubborn.”
Her petulant mouth, the hands on her hips and the stamp of her foot brought a smile to Christian’s face. In fact, the chuckle in the pit of his stomach refused to be suppressed. Suddenly, Christian laughed, in a sudden release of tension. All their lives, Christian knew that James found it difficult taking orders from anyone, which was why he was so unsuited to naval life and completely at home as a spy. No, James would not have appreciated being bested by Miss Williams. Unfortunately, Leila did not share Christian’s sense of hilarity at the situation and she scowled at him causing him to swallow his laughter. He schooled his face and tried to be serious.
“Yes, yes, that is James.” A change of subject was in order. “So tell me about this plan.”
For the next fifteen minutes, Leila described the town of Brest and the movement of the prisoners. Christian asked questions to clarify the route but determined very quickly that her plan had every chance of success. In fact, more chance than the plans he had been making with his men. The girl understood the layout of the town and the processes of the prison better than he and he would be foolish not to heed her advice. There was only one major problem with her plan that he could see.
“We need to eliminate the guards at the outer gate so that they won’t follow the wagon.” He drew his eyebrows together as he stood back from examining the maps. Ana also stood back a little while they talked but her expression stated that she had been thinking about exactly this problem. The guards needed to be distracted at precisely the right time with no risk that the inner guards or those on the wagon would think anything was amiss. This would take a special kind of distraction. Christian saw the consternation in her expression and waited for her to speak.
“Leila and I could do it.” Ana looked at Leila who nodded an agreement. However, she could not bring herself to look at Christian. Given that she seemed to think that she was going into the town of Brest to risk her life, he thought that wise. He was not above throttling his wife and at this precise moment, he did not think he could keep that thought from his features.
“No.” His tone brooked no argument, however, that did not matter to his wife. Without heeding his unspoken warning, Ana did not seem inclined to let him get his way.
“But, Christian, we can…” He raised his palms in front of his face, effectively silencing her.
“I said, No!” Slapping his hands down on the table, he leaned across with both hands firmly planted as he attempted to stare her down. Her lips thinned into a hard line before she shifted to mirror his stance, slamming her own palms down on the table.
“I see that arrogant, stubborn, pompous ass runs in your family.” Ana leaned forward, giving him a glimpse of her creamy breasts over the top of the blue muslin. The tactic was patently unfair and extremely effective. The hardening of his cock didn’t stop him from making one more futile attempt at shutting her up.
“I am your husband and my role is to keep you safe!” Even though he prided himself on level emotions, he found his voice was rising. His hands were white as he pressed into the table top.
“You will keep me safe. You’ll be watching everything I do!” Ana was matching him for volume and tension as Leila backed away from the table. Smart girl.
“I will not put you at risk!” He walked around the table toward his wife who straightened her body to stand up to him. If the stubborn woman was not going to listen to him, he might just have to make her listen. At that moment, he wasn’t above taking both of them over his lap for this stupidity.
“Why do you think you will fail?” Ana’s question cut him to the quick. He was a man who struggled against the failures of his past. If he could not guarantee the situation would go in his favor, he did not take the risk. Which was why James had made the better Captain Blackheart in recent years. His cousin was prepared to take risks that Christian couldn’t and wouldn’t take. Ana’s voice cut into his thoughts. “Christian, you and Taylor will be stationed here and here.” Her finger pointed to the map. Then she indicated Leila. “And we will be working together, we will be perfectly safe.”
Christian swallowed the heavy lump in his tight throat. If he said any more his voice would be choked with emotion. Was he letting his fear obstruct a good plan? Studying the map for a moment, he breathed deeply, with the sudden and uncomfortable knowledge that his wife may well be right. Leila and Ana kept perfectly still while he wrestled with his thoughts.
Finally, he breathed out a heavy sigh and sat back down at the table, motioning for the women to do the same. The plan made sense, and if Leila was capable of commanding his crew and Ana his body, then between them, they were more than capable of executing the only type of distraction that would be effective in this situation. The fear of having her anywhere near the prison choked at his pounding heart, causing sweat to bead on his lips and palms. However, he couldn’t deny that theirs was likely to be the solution that would see Ethan safe aboard his ship by this time tomorrow.
With a sigh, he bowed his head for a moment and then raising his head said, “Alright. Tell me this plan.”