Keep in mind, dear readers, how my mind works…this may or may not appear in the final copy, but it certainly is in the working copy *s*
“You will tell me what I want to know, little puta.”
The words vibrated against Emma’s ear and sent cold shivers scratching down her spine. There was a frightening edge of pleasure in the huskiness of his voice, as if he was hoping she would remain stubbornly quiet. She suspected that he derived pleasure from the fear he instilled in others and she knew he would use it against her if she faltered by so much as a quivered breath. Determined to deny him, her teeth were set in a hard clench. Her fingers were curled around the cords of the ropes that were twisted around her wrists and draped over a low-hanging beam. The ropes had been pulled taut, forcing her arms apart and her body up onto the tips of her toes.
It had taken three of them to subdue her, another two to drag her across the packed earth floor while she kicked and hissed and bit at any exposed flesh. Someone had punched her brutally across the jaw, rendering her dazed enough for the ropes to be secured to her wrists and ankles. There were others in the room. Unseen faces, shapes without substance that watched and whispered from the shadows. Light from the open door streamed through to illuminate the circle where she hung, blinding her to all but faint flashes of metal from pistol-barrels and swords.
She was the focus of their attention. And their amusement. A dozen or more had filed into the cavernous chamber after she had been dragged in. Some sat cross-legged on the floor as if anticipating an enjoyable entertainment to come. Others leaned indolently against the rough stone wall, taking a break from their whoring and gaming.
“You show courage, puta. Far more than is wise or necessary.”
The words were burdened under a heavy Spanish accent. The threat behind them was stark and needed no interpretation as Estevan Quintano Muertraigo touched the cold steel blade of a dagger against the side of her neck.
Small dark eyes roved over her face, staring at the blood that trickled from her split lip. They moved on, glittering with interest when they touched upon the tiny tear at the top of her shirt.
“Tell me again, puta,” he leaned close enough she could taste his breath. “Where did you get this?”
Her eyes flickered to the roughly minted silver escudo he held up in his hands.
“I told you,” she whispered. “It was given to me.”
“As payment?” A grin brought the point of the knife dragging downward to the rent in the garment. “Your services are worth so much?”
A deft twist of his wrist sent the steel sliding into the frayed seam to slice it open all the way down her back. As the cloth parted, the whispers and murmurings from the spectators ended abruptly, leaving only the soft hssssssssssssss of the blade to fill the silence as he expertly and methodically cut away the rest of her shirt.
Emma drew a slow breath to calm the pounding in her breast. The blood was flowing hot and fast through her veins, flushing her skin a feverish, mottled pink even though the air was chilled where it touched her exposed flesh.
“Who offered such largesse? Who was it who paid so dearly for these…services? Who—” his lips scraped across her ear again—”paid you with a coin that went down in the hold of a ship lost at sea twenty years ago?”
She steeled herself to keep from flinching. “I have no idea where the coin came from. I know nothing about any ship lost at sea.”
He smiled faintly and raised his voice for the benefit of the audience. “The Nuestra Santissimo Vittorio. Also known as la nave que nunca estaba. The ship that never was. She disappeared nearly twenty years ago with a cargo reputed to be worth more than the treasure chests of England and Spain combined. She set sail from Havana with the spring plate fleet and was never seen again. None of her cargo of bullion and silver ever surfaced—“ he held the coin up, turning it before her eyes—“until now. Until this was seen hanging around the neck of the golden-haired puta.”
“I told you,” she said evenly. “I know nothing about it. I thought it was a pretty trinket, nothing more.”
A growl lowered his voice to a threatening whisper. “Now you lie outright, puta, and that makes me angry. Very angry.”
There was a hint of appreciation for the defiance he saw in the clear blue of her eyes, but it was not enough to keep the tip of the knife from sliding down to the waist of her breeches. It slivered through the cloth with a quick flick of his wrist then sliced downward, following the slender curve of her hip to her thigh, then down to her ankle, leaving the doeskin split wide open.
She would have liked to kick out at her tormentor; to twist her hands free of the ropes and claw his face to ribbons, but the bindings around her wrists were tight enough to turn her hands blue, and those around her ankles had been secured to ringbolts driven into the hard-packed floor. Splayed and vulnerable, she could do little more than writhe and thrash her head, scattering her tangled blonde hair wildly over her shoulders.
Muertraigo smiled and with another downward slicing of the knife, cut the fabric of her other trouser leg until it too hung open and fell away from her pried-apart legs. A simple twist of the wrist and the shredded garment fell to the floor, prompting a lusty murmur from the surrounding onlookers.
