The Caribbean—late 1700s
The water was flat as a looking glass, capturing the moonlight and stars that twinkled downfrom above and reflecting just enough light that the ship gliding ahead of them appeared blackand ghostlike in the darkness.
From her position at the front of the small dugout canoe in which she rode, Valoree motioned,and the men at the oars immediately slowed their rowing. At another signal, the sailors raisedtheir oars out of the water, and the craft slid silently up beside the larger craft.
Immediately those on the left side of the canoe withdrew hooks on long ropes and sent themwhistling through the air to catch on the rail above. For a moment they waited, staringbreathlessly up the side of the large galleon and holding the lines, allowing their craft to bedragged along by the larger ship’s momentum. At last, when a hue and cry failed to arise, alleyes slowly returned to Valoree.
She stared back, knowing these men all saw her as a slender young man—little more than a boy,really. All of them but Henry. He alone knew that their deceased captain’s younger brotherValerian, who had served as a cabin boy These last eight years, was really a girl. Of course he knew; he’d been the one who had suggested the charade so many years before, when he’drealized that Jeremy—his captain and her brother—intended to keep her aboard a ship full ofpirates.
Aye, these men all thought her a lad, young and untried. And yet, they had vowed to follow her.Only a desire for vengeance could make these two dozen men, cutthroats and hooligans all,follow someone they had always looked upon as a green lad, a little brother or son to becoddled and spoiled. And vengeance they would have.
Glancing down into the water, Valoree took in her reflection. Her body was slim—she was leanrather than muscular—and it trembled with anticipation. For a moment she imagined that hereyes were no longer those of the youth who had moved easily among these men, laughing andchatting as she’d gone about her chores. Nay, her eyes now seemed old, hard, bitter with freshloss. A loss these men shared as well.
Her brother had been a good man and a fair captain, and his ship, the Valor, had been the
only home most of his crew had known for the last eight years. The men who now accompanied herwere the last of that crew. She glanced around at them, then back at her reflection.
Though her shirt was her own, she now wore her brother’s breeches, along with his hat andjacket. Jeremy’s boarding ax and pike were hooked through the thick belt at her waist, and abrass-barreled flintlock was sticking out of those baggy, too-large pants. The captain’scutlass rested in its sheath where it hung at her side. She had taken his clothing when she hadsworn’ vengeance for his death—and she had not bathed since.
Every inch of her body, every item, every inch of cloth, wood, and metal was covered with itsowner’s dried blood, as were Valoree’s face, hands, and feet. Even her long hair was crustywith the stuff. Though it was normally a vibrant, fiery red—as her brother’s had been—it wasnow streaked through with crimson, marked by the red blood of her brother’s death—a reminderof her vow.
Her brother had not died easily. He had not died quickly. He, along with the majority of hismen, had died slowly and in torment. And for that, Valoree and the remainder of Jeremy’s crewhad vowed, these Spaniards would pay.
She glanced toward Skully and nodded. The cadaverous man immediately reached for his tools, andValoree turned her back as he began to bore holes in the bottom of their craft. She regardedher crew, awaiting their reaction. She did not have long to wait. Skully was still working onthe second hole when the last of them turned to her in understanding. In their faces she readapproval and a grudging respect. To reassure them of her intent, she half hissed, half
whispered, “We take this ship or we die. There is no escape. We fight not only to avenge thedeaths of good men, but for our lives.”
“For our lives and vengeance,” Henry vowed beside her in a hushed tone. His words wereimmediately taken up by the others.
“Life and vengeance!”
She relaxed somewhat at their acceptance, an odd calm overtaking her as she silently watchedSkully finish boring the holes in the bottom of their boat. The holes were relatively small,but even so, by the time he had started on the sixth, the boat was already gathering water andbeginning to sink.
As Skully hurriedly returned his tools to his satchel, Valoree drew her brother’s cutlass fromits sheath. Moving to the side of their slowly sinking ship, she led the men in a stealthyclimb up the side of the Spanish galleon. Her bare hands and feet moved surely up the ropeuntil she reached the top, the others close behind. Pausing there, Valoree peered over the sideand glared about.
