“These acts of predation must cease!” The judge’s voice boomed to all four corners of the oak paneled courtroom. The black robed magistrate of the Admiralty court continued his high-pitched rail at a ragtag group of prisoners standing before him. The tattered lot shuffled their feet, the chains binding them together rattling as if in punctuation to the judge’s rambling dissertation on their fate.
In the last bench near the doorway, the Lord Admiral shook his head. “Leave it to Porter to use such a top-lofty speech on such an illiterate pack of thieves,” he whispered to his companion, Captain William Johnston.
“Practicing for his turn in the House of Lords, I’d wager,” Captain Johnston replied. Porter’s father had been poorly of late and it was well known that Porter was pulling at the tide for the old man to stick his fork in the wall—leaving him free to resign from the Admiralty bench and assume his father’s title and seat.
If only Captain Johnston could be so lucky to have a dying father—at least a wealthy titled one.
Instead, he was the fifth son of a poor fisherman, who had barely a net to cast out, let alone a title. No, Will Johnston, unlike his well-connected friends, had through his own talents risen to the rank of captain in his Majesty’s navy.
Still, what was a captain without a ship? A poor excuse for a sailor marooned ashore on half-pay, that’s what he was.
He barely listened to the proceedings before them, for he knew that Porter loved the sound of his own voice and the poor buggers would be half-dead before they ever saw the hangman.
He was almost as anxious as the smugglers to learn what Porter had in store for them. For when they were done, he’d learn his fate as well.
The Lord Admiral hadn’t dragged him down here to Porter’s courtroom if it wasn’t for some reason. Peter Cottwell, Lord Admiral of His Majesty’s navy didn’t do anything without a reason. Will held out a tenuous hope that Peter didn’t need a favor, rather he was about to extend one.
A ship. The Lord Admiral had the largesse and the power to grant one. And Will needed a ship.
Almost as much as he needed a drink. Shifting in his seat, he crossed his arms over his chest and held back the shakes threatening to reveal his poor condition to the very man who could give him what he wanted.
He’d kept his promise to his dear Mary and not taken a drop this morning in preparation for his meeting with the Lord Admiral.
The Lord Admiral. He glanced over at the man beside him, his pressed and crisp uniform glittering in sharp contrast to the wrinkled tatters worn by the prisoners.
A real laugh it was to see Peter Cottwell strutting about in an Admiral’s uniform. An admiral! Why he, Cottwell and Porter had been nothing but frightened boys when they’d first sailed together some forty years ago on the Faithful.
Now look at them—an Admiral, a respected magistrate, and a tired, broken captain.
Still, Peter wouldn’t have called him down here to meet with Porter if it wasn’t to toast Will’s new ship.
The image of the beautiful lady rose up before his weary eyes as if in portent of a future so close at hand. Beneath his feet he could almost feel the pitch of the deck as the bonny new ship danced with the waves, the sun in his eye as he charted a new course, the smell of tar and pitch and new paint filling his nostrils.
Never mind that a war raged out on those seas. A man could forget about his thirst when such things surrounded him, ruled his life.
“The merchants are all up in arms, not to mention some rather high ranking investors in the House of Lords. Why after that damned pirate de Ryes sunk the Greco and the Joyful, he sailed right up into a Scottish harbor and demanded the villagers provision him out of the government stores. Damn cheek, these Americans. Need to be taught a lesson,” the Lord Admiral remarked.
“So I’ve heard,” William murmured. He had no desire to go out and seek fame and fortune by hunting down the likes of de Ryes. No, he just wanted a nice packet to sail. Steady work, commanding a packet. No worries about privateers seeking their fortunes against you. Just back and forth between England and some far flung port.
The Lord Admiral shot a scornful look up at the prisoners before them. “If I don’t find a way to stop de Ryes, I’ll be spending my retirement scrubbing barnacles off the nearest prison hulk. And you right alongside me, my friend.”
Captain Johnston looked up, startled out of his own hazy dreams. He was already on half pay, and even that he knew was only through the generosity of his old shipmate, the Lord Admiral.
But go after de Ryes? He licked his lips and thought about the bottle of rum he had hidden in his study back home.
The notorious American privateer had sunk far better sailors than Will, and now the Lord Admiral thought to send him out into that fray?
And here he’d prayed for the Dublin run. Easy work, back and forth to Ireland, with little or no chance of losing one’s way or attracting the attention of a privateer what with a cargo of Admiralty missives about requisitions and promotions.
“De Ryes?” he said, hugging his chest tighter to keep his voice from shaking like an old woman’s. Will might need a commission, but not one that would leave him in an icy Atlantic grave.
“Aye, de Ryes. That’s why I asked you to join Porter and me. I need your help. ‘Tis rumored de Ryes has full run of the ton, as well as his own contacts in the Admiralty. He’s right under our nose and I can’t find him to save my life. Our lives.”
“De Ryes, in London?” Will shook his head. “Who’d believe the man would have so much cheek?”
“Aye. It’s why he’s able to take his pick of only the best prizes, the most important ships. He knows their cargo and when they are sailing.”
“And how do you expect us to help you find him?” Will ventured. While his wife, Mary, was the daughter of a viscount, and still had some connections in the ton, their financial situation had limited their social rank. The type of society that would give de Ryes access to such highly secretive information could come only at the top levels. A level Will couldn’t afford.
“Milord, no one knows what the man even looks like,” he said cautiously.
“Don’t milord me, old friend. In a case like this, it’s Peter, like it was on the Faithful. You and Porter are my oldest friends. I need your help. I thought we’d share a pint, like we used to, and perhaps we could, between the three of us, come up with a plan to catch this rascal.”
Will saw his ship of dreams sink under the waves, dashed by the desperate tones he heard in Peter’s voice. There would be no ship, not today.
