William Langley gazed over the bow of his ship, the Freedom, at the rippling gray surface of the ocean. Though the seas had finally calmed, a slick of seawater coated everything, and half of his crew were still snoring in their bunks, exhausted from the exertion of keeping the ship afloat through last night’s storm.Will ran his fingers through the cold beads of water along the top edge of the gunwale. It’d probably be a month before they dried out, but they were no worse for wear. Now they could go back to the task at hand—seeking out smugglers along the Western Approaches. In the nearly windless morning, the Freedom crept along in an easterly direction. They were about halfway between Penzance and the Irish coast, though it was likely the storm had blown them off course, and they wouldn’t get an accurate reading on their exact position until the skies cleared. God only knew when that would be. In the interim, he’d keep them moving east toward England so they could patrol the waters closer to the shore.
“She did well, didn’t she?”
Will glanced over his shoulder to see his first mate, David Briggs, approaching from the starboard deck, freshly shaved and calm, a far cry from his harried demeanor last night.
Will smiled. “Indeed she did.” The Freedom was a newly built American schooner rigged with triangular sails in the Bermuda style, a sight rarely seen among the square-rigged brigs and cutters common on this side of the Atlantic. But Will’s schooner was fast and sleek—perfect for the job she had been assigned to perform. And sturdy, as proven by her stalwart response to last night’s storm.
She was, above all, his. Will owned a fleet of ships captained by various men involved in his import business, but since before the first planks were riveted together the Freedom had been his. Three years ago, he’d sent his carefully rendered plans to Massachusetts with detailed instructions on how she should be built. And now, with every step along her shiny planked deck, the satisfying twin prides of creation and ownership resonated through him.
The only area in which Will had relinquished control in the building of the Freedom was in the naming of the ship. The name he’d wanted for her would be too obvious. It would raise too many smirking eyebrows in London society. Even his best friends in the world—the Earl of Stratford and his wife, Meg—would frown and question his sanity if he’d given the ship the name his heart and soul had demanded.
So instead of Lady Meg, he’d agreed to the name suggested by the American shipbuilder—likely as a joke, since they knew well that he was a consummate Englishman. Freedom. It seemed everything the Americans created involved their notions of freedom or liberty or national pride. Yet, surprising himself, Will had found he wasn’t opposed to the name. For him, this ship did represent freedom.
Being out here again, on the open sea, on this beauty of a vessel and surrounded by his hardy crew—all of it was freeing. The bonds that had twisted around his heart for the past two years, growing tighter and tighter, stifling him until he was sure he’d burst, were slowly unraveling.
Out here, at least he could breathe.
He glanced over at Briggs, who was scrubbing a hand over his eyes. “Sleep well?”
“Like the dead.”
“You should have slept longer.”
Briggs raised a brow at him, causing the angry red scar that ran across his forehead to pucker. “I could say the same to you, Captain.”
Will chuckled. “Touché.” Briggs was right. Will had achieved no more than two hours of sleep in the predawn hours. He could have slept in later, but he’d been anxious to survey the Freedom in the light of day. He was glad he had. The anxiety and energy that had compelled him into action since the beginning of the storm were gone now, and he felt…not exactly happy, but peaceful. For the first time in a long while.
“No sightings this morning,” Briggs said.
“No surprise there,” Will answered.
Briggs scanned the horizon with narrowed eyes. “Aye, well, it’s bloody foggy.”
“And we’re too far offshore.” Will had a theory that the particular ship they pursued—a brig smuggling rum from the West Indies—remained close to the shore for several weeks at a time. Instead of using one cove as a drop for its cargo, it used several—depositing a few barrels of rum here and another few there so as to throw the authorities off its scent. The captain of this ship was wily, and he had proved elusive to the coast guard as well as the revenue cutters. They had a vague description of the man, but he never went ashore, and nobody knew his name—or, perhaps more accurately, no one was willing to reveal his name.
The Freedom was, in essence, a spy ship—with only four guns and a crew of twenty they wouldn’t stand in a fight against a fully armed brig with a crew of a hundred. Their task, instead of capturing the pirates, was to log the brig’s activities and hand over the information to the revenue officers, who in turn would seize the ship and its illegal cargo, then prosecute the smugglers.
Will glanced over at Briggs and saw the muscle working in his jaw. He clapped a hand over the man’s shoulder. “Patience,” he said in a low voice.
Briggs was a few years younger than him, and patience had never been his strong suit. He was anxious to find the culprits, whereas Will preferred to take things slowly, as if they had all the time in the world. The best plan of action was probably somewhere in between the two men’s methods. If they waited too long, the brig would be on its way back to the West Indies for its next illegal mission, not to be seen in these waters for at least another year.
Briggs turned to Will and nodded, the edges of his blue eyes crinkling against the glare of the morning sun’s attempt to burn through the fog. “We’ve been out here a fortnight and haven’t seen a hint of them.”
