Lord of the privateers, p.25
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       Lord of the Privateers, p.25

           Stephanie Laurens

  She raised both hands, slicked her hair back from her face, and blinked at Royd.

  He grinned. Hands locked about her waist, he started to draw her toward the waterfall, to the grotto behind it.

  As, divining his intent, she glanced that way, he murmured, “I’ve always wanted to couple with a mermaid.”

  She looked at him. “Mermaid?”

  In a blink, she slid her hands to his shoulders and surged up—and had just enough leverage to push him under and down.

  She let go and waited.

  When he resurfaced and, with a hard shake of his head, flicked water and hair from his eyes, at her most haughty, she caught his gaze and arched a brow. “I believe you should be thinking in terms of an Amazon. This is a jungle, after all.”

  He stared at her, then he laughed.

  Then he cupped a hand behind her nape, hauled her to him and into a searing kiss. Then he kicked gently and propelled them under the waterfall.

  * * *

  They got back to the camp in time for a late lunch. Kit shot Isobel a knowing look, which she pointedly ignored.

  Once they’d slaked their more mundane hungers, Royd sat with Lachlan, Kit, Liam Stewart, Reynaud, and the other senior officers of their combined crews—all of whom had trickled back to camp from where, deeper in the jungle, their teams were working on assembling the required yardarms—and proceeded to go through what he termed their order of battle.

  Isobel sat to one side and observed. This was Royd as she’d never seen him—the commander in action.

  Of an action that risked men’s lives, lives he considered it his responsibility to protect. To preserve.

  At first blush, the plan he’d devised sounded outrageously reckless, but as he continued detailing where this group of men would be, and that group, and how and when they would engage, the picture of the fight came clear in her mind—much like a game she’d seen army men engage in with toy soldiers on a board—and she realized how carefully thought out each move was, and how, at least in this instance, every man seemed to have another at his back.

  Although the plan was Royd’s, he was no dictator; there was a degree of discussion, and not just from his cousins but from Liam and some of the more junior officers, too. Royd listened to each comment, sought clarification or the opinions of others, and amended his orders in several respects. But the core of the plan remained.

  And it was a good plan; judging by the expressions of the others, they thought so, too.

  Ultimately, Royd addressed an issue she hadn’t thought he would—what might or could go wrong. He was blunt, but his experience showed, as did that of Liam and Lachlan, as they discussed various alternatives should one of their preferred actions be blocked.

  Finally, Royd rose, and everyone else came to their feet. He dismissed them, and everyone, including his cousins, snapped off salutes before tramping off into the jungle, each returning to the group of men they were to lead in the upcoming attack-cum-rescue. From the expressions on their faces, all were now concentrating on the action, on performing as required and ensuring collective success.

  Isobel rose, brushing clinging leaves from her breeches.

  Royd turned to her; two of the men who’d earlier been plaiting rope hovered by the opening of the track to the rock shelf. “We’re going up to spell those on watch.”

  She nodded. “I’ll come.”

  The trek up to the rock shelf was uneventful. They replaced the three men currently there, then settled to observe the activity in the compound a hundred feet below.

  All seemed to be proceeding much as the days before, except for Ross-Courtney and Neill, who went parading around the compound, looking into this hut, then that, with Satterly and Muldoon somewhat anxiously trailing behind. At one point, Winton came out of the barracks and wandered to the mine entrance. He peered inside, as if examining what he could see, but he didn’t venture in. Then he spotted Ross-Courtney and Neill nearing the hut the women worked in, and turned on his heel and strode back to the barracks.

  “He, for one, doesn’t want to be there,” Royd murmured.

  She nodded and wondered what Winton had been looking at.

  Ross-Courtney climbed the steps to the cleaning shed door, Neill at his heels.

  Muldoon said something—as if attempting to distract the older men—but Ross-Courtney dismissed the interruption with a supercilious flick of his hand, opened the door, and led the way inside.