Several men, taking advantage of the night breeze, were sleeping out in the open air of thedeck. Valoree glanced toward the helm and smiled grimly upon seeing the helmsman. The man,while still at his post, had nodded off and was now dozing away his shift, senseless. There wasno one to give an alarm. The Spaniards would be taken completely by surprise.
Slipping silently over the side, Valoree hunkered low, sticking to the shadows. Her menfollowed. As the last of them slid to the deck, she gestured silently, dividing them into twogroups with one simple wave of her hand, then gesturing for one group to stay above deck, whiledirecting the others toward the dark hole that was the entrance to the cabins. They all beganto move at once, separating and moving all over the ship. The men above deck positionedthemselves among the sleeping Spaniards, ready to set to work, but waiting the few momentsnecessary to allow those men slipping through the hole to reach their targets, lest some soundor death cry warn their enemies below.
Leaving the rest of the crew to the others, Valoree moved stealthily toward the helmsman. Shehad nearly reached him when something startled the man awake.
Drawing a sword, the Spaniard peered blearily at her. She froze, but his gaze found her anyway.Taking in Jeremy’s bloody clothes and her red hair flowing about her blood-streaked face, heblinked.
“Rojo…El Capitan Rojo?”
Valoree stiffened at the words, recognizing the name the Spanish used for her brother. CaptainRed, because of his red hair.
“Regresa del muerto… El Rojo,” the man whispered faintly, then straightened abruptly,
shrieking. “Regresa del muerto. El Rojo!”
His cry awoke others nearby, and the sleepy-eyed men turned to gape at her in horror. Thehelmsman’s cry was taken up again and again. “Regresa del muerto. El Rojo!”
For a moment, everyone was still. The others she’d brought with her, startled by the shouting,turned to peer at Valoree. She drew back, annoyed, then peered about at the frozen tableau. Hercrewmates seemed as transfixed as the Spaniards. With a glance at the nearest of the men, shesnapped irritably, “What the devil is he saying, Henry?”
Drawn out of his startled state by the question, the quartermaster relaxed and grimly smiled.Then he shrugged. “He’s thinkin’ ye’re yer own brother, Captain Red. He’s thinkin’ ye’reback from the dead. He’s screamin’ ‘Back-from-the-Dead Red,’ “ he explained. The crycontinued around them.
“Regresa del muerto. El Rojo!”
“Back-from-the-Dead Red?” Valoree repeated, then frowned at the terrified Spaniards. “Well,at least they shall know why they die.” Raising Jeremy’s cutlass, she advanced on thehelmsman, but much to her consternation, the man immediately dropped his weapon. For a moment,
Valoree was nonplussed, but the sudden chorus of metal against wood drew her attention to thefact that every Spaniard aboard the ship was now giving up his weapon unasked, all droppingthem to the deck floor.
“What the devil are they doing?” Valoree cried in dismay. “Are they not going to fight?”
Henry glanced around, then turned to face her. “Well,” he drawled, scratching at his ear.“I’m thinkin’ they’re thinkin’ that since ye’re a ghost and all, there ain’t no sense inafightin’ ye. Most like they think we’re the rest of the men that were kilt… and ye cain’tkill someone what’s already dead.”
Valoree glanced up at hearing again the helmsman’s terrified murmur. The Spaniard was nowtugging his pistol free and dropping it on the deck beside his sword. Throughout, he continuedmumbling, “Regresa del muerto. El Rojo.”
Before she could decide on a course of action, a scuffle at the entrance to the cabins drew herattention. Valoree glanced over as the men who had gone below returned, pushing severalcaptives ahead of them. The first was obviously the captain, and he looked angry. He alsolooked willing to fight, Valoree saw with relief. At least someone would. It was hard to takerevenge when the enemy refused to fight. She wouldn’t simply kill unarmed men; that was notfair. She was just about to move to confront the Spanish captain when the helmsman spotted hiscommander. He immediately shrieked, “El Rojo! Regresa del muerto!”
