Ex pirate, Captain Jesamiah Acorne, is in trouble. Big Trouble. All he wants is to marry his girl, Tiola Oldstagh, and live contented aboard his ship, Sea Witch. But her husband refuses to grant a divorce unless Jesamiah agrees to retrieve some barrels of indigo and smuggle them out of the Spanish-held Caribbean island of Hispaniola.
The Governor of Nassau wants Jesamiah to go there too, to help incite a rebellion, and Captain Henry Jennings wants him to find a lost spy. To cap it all, Commodore Vernon of the Royal Navy wants to expand his fleet and craves the Sea Witch for himself.
As Jesamiah’s hopes for a quiet life tumble about him, the onset of war with Spain scuppers everyone’s plans. Hispaniola is governed by a tyrant who has promised to hang, draw and quarter Jesamiah if ever he sets foot there again, while the lovely widow, Senora Francesca Escudero would prefer to seduce him.
Jesamiah, Captain Acorne, lay awake, unable to sleep. He watched the intermittent flicker of lightning and listened to the distant thunder as it trundled away out to sea. In the main part of the cabin rain was beating against the skylight and the five stern windows, was drumming on the wooden deck above. From across the harbour the cracked bell in Nassau's dilapidated church rang the hour of ten, the sound tinny and distorted; several minutes slow. Tucked safe within the curve of his arm his woman, Tiola, slept soundly. Her breathing was light and even, her dark lashes feathered against her cheeks and a slight smile tipped one corner of her mouth upward. He needed to kiss her but did not want to wake her. Did not want this night to end or tomorrow to begin.
Uneasy after the storm, his ship, Sea Witch, shuffled restlessly at her anchor cables. Jesamiah knew her every sound; the mithering creak of her timbers, the chattering of her rigging. The trickle of rainwater draining out through the scuppers. He listened for a while ensuring all was as it should be, identifying each individual murmur as if eavesdropping on a one-sided conversation. He knew his ship as intimately as he knew Tiola's body. Every curve, every joint, every mark. He was consort and lover to them both.
Closing his eyes he groaned silently beneath his breath, sighed again, puffing the air silently from his lips. Anxious thoughts were tumbling in his head as if they were drunken acrobats refusing to receive their applause and make a final bow. What was he to do? What in the name of all the gods could he do?
Tugging at her bower anchor, Sea Witch rocked as the wind huffed against her side, the ripple of the tide gurgling against her keel as it scurried past. She had been moored on two anchors set in different directions but to take the strain Jesamiah had pulled on his breeches and shirt and gone on deck to supervise setting the kedge as well. Only a fool risked allowing his ship to pull free and drift.
Tiola had squealed at his icy touch as he'd slid, cold and damp, back into bed; had then suggested a way he could get warm again. Responding with lust and eager enthusiasm he had approved her idea, although his lovemaking had been more tender, less fierce and longer-lasting than the previous, earlier, tumble of passion which had been spurred by the delivery of that wretched letter. His anger, on reading it, had erupted as explosive as the storm.
Furious, he had crumpled the neatly-written document between his callused hands and hurled it across his cabin where it had bounced off the light-oak panelling, fallen onto the faded square of carpet and malevolently unfolded itself again.
"I am not having it!" he had shouted as he paced the few yards from one side of the cabin to the other, automatically stepping around the bulk of the starboard-side cannon which Tiola had belligerently draped with a lace-edged cloth to disguise its hideous presence. His enraged shout had been as loud as the cannon's roar. "Van Overstratten's a bastard! He has no right to do this!"
Jesamiah sighed, brushed aside a strand of Tiola's black hair that was tickling his chin. Unfortunately, the Dutchman had every right to summon her before a court of law on a charge of adultery. He was her husband; her lover, Jesamiah Acorne, ex-pirate, owner and captain of the Sea Witch, had no rights at all. The fact Tiola had walked away from the marriage meant nothing to Stefan, but then, he was a man who, perhaps justifiably, did not tolerate being so publicly cuckolded.
Tiola stirred, drowsing in the languid pleasure of being abed and in that warm, delicious place half way between being asleep and awake. She snuggled closer to her man lying naked next to her, wondered if he had remembered to shut the centre one of the stern windows. She might get up in a minute, close it.
"Jesamiah?" She nudged him with her elbow. "Mm?" "Did you close the window?" "Mm."
She felt his arm tighten around her, his hand cupping her breast, loving and possessive. The headache that had been nagging all day had moved to above her right eye; a dull, annoying nudge of pain. She would have to do something about it if it was still with her come daylight.
