Excerpt: Lord of Devil Isle
Written with Connie Mason
The broken-off hatch cover was barely big enough for the three women to cling to without losing buoyancy. Sobbing and shivering, Sally tried to scramble up on it again, but Eve pulled her back.
“Just hang on,” Eve ordered as a wave broke over the women. “It’s not big enough to ride.”
The frame of canvas-covered wood was only about four feet square. Eve Upshall didn’t voice her fears about what might happen if they should lose this little bit of flotsam. It might just push her friends over the edge. Penelope was lock-jawed and saucer-eyed. Sally was near hysteria already.
“But I can’t bloody swim!” Sally wailed again.
“Shut it.” Eve delivered a quick slap across Sally’s open mouth. The stinging blow settled the girl and she subsided into moist hiccups. “You should have thought about that before you jumped in.”
“But the fire,” Sally sputtered between sniffles. “I’m mortally afeared of fire.”
“Which hasn’t spread a lick, thanks to this cursed rain.” Eve hated being harsh, but panic would help no one.
“Here, let me untie your panniers,” she offered. The horsehair and wire contraption was probably weighing Sally down. Eve reached under the sodden mass of Sally’s broad skirts and jerked the knot at her waist free. Eve had kicked off her shoes and shed her panniers as soon as she hit the water.
“Penny, do you need help with yours?”
The question jolted Penelope out of her rigor. “No,” she said, hooking an arm across the hatch. “I’ll make do.”
Grim-faced, Penny worked at her lacings until the system of hoops loosened and she wiggled free of them.
“Did anyone see Lieutenant Rathbun?” Sally asked.
“No, and I don’t think we need concern ourselves with anyone else’s welfare at present.” Eve swiped her eyes, trying to clear the stinging brine. “Our plate of troubles seems quite full enough, thank you.”
A wave surged by, high enough to obscure the wreck of the Molly Harper behind a wall of water. When the ship reappeared on the dark horizon, Eve saw that the current had dragged them surprisingly far from their vessel. Her belly roiled.
The women had been forced onto the open deck when the Molly Harper ran aground on a reef and water began pouring into the tiny cabin they shared. Sally panicked at the sight of flames on the poop deck and had run heedless through a broken spot on the gunwale, dropping into the black waves below.
Penelope jumped in after her, knowing her friend couldn’t swim. Eve had watched from above for a helpless few heartbeats while Sally, stupid with terror, thrashed the water and tried to scale her would-be rescuer. Another minute and she’d have drowned them both.
The deck was alive with sailors running, hauling at the ropes and swearing the air blue. Every hand was busy trying to keep the ship from total ruin, with no thought to spare for three women, who everyone claimed were unlucky on a ship in any case. So Eve had grabbed up the loose hatch cover and followed the other two into the waves.
In retrospect, it was probably not the cleverest thing she’d ever done. If her time in Newgate Prison had taught her anything, it was that the wise woman looks to herself. But the confinement of a small shared cabin had wrought a sense of kinship among the three of them. Eve couldn’t let flighty, impulsive Sally or the steady, quiet Penelope come to grief if she could help it.
Sally squealed again. “Look! Another ship!” She waved a pale arm at the hull surging toward the wreck. “Why don’t they stop?”
Another wave washed over them and Sally came up sputtering.
“They probably can’t see us,” Eve said. “On the count of three, we must all scream as loud as ever we can.”
“You won’t slap me?” Sally asked reproachfully.
“Not this time, ninny,” Eve promised with a wry smile. “Ready? One, two, three.”
Even Penelope shrieked for all she was worth.
For a heart-stopping moment, it seemed nothing was happening, that no one had heard them. Then suddenly sailors on the approaching vessel scrambled to spill wind from the sails to slow the ship and a boat was lowered over the side. A big fellow with what looked like a permanent scowl engraved on his face stood at the tiller as his men plied the oars.
“We’re saved!” Sally shouted and waved her free arm.
Eve started to believe it herself, but a sudden movement caught the corner of her eye, something different from the rhythmic roll of the waves. When she turned her head, a long gray body stippled with dark patches passed by them no more than ten feet away. A sharp dorsal fin rose and then disappeared beneath the waves.
She swallowed hard.
Sharks had dogged the Molly Harper across the Atlantic, hoping for more scraps after that piglet fell in just off the Azores. Once, one of the sailors speared a big gray fellow, but before the men could haul the shark from the water, the other fish turned on the wounded one in a bloody frenzy. They boiled the water red devouring one of their own.
“Sally, dear, you must be quiet,” Eve said, forcing an even tone. She prayed the other girl wouldn’t catch a glimpse of the predator before the jolly boat arrived. “A lady is always calm and collected.”
“Especially now,” Eve said. Lieutenant Rathbun had schooled them in decorum all the way across the long stretch of the Atlantic. Perhaps the lessons would come in useful now. “And keep your feet and legs as still as possible.”
“The men in the boat can’t see my legs,” Sally protested.
“No, but if your head is bobbing around they’ll know you’re kicking up your feet like a light-heeled trollop. And it will be quite as bad as if they could see them. Look at Penny.” Eve nodded at their quiet friend. “She’s being perfectly still.”
