Jack stood beside Lieutenant Maynard at the ship’s helm. Having just slipped through Ocracoke Inlet, working their way through before the tide turned against them, he faced Pamlico Sound in search of the Adventure!
“Is this where you thought he’d be, Porter?” Maynard asked.
Jack’s gaze searched the horizon. “It is his usual lair. But he could be anywhere from up the Neuse River to Bath Town or any of several places in the sound.”
Maynard shifted his gaze toward the mainland. “Well, let us hope that he has not gotten wind of us and already sailed away.”
He nodded, his eyes never leaving the water as Maynard stepped toward his quarters.
They were close, he knew it, could sense it, could almost smell the bastard. And he could almost hear Claire’s voice. He wanted desperately to hear it, for her to tell him she was all right, where she was. But he couldn’t. Her voice wouldn’t come.
It had been two weeks, an eternity it seemed, and now that the time was at hand, he grew suddenly fearful. How would he find her? Would she be alive? Unharmed? Or again drugged to the death? Would Teach have mutilated her body beyond recognition? Or would he have simply had his way with her?
Dear Lord, he prayed, searching the sky above him. Let her live. Let her live for me. Don’t take her away from me again. Not in this way. If she has to leave me, to go back to her time, let her leave in that way. Let her be safe.
Please don’t have her return to me, this Hannah, this Claire, only to have her ripped from my grasp again at this pirate’s hands. I know she’s not really Hannah, but she is my Claire, my Hannah Claire, a gift, and I love her.
I will make her my wife, dear Lord, if you could only see to it that she is alive and unharmed. I want her to be my wife, Lord. If she will have me.
He lowered his head and breathed deeply. He’d not let himself feel the pain, the anguish. Until now, it was simply the battle of getting to the pirate’s lair, and now that they had arrived, his heart tripped within his chest, panicking as to the state of health he would find Hannah Claire in. If indeed he found her at all.
He brought a tightly bound fist to his eye and rubbed away a tear.
No, I’ll not let myself feel the emotion quite yet. Not until I know where my Hannah Claire is. Only then will I allow myself to feel.
Snapping his head up, he looked over the sound.
Dusk fell fast, and their sloop and the one trailing behind needed to feel their way through the shallow waters with care. Despite Jack’s skill as a pilot, each craft had to repeatedly be pulled and poled off the sandbars and shoals by the long boat. Twilight deepened as they furthered their course into the channel.
Then finally, as Jack glanced up through the night mist, he saw them. Two vessels sat not far ahead of them in the shoal waters, peeking out through the mist. One of them, Jack was certain, was the Adventure!
“It is the bloody bastard’s ship,” he murmured. Spellbound, he watched the Jolly Roger furl and unfurl on the dusk’s breeze. He turned to find Maynard. Stepping closer to the captain’s quarters, he paused once more to glance at the ship.
Maynard’s voice slipped low to him through the open cabin window. It took a minute for the words to register, and then like a sharp dagger point, they embedded in his heart.
“We go in at all cost.”
“But the woman …?” another voice broke in.
There was a pause, and then Maynard continued. “I want the head of Blackbeard. We go in at all cost.”
It was then Jack Porter knew he had to take matters into his own hands.
“‘Tis only two sloops and neither carry a cannon!”
Blackbeard’s deep belly laugh rumbled over the deck and crew. “Did they think they could fight us with their rapiers? We’ve eight cannon to their none! They may outnumber us in men, but a couple of broadsides with me cannons and we’ll even the score!”
“Are there preparations to be made this night?” his first mate asked of him.
“Preparations? To do battle with two meager, unarmed sloops? Bah! We’ll broadside them once or twice and slip by them on the morning tide.” He paced several feet back and forth across the deck. “Bring on the rum and the ale, and we’ll drink to the health of the King’s men tonight!”
Claire stood near the rear of the ship listening to Blackbeard boast of his and his crew’s advantages over the King’s sloops sitting behind them. For half the night, she sat there and watched, fearful of leaving should they disappear with the confines of darkness. She knew Jack was with them.
Knew it. Could feel it. Hated it.
With every beat of her heart, her convictions grew stronger. At the same time, she was joyous, thinking of him rescuing her, and terror-stricken at the thought he might be killed in the process. But she could do nothing about that now. Now she could only wait. Blackbeard had left her alone, free to walk on the ship’s deck without repercussion the past day, and Rick, preoccupied with the unraveling events, had disappeared hours earlier. Not that she cared. She imagined he was using the last few hours to wheedle information out of the pirate concerning his treasure. Suddenly, she was a forgotten entity.
But there were other matters at hand—matters of utmost concern to her. She knew tomorrow would be the last day Captain Edward Teach would terrorize the Atlantic Coast, and she hoped it would be the day she would be reunited with Jack.
The sounds of the lively party in Blackbeard’s cabin finally subsided, and Claire, content in her quiet spot on the rear deck, watched the night’s ensuing activities. Although Blackbeard had ordered no preparations, several of the crew had taken it upon themselves to do so. She watched as they soaked blankets to smother fires on board. They stacked guns, powder, balls and scrap shot against the sides of the ship, heavy cutlasses near the gunwales. Several times during the night, small boats moved ashore to gather sand to spread on the deck to soak up the blood that would be lost come morning, and to help the pirates keep their footing on the blood-slicked decks.
If she had any sense, she would swim to shore. But then what? How would she find Jack? The ship was sitting a ways from the island. Although she could swim, she didn’t trust her swimming skills that much. She could tread water, and she’d probably be able to keep her head above water until she reached the shore.
If she reached the shore.
She stood up and peered over the edge into the dark recesses below. No. I’ll take my chances above deck. Jack is coming.
That notion had never failed her.