The captain started to glance toward the man, but his gaze caught and stayed on Valoree. Thewhipping wind filled the cloth of Jeremy’s jacket, making her appear larger than she was, andshe had to fight to keep her bloody red hair from covering her eyes. She pulled Jeremy’s hatdown further onto her head and glared at the Spaniard with hatred. The man gaped, thenmurmured, “El Rojo?”
“Si,” the helmsman cried. “El Rojo, regresa del muerto.”
“Shut up!” Valoree said in a growl to the mouthy sailor. She was sick of hearing those words.Stark terror entered the captain’s face as well. “Tell him to shut up, Henry,” she saidhurriedly.
Henry translated the order into Spanish, but the panicked helmsman could not have obeyed had hewished to. He seemed able only to repeat himself over and over. Irritated, Valoree drewJeremy’s flintlock pistol and shot him.
The man dropped to the deck with a shriek, grabbing for the wound in his leg.
As if that were the signal for some preplanned form of action, the Spaniards all made a suddenexodus toward the sides of the ship. Taken by surprise, Valoree and the others could only watchin amazement as the crew of the galleon, as one, cast themselves screaming into shark-infestedwater.
Cursing under her breath, Valoree stalked to the side of the ship and peered down at the men inthe sea below. They were thrashing about in the water, moving in the general direction of thenearest island. “The gunny cowards,” she muttered.
“Aye,” Henry agreed. He and the rest of the men had moved closer to peer down at theirfleeing adversaries.
Slamming a palm down on the rail in frustration, Valoree cursed. “Jumping rather thanfighting, can you imagine?”
Henry shook his head. “Spineless Spanish bastards.”
Sighing, she frowned at the water below. A moment later, One-Eye let out a dismayed oath.Glancing up, Valoree peered over at where he was pointing. The helmsman was on his feet, andhad hopped to the side of the ship. He was now balancing himself precariously on the railing.As she watched in amazement, the man hefted himself over the side of the boat to land with asplash in the water behind his comrades. It seemed that swimming with sharks was moreattractive than keeping company with ghosts, even for the wounded man.
“Ye want we should shoot them?” One-Eye asked with little enthusiasm.
Valoree shook her head in disgust. “Leave go. They are not likely to make it to shore.‘Sides, none of them bore the scar.” She desired revenge, but there was no pleasure inkilling cowards.
The others nodded in agreement. Besides, this was apparently not the ship of their true enemy.One of the few things they had learned from Jeremy, ere he took his last breath, was that theSpaniard who had ordered the torturous deaths of her brother and so many of his men bore a scarin the shape of a question mark on his neck. And the captain of this vessel had borne no suchscar.
Sighing, Valoree straightened and turned to survey the Spanish galleon. “Well,” she saidsoftly, “it would seem we have a ship.”
“Aye,” Henry murmured. “That it would.”
“Have we enough men to sail it?”
Henry surveyed the small number of their remaining crew. “Aye,” he said. “Enough to get toport and pick up more men… Captain.”
Valoree glanced at him sharply. “Captain?”
He nodded solemnly. “Aye. Of this, the Valor II. I’m thinkin’ we’ve got us a fine captain.Ye’ve the spirit, the courage, the determination… and, better yet, ye’ve already got yerselfa reputation and title.” When she looked bewildered, he shrugged. “Ye’ve already taken yerfirst ship. If any of those men out there survive their swim, all will hear about theirterrifying encounter with Back-from-the-Dead Red.”
Valoree rolled her eyes and glanced at the others. All of them were standing about, nodding inagreement. It seemed she had not only stepped into her brother’s clothes, but she had alsostepped into his command. Back-from-the-Dead Red, indeed. Thanks to a load of superstitiousSpaniards, she was now the captain of some of the most bloodthirsty cutthroats it had ever beenher misfortune to meet—if she wanted them. She was only nineteen. That was young to be acaptain. But then, Jeremy had been only eighteen when she had helped him purchase and outfitthe Valor. And as for her gender, they already thought her a boy.
