“You and that hair!” The pretty, pouty, petite blonde somehow infused her scowl with charm as she stood, hands on hips, glaring at Abigail Stewart. “Luckily our afternoon invitation is a barbeque. You simply must keep your bonnet on.”
Arms folded, Abigail rolled her eyes, then snickered. “I think my hairstyle is the least of my worries at the moment, don’t you?”
“Oh, don’t be a silly silly. I still have some dresses here for you from last time.” Pamela flung open the doors to the dressing room and began rummaging around inside. “Although there’s no help for it. You will still have an exotic air about you thanks to that swarthy skin. But at least we can dress you like a proper southern lady.”
Abigail’s snicker burst into a full-bellied—derisive—guffaw and she sprawled backwards on the massive four-poster bed. “I thought you could.”
Long, lean and lanky, Abigail cut the opposite figure as her dainty curvaceous friend, which completely precluded sharing clothing. And her chin-length brown locks didn’t fit any semblance of modern fashion. They did enable her, more often than not, to pass for a young man. Not that she looked all that masculine; people simply didn’t look closely at anyone wearing trousers.
“And just why do you want to come along?” Pamela’s sing-song voice wafted out from the dressing room. “You detest society events!” She burst forth from the room-sized closet, the bundle of silk and muslin and taffeta in her arms nearly burying her. “No, never mind, don’t tell me.” She tossed her fruits of her labor on the bed beside Abigail, who rolled to her feet to study them.
But Abigail’d already grimaced, and saw immediate concern on Pamela’s cherubic face in response. “What happened?”
“I have to find my dad. He’s in trouble.”
What a difference two days made.
Just two days ago in North Carolina, well north of the Jacksonville, Florida port, she’d comfortably worn a heavy cable-knit sweater as she’d roamed a very different set of docks. Just in time, she’d discovered agents of the law closing in on her pirate clipper ship and had managed—barely—to warn Angelica to set sail. In the face of any such hasty departure, those crew not aboard knew where and when to rendezvous.
With a week to bide her time, she’d decided to catch a train and visit her friend.
She’d spotted her father on the same train—no great surprise as it got them near their rendezvous location—and was about to join him. Then simple turned complicated when she recognized the lawman who’d decided—Abigail still didn’t know why—to follow her father. The marshal took the seat next to him and didn’t budge.
Few outside the infamous crew of the pirate ship Angelica with its legendary captain Madeline Stewart knew that doctor Martin Stewart even sailed with them.
Just as Abigail believed it might have been some sort of outlandish coincidence, her father excused himself and stood up.
Only to have the lawman’s hand close like a vice on his wrist and ease him quietly yet intractably back into his seat.
Somehow Doc Stewart had attracted the pernicious perspicacious lawman’s attention.
An unassuming name for a man fast becoming an inordinately huge thorn. She’d run in to him far too often in the Carolina port. Naturally she didn’t consort with agents of the law, even so she grew increasingly aware of his presence and his sterling reputation.
Now the troublesome Prescott escorted her father off the train ahead of everyone else, leaving her unable to follow without calling attention to herself. The last thing she needed was Prescott recognizing the “boy” from the night of their failed raid.
Gushing over the ‘luscious tall drink of water’ with Abigail’s father, her friend Pamela had met her as she detrained. Sadly, Pamela hadn’t seen where they’d gone. But she’d recognized Prescott as an acquaintance of her own father, an army colonel.
Abigail chaffed at the thought of her father in custody while the lawman cavorted with the few local gentry who somehow survived Reconstruction with at least part of their fortunes intact. But he wasn’t in the local jail, so Abigail needed to find him. She’d been delighted to find out that in the meantime, Pamela had contrived to make sure Prescott would be at the barbeque. If she couldn’t get the lawman to divulge the location in casual conversation, perhaps she could follow him.
Now the billowy silk would be perfectly sufficient due to a rise in temperature and decrease in latitude and might well put the lawman off his guard.
“I need to attract attention this time,” Abigail told her self-appointed valet. “I need Mr. Prescott to talk to me; and it needs to be his idea. Can you help with that?”
Pamela huffed in genuine offense. “You are such a silly silly! Need you even ask?”
~ ~ ~
Pamela rapped on the carriage roof with her parasol. “Driver, stop here please.”
Peering out the window, Abigail admired the stately mansion looming impressively at the end of the lane, the imposing building gleaming white in the sunshine with, only its upper levels visible above the trees.
