Sometime during the early morning, Blackbeard’s servant had returned, left a bucket of fresh water and another bowl of porridge on the table. Claire barely remembered him being there, but now, as she stood at the small window in Blackbeard’s cabin, looking over the vast ocean, she mentally thanked him for what he had done.
At the very least, she had been able to wash the dried scum from her face and neck and wipe it from her clothing. Then in a fit of guilt, she even mopped the floor with the leftover water. But before all this, she allowed herself a long, healthy drink of the cool, clear water, replenishing her vital organs with the life-giving nourishment.
After successfully keeping the water down for several minutes, she risked a glance at the gruel. It might help to keep her strength up, she argued. And she might need her strength, after all, but it was not appealing. Nevertheless, she needed to eat, and this, unfortunately, was all there was.
Glad of its blandness, she forced several bites of the mixture past her lips and then set the bowl down on the table. Settling herself in the far corner of the bunk, she looked out on the ocean. They were moving, she thought. The ship rocked back and forth gently as they proceeded to some unknown destination. She just hoped it wasn’t too far away from Jack. She needed Jack.
What was Jack thinking right now? Had he heard her cry out? Did he know she fought? That she didn’t want to go? Surely, he knew she didn’t leave of her own free will. Didn’t he?
That she hadn’t returned to the stone.
Would he simply think she returned and escaped back into her own time? That she’d taken him up on his ultimatum and had left him?
Oh, please God, no.
If that were true, and he thought she’d left of her own free will, then he wouldn’t come searching for her. He wouldn’t know Blackbeard had her.. He would just assume she was…gone.
Claire froze as wild laughter grew nearer to the cabin’s steps. She drew her knees up and pulled and tugged at the fabric to cover her breasts. But it wasn’t nearly enough.
She watched as Blackbeard’s servant descended, stopping as he reached the bottom and looking at her with sad, yet knowing, eyes.
“The Captain would like you on deck,” he said politely.
She could only stare, listening to the growing ruckus above.
He dropped his chin in a nod and then motioned with his hand.
“Pigeon!” The roar sounded outside the cabin.
“Hurry, miss.” The black man fanned his hand at her urging her to come forward. “Hurry.”
She rose, sensing the urgency in the young man’s voice and seeing it in his eyes. She stepped forward and followed. The servant held out his hand to her as she ascended, the first and only gesture of kindness offered of late. No, this man had also brought her food and water. Could he be an ally? Someone she could confide in? Would he help her get away?
She climbed the steps, watching her foot land on each wooden plank. As she stepped onto the deck, tossing her hair back out of her face, she saw the crew. Again. She hoped to hell there wouldn’t be a repeat performance of yesterday.
From off to her right, Blackbeard stepped forward. He had cleaned himself up a bit. Braided into several long braids and tied with colorful ribbons, his hair was almost presentable. For the times, Claire thought. His beard, waxed and parted into pointed sections, looked relatively clean. A dingy ruffled shirt peeked out from under the wide cuffs of his jacket, and a bandolier crossed his chest with two pistols gracing either side. A straw hat sitting crookedly on his head completed the ensemble.
He still looked fearsome. His eyes told of his evil and only hinted at his intentions. She wished to God she hadn’t looked into those eyes, for she could read in them more than she dared. And as he stepped closer, she suspected her worst fears were about to come true.
“Sleep well, pigeon?” His face lowered to hers.
She tilted her chin and said sweetly, “Why do you call me that?”
His fingers, cold and clammy, grasped her chin, forcing her closer. “A pigeon always comes home to roost, me pretty.”
He crowded her. “And the roosting was rather nice, remember?”
His finger played around her lips. “Now, I asked you a question. Did ye sleep well?”
“Like a baby,” she returned sarcastically. “You?”
He dropped his hand from her chin to trail his fingers down her neck, placing them in a choking hold around the slender column. His gaze met hers and pinned her there. She swallowed and tried to take a breath, but not without gasping at the pain of constriction. Just when she thought he might choke her to death, he lowered his hand to her bosom. His eyes narrowed, and he leaned closer.
Claire tried to step back.
He crowded her again. “Not really. But I’ll sleep better tonight. I always sleep well on me wedding night.”
Watching the corner of his mouth turn up between the coarse hairs of his mustache and beard, she grew nauseous again.
Slowly, she scanned the crowd. The men were waiting for her reaction. It was obvious to them—she was the only woman on board the ship and the crew had probably been this route before. Blackbeard, if she remembered her history correctly, had collected at least fourteen wives—and had never once obtained a divorce. His track record wasn’t great. She dared not even think about what had happened to each of them. If Blackbeard was getting married, then she was top choice.