Seeing her hesitation, Henry moved closer. “Now, think on it for a minute before ye go makingup your mind. Cap’n Red—yer brother Jeremy—he did this only to make some money; then heplanned to go claim your family estate, set it to rights, settle down, and start a family.”
“But nothing. Now that dream is yours.”
Valoree blinked at that. “What mean you, now that dream is mine?” she asked suspiciously.
“I mean, with him gone, ye have to make his dream come true for him. Claim the inheritance,settle down, start a family.”
Valoree was silent for a moment, then frowned. “But I do not have the money to—”
“Well, that there is true enough. That was what Jeremy was doin’, earnin’ the money to claimthe estate. It’s not been lived in since ye was a wee babe. He said he needed a fair sum toput the place to rights.”
“And he had earned it,” One-Eye put in bitterly. “More than enough to claim the land and setit to rights. We were all to have homes there,” he reminded her. “He promised all of us acottage and a little plot of land. He—”
“The boy knows all about that, One-Eye,” Henry interrupted, silencing the first-mate.
“Aye, I know.” Valoree sighed. “But the Spaniards took the riches when they killed Jeremy.”
Henry nodded. “Aye. And that means we would have to start over.”
“Start over!” Valoree glared at him. “Eight years it took my brother to acquire that money.Do not tell me you now want to waste another eight years.”
The man hesitated at that, then cleared his throat. “Well, now, I been thinkin’ on that, too.It occurs to me that out there somewhere is a Spanish galleon with yer brother’s treasure onit—or someone who knows where it is. If we could just manage to find that—”
“The Spaniard with the scar!” Valoree exclaimed. Henry nodded solemnly.
“We could kill two birds with one stone. We could have revenge and settle down in England allnice and proper, too.”
“For life and vengeance,” she murmured thoughtfully.
“Aye,” the quartermaster agreed. “For our life, and Jeremy’s vengeance.”
Five years later
“I’m thinkin’ pink’d be nice.”
“Pink?” Valoree glared at One-Eye as he walked beside her, then glanced toward Skully as headded his thoughts on the subject.
“Redheads don’t wear pink. It don’t look good.”
“Aye, but the captain’s in need of some real feminine-type colors to make her look less…”Another glare from Valoree made the man hesitate, then murmur diplomatically, “To make herlook less captainlike. ‘Sides, her hair’s kind of a brown-red. It might work.”
“Forget it,” Valoree snapped. “I am not wearing pink. It’s bad enough I have to put on adamn dress. It will not be a pink one.”
The two men traversing the dark London streets with her fell silent for a moment; then One-Eyemurmured, “Well, what about yellow then? Yellow’s real feminine. Maybe—”
“One-Eye,” Skully interrupted, then paused in his walking.
“What?” One-Eye asked irritably. He and Valoree paused, too.
“Ain’t this the place?”
One-Eye and Valoree both turned to peer up at the building they now stood before. It was small,two levels, squeezed in between two other storefronts. The building’s lower windows were dark,but the upper ones were filled with the soft glow of candlelight.
“Aye, this is it. Them lights upstairs is where they live,” One-Eye announced unnecessarily.
Nodding, Valoree gestured toward the door and waited. Her two crewmen glanced at each other,shrugged, then charged like two bulls spotting a red cape. Her angry cry of realization waslost in the sound of splintering wood. The door caved in under their combined weight, fragmentsflying in every direction.
Grimacing, Valoree glanced quickly up and down the street to be sure no one had witnessed thedeed then followed the men into the dark interior. Inside, she found the two lying in a tangledheap on the floor.
“You were supposed to knock, you blathering idiots.”
“Well, how was we to know?” One-Eye sputtered, jumping to his feet and reaching up to be surethe patch that covered his missing eye was still in place.
“Aye,” Skully added, regaining his feet nearly as quickly as his friend, despite his peg leg.“And if that was all ye were wantin’, why didn’t ye do it yerself?”
