August 1713, English Channel
off Portsmouth, England
This was Dajon Waite’s last chance. If he didn’t sail his father’s merchant ship and the cargo she held safely into harbor, his future would be tossed to the wind. With his head held high, he marched across the deck of the Lady Em and gazed over the choppy seas of the channel, expecting at any minute to see the lights of Portsmouth pierce the gray shroud of dusk. Another hour and his mission would be completed with success. It had taken two years before his father had trusted him to captain the most prized vessel in his merchant fleet, the Lady Em --- named after Dajon’s mother, Emily --- especially on a journey that had taken him past hostile France and Spain and then far into the pirate-infested waters off the African coast.
Fisting his hands on his hips, Dajon puffed out his chest and drew a deep breath of salty air and the scent of musky earth --- the smell of home. Returning with a shipload of ivory, gold, and pepper from the Gold Coast, Dajon could almost see the beaming approval on his father’s sea-weathered face. Finally, Dajon would prove himself an equal to his older brother, Theodore --- obedient, perfect Theodore --- who never let his father down. Dajon, however, had been labeled naught but capricious and unruly, the son who possessed neither the courage for command nor the brains for business.
Fog rolled in from the sea, obscuring the sunset into a dull blend of muted colors as it stole the remaining light of what had been a glorious day. Bowing his head, Dajon thanked God for His blessing and protection on the voyage.
“A sail, a sail!” a coarse voice blared from above.
Plucking the spyglass from his belt, Dajon held it to his eye. “Where away, Mules?”
“Directly off our lee, Captain.”
Dajon swerved the glass to the port and adjusted it as Cudney, his first mate, halted beside him.
“She seems to be foundering, Captain,” Mules shouted.
Through the glass, the dark outline of a ship came into focus, the whites of her sails stark against the encroaching night. Gray smoke spiraled up from her quarterdeck as sailors scrambled across her in a frenzy. The British flag flapped a harried plea from her mainmast.
“Hard to larboard,” he yelled aft, lowering the glass. “Head straight for her, Mr. Nelson.”
“Straight for her, sir.”
“Beggin’ your pardon, Captain.” Cudney gave him a sideways glance. “But didn’t your father give explicit orders never to approach an unknown vessel?”
“My father is not the captain of this ship, and I’ll thank you to obey my orders without question.” Dajon stiffened his lips, tired of having his decisions challenged. True, he had failed on two of his father’s prior ventures --- one to the West Indies where a hurricane sank his ship, and the other where he ran aground on the shoals off Portugal. Neither had been his fault. But this time, things would be different. Perhaps his father would even promote Dajon to head overseer of his affairs.
With a nod, Cudney turned. “Mr. Blake, Mr. Gibes, prepare to luff, if you please.” His bellowing voice echoed over the decks, sending the men up the shrouds.
“Who is she?” Cudney held out his hand for the glass.
“A merchant ship, perhaps.” Dajon handed him the telescope then gripped the railing as the Lady Em veered to larboard, sending a spray of seawater over her decks. “But she’s British, and she’s in trouble.”
The ship lumbered over the agitated waves. Dajon watched Cudney as he steadied the glass on his eye and his boots on the sodden deck. A low whistle spilled from his mouth as he twisted the glass for a better look.
“Pray tell, Mr. Cudney, what has caught your eye --- one of those new ship’s wheels you’ve been coveting?”
“Nay, Captain. But something nearly as beautiful --- a lady.”
Dajon snatched the glass back as the Lady Em climbed a rising swell and then tromped down the other side. As the vessel’s sails snapped in the rising wind, he braced his boots on the deck and focused the glass on the merchant ship. A woman clung to the foremast, panic distorting her features --- indistinct through the distant haze. She raised a delicate hand to her forehead as if she were going to faint. Red curls fluttered in the wind behind her. Heat flooded Dajon despite the chill of the channel. Lowering the glass, he tapped it into the palm of his hand, loathing himself for his shameless reaction. Hadn’t his weakness for the female gender already caused enough pain?
Yet clearly the vessel was in trouble.
“We shall come alongside her,” Dajon ordered.
Cudney glared at the ship. “Something is not right. I can feel it in my gut.”
“Nonsense. Where is your chivalry?” Dajon smiled grimly at his friend, ignoring the hair bristling on the back of his own neck.