Much to her dismay.
Not backing down an inch, she returned his stare and said sweetly, “When Hell freezes over.”
She heard the chuckle start low in his abdomen, rumble past his diaphragm, flow into his lungs and then spill out of his mouth in a fit of thunderous laughter that shook the very deck of the ship.
“Pigeon, ye jest so, but it’s a trifle unsettling for me wife to speak such things. We’ll have a talk tomorrow. After the consummation.”
He turned from her and walked away.
“I’ll not marry you, you son-of-a-whore. There will be no marriage to consummate.”
He froze, and all motion appeared to cease. Even the waves stopped, and she didn’t doubt for one moment that he held the power to control that. Perhaps the earth stopped rotating on its axis; she couldn’t be sure. When he spun back to her, she saw the anger steaming from him, his face red with rage. Then he determinedly stepped forward until he reached her.
When he did, she quickly backed up step for step until she found herself shoved against one of his crew. The pirate held her in place with his arms wrapped securely around her upper body. Blackbeard pressed against her in a most indecent manner, his face only centimeters from hers.
“Ye’ll do as I say.”
“Ye will, wench. Or I’ll be done with ye.”
“Then so be it.”
He glared at her. Claire wondered if a woman had ever bucked him before. “Ye know what you’re saying, lass?”
“I know that whatever consequence you hand out to me has got to be better than screwing the likes of you,” she bit back.
As he raised his hand, she felt the other man’s grip tighten around her shoulders. When the sting of his slap had sufficiently rung her ears and tossed her head to one side, he dropped his hand. Claire breathed deeply and then exhaled, refusing to cry, vowing not to show this imbecile she hurt. No, she would never show him she hurt.
After a moment, she raised her head and met his gaze with glassy eyes. She gritted her teeth. He simply watched for her reaction. She balled up her courage and spat directly into his face.
An uneasy silence settled over the ship. Blackbeard did not flinch.
“Twenty lashes. The cat.”
Within seconds, Blackbeard grabbed and turned her face-first into the outer wall of the captain’s quarters, her wrists bound with rope. Horror filled her as she realized what was happening. He’d have her beaten! My God, she was actually going to be beaten!
Her stomach began to rumble, and the few bites of gruel she’d eaten an hour or so earlier suddenly didn’t want to stay in one place. Glancing over her shoulder, she could see the ugly pirate, the look on his face too much like pleasure. She saw him nod to another, and he stepped up from behind, grasped the back of her chemise, and ripped it cleanly down to the top of the corset.
Her eyes closed. Even though the morning was cool and there was a slight breeze wafting over the ship, she was hot. Sweat poured from her pores and ran down the sides of her face. Oh, please no. Let this be a dream.
Wake up now, Claire.
She opened her eyes and flinched as she felt the whip lash through the air just behind her back. The ugly snap resonated in her ear. She didn’t dare to think what it would feel like as it ripped against her skin. She didn’t even want to think about what it would sound like slicing through her flesh. She hoped it wouldn’t cut her too deep.
Hoped it wouldn’t lay open flesh and muscle and expose the bone.
Hoped that before the pain got too severe, she’d mercifully pass out into unconsciousness.
She jerked her attention once more to the evil giant as he stood to her side.
“Marry me, pigeon,” he growled. “Be me wife and me lover and promise your servitude to me forever, and we’ll forget this.”
She mentally tried to weigh the lesser of the two evils. Marriage to the scoundrel and eventual rape, or twenty lashes with a whip.
Six of one, half a dozen of the other.
The choice was easy.
“Rot. In. Hell,” she spat back.
The chuckle started once more. “I plan to, pigeon.”
She watched as he nodded to the pirate behind her. She turned her face forward and lowered her chin to her chest. She’d not let them see her pain.
A small tear squeezed from one eye as she heard the slice of the whip when it backlashed high into the air. She felt the snap against her back as it did…and she waited for the pirate’s arm to whip back down again, the stinging slash across her back.
She braced herself.
“I think that’s about enough.”
Claire bolted at the familiar voice and tried to turn her body toward it. A yellow-haired pirate had slipped forward and stopped the other’s arm from descending, his fingers encircling the man’s wrist, preventing the first lash from crossing her back.
Blackbeard roared his protest.
“Let her go.”
The pirate’s gaze held Blackbeard in his place. The man seemed reduced to indifference and stood fixed in his spot. The pirate walked determinedly toward him and the two spoke quietly for a moment. Then Blackbeard offered a slight nod, growled, and stalked away from the scene. She was totally confused.
She twisted and struggled to look behind her. Someone released the ropes from her wrists, and she fully faced the man who saved her.