She smiled at the carriage attendant who opened the door for them.
Abigail let the copious folds of her beribboned blue silk gown fall as quickly as she dared as she accepted the liveried footman’s hand down from the carriage. It wouldn’t do at all for anyone to glimpse the boots and trousers she wore hidden by the petticoat’s ruffles. Despite Pamela’s admonitions, Abigail had staunchly refused a corset. Nevertheless, the ribbons of the low neckline of the bodice Pamela laced her into at least gave the illusion of a bustline. A jaunty hat completed the fashionable attire.
The pert little cap perched on her head and made it look like her hair was tucked up under it. ‘Stray’ curls framed her face. She could hear her crewmates’ affectionate mocking if they saw her, teasing that she actually looked like a lady. Thank the seven seas! She wanted to look like a lady for a change.
Deceptively demure as ever, Pamela stepped down out of the carriage after her then linked her arm through hers. With a skillful quick move, she opened her parasol, casting a pointed look at Abigail that she should do the same with hers.
Rolling her eyes, Abigail followed the silent instruction and pretended to tut tut about the fierce sun. Pamela adroitly angled her parasol to the side—so as not to hit Abigail in the face with it.
“This is the back lawn, but it’s where the barbecue will be. If we stroll slowly, you can see who’s here before they see you.”
They wandered at a leisurely pace through the oak grove behind plantation’s big house. A playful breeze ameliorated the heat and blew away enough humidity so that Abigail didn’t drip with sweat. The scent of ripe peaches wafted through the air, carried from the nearby orchard. A garden with its profusion of colorful blossoms separated the two extensive stands of trees.
Closer to the grassy expanse at the immediate rear of the house, the aroma of roasting pig replaced the fragrance of fruit. Tendrils of smoke swirled upward from the barbecue pits off to the right. To the left, dozens of round tables covered by immaculate white tablecloths sprinkled the lawn. Interspersed among them, other tables held a vast assortment of fruits, breads, cheeses and sweets.
Young women in their jewel-toned frocks floated like butterflies among the tables. Some nibbled at the delicacies. Matrons, prim and proper, kept a watchful eye on the few children racing around—and on young bucks who might become too amorous with the young ladies. Men, dapper in their suits and waistcoats, gathered in several groups and smoked their pipes or cigars.
Scanning the partygoers, Abigail didn’t see the figure she sought.
She stopped suddenly, her arm squeezing Pamela’s in the crook of her elbow.
Vaguely familiar—maybe—a tall figure caught her eye. His back was turned but something about the broad shoulders and easy, confident stance drew her attention. Then she noticed a walking stick of dark wood, only half of its carved ivory handle visible in the man’s grip.
With dark blond hair and a finely tailored suite of white linen, the man didn’t particularly stand out due to his attire, but his low-key charisma attracted men and women alike. She recognized the distinctive stick he carried, she had decided, as a weapon and affectation. He certainly didn’t need it for help walking.
Definitely William Prescott.
The man shifted, turning to converse with the gentleman beside him. Just enough for Abigail to glimpse his profile and confirm his identity. His right side toward her, showing the scar along his jaw, he took another puff on his cigar.
Shocked by the identity of the man who’d been hidden from view until Prescott moved, Abigail stopped short. Her abrupt motion nearly jerked the tiny Pamela off her feet. Abigail heard her friend gasp but she ignored her and stared ahead.
Her father, looking no worse for wear, saw her at the same time. Aside from a cough attributable to the smoke from the pipe he held, he didn’t react to her presence and let his gaze slide right past her.
Recovering and giving herself a mental shake, Abigail plastered a smile on her face and she stepped back which effectively yanked Pamela around so her back faced the men.
Pamela raised an eyebrow. High. “What’s wrong with you?”
Hoping to insert some grace into her subsequent movements, Abigail pivoted and twirled her parasol so it shielded them from the men’s line of vision as she and Pamela resumed sashaying across the grass.
“My dad was standing right beside Prescott.”
Pamela’s head jerked around? “Your dad? But I don’t understand.”
“Neither do I. I need to find out, but the situation is in his hands for now. He saw me, so he knows I’m close if he needs me.”
They gallivanted among the other guests, making polite small talk about the lovely garden, the cooperative weather, the high fashion on display—conspicuously avoiding any mention at all of the just-ended War of Aggression.