Jesamiah had been so angry as he had stamped about the cabin, the blue ribbons he wore tied into his chaos of black hair fluttering like banners behind him, his arms waving. So very angry because he did not know what to do about the situation. There was not much he could do. As a pirate he had no regard for the law, but as an ex-pirate bound under the code of a recent government-granted amnesty, he was obliged to take note of it.
She had sat, legs curled under her, on the velvet cushions piled along the lockers curving beneath the line of the stern windows; had suppressed a smile as he had surreptitiously kicked at the cloth draped over the cannon as he had he walked past. He resented its prim femininity here in his masculine domain. From habit, he had ducked beneath the overhead beams. Only under the rectangle of the skylight could he stand upright to his full five feet ten inches. She so loved him. Had only married Stefan as a means to save Jesamiah's life. Looking back, it had been a stupid thing to do, but she had not had much choice at the time.
"Any other whoreson would have cleared off back to where he bloody came from bloody weeks ago," Jesamiah said into the darkness as he shifted his arm clutched around her waist.
"Would you have done so?" Tiola asked implacably, moving her head more comfortable on his shoulder. "Were the boot pulled on the other foot, would you allow another man to make a fool of you?"
Itching at his jaw-line beard, Jesamiah pulled at the golden acorn earring dangling from his right lobe. He shrugged, muttered something uncomplimentary about merchant Dutchmen then admitted, "No, I suppose not." As an immediate afterthought protested, "But I would not have acted like this! I would call the bastard out and shoot him. Put a bullet in his privy package where it mattered."
The summons had been couched in legal jargon, written down by a rat-faced weasel, William Dunwoody, Governor Rogers' chief clerk. An arse-licker if ever there was one. Tiola was ordered to return to her husband as a dutiful wife by sunset, or be arrested and publicly punished. Jesamiah groaned again, shifted her weight off his numbing arm. Sunset was long gone. He knew only too well what the punishment meant.
In a last burst of fury he had scrunched the obnoxious document up and thrown it out of the window, where it had wafted serenely on a current of air down into the scum and detritus-strewn sea water of Nassau harbour. Some scavenging fish or other had probably devoured it by now.
Another flicker of lightning. The thunder was louder, the storm returning. "This is all my fault. I'm so sorry Sweetheart."
Tiola caressed his face, which was faintly bruised and bore the healing scars of several deep cuts. His ribs were sore, a multiple of hurts that were only half mended from the brutal treatment he had received from his brother, Philippe Mereno and from Stefan. Both men, for their own reasons, had wanted him dead. Had it not been for Tiola, Jesamiah's brother - his half brother - would have succeeded. Mereno was now the corpse at the bottom of the Atlantic, sent there by Jesamiah's formidable rage. In his expressed opinion, it was a great pity van Overstratten had not met a similar end.
"How can it be your fault, my luvver?" Tiola asked, her accent betraying the slight burr of her Cornish origins. She pulled him closer, her hand tenderly rubbing his back. She was seventeen and heart-achingly beautiful. "I married him and then walked away, not you."
"Aye, and I was the one who abandoned you in Cape Town. Had I not done so you would not have been coerced into wedding the bastard." The bitterness at the memory spilled out. "I should have waited. I should have fetched you. Should have done any number of things, but I was too intent on taking Sea Witch as my own. I put her above you and I ought not have done."
Tiola kissed his forehead. "I wed Stefan with a free will, Jesamiah." Not so free, but Tiola was not going to admit that. Alone in Cape Town she had waded through a fog of despair and misery, not understanding why her lover, her life, had chosen the stronger pull of a ship and the lure of the sea. Stefan had asked her to become his wife, and then she had discovered his partnership with Mereno and their plan for vengeance against the man they saw as a thief and a murderer.
The headache, now she was fully awake, was more persistent. Trying to ignore it she admitted, "Perhaps agreeing to wed Stefan was a stupid idea. I did not think through the consequences of what would happen after."
Pushing himself up to lean on one elbow Jesamiah half grinned at her, a spark of his usual good humour returning. "It was more than stupid, but it's good to know you're not infallible." He curled his hand, mindful of the two healing broken fingers, into her hair. "The fault is mine. I started this damned wheel rolling."
In the next flicker of light his eyes roamed over the inner curve of the ship's bulkhead, at the oak timbers, her superb lines. She had not always been called Sea Witch, not when van Overstratten had owned her, that was Jesamiah's naming. Sea Witch for Tiola and for what Tiola was. Her name, Teela, short and quick, not Ti-oh-la long and ponderous. To the many she was a skilled healer and midwife, to Jesamiah, the only man alive who shared her secret, she was a woman of the White Craft. A witch.