Besides, he knew the Lord Admiral and how he worked—the crafty sea dragon hadn’t called him down here if not for a reason. Perhaps he even had a plan, one he needed Porter and him to implement, to do his dirty work.
A better man, Will knew, would have been insulted by these games, but a better man wouldn’t be on half-pay and beholden to the likes of Peter Cottwell.
Something he would be for the rest of his days.
He sighed and closed his eyes for a moment. Mary had been so proud of him this morning when he’d left their little house, full of promise of the riches that would at last be theirs.
How could he tell her, once again, that he’d failed?
Up at the bench, Porter cleared his throat. “I pronounce that each able bodied member of this crew be immediately transported for indefinite service in his Majesty’s Royal Navy. And you, Captain Hawthorne, fate has different course for you. I order that you be hanged by your neck until dead.”
Captain Hawthorne? Will’s gaze jerked up toward the bench. He hadn’t heard that name in…well, long enough for him to have almost forgotten it.
He perked up in his seat to study the prisoner at the end of the row.
Hawthorne. It couldn’t be the same man. Too slight, and too straight for a man in his sixties. Even if he was alive, which was highly unlikely. Will glanced over at the Lord Admiral to see if the name affected him in any way, but Cottwell sat with his usual ramrod posture and unruffled features.
As if he’d known the prisoner’s name all along. A shiver of unease trembled over Will’s already shaky hold on his limbs. ‘Twas as if Peter had called them down here to remember…to remember what they owed him.
No, Will concluded, he’d heard Porter wrong.
Captain Hawthorne, indeed.
It was this damn lack of drink—it was making him hear things.
“Do you have anything to say, Captain?” Porter asked the prisoner.
Though the man’s back was to them, Will watched the prisoner rear back and spit directly at Porter’s bench.
“A curse on you, you bleeding pig.” The words rang forth with the same vengeance as the gesture, only it was the unmistakable voice of a woman who spoke.
Will blinked and looked closer. It was easy to see how he’d missed her—dressed as she was as a common sailor, the oversized coat and tight knit cap hiding any evidence of a female shape.
“I ain’t no pirate, and neither are me men,” the woman continued. “We’re innocent traders, I tell ye, innocent.”
Porter’s face colored to a mottled red. “I’ll have no more of that from you, Maureen Hawthorne. Traders indeed! Smugglers and marauders would be a more apt description, but it doesn’t matter to me what you call yourself, you’ll find the same fate in His Majesty’s courts.” Porter reached for his gavel and pointed it directly at his prisoner. “You’re a scandal to your fair sex and hanging will serve as an example to the rest of your kind that this court will not tolerate pirates, be they a man, or,” he said with an eloquent pause, “a woman.” He turned to the idle guards standing at either side of the lot. “Take them away.”
As the Captain and her crew began their low shuffling procession out of the courtroom, Porter rose from his seat and nodded to his audience.
“Milord, I didn’t expect you until next week,” he said to the Lord Admiral, his voice rising over the rattle of chains.
The Lord Admiral bowed his head slightly, then stood. “This de Ryes matter has gotten out of hand. I need your help if I’m to find him.”
The line of smugglers came to an abrupt halt, the rattle of chains falling momentarily silent as Maureen Hawthorne turned her sharp gaze on them.
The color of her eyes tugged at Will’s heart. Like the waters off a far away Caribbean island. Warm and deep and clear.
And familiar. Too familiar.
“De Ryes?” the woman said, her voice dropped to the low angry growl of an alley cat. “What do you know of that murdering scum?”
The Lord Admiral drew himself up to his full height, a move that sent many a seaman and hardened naval officers alike scurrying under the nearest pile of ropes.
But not this woman. All it garnered from her was a cocky lift of one dark brow.
“Madame,” Cottwell said in his most formal and annoyed tone. “This is an Admiralty matter and not your concern.”
She laughed, laughed right at the Lord Admiral with the same reckless cheek that she shown when she’d spit at Porter. “So de Ryes is giving you a hard time, is he? He’s got no soul, that one, and sails with the devil at his side. You’ll not catch de Ryes, m’lord. Not you or that one,” she said with a toss of her head toward Porter. Then her knowing glance fell on Will.
Her eyes held him in a wary trance.
She couldn’t be related to that Hawthorne, he tried to tell himself, but her eyes, the color haunted him.
Years slipped away and he was once again in a courtroom looking into a pair of eyes that blamed him, cursed him. And now they beheld him once again.
No, he told himself. This lass couldn’t know what he’d done. He washed the thought away. It was an idea worse than a life without rum.
But the girl still studied at him as if she sensed his fears. “Or this one as well,” she said, her gaze never leaving his. “He looks like the only course he’s going to chart is to the nearest gin shop. He’ll need a drink before he’ll find de Ryes, that is if he can still sail a straight line.”
Her words, spoken by another, might have rang with contempt, but there was a to sadness in her insight.
She was right. Will didn’t need a drink, he needed an entire bottle. And he hadn’t charted a straight line in nearly fifteen years.
Cottwell glared at the guards, who finally got back to the task at hand and prodded their prisoners forward.
But Maureen Hawthorne was not done. “You’ll not find de Ryes, m’lord. Not without someone who’s seen his face. Someone like me.” She grinned and followed the guards out of the courtroom, whistling a particularly bawdy Irish ballad.
The Lord Admiral’s arm swung up, halting the procession. “What do you know of de Ryes?”
She glanced over her shoulder, her mouth turned up. “Enough to catch him. Enough to know what he looks like.”
The entire courtroom stilled, as if this woman had just offered them a long lost Spanish treasure trove of gold.
“And how would that be?” the Lord Admiral asked.
It was her turn to rise up to her full height. “I used to be his wife.”