Cudney’s dark eyes shot to Dajon. “But your father --- ”
“Enough!” Dajon snapped. “My father did not intend for me to allow a lady to drown. Besides, pirates would not dare sail so close to England --- especially to Portsmouth, where so many of His Majesty’s warships are anchored.” Dajon glanced back at the foundering ship, now only half a knot off their bow. Smoke poured from her waist, curling like a snake into the dark sky. Left to burn, the fire would sink her within an hour. “Surely you do not suspect a woman of piracy?”
Cudney cocked one brow. “Begging your pardon, Captain, but I have seen stranger things on these seas.”
Faith Louise Westcott flung her red hair behind her and held a quivering hand to her brow, nausea rising in her throat at her idiotic display. How did women feign such weakness without losing the contents of their stomachs?
“They ’ave taken the bait, mistress.” A sinister chuckle filled the breeze.
“Oh, thank heavens.” Faith released the mast. Planting a hand on her hip, she gave Lucas a mischievous grin. “Well, what are you waiting for? Ready the men.”
“Aye, aye.” The bulky first mate winked then scuttled across the deck, his bald head gleaming in the light from the lantern hanging on the mainmast.
After checking the pistol that was stuffed in the sash of her gown and the one strapped to her calf, Faith sauntered to the railing to get a better look at her latest victim, a sleek, two-masted brigantine. The orange, white, and blue of the Dutch flag fluttered from her mizzen. A very nice prize, indeed. One that would bring her even closer to winning the private war she waged --- a war for the survival of her and her sisters.
The oncoming ship sat low in the water, its hold no doubt packed with valuable cargo. Faith grinned. With this ship and the one she had plundered earlier, loaded with precious spices and silks, she was well on her way to amassing the fortune that would provide for her independence and that of her sisters --- at least the two sisters who were left unfettered by unholy matrimony.
She allowed her thoughts to drift for a moment to Charity, the eldest. Last year their father had forced her into a union with Lord Villement, a vile, perverse man who had oppressed and mistreated her beyond what anyone should endure. Faith feared for her sister’s safety and prayed for God to deliver Charity, but to no avail.
Then, of course, there was the incident with Hope, their younger sister.
That was when Faith had stopped praying, had stopped hoping, had stopped believing in a God who claimed to love and care for His children.
She would rather die than see her two younger sisters chained to abusive men, and the only way to avoid that fate was to shield them with their own fortune --- a fortune she must provide since British law prohibited women from inheriting their father’s wealth. Cringing, she stifled the fury bubbling in her stomach. She mustn’t think of it now. She had a ship to plunder, and this was as much for Charity as it was for any of them.
The bowsprit of the brigantine bowed in obedience to her as it plunged over the white-capped swells. Gazing into the hazy mist, Faith longed to get a peek at the ninnies who had been so easily duped by her ruse, but she dared not raise the spyglass to her eye.
Putting on her most flirtatious smile, she waved at her prey, beckoning the fools onward, then she scanned the deck as her crew rushed to their stations. Aboard her ship, she was in control; she was master of her life, her future --- here and nowhere else. And oh, how she loved it!
Lucas’s large frame appeared beside her. “The rest of the men be waitin’ yer command below hatches, mistress.” He smacked his oversized lips together in a hungry sound Faith had become accustomed to before a battle. Nodding, she scanned her ship. Wilson manned the helm; Grayson and Lambert hovered over the fire, pretending to put it out; and Kane and Mac clambered up the ratlines in a pretense of fear. She spotted Morgan pacing the special perch Faith had nailed into the mainmast just for him. She whistled, and the red macaw halted, bobbed his head up and down, and squawked, “Man the guns, man the guns!”
Faith smiled. She had purchased the bird from a trader off Morocco and named him after Captain Henry Morgan, the greatest pirate of all time. The feisty parrot had been a fine addition to her crew.
Bates, her master gunner, hobbled to her side, wringing his thick hands together in anticipation. “Can I just fire one shot at ’em, Cap’n? The guns grow cold from lack of use.” His expression twisted into a pout that reminded her of Hope, her younger sister. “I won’t hurt ’em none; ye have me word.”
“I cannot take that chance, Bates. You know the rules,” Faith said as the gunner’s soot-blackened face fell in disappointment. “No one gets hurt, or we abandon the prize. But I promise we shall test the guns soon enough.”
With a grunt, Bates hobbled away and disappeared below.