"I stole this ship from under van Overstratten's nose and plundered others of his merchant fleet. All this," he waved his hand in an aimless direction, "is about punishing me and what I am. A pirate. It has nothing to do with you."
"Were a pirate." Tiola reminded him with a teasing smile. "You are now a law-abiding citizen. It is me he wishes to possess." She smiled, brushed her fingernail against his moustache. "And I thought the nautical term was commandeer, not steal?"
For the several thousand rogues who had descended on the disreputable town of Nassau in the Bahama Islands of the Caribbean, the unconditional offer of a pardon had been a Godsend. The Sweet Trade was alluring, but not when a hangman's noose dangled too close for comfort. As long as the taverns and whore-houses along the shore-front continued to provide rum and women, and no one unduly harassed them, these men, the dregs of the Seven Seas, were content. Jesamiah, it seemed, was the only one who was not. Jesamiah Acorne - not his birth name, that too had been Mereno - was twenty four years old and had turned pirate a few months before his fifteenth birthday. For three weeks now he had been an ex-pirate, though few would discern a noticeable difference for he still looked and sounded as colourful as he always had.
"Hell's tits, woman, you can be exasperating on occasion! Please allow me to take the blame." He smiled back at her, the flare of light glinting on the gold of his newly replaced teeth. He kissed her, physically showing the love that came straight from his heart and shone through his eyes. He was so frightened for her. So loved her.
Hesitating, reluctant to say what was hovering in his thoughts, the thoughts that had been churning in his mind this last hour or so, he took a breath, said, "You are a witch. Can you not do something? Use your Craft?" He was tentative and uncertain for he was wary of what she was, even though she had assured him, many times over, she was unable to intentionally do harm.
"Of the two of us," she had once said, "as a pirate, you are by far the more dangerous."
Tiola thread her arms around his waist. "And what would you have me do? Turn Stefan into a toad? Smite him with lightning? Fetch up a greater storm than the one making a nuisance of itself outside? I am not of the Dark, Jesamiah. To save myself from a few moments of public humiliation I am not permitted to hurt others."
"Well then, do something else, damn it!" Jesamiah thrust the sheets and blanket from him, swung his legs over the side of the wooden box bed that rocked violently on its rope-hangings as he got to his feet. "I've seen you use your voice to make a man do your bidding; seen how you can blur your features to make it seem you are old and haggard. Put a spell on him Tiola, make him forget you exist!"
If only it were that easy.
Patient, pulling the covers up to her chin to compensate for the removal of his warmth she explained, as she had already told him twice since the arrival of that document, "My Craft is not infinite, nor can I do 'spells'. I create illusion by subtly altering the perceived truth. The eye sees what it wants to see, it is not difficult to change what someone thinks he is looking at. Ais, yes, I can make Stefan believe he has not been wronged, but his forgetting would be like ice beneath the sun. It would soon melt. There are too many others who know of us, Jesamiah. I would have to change all their memories lest someone speak of it and cause Stefan to remember, and that, I cannot do. It is impossible."
She sighed, watched him strike a flint and light a lamp. How else could she illustrate her point? "If one strand of cordage frays it will hold, perhaps with two or three unravelling it will still be usable, but would you trust such a line to brace a sail in a storm wind? I can not always rely on my Craft, Luvver. For some situations its strength is inappropriate. If I alter this thing I run the risk of drawing attention to what I am." She paused; what more could she say that she had not already said? "The penalty for witchcraft is far greater than a few lashes with a whip for adultery."
He grunted an answer. "So you will not save yourself?"
"I can not. There is a difference."
He did not wholly understand why, did not want to understand, just wanted her to be safe. Walking into the great cabin he grunted again. The window had been left open, rain was puddled on the floor, had soaked several of the cushions. As if watery fingers had poked and pried, there were rain drops scattered on the muddled books and papers on his desk, and small pools dotted among the debris of empty coffee cups and wine glasses on his mahogany dining table.
Hardly surprising that the window had been forgotten. His anger had changed into despair, and that had led to the only way he knew of showing her how much he loved her. His love-making had been fierce, her own response as demanding and urgent, their bodies, souls, united as they reached the breathless crescendo of mutual pleasure.
As far as Jesamiah was concerned Tiola was his and no-one, no-one, would be touching or hurting her. Not even if he had to return to a life of piracy and kill van Overstratten to prevent it.
"Pirate Code" by Helen Hollick