  Neill followed. After exchanging a glance, Satterly and Muldoon did as well.

  Isobel waited to see them re-emerge. The minutes ticked past. Eventually, she stirred and murmured to Royd, “How long have they been in there?”

  He glanced at the sky, then looked down at the cleaning shed. “At least half an hour.” After a moment, he added, “If I was Ross-Courtney, I’d want to see the stones the mine’s producing. Caleb said there were rare blue diamonds among the usual white ones. I suspect your cousin and the other women are taking the opportunity to feed Ross-Courtney’s and Neill’s greed, enough, at least, to ensure they don’t contemplate shutting the mine down in the next few hours.”

  “Hmm.” Isobel continued to watch the shed, only peripherally aware of the others—mostly children and mercenaries—moving about the compound.

  Finally, the door to the cleaning shed opened. Katherine, followed by two other women, led the gentlemen out. The group walked straight to the awning under which several girls crouched, sorting the rocks chipped out of the mine.

  Leaning forward, her eyes locked on her cousin, Isobel saw Katherine call something to the girls as the group neared. In response, the girls scrambled to their feet and stepped out from under the awning. They congregated to one side, allowing Katherine to show the four men something beneath the awning.

  “I assume she’s demonstrating what the girls do,” Royd said.

  “That’s what it looks like.” Katherine was evidently explaining something. Neill and Satterly were paying close attention. Muldoon had the look of one who had seen it all before; he hung back to one side.

  But as for Ross-Courtney...his attention had deflected from Katherine’s demonstration. His head had turned to the side.

  Isobel followed his gaze. She stiffened.

  Royd glanced at her. “What?”

  She stared at Ross-Courtney. After a moment, she muttered, “I don’t like the way that bounder is looking at that girl—the tall one with wispy fair hair.”

  Royd’s gaze locked on Ross-Courtney.

  A moment later, Isobel elbowed him. “Look at Neill. He’s seen it, too.” Even viewed from this distance, Neill’s expression conveyed fastidious disdain.

  Then Katherine stepped out from under the awning, putting herself between Ross-Courtney and the girl. To Isobel, Katherine’s subsequent performance seemed overly animated; her cousin had seen or sensed enough to feel compelled to shield the girl and deflect Ross-Courtney.

  With an unctuous smile, Ross-Courtney allowed Katherine and the other women to usher him and Neill back to the cleaning shed. Isobel quietly exhaled.

  Royd glanced sidelong at her. “We’re going in this evening.”

  “Just as well.” Isobel watched Katherine wave the men inside. Once they’d passed, Katherine threw a plainly worried glance back at the ore piles, then went into the cleaning shed and shut the door.

  Isobel looked at the awning, but the girls had ducked under its cover. She returned her gaze to the cleaning shed. After a moment, she stated, “If that bastard so much as touches a hair on any girl’s head, I will have his balls.”

  Royd heard, but said nothing. He knew she meant the words more or less literally. She’d styled herself an Amazon; she was perfectly capable of acting like one.

  Nothing further of note happened over the next half hour. But as the sun started to sl
ide toward the horizon, the tension steadily increased. Everyone in their company knew the time for action was drawing inexorably nearer, that the time to check weapons and make last-minute adjustments to their preparations was running out. Various officers came to the rock shelf to report on progress or discuss minor adjustments to this or that.

  Then a significant stir heralded the arrival of Declan, Edwina, Robert, and Aileen. Royd suggested the two sailors who had been sharing the watch take a break, allowing his brothers and their ladies to crowd onto the rock shelf with him and Isobel.

  Royd watched as all four settled, their gazes drawn to the compound below. “You made good time.”

  Robert, sitting next to Royd, humphed. “We left the settlement early yesterday, reached Kale’s camp by early afternoon, and decided to march on. We camped in the jungle and made an early start again this morning.”

  “It’s easier to walk in the early morning.” Seated next to Robert, Aileen sent a smiling glance at Royd and Isobel. “And we wanted to be here in time to take a good look around before the excitement starts.”

