She’d been nice for way too long.
She’d demurely sat and listened as he went over her mother’s taxes for the past few years. He’d stood supportively at her side when she went to the bank. She’d smiled sweetly at him when they’d settled the estate.
Jeremiah and Jack were never too far away. She’d needed Jeremiah to rein Jack in more times than not.
She’d played Juliet to his Romeo, Jackie to his Jack, Cher to his Sonny, until she wanted to gag. Now it was time get down to the nitty-gritty.
She didn’t trust him.
But did he now trust her? That was the goal.
For her plan to work, it was imperative she had his trust.
A fire crackled in the fireplace, giving off the only light in the old farmhouse living room. A silver tray, polished to a high sheen, perched on her mother’s cherry coffee table. Two fluted champagne glasses sparkled in its center. A bowl of plump strawberries, which cost an arm and a leg at a downtown imported food store, sat to their right. And Claire, the last tidbit added in this scene of seduction, stood nervously beside the fireplace wearing flowing black silk pants and a matching lace camisole, her best perfume dabbed at her wrists, diamonds twinkling at her ears and around her throat.
Rick stepped across the room. Claire felt her abdomen clutch. As he drew closer, she sucked in a quick breath in an attempt to quell her nervous stomach. His gaze connected with hers and held. She was almost afraid to glance away. He brought his hand to her cheek, and then Claire closed her eyes.
What the hell am I doing?
The skull. You are here for the skull.
His fingers increased the pressure on her cheek. He was close, closer than she wanted. Reaching up, he cupped her face with both his hands, his eyes enduring. Her knees shook. How often had they been in this position before? He had been her lover once, but now, now, it seemed so wrong.
Rick slid one hand down the smooth column of her neck. His lips followed. She cringed.
What the hell am I doing?
“Rick. I want to talk.”
His gaze lifted from her neck to her face. “Talk? Now?”
“Yes. Now. I have a proposition.”
His eyebrows arched.
She hoped to hell Jeremiah had a good grip on Jack.
I have to get the skull.
I have to do what’s right.
Remember, Claire, her mother’s voice interrupted, the choices are already made. Do what you have to do to complete the circle.
Rick raked his tongue over his lips. His hand slipped to the small of her back, a finger dipped beneath the waistband of her slacks.
“And what proposition is that?”
“Marry me, Rick.”
I have to get the skull. It’s the only way.
Now Jack’s voice intruded into her thoughts. You think he’ll give it to you then? You really think the selfish bastard is going to do that?
“I’ll marry you tomorrow, Claire, you know that.” His eyes danced with excitement.
“We can live here, on the farm.”
“Yes. We can.” He nodded to the agreement. “Let me love you, sugar. Let’s take it all back to where it was,” he whispered into her hair and threaded his fingers through its silky softness.
“Love me, Claire. Marry me. Make love to me. Let me give you my child.”
Her gut revolted. A child? He was conceding. He didn’t want children! He was bartering. Playing the baby card in order to get what he wanted. And whatever that was, must be powerful.
Abruptly, she stepped back. “Okay, Rick. I’ll marry you. I will even give you the farm. But I need something in return.”
Wary, Rick cocked his head. “Go on.”
“I want Blackbeard’s head.”
He laughed, loud, long and vicious. “What the hell are you doing?” He pushed. The look on his face was pure evil.
She swallowed the lump hanging in her throat. “It’s simple, Rick. I’ll marry you, give you the farm, money, whatever you want, but first you have to give me the skull.”
Rick cackled. “Too late, my little pigeon. The skull is no more.” He hesitated for a second, his eyes dancing, and then continued, “The skull is now honed into a brilliant silver-plated cup. Blackbeard’s Chalice. And its power, I’m afraid, is too much for you to handle.”
She remembered their conversation on Blackbeard’s ship.
The cult. The ceremony. The chalice made from Blackbeard’s skull.
“I want you to give it to me, Rick. You have no use for such a thing.”
“And you’re crazy, Claire. Did you think I’d give up a precious artifact, one that could make me famous, just so you could play at marrying me and then run off with that lover of yours?”
She’d blown it. This wasn’t going to work. She placed a fist on each hip. “Yes. I did actually think you’d be that stupid.”
Rick stepped toward her. “You are an idiot.”
She thwarted his attempt to get closer by thrusting out both hands. She wanted him out now. Gone. Immediately. She’d had enough of him to last her a lifetime. There was no way he was going to hand over the skull. There had to be another way.
Okay, so her plan had backfired.
There was always plan two.
“No, you’re the idiot. You thought you’d worm your way into my life again, didn’t you? You thought you’d marry me, knowing what a prime piece of real estate this farm is, and get your hands on it and my mother’s money as well, didn’t you?”
Anger flared in his eyes. “You don’t get it. It’s not about the farm or your money or even you. It’s about a whole lot more.”
“Then tell me. What is it?”
“You’re really good, Claire, you know that?”
Taken aback for a second, she eyed him with suspicion. “What are you talking about?”