The boat was drawing closer. The master growled an order, but the wind carried away his words.
The dorsal fin reappeared behind Sally and Penny’s eyes flared with alarm.
“Quiet, Pen,” Eve urged as the shark circled.
Penelope sucked in her bottom lip and worried it in silence.
The moon ripped through the clouds, silvering the black water. The shark glided by again. Its lidless eye flashed feral over rows of jagged teeth. It was closer on this pass. It seemed to be studying them, trying to decide what to do. Eve could almost hear its fishy thoughts.
Is they nice? Is they tasty? Shall we give ’em a nip then, ducks, just to see for ourselves?
The shark’s imagined voice sounded like that disgusting bloke from Cheapside, the one whose unwanted attention she’d fended off during her nightmarish weeks in Newgate. She shook away the evil fancy.
Someone from the small boat shouted to them, but Eve couldn’t yank her gaze from the monster. The sleek body was twice as long as she was tall.
Merciful God, it’s big enough to swallow us whole.
White-knuckled, Eve gripped the hatch cover till her nails bit into the wood. Why hadn’t she grabbed up something useful before she leaped into the sea? Like maybe a pike?
Sally caught sight of the shark and began to shriek like a lost soul.
“Suffering Christ,” Nicholas Scott muttered, then shouted. “Put your backs into it, men.”
He hadn’t given up a prize vessel just to see these stupid women butchered before his eyes, but the shark wouldn’t wait much longer.
“Must be the same big bastard we seen off Spanish Point, Cap’n,” Tatem said. “There ain’t another un’ like that in these waters, or I’ll hope to shout.”
Nick drew his pistol and tried to track the course of the fin around the women. The beast was so close, he couldn’t be sure he wouldn’t hit one of them. The hysterical blonde invited attack with her flailing and screaming. One of the others grabbed her and clamped a hand over her mouth.
“At least one of them has the brains God gave a goose,” Nick conceded.
He aimed his weapon at the circling shark, gauged the distance and allowed for lead time. He squeezed the trigger, but instead of a sharp report, his pistol gave a disappointing click. The rain had wet his powder thoroughly.
There was no help for it and no way he’d order one of his men to do it. Lunacy was a dish best eaten alone. Nicholas yanked off his boots.
“Take the tiller, Mr. Williams,” he ordered. “Tie off the line and make ready to haul away on my signal. Tatem, stick a harpoon in him if you get half a chance.”
Nicholas looped one end of a rope around his waist, thrust a dagger between his teeth and dove into the surging sea. Once his sleek head broke the surface, he closed the distance between the pitching jolly boat and the women in a handful of powerful strokes.
When he surfaced beside them, he pulled the knife from his teeth and unfastened the rope, kicking to stay afloat. The shark passed slowly, eyeing him with a pitiless stare. He didn’t dare look away until it disappeared, dissolving in the black water. Nick knew better than to feel relief. It would be back. Probably when least expected.
“Anyone hurt?” he shouted.
The screamer whimpered.
“Not yet,” the one trying to pacify her said. “Get us out of here.”
As if he wasn’t trying.
“My men can pull two of you to safety at a time.” The weight of three would likely drag the women under. “Grab this rope and hold on!” he ordered the most sensible one of the bunch. In addition to a level head, she had fine features and high cheekbones–a bone-deep beauty that would only ripen with age.
“Not bloody likely,” she said. “You’ll take Sally and Penny first.” Her lovely eyes were wide, but her voice didn’t waver. She looped the cable around the other two. “Pen, grab hold of the rope.” She forced the screamer’s hands around the line. “Sally, shut up and hold fast.”
Nick wasn’t used to being countermanded, but there was no time to argue.
“Whatever happens, don’t let go,” he said to the quaking pair.
He waved both hands over his head and the rope drew taut. The women shot across the surface like a corsair under full sail. Nicholas spotted a fin trailing them. The big tiger shark was back.
“Make some noise,” he said to the woman clinging to the hatch beside him.
“Scream, wench, or your friends are nothing but shark bait.”
That got her attention. She yowled like a cat with its tail caught under a rocker. She flailed her arms and legs, splashing and whooping.
“Good. Keep it up,” Nick bellowed.
As he expected, the fin slowed and turned. Given a choice, a shark would always pick an injured target over one moving smoothly through the water, and the beauty beside him seemed like she was mortally wounded all right.
The shark headed straight for them.
The woman stopped screaming and loosed an impressive string of expletives.
“What part of that was a good idea?” she demanded.
“This.” Nick pulled her close and planted a hard, wet kiss on her mouth. His only regret was that he must be brief. Nothing like a spot of danger with a beautiful woman who knows her way around profanity to make a man feel achingly alive.
He flashed her a quick grin, then looked back toward the oncoming shark. She had enough grit in her gullet for two of his men, but her lips were butter soft. With any luck at all, he’d have time to explore that sweet mouth with greater leisure later. Who knew what outlandishly wicked things a grateful woman might do for a man who faced a shark for her?
Unless this night’s work claimed him.
The fin sped up and sank.
He was out of time.
“Tuck your knees to your chin and be still. Wait for my men to haul you to safety.”
Nick took a couple quick breaths, then dove down to meet the shark.