The wind had picked up, and it ruffled through the other man’s thick, tawny hair and sent wisps of fog swirling through the rigging behind him.
“We’ll find them.” Will squeezed Briggs’s shoulder. Neither man said any more; instead both turned back to gaze out over the ocean. The sea and wind were slowly gathering strength after their rest from the gale, and the schooner sliced through the small waves at a faster pace now. Will took a deep breath of the salt air. So much cleaner than the stale, rank air full of sewage and coal smoke in London.
“What’s that?” Briggs asked.
Will glanced at the man to see him squinting out over the open ocean.
His first mate pointed straight ahead. “That.”
Will scanned the sea. Could he have been wrong all this time? Might they encounter the smugglers way out here? Even as he thought it, he realized how unlikely it was. More likely they’d come across another legal English or Irish vessel.
Seeing nothing, he methodically scanned the blurred horizon once again, and then he saw it: the figure of the prow of a boat emerging like a specter from the fog.
Will frowned. The vessel was too small to be this far out at sea on its own.
After half a minute in which they both stared at the emerging shape, Briggs murmured, “Holy hell. Is it a jolly boat?”
“With a broken mast,” Will said, nodding. “I don’t see anyone in it. Can you?”
Briggs leaned forward, squinting hard. He shook his head, but then frowned. “Possibly. Lying on the center bench?”
The mast looked like it had snapped off to about a third of its height, and half the sail draped off the side of the little boat, dragging in the water. No one was attempting to row.
The boat was adrift. And the Freedom was headed straight for it.
Will could see at least one figure now—or at least a mound of pinkish fabric piled on one of the benches. Beside the bench, he saw the movement. Just the smallest shudder, like the twitch of a frightened animal, beneath one of the bench seats.
He spun around and shouted to Ellis, the helmsman, ordering the man to turn into the wind on his command. If they timed it properly, rather than barreling right over the little boat and reducing it to splinters, they could pass it on the larboard side without getting its floating sail tangled in their keel or rudder.
“Aye, Captain!” Ellis answered.
Will heard a shout. He turned to take stock of the other seamen on deck. There were six additional men, four of them clustered near Ellis, speaking in excited tones and pointing at the boat emerging from the fog. The other two had been at work swabbing the deck but were now gazing at the emerging vessel in fascination.
“Fetch the hook,” someone shouted, and a pair of seamen hurried down the starboard deck where the telescoping hook was lashed.
Everyone else was still asleep, but Will could easily make do with the nine of them. The Freedom was sixty feet of sleek power, and one of the most impressive of her attributes was that her sails were controlled by a series of winches, making a large crew unnecessary. In fact, Ellis and three others could easily control the ship while Briggs, Will, and the other seamen secured the vessel.
“We’ll draw alongside it on our larboard side,” Will murmured to Briggs. Even after such a short time aboard his new ship, Will had impeccable timing when it came to the Freedom. Briggs and the crew often joked that the ship was such a part of him he could command it to do anything he wanted with a mere thought. The truth was, Will knew the Freedom intrinsically. He could predict with great accuracy how it would react to any manipulation of its sails and rudder—certainly a product of controlling everything about its design since its earliest conceptualization.
“Aye, sir,” Briggs said. “I’ll prepare to secure it larboard-side.”
“Very good.” Will turned back toward the jolly boat as Briggs hurried amidships. He could see the figure on the bench more clearly now, and he swallowed hard.
It was definitely a woman. The pink was her dress, a messy, frothy, lacy concoction spattered with the gray and black muck that constituted part of the inner workings of any sailing vessel. She lay prone and motionless on the bench. Beside her, the brownish lump wasn’t entirely clear. A dog, Will guessed, probably half dead from fear, with its head tucked under its body.
He waited another two minutes, judging the wind and the closing distance between the two vessels. Finally he shouted, “Haul up!”
Ellis responded instantly to his order, turning the wheel so the Freedom sailed directly into the wind. The sails began to flap wildly, but Will heard the whir of the winches, and soon they were pulled taut.
The Freedom lost speed quickly as the jolly boat approached, and they drifted to a halt just as a seaman reached out with the grappling hook to snag the gunwale of the small vessel.
Will hurried to the larboard side while Briggs lashed the boat to the Freedom and one of the seamen secured a ladder. He had already descended into the jolly boat when Will arrived at the scene.
“There’s a lady here, sir!” The seaman, Jasper, who was really little more than a boy, looked up at Will wide eyed, as if uncertain what to do.
“Can you heft her up, lad?” Will called down. The poor woman hadn’t budged, and her matted hair and torn clothing covered her features. He hoped she could breathe through that thick tangle of blond hair. He hoped she was alive.