So she prayed. For the first time in a very long time, she prayed to a higher power as she searched the starlit night above her, wondering if Jack was peering into the endless night as she was. She prayed for a quick battle and a merciful end to this madness. She prayed for Jack—for him to elude Blackbeard’s cutlass and Rick’s vindictiveness, and to see her safely off this ship and into his arms.
And she prayed for God to give her the strength to know what to do once she was off the ship and back in Jack’s arms again. For she held the sinking notion deep inside her that she would have to make choices quickly.
“Grant me the wisdom to make the right decisions,” she whispered to the stars.
The ship quieted in the early morning. Just scant hours before sunrise, Jack slipped over the side of the war sloop and into a small skiff he’d lowered moments before, pistol shoved in the waistband of his breeches and a dagger slipped in his boot. He clutched a thin rapier, borrowed from Maynard’s stash, in his hand. In his heart he carried the fear of never seeing Hannah Claire alive again.
That fear drove him.
In the night’s pitch he silently rowed to the pirate ship’s side. Much as he had done months earlier, he anchored the boat and shimmied up the rope, finding himself on deck. All was quiet, save a few snorts, snores, and moans from the crew below. The loudest appeared to come from the captain’s quarters. Jack allowed himself to breathe, ever so slightly.
He took one step forward. The night air seemed almost too quiet, too serene. A sliver of crescent moon barely lit the ship’s deck in the night. Tiny hairs on the back of his neck prickled and stood on end. At once, the black around him was eerily silent. Something was a bit off-kilter.
A gasp went up in the night. Swirling to his rear, his gaze caught sight of the scene behind him. Hannah Claire stood several feet away. Her chemise torn. Her face dirty. And her eyes wide at the sight of him.
A pirate held her captive, a dagger poised at her throat. Claire whimpered, “Jack. Go. It’s a trap.”
With that, the pirate pulled her closer and dug the dagger deeper into her throat. His gaze shot to her eyes and he saw the pain, the worry. She silently pleaded with him. And he knew she wanted him to leave, to escape, but he’d be damned if he’d do it without her.
“Shut up, Claire. Nothing will help him now,” the pirate spat into her hair.
His gaze shifted to the pirate. “Unhand my wife.”
The pirate laughed. “Wife? You are delusional, my friend. I’ll not release her. She’s mine, now.”
Anger roiled in his gut. No scurvy bastard would take his wife from him again.
Behind him, a deep chuckle resonated. He didn’t have to turn to know who was standing there. His senses alert and keen, he kept his gaze on Hannah Claire’s face. It gave him the strength to do what he had to do. He shifted to the pirate’s eyes, memorizing the quiver in the dark irises. His gaze played over his face. Tiny dots of perspiration beaded and streamed down from his hairline. Lowering his perusal, Jack observed the tremble in the hand loosely pressing the dagger into Hannah Claire’s throat.
This man was no pirate.
Jack would gamble on it.
In a lightning flash, he flipped the rapier toward the so-called pirate and plucked a slice out of his cheek. The man squealed and jumped back, grabbing his face and dropping the dagger. In his attempt to flee, he pushed Hannah Claire toward Jack. She shrieked. Abruptly, a blood-curdling scream went up behind him, and Jack quickly turned, inadvertently shoving her aside. Blackbeard lunged, his heavy cutlass swinging through the air. Jack knew his thin rapier wouldn’t be any match for the huge man brandishing the heavy sword. Without hesitation, he dropped it and jerked the pistol from his waist, firing into the man. The bullet hit him in the left shoulder, stopping him only momentarily, but it was enough time for Jack to grab Hannah Claire about the waist and rush to the ship’s side.
As he hoisted her onto the rail, he felt the slice rip into his thigh. The pirate with the dagger was lunging. Quickly, he glanced into Hannah Claire’s frightened face and pushed her over the side of the ship shouting, “Swim!”
He prayed she could swim.
He whirled back, having no idea where Blackbeard was. The other pirate careened into his side and blocked his peripheral vision. Jack plummeted to the floor. The pirate slammed into Jack’s chest, pinning him to the deck, knees bent and his dagger at Jack’s throat. The pistol sailed out of Jack’s hand and skidded across the sand-covered deck. The atmosphere around them grew abruptly still.
Again, he peered into the pirate’s eyes. Cold steel bit into the flesh of his neck and he felt the sting, but did not acknowledge it. He held the connection between him and the other man, sensing there was more to his story than met the eye. No words spoken between them, there was a bond, an understanding, that the two of them should be natural enemies. It all had to do with Hannah Claire. And this man, this pirate who had held his wife captive, and now held his own life in his hands, had a purpose to fulfill.
A deep chuckle went up behind him.
This man wanted him dead.
Blackbeard wanted him dead and humiliated.
Slowly, not breaking the locked gaze between them, Jack reached to his boot and slipped his own dagger free. His thoughts were to sink the dagger deep into the pirate’s belly, hoping to take him off guard enough so he would not slice his jugular. The howl that went up behind him at that moment however, caused both the pirate and Jack to jerk, and the dagger to slice into the man’s thigh.
Blackbeard came at them both in full force, brandishing the cutlass, blood spurting from his wounded shoulder. “You’ll not get by me this time, you bloody bastard!”
He hurled the words as both Jack and the mysterious pirate skittered toward the ship’s rail. Jack knew Blackbeard would sacrifice the other man to get to him. The cutlass whirled. The pirate sank to the deck, a look of awe upon his face as he watched the blood ooze through his fingers while holding his thigh.
Jack wasted no time. He’d leave Blackbeard to Maynard’s men. Up on the rail he jumped, and without a backward glance, he dove straight off the ship and into the brackish waters of the sound.