In polite society, especially mixed, the few courteous Yanks attending tried not to gloat. The proper southern gentlemen, not surprisingly, had no desire to rehash the stinging defeat.
“If you’ve seen enough,” Pamela ventured, low voice barely above a whisper, “We really need to pay our respects to the host and hostess. If we fail to do so, everyone will take note of how insufferably rude we are, and surely you want to avoid that attention.”
“Very prudent suggestion.” Abigail allowed Pamela to steer her to the veranda running the length of the stately mansion. A number of guests already availed themselves of the welcome shade.
Pamela swept Abigail forward to a middle-aged couple every bit as regal as their magnificent abode. “Mr. Sinclair,” she made the slightest bow, “and Mrs. Sinclair, what a lovely day you’ve chosen!” She clasped the woman’s hands and leaned forward to air kiss both the lady’s cheeks, her praise just shy of gushing. The much taller woman—nearly Abigail’s height—bent forward to allow the greeting. “May I present my friend Anita Standish from Virginia?”
To Abigail’s amusement, Pamela had created an entire identity for her, but at least the fiction—already agreed upon and known to the both of them—made situations such as these much easier to navigate.
Mr. Sinclair kissed her hand, and Mrs. Sinclair welcomed her with the same cheeks to cheeks gesture, the warmth seemingly genuine.
“Will you be staying in Jacksonville long, my dear?” Mrs. Sinclair inquired.
“To my great sorrow, no,” Abigail accentuated her drawl ever so slightly, all the better to emphasize her gentility without overdoing it. “I’ll be sailing for France shortly, to join my mother. My grandfather had need of her.”
Concern immediately clouded the matron’s elegant, narrow face. “Surely a young lady such as yourself isn’t traveling unaccompanied?”
“Gracious, no!” Abigail brought a hand to her throat and widened her eyes as if taken aback at the very thought. “My brother will be making the trip as well.”
Pamela leaned forward apologetically. “He would have joined us, but had a prior appointment to keep.”
They lingered a few moments longer making polite conversation then excused themselves so as not to monopolize the attention of their hosts.
A quick glance confirmed that her father and his unwelcome escort remained with the circle of men. Abigail gave a little sigh. “So how do I get him to notice me without being obvious?”
Unbidden, the thought crossed her mind, thank the seven seas she didn’t look like her father!
She shared her mother’s stature, features and coloring to such an extent that no sighted person could ever miss the striking resemblance.
Her father—she told herself it wasn’t simply a daughter’s biased eye that saw his rugged face as handsome—despite having the uncalloused hands of a doctor, had the muscular build of a blacksmith, golden hair and the pale skin to go along with it. He was barely average height for a man, so both Abigail and her mother stood as tall as he.
“You could swoon from the heat. That would get everyone’s attention.”
Abigail speared her with a glare.
“All right, I could swoon, although,” Pamela reconsidered, “it’s not that incredibly hot at the moment.”
Leave it to her father to solve the problem for them. He sauntered over, casual as could be, and bowed over Pamela’s hand.
“Miss Pamela, a pleasure to see you again. Is your family well?”
“They are, sir. I thank you for asking.”
“And if I may be so bold,” he took Abigail’s hand next, “I’m Charles Smithton.”
“Oh, forgive me,” Pamela acted flustered. “May I present Miss Anita Standish? And,” she completed the introductions, “This is William Prescott, formerly of Jacksonville. Will you be in town long, sir?”
He tipped his hat. “For a few days, Miss.”
Pamela averted her head ever so slightly, regarding him through thick, curled lashes. “Mr. Prescott, might I impose? I have a sudden longing for some of that refreshing punch.”
With another tip of his head and a wry grin, he replied, “At your service, Miss Pamela.”
The instant Prescott moved out of earshot, Martin Stewart whispered swiftly. “He’s convinced I’m Charles Smithton and I can’t get rid of him. No idea why, but evidently there is a bounty to deliver me to a ship called Marauder. It’s in port now, and he’s taking me there after the party.”
“Angelica might be there by now,” Abigail said optimistically. “We’ll figure something out.” But her mind raced faster than her confident words revealed. Marauder? One of the few remaining privateers like her ship. Smithton captained the ship, but Richard Smithton, not Charles. They had to be connected somehow.
Smithton pretended to be an upstanding citizen. Did Prescott know who he was dealing with?
Then Prescott returned, presenting Pamela with her drink and offering a second porcelain cup to Abigail.