Her legs were long and smooth, taut with muscle, pale as candlewax. The tuft of yellow curls at the juncture of her thighs earned a soft combing with the tip of the blade.
“So. You know nothing about the coin?”
She made a sound in her throat then spat the words free. “I told you, I know nothing. Nothing!”
Muertraigo’s lips pressed into a thin line that passed for a smile. “We all know something, my dear. And I can say with some certainty that you will be singing out everything you know before the sands fall through the hour glass.”
“Then do your worst, capitain,” she spat. “For I have no knowledge beyond what I have told you already.”
The Spaniard chuckled low in his throat. “One should indeed be careful what one wishes for.”
He walked a full, slow circle around her, his dark eyes lingering here and there, gauging, and speculating. The cold inspection caused an involuntary reaction in her flesh, making her skin feel as if it was crawling with spiders.
The knife came up again and was used like a hand to caress her. The flat of the blade skimmed down the side of her neck and onto her chest following the stretched curve of her breast to push aside the waves of her hair. An appreciative grunt brought the point to rest against the raised peak of one puckered nipple and, with a slight tilt of his head, he pressed the steel inward, dimpling the flesh until there was no more give.
Despite her resolve, a faint sound escaped her lips as the tip of the knife pressed again and the skin gave with a small pop. Almost instantly a small bead of blood welled and parted in twin rivulets to trickle down either side of the knife point.
“Are you certain you can recall nothing else?”
Muertraigo’s voice was smooth as silk, almost paternal in its concern, while hers came out a dry, shaky rasp. “I know nothing more than what I have told you. No matter how many times you ask. I can’t tell you what I don’t know.”
He smiled and leaned close, breathing vapors laden with garlic and olive oil against her ear. “How I wish I believed you, puta, for it will be a shame to damage such beauty.”
He started to drag the blade down toward her belly, when something intruded on his concentration. A shadow cut across the beam of light as the silhouette of a man filled the doorway. Muertraigo frowned and his eyes sought the source of the intrusion. His lips curled with the beginnings of a snarl, but then he straightened suddenly, and the pressure on the knife eased.
“Madre de dios,” he muttered. “Look what the wind has blown in from the sea.”
The newcomer stepped into the room and as he walked forward, the silence became so absolute, Emma could hear the tiny grains of sand cracking beneath the heels of his boots. She blinked several times trying to see through the flare of light that kept the stranger’s features in darkness, but all she could see was broad shoulders and waves of long dark hair.
“Estevan Muertraigo, as I live and breathe,” he said, circling slowly around behind Emma. She twisted as much as she could, trying to keep the intruder in sight, but he moved directly behind her so that he became just a voice and a presence.
“I had heard you were further south, in Tobago,” the Spaniard said.
“I had heard a boucan-eater had sent your ship to hell, cheating me of the pleasure.”
Muertraigo tipped his head back and laughed. “You have an uncanny knack, my friend, of appearing at the most opportune moments. You must tell me, one day, how you do it.”
The newcomer moved again, enough that the light from the torches gilded his profile. His face was cleanly shaven but for a fashionably trimmed vee of dark hair on his chin. A faint white scar traced a line down his right cheek from temple to jaw, barely visible through the sun-bronzed tan. His hair was dark and thick, falling in careless waves to just below his shoulders. He wore a broad-brimmed cavalier’s hat which kept his eyes in shadow, but his doublet was black velvet and the sword he wore strapped to his hip was of the finest Toledo steel with an ornately swirled guard. A brace of long-snouted pistols was tucked into a wide leather bandolier…a brazen display of boldness in a tavern filled with Spanish pirates.
Emma shivered, causing the shadowed eyes to flick casually over her exposed body.
“Am I interrupting something?”
Muertraigo’s lips curved. “An amusement, nothing more.”
The stranger lifted a hand and touched a long, blunt-tipped finger to the thin stripe of blood running from her nipple. She tried to flinch back but was drawn up short by the ropes, which brought eyes the color of a moonlit sea flickering back to her face. The faintest hint of a smile touched his lips as he offered a thoughtful suggestion.
“I would advise you to tell the capitain what he wants to know, girl. His…amusements…can go on for hours, which is why you see such a crowd of eager onlookers gathered here. Ever the generous man, he takes what he wants first, then shares.”
Emma bit her lip but said nothing.
