Feeling as though he’d been punched in the gut, Adam studied the pirate captain.
The man wore an old-fashioned black frock coat trimmed in gold and cream. High leather boots folded down just below the knee. Dark, loose trousers were neatly tucked inside the boots. Then there was the jewelry; rings gleamed on each finger of the pirate’s hands, including wide circles of silver on each of the man’s thumbs. Dark auburn hair was pulled back at the pirate’s nape in a riot of shoulder-length curls. Only the wine-colored scarf covering the top of his head corralled them.
The pirate looked up, and Adam’s pent-up breath left him in a gasp. One sea-green eye sparkled up at him; the left eye was covered by a worn leather patch. Gold glinted from each ear, and a close-cropped beard and mustache, a shade darker than the pirate’s hair, framed full, sensuous lips.
“By all that’s holy, it is you,” Adam breathed. He’d been hoping the legends were merely that -- legends. But they were real. Wonderfully, terrifyingly real.
“Not very holy, mate.” The pirate spoke with the rounded vowels of the South Seas. Full lips curved in a mischievous smile, teeth gleaming white in the darkness. Gold glinted in his smile as well.
Adam tried in vain to find breath to speak to the apparition before him. He hadn’t been this nervous the first time he’d ordered men to battle.
“Who is it you think I am, then?” the pirate asked, setting his hat on the cot beside him.
“Captain Jaden Fox of the Grey Lady,” Adam forced the words out. He studied the pirate’s clothing and face, searching for something, anything, to tell him he was wrong.
“Ah,” the pirate said, coming to his feet. “It’s like that, is it?” He prowled close to the bars. “They’ve realized who they’ve got and sent you to parlay, eh?”
Adam drew in a breath, expecting to smell stale sweat and unwashed human, and perhaps things even less pleasant. Instead, a sharp, crisp breath of sea air filled his lungs. Surprise broke through his shock at meeting this man. “Not exactly. My father and brother have no idea who you are, nor would they believe me if I tried to tell them.” Just like they dismissed talk of the capricious sea Goddess Marita, who he was certain had sent the Grey Lady and her captain on this deadly errand.
“Then why are you here?” Fox asked, sprawling back on the cot like a sun-drunk cat.
“I’ve studied the legends, learned the lore, the oaths crews swear to their captains. I know about Telmarston, swallowed by the sea when those oaths were broken.” Adam licked his lips, tasting salt. “I wanted to tell you that only a handful of men know of the betrayals my father has ordered.”
“Including you,” the pirate said, tossing his hat back onto his foot.
“I found out tonight. Believe me, I’d have tried to stop them if I’d known.” He’d been hurting, unable to sleep and in search of brandy to help numb the pain when he’d overheard the conversation between Arthur and their father. Pain forgotten, he’d listened in growing horror as their plans had become dreadfully clear.
They were paying men to pretend to be pirates and get taken on as crewmembers, lying to the men that an oath given to the Drover’s Guild would protect them from breaking their oath to the ship’s captain. And it might have, if the oath wasn’t sworn on and witnessed by the sea Goddess Marita. It was an oath no one broke, so the pirates didn’t look for treachery. The Goddess showed no mercy to those who foreswore her.
The false pirates carried magical signs in their blood, letting guild mages track them. Guild ships would surround the pirate vessel and demand the surrender of the captain, promising to let the crew go unharmed. But as soon as the captain and the spy were onboard the guild ships, the pirate ship was shelled, sunk with all hands on board. It truly was a perfect plan. With no pirates to raid merchant vessels, Ralston was rapidly becoming the South’s premier port. Most of the imported goods were shipped inland, keeping the Chandler’s wagons busy, and allowing for three price increases in the past year alone. The Chandler family was becoming richer and even more powerful, and the only cost was the family honor. Though, if Adam was correct, that was about to change.
The piling of betrayal on top of betrayal had brought the crimes to the attention of the Goddess, and She’d apparently sent the Grey Lady and Captain Fox to claim vengeance. The ship and crew had been sent to the bottom of the ocean during a similar betrayal more than two hundred years ago. They hated oathbreakers.
The pirate spoke, jarring Adam from his memories. “You’d have stopped the guild from killing the pirate brethren?”
“At the very least, I’d have seen to it that the townsfolk knew what was going on.”
Fox laughed, a harsh, ugly sound. “And you think the good people of Ralston would rise up and tell the guild to stop?”
“Truthfully?” Adam asked, resting his shoulder against the bars in a vain attempt to relieve some of the strain on his left leg. When the pirate nodded, he continued, “I think some of the people would be angry, some would think the guild was right, and most wouldn’t care one way or the other, as long as they had food to put on the table. But at least they’d have made the choice.” He let more of his weight rest on the bars, almost hoping Fox would grab him and use him in an ill thought-out escape plan. He wouldn’t mind being wrong about the man’s identity, not if it would save lives.
