Part I


“Surrender, y’ scurvy bastard!” Bartholomew Miller cried harshly.

There was no hope for the wounded Hellion, a ship captained by Pie-Eyed Wallace, one of the pirates who had been plaguing ships bound for Key West, Florida. Bartholomew, captain of the eight-gun sloop Bessie Blue, was working per request of Craig Beckett, one of the most respected civilians in Key West who had cast his lot with David Porter, commander of the Mosquito Squadron, a naval assignment group sworn to rid the south Florida waters of the dreaded scourge of piracy.

Bartholomew knew the waters, the depths and shallows and reefs, as few men did. He had chased the Hellion to a reef, and there pounded her with his guns. The Hellion was sinking. Half her crew floated dead in the water, and others moaned on a deck that was flooding with the sea.

Just as he knew the reefs, Bartholomew knew sea battles, and he knew pirates. He had never been a pirate, he had been a privateer. He had taken ships by license of the Crown, until he had become a citizen of the United States. Then, he had fought the Crown of England, as he would fight anyone now who brought death, danger and mayhem to his new country.

“No surrender!” Pie-Eyed Wallace called, looking him in the eye across the expanse of water that separated them. Bartholomew had carefully maintained his shallow-drafted sloop in the deeper waters off the reef. His men would prepare the longboats to collect survivors—those who wished to be taken to town for trial—when the inevitable happened and the Hellion went down to her watery grave.

“There’s a chance for life!” Bartholomew shouted. “What of your men?”

“Me men will swing from the hanging tree ’neath the merciless order of the tyrant Porter. Trial! ’Tis a travesty—there is no hope for justice. We will die at sea! Ye’ll grant me that!” Wallace cried.

“Nay, Cap’n, there’s hope!” one of his men shouted from the deck. “We could find mercy!”

Wallace turned to eye the wounded man on deck. He pulled one of several pistols from the long holster across his chest—and shot him.

“There, there is the only mercy to be found!” Wallace said.

Wallace was right; David Porter was merciless when it came to pirates—despite all the good he had done, it was true that the man was a tyrant, keeping Key West under stringent military rule.

Those who were esteemed in Key West lived well and nicely. And in certain fine homes, hastily furnished by trade or through salvage, one could pretend to be in one of the finest drawing rooms in Richmond, New York or even New Orleans.

Those who broke the law discovered that Porter’s justice was harsh.

Wallace stared at Bartholomew. “Will you have mercy, sir?” he asked as he drew out another gun that was long enough to cover the many yards of distance between them. He took aim at Bartholomew.

No choice. Bartholomew quickly drew his own rifle, Bess, and fired in return. The sound of the bullets from both of their guns was explosive; the air filled with black powder again where it had just begun to settle.

Wallace’s bullet crashed into the mast; Bartholomew’s aim was true, and the pirate Pie-Eyed Wallace dropped dead where he stood.


A pirate’s mercy. A quick bullet, rather than the slow death of the hangman’s noose and a slow strangulation with the body flailing, kicking and writhing—and finally, failing.

Bartholomew turned away and spoke to his first mate, Jim Torn. “We must collect the survivors and bring them to the law.”

He was weary as he gave the order and returned to his cabin, anxious to return to port.

He had seen many a hanging, and he had to wonder if they should leave the men to drown. But he had discovered that he admired Craig Beckett, the man who had befriended him in New Orleans and who had encouraged him to bring his ship to Key West. The Island was raw and young, but it was a place where a young man, once a Brit, once a privateer, once a rover of the world, might find a future. He would still find his fortune at sea, but as a merchant. He would be able to build himself a fine house soon enough and lead the life of a gentleman.

He had but one dream. And a fine house would be part of that dream.

They returned to port where Jim Torn and his men saw to the three half-dead prisoners they had taken from the sea. One, Scurvy Pete, had a horror of drowning; he would take the noose. Two others had simply not managed to die.

Mariah’s Bar, a popular place for seamen, stood near the deep water docks, and Bartholomew headed in for a pint. He was especially weary though, and after the pint, he left, intending to seek a long night’s rest in his rental rooms. But, as he left the bar, he saw her.

His dream.

He saw that she had come to the docks to collect a purchase, and it appeared that the purchase was heavy or awkward as she seemed to have some trouble gathering the long package.

“Mistress, I implore you, do allow me to help you with that!” Bartholomew said, hurrying to her where she stood by the merchant’s carts.

Victoria Wyeth looked up at him with blue eyes—no, violet eyes, like huge pools of wonder. They were set in a face of absolute and stunning perfection, perfectly sculpted cheekbones, a fine chin, small nose and a high forehead. Her hair was like the proverbial raven’s wing, sleek and coifed. A large straw hat shadowed her features to save her porcelain skin from the merciless heat of the sun; her day gown was sewn from the most delicately fashioned cotton, cool despite its cumbersome skirts and form-hugging bodice.

In the midst of the rough town that was Key West, she was a breath of freshness, cool air and society, all that was right and structured and noble in the world. When she moved, it was with grace, and when she spoke it was a fluid melody.

They had met briefly upon many an occasion, though he had not been invited into her home—nor was such an event likely to come about.

Not until he had proven himself a good and responsible citizen, worthy of such a prize. Not until he had managed a real income at trade, and had built a fine house. Not until he had earned the respect of her father, who wanted far more for her than an ex-privateer, a man without family—or prospects of any great inheritance.

“Captain Miller!” she said. And the melody of her voice touched him as the seductive hand of many another had never done. In his time he had known many a tavern wench, and many a whore. He’d slept with fine ladies as well—divorced or widowed and, because the poor woman had been so mistreated by her husband that it had seemed a mercy to show her tender love, one who was married. He had felt desire, and he had known amusement and laughter, but in his life he had not known this feeling, this deep ache inside, to have and to hold and protect against all odds.

She smiled, and he, who had survived many a sea battle, fought the Spanish and the British on land and sea, felt as if all strength deserted him, as if knees became the very substance of salt water.

He helped her with the parcel she had acquired from the ship that had just docked, the Langley, out of Norfolk, Virginia. The well-wrapped package read “Timmons of London,” and he knew that it must contain some of the finest crafted fabric to be had. She never appeared to be overly interested in clothing or decoration; she just had the ability to make simple elegant. Despite her high role in the social strata of a country where “every man was born equal,” she was kind and gentle, never affected. He had seen her handing out coins to the little children of Caribbean fishermen, and tossing a ball to them in play.

“My deepest thanks,” she said, flushing.

He gathered the parcel. Her fine house was down on Duval Street—named after the territorial governor—almost a mile from his own lodgings, closer to the water. He found that he was suddenly wide awake, that he could walk on air.

“Sir, I saw men arrested,” she said. “Were you responsible?”

“Pie-Eyed Wallace’s ship was racing south, and we came upon him,” Bartholomew explained. “Craig Beckett, though a civilian, helps attend to matters for David Porter, and he ordered that Pie-Eyed Wallace be taken if seen, and I follow his lead in all things.”

“You’re very brave,” she told him.

He shrugged, aware that a blush was forming on his cheeks. Brave? No, just hardened, and aware from his penniless youth on the streets of Liverpool that he must find his own place in the world. He’d been a hungry child, not just for food, but for knowledge, and he had used every opportunity to learn, being like a sponge around well-educated men.