“Why, indeed?” Valoree sighed as the sound of feet pounding down the stairs somewhere at theback of the building echoed through the quiet shop. The bright light of a lantern appeared amoment later, and Valoree stepped forward to stop her men from drawing their swords as the mancarrying it paused in the entrance to the room. He was dressed in a long nightshirt.
For a moment it looked as if the man might swallow his own tongue as he took in the scenebefore him, and Valoree couldn’t blame him. His shop was a shambles. Not only was there agreat gaping hole where the door had once stood, but when that door had given way, Valoree’smen had fallen inward, crashing into a table holding piles of fabric. All of these were nowstrewn across the floor. Added to that, the intimidating presence of three disreputable-lookingcharacters now filled up the little space there was left in his small shop. The fellow took allthis in, and swayed slightly as if he might swoon.
The man’s reaction was understandable, Valoree supposed with a wry grimace, her gaze movingover her men. She herself was small and not very intimidating. She wore a billowing whiteshirt, black breeches and waistcoat, boots, and a wide belt. But One-Eye and Skully more thanmade up for her, what with their own dirty, less respectable clothes, Skully’s oft-broken nose
and peg leg, and One-Eye’s patch.
“There was a bit of a mishap with your knocker,” she said pleasantly in an effort to calm theman. He was shaking so hard that the light from his lantern was wavering, making shadows danceon the wall. One-Eye gave a guffaw at that, and she turned to glare at him briefly, thenglanced back to the shopkeeper. Rather than appearing reassured, the man had merely steppedwarily back the way he had come, looking fit to burst into a run at any moment. And most likelyhe’d be screaming for the authorities at the top of his lungs.
Shifting impatiently, Valoree held out a hand toward One-Eye, who immediately unhooked the bagthat hung from his belt and dropped it into her hand. She promptly sent it sailing across theroom. The coins in the bag jangled merrily as they sailed through the air, and the man’sbackward motions stopped abruptly.
Nearly dropping his lantern, the shopkeeper reached instinctively to catch the purse.
“I am in need of some dresses,” Valoree announced dryly.
The little tailor looked startled at that announcement, then weighed the bag in his hand,eyeing his guests a little less warily. “Ye broke me door.”
“My men will fix it.”
The man shifted on his feet, a calculating look coming into his eyes. “Decent folk come to meshop during the day; they don’t drag a body out of his bed in the middle of the night.”
There was a tense silence during which One-Eye reached for his cutlass, but Valoree stopped himwith a gesture. Instead, she held a hand out toward Skully. The cadaverous man mutteredsomething about people disrespecting their betters, but he unhooked the bag at his own waistand handed it over. She sent that hurtling toward the greedy shopkeeper as well.
Amazingly enough, the man managed to catch the second bag without losing either the first orthe lantern. Holding more gold in his hands than he had probably seen at one time in his life,he nodded accommodatingly. “Ye’ll have to be bringing the wench here ye want gowned. Iffen yedon’t, I cain’t guarantee the dresses’ll fit.”
“The dresses are for me,” Valoree announced grimly.
The shopkeeper froze at that announcement, amazement covering his face. The expression wasfollowed by a sneer, and he began to shake his head.
“Now, that there is another situation altogether. I’ll not be dressing a man in—” His wordsdied as One-Eye drew his sword.
Sighing, Valoree caught her crewman’s arm as he started forward. “Leave off,” she muttered.“You men thought me a man for years, too.”
“Aye, but we knew you as a boy. I mean, we thought we did. We just thought you was kind of afey and delicate type.”
Valoree rolled her eyes. She supposed she should be flattered that they had at least thoughther fey and delicate.
“ ‘Sides, we wouldn’t have thought that if Henry had told us the truth instead of keeping itall to himself fer so long.”
“Henry did what he had to do,” Valoree snapped, then drew off the hat she had been wearinglow on her brow. Stepping forward so that the light could reach her face, she calmly addressedthe shopkeeper. “I am not a man.”