Shoving the hair back out of her eyes, she ignored the confusion of the scene she’d just witnessed and wondered why Blackbeard hadn’t crossed this man standing before her.
He stood there, baggy pants, no shirt, scruffy beard and shaggy hair. He wore a scarf tied on his head, a pistol at his side, and nothing on his feet. She almost didn’t recognize him, and probably wouldn’t have had it not been for his eyes, and the small hoop earring in his ear.
He grinned and then winked. Claire only stared back, her chin dropping to her chest. She didn’t know whether to kiss him or kick him in the nuts and run.
“How dare ye affront me before me crew!”
Blackbeard roared the protest in the privacy of his cabin, hurling the words at Rick. Claire watched and listened from the berth, knowing his bellow drifted out of the cabin and over the ship. The entire scenario played out for the crew’s benefit, for Blackbeard to save face.
Did Rick know what he was up against?
She curled into a ball against the ship’s wall.
Rick stepped forward, and she was astonished at his courage. Something was terribly amiss. He didn’t even look like Rick.
“You have forgotten that I know things,” he shot back with a sinister grin.
“And what is it ye know that I do not?”
“He will come for her.”
Blackbeard swirled his body toward Claire and then in an instant stopped. “I know that. He came before, he will come again.”
“I want him as badly as you.”
She arched a brow. What?
Blackbeard chuckled and sidled a glance at Rick. “Ye do? And why do ye want him, laddie? Has the wench wronged you as well? She’s a nice little piece, but are you willing to risk your own life at the revenge of another just to have her?”
Rick lifted his jaw and stared into the pirate’s eyes. “She was mine long before she was his, or yours. I want her. And I want him dead.”
Terror ripped through her soul. “No,” she whimpered. “Rick, no. You’re taking this too far. Do you realize what you’re saying? You can’t kill Jack.”
“Shut up! You’ll not speak unless you’re spoken to, woman.” Rick brushed past Blackbeard and stepped closer to her. After a moment of staring into her face, he reached out and cupped her chin in his hand.
She lifted her face to stare back defiantly. “Don’t do this, Rick. Don’t.”
He leaned closer and peered deeper. “I will. And then you will be mine, again. I will cut him into bits and feed him to the sharks. And you, Claire, will have nothing to say about it, or you might just follow him. You made a big mistake leaving me, and he’s going to pay the price for your indiscretions.” An evil laugh gurgled up from within him.
Repulsed by his actions, she jerked her chin from his grasp.
“It won’t happen,” she hissed and then spat in his face.
He held her gaze for a moment and then lifted his sleeve to swipe at his chin. “It will.”
Blackbeard stepped beside Rick, and she shifted. There wasn’t much difference between them, she realized. One was about as ruthless as the other. Blackbeard reached out and squeezed her cheeks between his grimy fingers. “I’ll thank ye not to offer your opinion, woman. Ye’ve been told to be quiet. If a man wants to hear ye speak, he’ll ask for it.”
“You’ll hear me speak, you slimy bastard, when I choose to speak. And I’ll offer any opinions or advice I want.” She braced herself for the backlash.
He thrust her backward, her head cracking against the ship’s wall. She grimaced. His yellow-eyed glare bit into her.
“And what advice would the likes of ye have to offer a man like me? How to woo a comely chit like yourself into me chamber night after night?”
Looking Blackbeard over, there was only one piece of advice that came to mind. “Advice? I’ll give you advice. Go eat oranges, you mangy bastard. No comely chit like myself would go willingly into a bed with your scurvied hide.”
Abruptly, the pirate flung himself backward and turned to Rick.
“We’ll return to Teach’s Hole, just off the island of Ocracoke on the sound side. He’ll be lying in wait, as before. Only this time, we’ll be ready. I long to get me hands on the man who tried to take away me manhood.”
Slowly, his head rotated back to stare at Claire. “And if I can’t put him in the dark depths of the sea, by God I’ll rip his balls from him and feed them to the monsters of the deep.” His gaze bored into hers. “Then you’ll have not a man in your chamber to go to night after night, wench. Perhaps then you’ll think of willingly coming to a whole man like meself.”
He grumbled his laughter, and the walls of his quarters quaked.
“A whole man?” she chided. “Hmmm…. Rumor has it you might have some missing parts.”
The laughter stopped. His yellow eyes shot across the dusk-dark room. Her mouth, once more, was going to get her into trouble.
He lunged, but Rick stepped between the two of them. And like a deflated balloon, the giant pirate disappeared up the steps to the deck.
Rick turned. “I’ve seen to your safety on this ship, Claire. No one will touch you. I am powerful, you see. But I fully expect your cooperation.”
And with that, he left her, too.