The dark hull of a ship loomed ahead, lit by two laterns, one on the bowspprit and the other swinging on the hook on the mizzenmast. Dim light shone through a porthole below the quarterdeck. Three masts covered with tangled rigging towered against the moonlit sky like webbed claws ready to snatch Charlisse from the boat. Most likely an ex-merchant vessl, the tree-masted, square-rigged ship couuld hold up to forty guns. Charlisse wouldn't have known or cared about such things three years ago if she hadn't married a privateer and chosen a life at sea.
"Come on, littl' missy, up ye go." One of the pirates grabbed her arm and lifted her. He untied the rope binding her hands, then pusehd her toward the ladder. When she didn't move, he leaned over, showering her with his foul breath, and hesitated, his slobbering lips smacking near her ear.
Charlisse cringed and clutched the rope, desperate for any escape.
The man took a step back and swatted her bottom. "Begone with ye now."
The pirates chuckled.
Charlisse whirled. "How dare you?" She slapped him full force on his right cheek, but his thick beard softened the sharp impact.
Shock claimed the pirate's wicked features. He raised his arm to strike her, but a deep voice from above halted his hand in midair. "What goes on down there? Bring her up, or I'll have you stretched and scaled alive!"
That voice. Charlisse knew that voice. Tremors of dread etched their way down her spin. Gazing upward, she saw nothing but darkness and the eerie outline of an immense storm cloud drifting in over the ship.
A wave hit the longboat, and she nearly toppled overboard. The sea beckoned. Come. Jump in. Anything but go up that ladder! Laying a hand on her stomach, she thought of the growing life within her and glanced back at the rolling indigo water. Although she had only recently learned to paddle--at Merrick's insistence--she might indeed make it to shore. But could she risk it? She had more to consider now than her own life.
The pirate shoved her, and she clambered up the ropes despite the quivering in her knees.
At the top, a strong arm grabbed hers and assisted her on deck. Her silk broaced shoes hit the wood planks with a slap. A salty breeze tossed her wayward curls about her face. She looked up. Dark, sinister eyes bored into hers. A crooked grin spread over his lips.
"Ah, my sweet, we are together again at last." He sauntered toward her. the thud of his tall leather boots ground away at her courage. With one hadn on the hilt of his cutlass, he waved the other through the air, his fingers nearly hidden by a burst of white lace that bulged from the wrist of his black camlet suit. "I have dreamt of thsi moment for quite some time."
"Kent," Charlisse hissed between clenched teeth.
He flashed a stern look. "Captain Carlton, if you please." Doffing a black hat with a sweep of ostrich feather, he bowed. "Welcome to my ship, the Vanquisher, miss."
"Lady Merrick Hyde to you."
"Ah, yes. I heard you married that buffoon, Merrick." He shook his head. "Such a waste of your exquisite beauty."
Charlisse lifted her chin. "And your charm, sir, is wasted on me. You forget, I know you."
The rest of the pirates had climbed over the rail and shuffled off to their posts, casting quick glances her way.
"What do youwant with me?" Charlisse could hear the crack in her own voice despite her efforts to appear calm. She inched her way toward the railing.
Kent leered at her from under heavy lids, following her movments. "What I have always wanted with you."
The effect of his licentious comment crept up her spin like a poisonous snake. Charlisse glanced at the swirling water. Perhaps it was better, after all, to risk her life and her child's rather than endure the lecherous advances of this madman.