“Stay and enjoy if you wish,” Muertraigo offered. “You might find it interesting.”
The newcomer chuckled and started to walk back toward the door. “I have an impatient, hot-mouthed wench waiting for me in the tavern; I happily leave you to your business.”
Muertraigo seemed to hold a quick debate within himself, then released a hiss of air and tossed the silver escudo through the air, high enough that it flipped several times over before the stranger’s hand flashed out and deftly caught it.
“Tell me what you see, Dante.”
Gabriel Dante rolled the coin in his fingers a moment before angling it into the light. He turned the escudo this way and that, studying the markings and stamps on both surfaces. His face betrayed nothing, but a sudden tightness in his lips had him looking sharply over at the Spanish captain.
“Where did you get this?”
“Your learned opinion first.”
“The silver is pure, the markings look genuine enough, though it is difficult to be one hundred percent certain without a few more coins for comparison.”
Muertraigo’s eyes glittered. “Are you saying it is real?”
Dante shrugged and turned the coin over in his hand once more before flipping it back to the Spaniard. “I would say it was one of about ten thousand such coins minted and packed aboard the Nuestra Santissimo Vittorio for King Phillip’s royal pleasure. How the bloody hell did it end up in your hands?”
Muertraigo’s chest swelled with a deep breath. “The real mystery my friend, is how it came to be in the hands of a yellow-haired Englishwoman who claims to have earned it for her skills on her back.”
Dante whistled softly and looked at the girl again. “She must be quite talented indeed. Perhaps I will stay a while and watch although, as I overheard you say, it would be a shame to damage such beauty. Surely she would be worth more alive and unmarked?”
“Her only value to me at the moment is what she has up here.” Muertraigo tapped his temple with a forefinger. “And I will do what is necessary to get it out.”
Dante shook his head. “That is the trouble with you Spaniards; always in such a hurry to use a knife or whip or stretch someone on a rack. I warrant your Inquisitors come from a special breed of brutes and whoremongers who would not know an honest answer if it was being screamed at them.”
“And you would get answers how: By offering wine and sweetmeats?”
Dante chuckled and tipped his head toward the girl. “May I?”
Muertraigo frowned, crossed his arms over his chest, then nodded. “Be my guest.”
Dante moved closer to Emma, who had been watching the two men through the straggly, damp fringe of hair that had fallen over her face. She balked as the privateer reached up to brush the tumbled strands back behind her ear, then braced herself tersely as he leaned in, shading her face under the wide brim of his hat, and began whispering words that only she could hear. His breath was warm, his voice low and soft, and the more he whispered, the wider and rounder her eyes grew.
When he finished, he straightened and glanced at Muertraigo. “Now then, Estevan, what is it you wish to know?”
Muertraigo’s eyes narrowed. “Where did she get the coin?”
Dante’s gaze returned to the girl and he crooked an eyebrow.
She moistened her lips before murmuring, “It was given to me by an Englishman. I agreed to carry it home, to England, and deliver it to his partner with a message.”
“You are a long way from England, puta.”
Her teeth grated at the repeated inference that she was a whore. “I was on board the Cormorant when it was attacked and sunk. I have been trying to find another passage home ever since.”
Muertraigo studied her intently. The Cormorant had been a merchant vessel laden with rubber and coffee. News of its capture and subsequent demise had been credited to a French privateer who rarely troubled himself to keep hostages. Those he did not drown right away, he tossed overboard when he came within sight of land, leaving it to the Fates if they sank or swam ashore.
“What was the message you were to deliver?”
Dante cleared his throat and indicated, with a discreet tipping of his head, the circle of spectators. “Are you certain you wish all of these rogues to know the answer?”
Muertraigo scowled and snapped his fingers at a big, burly guard. Within minutes the room was cleared of grumbling men and the heavy oak door was firmly shut behind them.
“The message,” he said to Emma again. “What was it?”
She was shivering in the chilled air as she looked from Dante to the Spaniard, back to Dante. Her hands were numb and her shoulders were aching from being stretched apart. A tear trickled slowly down her cheek, defying her efforts not to show any weakness.
“The message,” she stammered, “was simply, that he had found it. He had found it and he needed a ship and men to help recover it.”
“It? What was it? Did he say what ‘it’ was?”
“That was the entire message. He said his partner would know what he meant.”
“And the name of this Englishman? The one who trusted you with this…trinket?”
She bit her lip and shot a glance at Dante again. “Chandler. William Chandler.”