“Truth,” Fox said. He sat up and leaned forward, chin on his hands, and peered up at Adam with one sea-green eye. “You interest me, Lieutenant.”
For a moment, Adam was startled, wondering just how much the pirate knew about him, before he remembered that Sergeant Tremont had called him by his rank. Something about the pirate drew him, made him want to prove his worth to the other man. It was no wonder the crew of the Grey Lady followed Fox, even in death; the captain had an uncanny amount of charisma. “You fascinate me, Captain,” Adam admitted.
“I’ve studied sea lore since my family moved to Ralston. The legends and tales make for entertaining reading, none more so than the tale of the Grey Lady.” Self consciously, he shifted on his crutches. “My body is limited, but my mind is free to roam the world.” How ironic it was that the thing he loved most in the world -- being on horseback with the horizon in his sights -- had been the thing that had crippled him. His horse had been hit by cannon fire during a charge and tumbled down a steep hill, shattering both Adam’s legs beyond repair by even the most skilled royal healers.
“Were you a sailor, then? In the Navy?”
“Cavalry, actually. I’d never seen the sea, until two years ago, when my father and brother moved the family south.” Ruefully, he nodded down at his crutches. “There was nothing left for me in Gervaiston.”
A soft smile transformed the captain’s face into boyish handsomeness. “You’ve come to love the sea. I can see it in your eyes.”
“Have you sailed her then, these past two years?”
“No.” Adam couldn’t keep the bitter sorrow from his voice. “I’m not exactly able-bodied, and a ship’s no place for a cripple.”
“Aye,” the pirate said. “Though it does depend on the ship.” He bounced to his feet in a move Adam envied. “You’ve given me much to think about.” Placing a hand over his heart, Fox said, “I swear to you, upon my Lady and my Goddess, the town will not suffer for acts they had no part in choosing.” He stepped up to the bars. “I would ask a boon of you.”
“Of course,” Adam said, “if it’s within my power, it’s yours.” He braced himself for the pirate’s request, expecting to lose his life or his soul in the next moment.
“First things first,” the pirate said. He thrust his hand through the bars. “Captain Jaden Fox of the Grey Lady. Servant to the sea-wench Herself.”
Adam flushed as he realized he’d never introduced himself. “I do most humbly beg your pardon. I am Adam Chandler, formerly Lieutenant in Her Majesty’s Royal Cavalry.” He took the proffered hand, expecting to feel the cold of the grave. To his surprise, Fox’s hand was warm and callused, and not at all unpleasant to touch.
Still clasping Adam’s hand, Fox rubbed the tip of his index finger across the pulse point in Adam’s wrist.
Shivering at the unexpected touch, Adam locked gazes with the pirate, whose face was quite near his. He could feel the other man’s warm breath upon his lips. “Captain?”
“A kiss,” the pirate murmured, husky voiced.
“I don’t understand,” Adam said, his eyes riveted on Fox’s full lips. “The price is a kiss?” Why would the pirate want to kiss him, another man?
“Not a price, Adam Chandler, merely a boon, a favor, freely given.” Fox rubbed his thumb across Adam’s first knuckle.
The caress sent a wave of heat rushing through Adam, centering low in his belly. He leaned forward, uncertain his ears were giving him the truth.
Their lips met between the bars.
It was...nice. The pirate’s lips were soft, and his mustache tickled Adam’s top lip. Before he could pull back, Fox’s mouth moved beneath his, parting. A warm, wet tongue darted out in a silky caress. Adam gasped at the intimate touch. The pirate seized the opportunity, yanking Adam closer and deepening their connection, until their tongues danced a duel of passion.
Adam’s cock grew hard inside his trousers, and he strained against the rough iron bars of the cell, desperate to get closer. It wasn’t until he wobbled on his crutches that sense came back. One of the cell’s bars pressed uncomfortably against his cheek, and his head was tilted at an odd angle to allow the kiss. Wrenching his mouth from the other man’s, he pulled away, panting. Realizing that his fists were clenched in the pirate’s frock coat, he let go and stumbled backward, the pain in his abused legs bringing him the rest of the way back from the mind-shattering arousal he felt.
Where had it come from, the desperate, frenzied need that had him rubbing against another man like a beast in rut? Raising his hand, he rubbed his fingers over his swollen lips. Adam opened his mouth to speak, but could find no words.
Fox licked his lips, smiling like a cream-fed cat. “Be in the front row tomorrow.”
Adam nodded once before turning away.