“The act. It’s all been an act, hasn’t it? I have to admit you got the better of me this time.” He chuckled again and stepped closer, touching the tip of her nose with his forefinger. She stifled the urge to flinch. “You’re a great little actress. It’s just that it ain’t gonna work, baby. You’ll never get the chalice. You will never get the cup.”
Afraid to move lest she crack her calm exterior, she replied, “Hear one thing, Rick Gentry, come hell or high water, I will have that cup. And I will get it when you least expect it, so you better watch your back.”
“Like hell.” Grabbing her cheek, Rick forced her face closer to his. His fingers bit into her skin until it hurt. Tears stung her eyes. She’d managed to slip away from this man too many times before. How could she have deliberately placed herself in his embrace once more and then made him angry to boot?
Suddenly feeling trapped, like she was back on Blackbeard’s ship, she reacted in the only way she knew how. She spat in his face.
“Damn you!” Rick backhanded her and Claire fell into the sofa.
With lightning speed, both Jack and Jeremiah burst into the room. Rick lunged at the two of them. With a shout loud enough to rattle the old windows in the house, Jack tackled Rick and pushed him into the wall. Pictures fell. Glass shattered. Rick punched back but was no match for Jack.
He pummeled the man to the floor, and Claire found herself screaming. Vicki joined her and tried to calm her. She watched as Jack slipped a dagger out of his boot and flipped it into a stabbing position in his right hand.
Jeremiah grabbed Jack’s dagger hand, but he shoved him away.
Claire screeched, “Don’t let him do it, Jeremiah! We need him alive!”
“You’ll not touch my wife again, you bastard.”
Jack pinned Rick to the floor with his knee, raised the dagger high in the air, and then stopped. Rick was now bloody and spent, glaring up at him.
“You’re not worth killing. But shall I do to you what I did to your friend Edward Teach? Shall I take your balls like I did his?”
Rick’s eyes widened. Jack lowered the knife to Rick’s crotch. “Some bloody pirate you’ll be,” he muttered, “without your balls.”
“I have what you want,” Rick bit out.
“That is precisely why I am not going to kill you,” Jack countered. “Tell me.” He dug the dagger into his trousers.
“You want the chalice. I don’t have it. It’s on the East Coast somewhere.”
“Tell me. Specifically.”
Rick shook his head. “I don’t know specifically. It could be one of several places. I turned it over to the man who is our leader. It could be in Boston. Hatteras. Or Barbados. I’m not privy to that information.”
Peering over the man, Jack positioned himself closer. “You are a liar and a pantywaist.” He ripped the fabric near Rick’s zipper with the knife’s point. “You know where it is.”
Rick frantically shook his head. “Look man, I’m telling you the truth. I don’t know.”
He dug a bit deeper.
Abruptly, Jack pulled off him, and Rick struggled to his feet. Blood ran from his nose, his right eye already swollen. “Go,” Jack said. “Leave me and my wife alone. I don’t ever want to see your face again.” He crowded closer and lowered his voice. “Because if you ever, ever come near her again, I won’t hesitate to cut out your heart. Forget your balls.”
Rick glanced at Claire. “You’ll regret this.”
“Get out of here, Rick.”
He swiped at his bloody nose with the back of his hand and then swung his gaze back to Jack. “You’ll not come looking for the chalice because if you do, you will die. I will see to that myself. You might have bested me today, but when you come looking again, I will be ready. I will kill you and then she will be mine.”
Jack took a step. “Go.”
Taking one last look at Claire, he said, “You could have had it all, baby. You could have had it all.” And with that, he left the house and sauntered toward his car.
As soon as he was gone, Claire and Jack raced through the house to the kitchen, bid Jeremiah and Vicki a quick good-bye, and slipped out the back door. They jogged across the garden to the fence. As quickly as they both could manage, they climbed it and ran through the night to the barn tucked into the far corner of a nearby pasture.
Claire watched Rick’s headlights out of the corner of her eye as he spun out of her driveway. There was no way he could see them in the night, she was sure. She just had to make sure she could see him. Rounding the barn to the back, she lost sight of him for only a minute as they approached the black rental car.
“Get in,” she whispered. Jack followed.
Quietly, they closed the car doors. She barely glanced at their duffel bags and backpacks on the back seat and spurred the engine to life. She then peeled out onto the dirt road leading to the two-lane.
“Do you see him?” Jack asked.
“Don’t lose him.”
Putting the pedal to the metal, as her papa used to say, Claire spun out onto the highway just as she saw Rick’s taillights dip below a hill several yards in front of her.
One long breath escaped her lips. She looked down and her hands were shaking.
“Are you all right?” she said, glancing over at Jack.
“I’ll be better when this is finished. Are you?”
She nodded. “I love you, Jack.”
He reached over, grasped her hand, and pulled it to his mouth for a kiss. “I love you, too, Hannah Claire.”
She kept her distance, her lights off, but always kept Rick in sight. They would tail him to kingdom come, if they had to. They would follow until he showed them the way. They would find Blackbeard’s Chalice and return with it to 1718.
Or die trying.