“Very kind of you, sir,” Abigail accepted his courteous gesture. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” He regarded her so intensely Abigail thanked the seven seas she didn’t blush easily. “Have we met before, Miss Standish?”
“I don’t believe so.” She allowed a smile and hoped it was flirtatious rather than snide. If only he knew. Such a shame. She found him quite attractive, for a lawman. The jovial glint in his green eyes made her wonder if he might just be worth corrupting.
People drifted to the rows of tables covered with cheery red linen and took their seats. Pamela maneuvered so the two gentlemen sat with them. Soon the business of consuming the actual barbecue, along with all the culinary accompaniments, began in earnest. Abigail savored the scrumptious meal and expressed her admiration for the Sinclairs’ cooks.
“Forgive us, ladies, but we have a ship to meet.” Apology sounding sincere, Prescott rose. After a brief pause, Abigail’s father copied the motion.
She needed to beat them to the harbor. Abigail grabbed Pamela’s wrist as the men made their way to take their leave from the Sinclairs. “I need to borrow one of your horses.”
Abigail raced across the lawn as quickly as the cursed skirts allowed, thanking the seven seas the whole while that she’d worn practical shoes and pants.
As soon as she’d ducked out of sight behind the hedges hiding the stables from the gardens, she tore off the offending skirts and left them in a heap just as Pamela reached her.
Making a strangled gasp of dismay, Pamela gathered the material as Abigail unhitched one of the horses from Pamela’s carriage.
She thrust the yards of material into the coach and tossed a white shirt over her elbow, managing to grasp Abigail’s arm before she could swing up onto the horse’s back.
“Give me your bonnet and put this on,” Pamela ordered.
Abigail handed her the bonnet in exchange for the oversized shirt with its long sleeves and collared, neck open at the throat. She might not pass for a boy, well maybe a dandified one, but regardless, the trousers and footwear would enable her to ride at top speed.
She’d moved so rapidly that Abigail was halfway up the lane before she heard shouts indicating the coachman had finally realized what had happened and protested. Well Pamela would need to mollify him.
Abigail needed to get to the docks.
~ ~ ~
The wharf had a reputable stables, which saved Abigail the trouble of worrying what to do with the faithful brown mare she’d borrowed.
Abigail left her with one of the stable boys, giving him two dollars and instructing him severely to see he cooled the horse down, gave her food and water, then returned her to Pamela Bradshaw.
Sturdy buildings of stone and wood abutted the coast in places, which no boardwalk between them and the sea. Piers and wharfs stretched out into the bay.
Despite the crisis, a huge grin creased Abigail’s face.
The majestic clipper, its three masts rising proudly into the air and its bowsprit jutting defiantly forward, bobbed with deceptive peacefulness on the calm water.
With Angelica already in port, that meant the crew should be ashore. Raucous laughter, glasses clinking and slamming onto wooden tabletops, and a lively piano in the background greeted Abigail as she entered the saloon patronized almost exclusively by sailors.
Captain Madeline Stewart, her back to the wall so she could survey all around, sat with the first officer and one other crewmember. Abigail rushed over to them. The coach carrying Prescott and her father couldn’t be far behind.
Instantly taking in her daughter’s disheveled appearance, Madeline didn’t even bother to ask. She simply raised an eyebrow in inquiry and waited.
“Dad’s in trouble. William Prescott saw him on the train on the way down. Prescott thinks Dad is Charles Smithton and will be taking him to the Marauder.
Madeline frowned. “Marauder is about to set sail. We’ll get to the ship in case we need to stop them—or leave quickly ourselves. See if you can intercept your father before he gets on board.”
Madeline tossed the barkeep a handful of coins as she and her two crew strode out.
Abigail followed just as a coach rattled by, its two black horses moving at an easy trot. She caught a glimpse of her father within.
She latched on to the back of the coach and hitched a ride. As it stopped near the gangplank to the Marauder, Abigail released her grip and ducked behind some barrels on the dock.
A man with jet black hair and short but stocky with muscle marched to meet them, flanked by five others, their heels clacking in unison on the wooden quay. Captain Richard Smithton’s eager smile turned instantly to a frown of consternation as soon as he set eyes on the two men.
Abigail knew the exact moment Prescott realized Smithton’s identity, but the pirate’s men grabbed him before he could reach the colt six shooters at each hip. Two men held Prescott’s arms while a third relieved him of his revolvers.