Returning her gaze to her unsuspecting prey, Faith inhaled a breath of the crisp air. Smoke bit her throat and nose, but she stifled a cough as the thrill of her impending victory charged through her, setting every nerve aflame. The merchant ship was nigh upon them. She could already make out the worried expressions upon the crew’s faces as they charged to her rescue.
This is for you, Charity, and for you, Mother.
Heavy fog blanketed the two ships in gray that darkened with each passing minute. Faith tugged her shawl tighter against her body, both to ward off the chill and to hide the pistol in her sash. A vision of her mother’s pale face formed in the fog before her, blood marring the sheets on the birthing bed where she lay.
“Take care of your sisters, Faith.”
A gust of wind chilled Faith’s moist cheeks. A tear splattered onto the deck by her shoes before she brushed the rest from her face. “I will, Mother. I promise.”
“Ahoy there!” A booming voice shattered her memories.
She raised her hand in greeting toward the brigantine as it heaved ten yards off their starboard beam. “Ahoy, kind sir. Thank God you have arrived in time,” she yelled back, sending the sailors scurrying across the deck. Soon they lowered a cockboat, filled it with men, and shoved off.
A twinge of guilt poked at Faith’s resolve. These men had come to her aid with kind intentions. She swallowed hard, trying to drown her nagging conscience. They were naught but rich merchants, she told herself, and she, merely a Robin Hood of the seas, taking from the rich to feed the poor. Well, perhaps not the poor, but certainly the needy. Besides, she had exhausted all legal means of acquiring the money she needed, and present society offered her no other choice.
The boat thumped against her hull, and she nodded at Kane and Mac, who had jumped down from the shrouds and tossed the rope ladder over the side.
“Permission to come aboard?” The man who appeared to be the captain shouted toward Lucas as he swung his legs over the bulwarks, but his eyes were upon Faith.
By all means. Faith shoved a floppy fisherman’s hat atop her head, obscuring her features from his view, and smiled sweetly.
“Aye, I beg ye, be quick about it afore our ship burns to a cinder,” the massive bald man beckoned to Dajon.
Dajon hesitated. He knew he should obey his father’s instructions, he knew he shouldn’t risk the hoard of goods in his hold, he knew he should pay heed to the foreboding of dread that now sank like an anchor in his stomach, but all he could see was the lady’s admiring smile beneath the shadow of her hat, and he led his men over the bulwarks.
After directing them to assist in putting out the fire, he marched toward the dark bald man and bowed.
“Captain Dajon Waite at your service.”
When his gaze drifted to the lady, she slunk into the shadows by the foremast, her features lost in the dim light. Odd. Somehow he had envisioned a much warmer reception. At the very least, some display of feminine appreciation.
“Give ’em no quarter! Give ’em no quarter!” a shrill voice shrieked, drawing Dajon’s attention behind him to a large red parrot perched on a peg jutting from the mainmast.
A sharp blade of fear stabbed him.
“Captain,” one of his crew called from the quarterdeck. “The ship ain’t on fire. It’s just a barrel with flaming rubbish inside it!”
The anchor that had sunk in Dajon’s stomach dropped into his boots with an ominous clunk.
He spun back around, hoping for an explanation, but all he received was a sinister grin on the bald man’s mouth.
Alarm seized Dajon, sucking away his confidence, his reason, his pride. Surely he could not have been this daft. He glanced back at the Lady Em, bobbing in the sea beside them --- the pride of his father’s fleet.
“To battle, men!” the woman roared in a commanding voice belying her gender --- a voice that pummeled Dajon’s heart to dust.
Dozens of pirates spat from the hatches onto the deck. Brandishing weapons, they rushed toward his startled crew. One by one, his men dropped their buckets to the wooden planks with hollow thuds and slowly raised their hands. Their anxious gazes shot to Dajon, seeking his command. The pirates chortled as Dajon’s fear exploded into a searing rage. They were surrounded.
The woman drew a pistol from her sash. Dajon could barely make out the tilted lift of her lips. He wiped the sweat from his brow and prayed to God that he would wake up from this nightmare.
“I thank you, Captain, for your chivalrous rescue.” The woman pointed her pistol at him and cocked it with a snap. “But I believe I’ll be taking over your ship.”
Excerpted from THE RED SIREN: Charles Towne Belle Series, Book 1 © Copyright 2011 by M. L. Tyndall. Reprinted with permission by Barbour Publishing, Inc. All rights reserved.