  Royd didn’t reply; he’d hoped—clearly vainly—that his brothers would succeed in convincing Aileen, and even more Edwina, to remain safely in Freetown. Just as well he’d made contingency plans; Edwina and Aileen could assist Isobel with evacuating the women and children and keeping the group corralled by the lake. He was banking on such a role appealing to the instincts all three women shared for helping and protecting those weaker than themselves.

  And while they were keeping the other women and the children safe, they would remain safe, too.

  “Incidentally,” Robert said, “Babington joined us. He’s waiting with our men.”

  “I thought he would come,” Royd said.

  Robert snorted. “We’d have had to tie him up to stop him.”

  Royd had a role in mind for Babington, too.

  “We heard that Caleb got himself—and his men—captured.”

  The comment pulled Royd from his mental planning; Declan’s tone suggested disapproval. Royd mildly replied, “Indeed, and by managing to get himself and his men inside the compound without anyone dying, Caleb got us over the one otherwise-insurmountable hurdle that stood in the way of us successfully rescuing all the captives.”

  Silence ensued as his brothers digested that. Robert grasped the point first. “So we now have sufficient trained fighters inside the compound to stand between the mercenaries and the likely hostages—namely the women and children.”

  Across Robert, Declan glanced at Royd.

  Royd nodded. “Precisely. Without Caleb and his men being inside the palisade, we would have been forced to accept losing some hostages in order to free the rest. I wasn’t looking forward to making that decision, so I’m grateful Caleb managed to pull off what amounts to an infiltration.”

  Declan snorted. “Knowing him, that was far from planned, but he’s always been good at turning situations to his advantage.” Declan paused, then, in a brisker, more businesslike tone, asked, “So what are your orders?”

  Royd ran through his plan, outlining the actions he envisioned as necessary to take the camp while simultaneously releasing and protecting the hostages.

  His brothers listened without interruption; after his earlier discussions with Lachlan, Kit, and the other officers, the plans were well honed and had no real weaknesses left to be addressed.

  Edwina and Aileen listened carefully, too. Royd hoped they would be content with the roles he’d assigned them; they seemed quite pleased to have been specifically included—a reaction he prayed augured well.

  When he ended his recitation, at the point where all their men were inside the palisade and engaging with the mercenaries and all beyond became speculation, Robert stated, “Everything’s covered, as far as I can see.” He glanced at Declan.

  Declan nodded decisively. “I can’t see any holes.” He looked past Royd to Isobel. “Being able to get through the palisade is a critical advantage—one the mercenaries won’t expect.”

  “They won’t expect our sudden arrival, literally from out of the blue, either.” Robert glanced at Declan. “We need to brief our men.” He looked at Royd. “We halted in a clearing along the path from Kale’s camp. How far advanced are your work parties? When do you want us to bring our men up?”

  Royd glanced at the sun; the afternoon was now well advanced. “The work parties should be almost ready to shift the yardarms into position. Why don’t you brief your men and Babington, then bring them through the jungle to Caleb’s camp? From there, you and your men can join the work parties and help get the yardarms in place.” He hesitated, then, his features hardening, added, “I’d rather be ready than not—I want every man in place, and all groups ready to go, before the light fades.”

  Neither Declan nor Robert argued. Both got to their feet.

  Declan arched his brows at Edwina, still seated on the rock. “Coming?”

  Edwina glanced at Isobel, then at Aileen, then she tipped her head back and met her husband’s eyes. “I thought perhaps Isobel might show Aileen and me this lake. If we’re to gather the women and children there, knowing the area—the terrain—might prove useful.”

  Isobel watched Declan glance at Robert, then at Royd.

  Royd shrugged. “That’s not a bad idea. The area’s safe—none of the mercenaries ever venture that way after their morning excursion to fetch water.”