“Who is this?” Smithton bellowed. “You said you found my father!”
Shock, annoyance and confusion all competed on Prescott’s expressive face.
Smithton didn’t wait for an answer. “Never mind. I’ll catch the old coot next time. Get ’em aboard. They can go for a swim once we’re away.”
Grumbling the whole way, Smithton stalked back on to his ship. No one on shore paid any attention as his crew hustled Prescott and Stewart on board. The two men didn’t have any opportunity to fight.
She scanned the area, desperate for a way on board without being seen.
Stealth came as easily to he as anyone, but the cover of darkness would have helped immensely compared to the brilliant sun shining down. The departing ship didn’t leave her the option of waiting for night to fall.
She dropped into the water with nary an splash and swam to the far side of the ship. They hadn’t only moored to the dock but had dropped anchor as well for the added security.
She pulled herself up the chain and found handholds in the hull to climb the rest of the way and get hold of the rail.
As she slid over the rail and to the deck, pressing flat behind some crates, Smithton’s voice easily reached her.
“You two gentlemen,” the pirate sneered, “mind your manners and maybe you’ll be conscious and in one piece when we toss you over the side. You just might make it back to shore.”
Smithton shouted orders to weigh anchor and hoist the sails, and his crew jumped to comply.
She heard two thuds and umphs in quick succession and risked peeking around the crates. Her father and Prescott sat against the mast not far from her. Two men, guns drawn, stood over them.
They spoke too softly for her to hear, but combining guesswork and a bit of lip reading, Abigail was pretty sure an exasperated Prescott wanted to know just why her father hadn’t told him he had the wrong man.
“I did tell you I didn’t want to go with you,” Martin Stewart replied. “You weren’t inclined to listen.”
Prescott regarded him with narrowed eyes, his clenched jaw making the scar stand out more.
“Stewart,” he finally said. “My name is Martin Stewart.”
In a far less grave situation, Abigail would have burst out laughing at the look of pure incredulity that crossed Prescott’s face. “Stewart? Of the Angelica? That Stewart?”
Her father nodded.
Prescott growled and, leaning back too hard, bounced his head off the mast. He winced and rubbed the sore spot.
“If you’d told me, we wouldn’t be here.”
“Maybe not.” Giving him a sardonic look, Martin said, “But where exactly would I be?”
To Abigail’s amazement, Prescott threw back his head and laughed. It turned to a groan and he buried his face in his hands for just a moment, but when he pulled his hands away he still wore a rueful grin as he shook his head.
“We’ll figure something out,” he said sotto voice once the guards’ attention had wandered again.
Marauder picked up speed as it reached the mouth of the harbor. As yet, none of Smithton’s crew appeared to be paying any attention to Angelica following in its wake, albeit at a distance.
Once away from the busy bay, they couldn’t help but notice their company. That didn’t give Abigail much time.
Then again, she didn’t want to draw attention to the two ships while they were still too close to other ship traffic or the shore either.
She stole a look inside the crates. Whisky. Bottles and bottles of whisky resting in a bed of straw.
Nice flammable straw.
With plenty of nice flammable whisky.
And Abigail didn’t even feel guilty at endangering the crew as they could easily swim to land.
She spilled several bottles all over that corner of the deck. A nearby hatch led into the hold where she found a lantern, with a man napping beside it. She carried two more bottles down with her.
After she poured out more whisky, Abigail shook the hapless man awake and said the captain was furious and wanted him on deck immediately.
He scrambled up the ladder and she lit the alcohol and followed quickly. On the main deck, Abigail ignited the rest of the whisky then dropped both anchors as the flames danced across the wooden deck.
Pandemonium erupted as the men saw the fire. The chaos increased as the Marauder’s forward motion abruptly decelerated as both anchors hit and caught on the ocean bottom.
The anchors didn’t stop the ship, but they slowed it considerably. More than enough to give Angelica time to come alongside.
Martin leapt the few feet to his ship.
“Come on!” Abigail shouted to Prescott. Following her father, she vaulted gracefully from one ship to the other.
For a moment she feared Prescott would ignore her. “Come on!” she yelled again. Smithton would surely kill him now. The lawman had to know that.
Apparently he came to the same conclusion, and decided that Captain Stewart wouldn’t kill him, because he only hesitated a second longer before doing what Abigail said as the ship began pulling away.