Jasper appeared rather horrified at the prospect of carrying her, but with a gulp that rolled his prominent Adam’s apple, he nodded. Widening his stance for balance in the bouncing jolly boat, he leaned over and gingerly tucked his arms under the figure of the unmoving woman and hoisted her up.
Will sensed movement from the corner of his eye, and he glanced over at the lump he’d thought was a dog.
Two brown eyes stared at him from under a mass of shaggy brown hair. It was looking up from its position curled into a ball on the floor of the jolly boat, but it was no dog. It was a child, and he was creeping backward, as if he were considering escape.
Seeing that his first mate had looked up from his task and had noticed the child as well, Will nodded at Briggs. “Go down and grab him,” he told him. “Best hurry, too—looks like he’s about to jump overboard.”
Briggs vaulted over the side of the Freedom, his movements graceful. The man had a way about him on a ship—no matter where he was from the bilge to the top of the mast, he was inherently graceful and self-composed, even in twenty-foot seas.
Briggs’s fast motion evidently frightened the boy, because he scrambled backward, and when Briggs stepped over the bench toward him, the child scurried up the side of the hull and leaped overboard. Briggs was lightning quick, though. He whipped out his hand, grabbed the urchin by the scruff of the neck, and hauled him back into the boat.
Without making any noise, the boy kicked and flailed, his hands gripping the strong arms around him and trying to yank them away.
“Feisty one, aren’t you?” Will heard Briggs say above the slap of the waves against the jolly boat’s hull. “But don’t worry, lad. We’re here to help you, not hurt you.”
That seemed to calm the boy enough for Briggs to get a firmer grip on him, and Will turned back to Jasper, who was struggling with hoisting the lady up the ladder. The second mate, MacInerny, had climbed halfway down to help, and they’d managed to heft her most of the way up.
Will bent over and reached down for her, managing to grasp her beneath the armpits, and with the two men’s help, he was able to maneuver her onto the deck. It wasn’t that she was heavy—she was actually a slip of a thing. But the movement of the ocean combined with her dead weight and the frothy torn clothing combined to make it a cumbersome process.
Cradling her head, Will gently lay her on the deck.
“She’s breathing,” Jasper gasped as he scrambled up the ladder. “She lives!”
Will heaved out a sigh of relief.
Holding the little boy—who looked to be about five or six years old, though Will was certainly no authority on children—Briggs stepped onto the deck. The four men hovered over the woman. Crouched near her feet, Jasper cleared his throat and tugged the filthy hem of her dress down over the torn and dirty stockings covering her legs.
Something about those legs was…familiar.
With his heart suddenly pounding hard, Will raised his hand to push away the blond mass of hair obscuring her features. Her hair was dense with wetness and salt, but he cleared it from her face, his callused fingertips scraping over the soft curve of her cheek.
“Oh, God,” Will choked, his hand frozen over her hair. “Oh, my God.”
“What is it, Captain?” The question came from somewhere above him.
Will blinked away the water threatening to stream from his eyes. Was he overtired? Was he having visions? Had the intensity of the storm and lack of proper sleep caused him to have strange, perverse dreams?
No. God no, he was awake. There was too much color—the dewy flesh of her skin, the light brown spatter of freckles on her nose, the pink and white of her dress. Beyond the rancid smell of bilge water—originating mostly from the boy, he thought—he could smell her, too. She’d always smelled sweet and pure, like the sugarcane from the plantation in Antigua where she’d been raised.
Was she a ghost?
Half fearing she’d evaporate like fog beneath his fingers, he clasped both sides of her face and turned it upward so she would have been staring at him if her eyes were open.
“You’re real,” he whispered. He crouched over her mouth and nose and closed his eyes as the soft puff of her breath washed over his cheek.
Jasper was right—she was alive.
This was impossible. She’d been lost at sea eight years ago—on the other side of the Atlantic. Had she been adrift all this time, like some sleeping beauty, waiting for him—her prince—to find her and kiss her awake?
Did he dare hope that this was a true miracle and not some cruel joke of fate?
“Meg,” he breathed. The dewy feel of her skin beneath his fingertips swept through him like the stroke of a rose petal. “Meg? Wake up,” he murmured. “Wake up, love.”
The urge overcame him, and forgetting the men staring at him—at them—he bent forward and pressed his lips to hers.
Her mouth was soft and cool, with a hint of salt. God help him, but memories slammed into him. He remembered the feel of her lips against his, the feel of her body against his. And his body could do nothing but respond to the images rolling through his mind. The sweetness of her body tucked against him. Her trusting gray eyes…the way she’d looked at him. No one had ever looked at him like Meg had.
He drew back, his movement slow. She hadn’t moved.
Keeping himself just over her, he held her precious face cupped in his hands. He couldn’t bear to let her go. He couldn’t bear to pull farther away from her. Instead, he touched her nose with his and reveled in the soft feel of her breath as it whispered over his forehead.
She was alive. Meg was alive.