Muertraigo did not seem surprised hearing the name. If anything, he accepted it almost as a confirmation as he turned and paced to the wall, murmuring to himself. “There have been rumors carried on the wind that the mad Englishman might not be as mad as everyone imagined. Bueno.” He half-turned and looked back at her. “Where did you last see him? Where did he–?”
The question went unfinished as Dante’s fist struck the side of his head, knocking him hard against the wall. The blow was driven by all the strength in Dante’s powerful shoulders and was more than sufficient to knock the Spaniard senseless. Muertraigo’s head snapped to the side and his eyes rolled back until only the whites showed. His body fell back, dealing another hard blow to his head as it bounced off the stone wall.
“I think she has answered enough of your questions,” Dante murmured. He dragged the Spaniard into the darkest corner of the room then unsheathed a dagger and went over to where Emma was hanging, spread-eagled and naked. Four swift slashes across the ropes freed her.
The whimper that escaped her lips was smothered as he drew her into the circle of his arm and kissed her hard and full on the mouth.
He released her just as quickly and took her chin in his hand, his eyes glittering with genuine annoyance. “The next time, Miss Chandler, when I tell you to stay put, it means: Stay bloody well put. I had the devil of a time finding you.”
She blinked a moment in the uncertain light, her lips still parted, moist with the taste of him.
“I…I am glad you did,” she managed to say, shuddering and glancing toward the dark corner. “That filthy bastard had his hands all over me. Had you been five minutes later–”
“Had I been five minutes later I might not have been able to deter him from what he truly wanted, aside from information about the coin. Although I must say, seeing you hanging there all naked and exposed put some decidedly similar thoughts into my head.”
He released her chin and returned to the unconscious Spaniard. While Emma flexed and massaged her hands to gain some feeling back, he stripped the captain of his tunic, shirt, and breeches and tossed them over.
“Put these on, quickly.”
“As for not staying put,” she said sullenly, “I was hungry. I only thought to buy a loaf of bread and a glass of ale.”
“With the escudo?”
“No, of course not. Someone must have seen it hanging around my neck.”
“Well it was surely the wrong someone, and now that Muertraigo has caught the scent, he will be like a bloodhound sniffing after raw meat.”
“Can you not just…I don’t know…slit his throat or something?”
“Slit his throat?” Dante chuckled as he tugged at the captain’s boots. “Rather cold-blooded of you.”
She stomped her feet into the supple leather boots and growled. “A credit to the company I have been keeping.”
He grinned and tucked the reclaimed escudo into his doublet. “In that case, I shall have to redouble my efforts and teach you the proper way to kiss a man who has just rescued you from certain pain and possible death.”
“May we do it somewhere away from here?”
He chuckled again and handed her one of the pistols from his bandolier. “Take this. Stay close and keep your head down. I have men outside waiting, but we still have to make it through the tavern and out the door.”
She nodded and checked to see the pan was primed, and a shot was down the barrel. When she was ready, Dante took the hat off his head and plopped it down over hers, tucking her hair out of sight and pulling the brim down low.
“Only a blind man in the dead of night would mistake you for a man, but it will have to do. Ready now?”
She nodded. “Ready.”
He went to the door and opened it a crack. The tavern was full of pirates, traders, and merchants. The air was thick with pipe smoke and redolent with the smell of unwashed bodies, cheap wine, and lusty, boisterous women who moved through the crowd selling their services. The ape-like Spaniard who had been set to watch the door by Muertraigo turned and saw Dante, who crooked a finger to beckon him inside. A hard thunk on the back of the head with a pistol butt sent the man into the same dreamless sprawl his captain was enjoying.
Dante stepped out into the noisy tavern, followed closely by Emma Chandler. She did as ordered and kept her head turned down so that all she could see from under the brim of the hat was Dante’s bootheels in front of her. He led her in a zig zag path through the raucous crowd and they were almost at the door when she happened to glance up to get her bearings. Directly ahead was a whore with her skirt shoved above her thighs. She was straddling the lap of one of the patrons, moving up and down with enough vigor that the poor man was nearly being bludgeoned by her bouncing breasts.
Emma was so startled by the sight that she stopped and stared, and by the time she regained her wits, Dante was no longer in front of her. He had moved ahead and the space between them had quickly filled with drunkards waving tankards. One of the men bumped into another and spilled his ale. A push led to a shove, which brought forth a fist swung in annoyance, and before she knew it Emma was caught in the midst of a roiling brawl.