Her face had been cast in shadow by the brim of her hat, but was now revealed. As she felt herhair spill down from where it had been piled, Valoree caught the dressmaker leering slightlybefore he saw the expressions of the men accompanying her. Swallowing any comment, he forced ablank expression to his face and nodded before turning his eyes upward. “Wife! Wife, there’swork to be done!”
Valoree turned then to take in Skully and One-Eye with a glance. “Fix that door and—” Herwords were cut off in surprise when the gaping hole in question was suddenly filled by a
behemoth of a man. He was taller even than Skully, and much wider. There was a kerchief on hisbald head, an earring in his ear, and he wore tight tan pants and a billowing white shirt thatcontrasted with his dark skin. “Bull,” Valoree said.
The man’s dark eyes swept over the people in the room; then he stepped aside, revealing an oldhag he had in tow.
“Yer aunt,” the giant rumbled, pushing the reluctant woman forward.
Valoree, One-Eye, and Skully were all silent as they stared at the woman. She looked to be inher fifties.
Her dress was torn and filthy, and her hair was the color of a dirty London street. The womanlooked like an aging prostitute. Come to that, she most likely was one. Valoree shook her headgrimly, turning on the man holding the creature still with one arm.
“I said someone decent, Bull,” she chided.
“This is as decent as it gets at the docks at night,” came his answer. “She’ll clean upgood.”
Sighing, Valoree took a step toward the woman, then paused, stepping back as she got a whiff ofher. The action didn’t go unnoticed by Bull’s captive, who immediately drew her shoulders updefiantly. The action touched something in Valoree.
Turning to One-Eye, she held out her hand. A third bag of coins hit her palm. Valoree tossed itacross the room to the already weighed-down tailor. None of them were terribly surprised whenhe managed to catch it without difficulty, though it required some deft readjustments. They hadbeen told the man loved gold better than anything in the world, and it appeared the rumors weretrue. Good. Honestly, those rumors were why Valoree had chosen to use this tailor’sservices. That and the fact that the man was as crooked as Skully’s nose. A man who would takecustomers who visited in the wee hours of the night, and were accompanied by such a rough lot,would be unlikely to gossip—or at least to be believed.
“The old woman will need dresses as well,” Valoree announced. “And a bath.”
The shop owner stiffened indignantly. “This ain’t no inn.”
Skully had more gold out before Valoree could signal. This time she tossed the bag at theman’s feet. Cursing, he jumped quickly back, then bent to retrieve it. Straightening then, heraised his head, and bellowed again. “Wife! Get yer arse out of bed! Now!”
Three hours later the shopkeeper’s bellows had mellowed to tired sighs as he and his wifefinished measuring Valoree for the three gowns upon which she had decided. It had taken some
time to deal with the old woman, so they had done that first; dumping her in a tub, scrubbingher to a shining glow, then taking the measurements they needed before dressing her in one ofthe shopkeeper’s wife’s old gowns. Valoree was pleased to see she didn’t look nearly ascheap cleaned up and in a borrowed gown. In fact, if it weren’t for her surly manner, Valoreewas sure the woman would be perfect for the role of her aunt. Perhaps she was not a poor choiceafter all.
“Arms up, please,” the shopkeeper’s wife instructed, smiling with gentle sympathy atValoree’s impatient frown. “This is the last measurement,” the woman added quietly as shedrew the tape around her chest.
Valoree sighed in relief. She was exhausted, so tired she felt sure she could sleep for a week,and it wasn’t the hour. She was more than used to late nights—it was impossible to run a boatfull of pirates without half your nights being late ones. It was this task she’d been busywith that had worn her out. There was nothing so boring to her mind as fussing over gowns andcloaks and just which material went with what. It was all a lot of bother, and a task she wouldhave been more than happy to hand over to One-Eye or Skully… if she hadn’t feared being stuckin something pink and frilly. “Very good,” the tailor announced with relief as he wrote downthe number his wife spoke. He looked tired himself, and was likely eager to have Valoree and