Prescott cleared the distance but the power of his jump sent him crashing to the deck. Martin offered him a hand up, which the lawman accepted.
They got out of the way as the clipper’s crew manned the rigging. The first officer stood at the wheel and put more distance between the ships.
As the Angelica picked up speed, leaving the smoldering Marauder behind, Captain Stewart planted a lingering kiss on her husband’s mouth. “Troublemaker.”
Martin shrugged. “I blame him.” The doctor nodded in the marshal’s direction.
Prescott regarded Captain and Doc Stewart standing shoulder to shoulder. He glanced at Abigail, then did a double take then looked a few times between her and the captain.
“It was you. Pretending to be a boy on the docks. Then today at the party. “
She gave a shrug of her own, a smirk playing at her lips.
“It is Abigail, correct?”
The faint smirk turned to a wry smile. “Yes.”
He took her hand and kissed it as he had at the barbecue. “Good to properly meet you, Miss Stewart.”
She couldn’t help it. She grinned broadly. “And you, Mr. Prescott.”
“You will all forgive me, I hope, and please don’t take this as a lack of gratitude, but it’s my duty to inform you that you’re all under arrest and should return to port immediately.”
Madeline raised an eyebrow then turned away to join the first mate at the bow. Martin chuckled and slapped him on the back, then announced he was going below decks. Which pretty much left Abigail and Prescott the only two standing still amidst the bustle of activity.
Then all vestiges of sheepishness fell away. “Why didn’t you leave me there?”
Abigail figured he deserved an equally serious answer. “Smithton would have killed you. We won’t. You didn’t do anything to deserve being killed, even if you did basically kidnap my father.”
“That was an honest mistake,” Prescott said quietly, chagrined again.
“Yes, I know. So, Smithton has a bounty out on his father? Why?”
“Knowing now who Smithton is, I have no idea. The story I was told is that his father is ill and his son wanted to reunite with him before he dies. I suppose it is possible, but I’m no longer convinced. Have you heard of a falling out between the two?”
“I don’t know much about Charles Smithton at all. Bit of a questionable past, supposedly respectable now. Don’t know either way where he lives.”
Prescott wandered over to the rail and watched Jacksonville growing smaller and smaller on the horizon. “May I ask where we’re going? Or should I jump now?” Then before anyone could reply, he said more sharply, “I think Marauder is pursuing us.”
Abigail moved quickly to his side, quickly confirming his assessment. Still spewing smoke, although much less, and now in full sail, Marauder bore down on them.
“Captain!” Abigail shouted and pointed behind them. She greatly regretted not doing more damage to Smithton’s vessel.
A sound like thunder reverberated across the water, and a cannonball whoooshed past their stern. A second one barely fell short, splashing into the water even closer.
No ship beat Angelica for speed, but even the fastest clipper couldn’t make up for a lack of wind. The light breeze, far weaker than before, simply wouldn’t move the ship fast enough.
“Bring her about!” Captain Stewart shouted. “To arms! Man the cannons!”
Several sailors swung up into the rigging to tend to the sails if the need arose. Others went below a deck and opened to hatches so the cannons could fire. The rest made sure they had their weapons at hand.
“Here, take these.” Abigail handed Prescott her Derringer and her Le Mat Revolver. He wouldn’t like either as well as his Colts, but they’d have to do. Then she dashed into one of the store rooms to get more guns.
The rumble of cannons grew louder, then Angelica’s own blasted in answer, sending a vibration through the decks.
Abigail raced back to the rail, clutching what she’d sought: the Spencer repeating rifle. She clutched long narrow tubes of ammunition in her other hand.
Using the rail for both cover and support for the barrel, Abigail took aim at the person at Marauder’s helm and fired. He dropped to his knees then toppled over.
Pumping the lever between each shot, she felled seven men from the rigging and one from the crow’s nest. One cannonball whizzzed passed, missing her by a foot and splintering the rail and deck beside her.
Even as Angelica’s cannonballs found their mark, Abigail felt the breeze explode into a gale. The sails instantly snapped full, and the lazily rising column of smoke now trailed nearly horizontally behind both vessels.
Captain Stewart ordered a final volley of canon fire then yelled, “Come about!”
Obedient to her mistress, Angelica picked up speed.
A final cannonball crashed into her stern, then several more landed further and further behind.