  Isobel leapt in. “I’m happy to show Edwina and Aileen the way.” She glanced at Royd. “Then the three of us can return to our camp. Edwina and Aileen will be closer to where they need to be to help with the evacuation later.”

  Royd held her gaze for a second, then looked at Robert and Declan. “On your way past our camp, send two more men up to take the watch. Once I’m relieved, I’ll go down to the lake and escort these three to our camp. Isobel’s right—it’ll be more sensible for Edwina and Aileen to wait there.”

  Edwina turned a sunny smile on Declan, and Aileen smiled confidently at Robert.

  Both men hesitated, then Declan nodded. “We’ll meet at Royd’s camp.” He turned and made his way off the rock shelf.

  Robert followed, then the three ladies rose, and Isobel led Edwina and Aileen down the narrow path in Declan and Robert’s wake.

  Halfway down, they had to pause and wait by the side of the track to allow one of the work parties to haul a huge cleaned and polished tree trunk up the track.

  Edwina studied the ropes and pulleys several men were carrying. “Aha. Now I understand.”

  Aileen nodded. “Quite ingenious. I can’t imagine this Dubois will be expecting anything like what’s going to happen.”

  “Surprise is vital for our success.” With their path again clear, Isobel stepped out and picked up the pace. “Come on—I’ve quite a lot to tell you.”

  She didn’t need to say anything more to have the other two hurrying at her heels.

  They reached the lake. Isobel showed them the narrow wharf and the weapons that had been buried, but now lay cleaned and ready for use.

  “So the women and children are funneled in here”—Aileen made a sweeping motion from the path across the wharf to the designated area beyond—“and there’s a group of men delegated to protect them, and they have adequate weapons to do that.” She met Isobel’s eyes. “So what’s the point of us being here, too?”

  “My thoughts exactly.” Edwina had been studying the lake. She looked at Isobel and pointed to the water. “Is it possible to swim, do you know?”

  Isobel grinned. “Kit and I already have.” She didn’t mention Royd.

  Aileen’s eyes lit. “After the trek here, I would give a great deal to feel water on my skin.”

  “There’s a tiny cove over there that’s screened.” Isobel pointed toward the waterfall. “It’s easier to get into the water there

  She led the way around the lake.

  The other two were wearing their breeches and jackets over fine shirts. As they stripped, Aileen said, “Yet another advantage of breeches over skirts—much faster to get into and out of.”

  Isobel perched on a flat rock. Once the other two had slid into the water and got beyond their first raptures at the coolness, she stated, “I’ll be the one who cuts through the final threads and opens the gate at the rear of the women and children’s hut.”

  Edwina nodded, sending ripples across the water’s dark surface. “And we’ll be right behind you—to help get the women and children out of the hut and onto the path to the lake.”

  “But once they’re all out and have got past the main gates and are disappearing down the path”—Aileen floated on her back, hands flapping to keep her position—“with armed sailors lining the path and more at the lake itself, then...”

  “Indeed,” Isobel said. “So what’s our plan?”

  * * *

  For Caleb—and he was quite sure all the captives—the day seemed to drag on interminably.

  Finally—finally!—the break for the evening meal was called.

  All the men who’d been pretending to toil in the second tunnel stepped back from the rock face. Many, he noticed, stared at the rock wall for a moment, as if recognizing that, if all went as planned—and even if the rescue effort blew up in their faces—they wouldn’t be seeing the sight again.

  Taking care to behave as they normally did, they trooped out of the mine. Those carrying the shovels used to clear ore from under the men’s feet added the tools to the pile of shovels and picks no longer in daily use that Dixon had organized to leave just inside the mine’s entrance. Close at hand.

  Even better, they’d fallen into the habit of carrying the hammers and chisels they were now required to work with in their pockets; as, in the aftermath of the women’s tools blunting, Dubois had declared each man responsible for the care of his own tools, not even Dubois saw anything odd in that.

  He might have thought twice if he’d realized what very sharp edges the chisels now carried.

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