“Stand down,” Madeline finally ordered, “Stow all weapons. See to repairs,” she said to her first officer, then turned to the second officer. “How many injured?”
“Doc’s still below. I’ll find out.”
Abigail ran to return the rifle to the store room then followed the second officer below. Smoke and stench from the cannons filled the compartment. At the far end of the hold, her father worked on one of the injured. She could barely see him for the smoke.
Some of the crew secured the canons. Others sprawled injured. Martin spared a glance over his shoulder at the swarm of activity. “Everyone above deck as fast as you can,” he yelled. “Carry those who can’t walk.”
One shoulder soaked with blood, the sailor closest to Abigail was trying to pull himself to his feet. She slung his good arm around her neck and half-carried him up the steep wooden stairs.
As she lowered him to the deck, Prescott emerged with an unconscious man hoisted over his shoulder. After laying him down, Prescott plunged back into the smoky hold.
No doctor, Abigail knew enough from her father than she realized she had to stop the bleeding immediately and clean the wound. She shouted to a crew mate to get her some whiskey and bandages then picked wooden splinters out of the bloody wound.
She removed the biggest easily, then probed carefully with her fingertips and found still more embedded closer to the bone.
Finally satisfied she’d done her best, she doused the injury with whisky then wrapped it in the clean cotton swaths.
A hand on her shoulder made her start in surprise. “Very nice,” her father told her.
“Is everyone else all right?” She stood and used the remaining whiskey to soak her hands, then dried them with an extra bandage.
“Haskings might lose a hand, but I’m hoping not. And Trottier,” he indicated the man Prescott had helped, “will have a headache for a week. Otherwise, plenty of scrapes and bruises. We were lucky. Now sit still while I take care of that.” He guided her to a crate and examined the side of her face near her left ear.
In all the chaos, she hadn’t paid any mind to the fleeting burning sensation when the rail next to her splintered.
“Ready,” Doc Stewart asked, showing her another bottle of whiskey. Her mouth twisted, but she nodded. He held a rag at her jawline below the ear, then poured the alcohol into the cut.
She sucked in her breath through clenched teeth as fire exploded in the side of her face. Vision blurred as her eyes instantly watered.
He kissed the top of her head then moved off to see to the rest of the crew.
Prescott sat beside her, his formerly dapper suit now torn and covered with soot but looking uninjured.
“Now what?” he asked.
“That’s up to the captain. I strongly suspect we can spare a boat. We’ll send you ashore close to the next port.”
“Then on about your wicked ways I presume.”
She shot him a sidelong glance, hearing an odd note in his voice. What else did he think they would do? Just because so many now shunned them didn’t mean they didn’t still have a few friends, especially in the south.
Not everyone forgot, or pretended to, how frequently Angelica had run the blockades and delivered desperately needed medicine and other supplies. After all, they worked at the behest of the government legitimate at that time.
But of course all that had changed with the accursed north’s victory.
“The steamships are getting faster, and aren’t dependent on the wind,” he said, surprising her with the sad note in his voice. “And we’re no longer enemies, there are no more blockades to run.”
He spoke the truth. Abigail knew it every bit as well as he. Her mother, a woman smart as well as wise, knew it too. But until Captain Stewart made her own decision to change their ways, Abigail wouldn’t either. Abigail would never abandon her mother or the Angelica and its crew.
When the captain decided on a different ship and a different mission, that’s when Abigail would too.
“You could come ashore.”
She looked at him, shocked at the question. Then she gave herself a shake, mental as well as physical, as she decided she’d read far more into it than he’d intended.
A mischievous glint sparkled in her eyes. “You could stay on board.”
He stared off at the horizon so long, she began to wonder what out there had mesmerized him so. Then he shook his head and gave a deep, melancholy laugh. “No, I couldn’t. But there are times I wish I could.”
The admission caught her off guard nearly as much as his original invitation had. Before she could respond, he reached over and tenderly stroked her face then leaned in and dropped a gentle kiss on her lips. “So it seems I’ll have to pursue you a while longer.”
Recovering, she grinned at him. “Indeed, sir. So it seems.”
Unless, she added to herself, I catch you first.
She couldn’t see herself ever leaving the sea. Frocks and frivolity simply didn’t appeal to her. She loved the freedom and the challenge of the ocean. However when her mother finally decided to regain respectability—and Abigail had no doubt she eventually would—then perhaps William Prescott would change his mind as well.
Until then, they could both enjoy the pursuit.