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“Sent…down…to…devil”—the sailor’s eyes were narrowed, one last bit of defiance as he choked and hacked—“by—by—a—a shit-sack…negro.”

The last word was accompanied by a fine misting of blood across his waistcoat. The heat beneath Nicholas’s skin evaporated, leaving a perfect, cold diamond of fury in the center of his chest. He had been called far worse, been beaten for simply having been born on the wrong side of the blanket to a woman in chains. Perhaps it was the stark contrast of victory with defeat.

His life now held worth and value. On a ship, it mattered less what your origins were, and more what work you were willing to do; how hard you’d fight for the men around you. Nicholas had decided long ago to keep his eyes on the horizon of the future, rather than look over his shoulder at what he’d left behind.

Only—that expression the sailor wore. The way his snarl had curled the word into something hateful. Nicholas took a firm hold of the knife’s hilt. He breathed in the sour stench of the man’s breath as he leaned over his face.

“By your better, sir,” he said, and drew the blade across the sailor’s throat.

Nicholas had never been one to crow or luxuriate over another man’s demise, but he watched as the last of the color left the sailor’s face and the skin turned a waxy gray.

“That was a far kinder death than I’d have given him.”

Captain Hall stood a short distance behind him, surveying the slowing fight with a filthy rag pressed against his forehead. When he pulled it away to get a better look at Nicholas, blood spurted from a gash over one thick brow.

Nicholas swallowed the stone that had formed in his throat. “Yes, well,” he said. “I’ve never particularly enjoyed viewing a man’s entrails.”

The captain guffawed, and Nicholas cleaned the knife against his breeches as he made his way to the side of the towering man. He knew he was tall himself, broad in the shoulders, strong-bodied after years of hauling lines and cargo, but the captain had seemingly been carved from the rocky shores of Rhode Island.

Nicholas had been in awe of Captain Hall from the moment they met nearly a decade before—the Red Devil, other sailors had called him. Now, only his beard retained some of that original color. The grooves in the long planes of his face were set deeper by the years, yes, and several teeth and fingers had been sacrificed along the way, but Hall kept himself tidy, kept a tight ship, and made sure his crew were fed and well-paid. In their sphere of life, there was hardly better praise to be had.

The captain’s eyes moved over Nicholas with a father’s instinctive concern. He’d spent years trying to break Hall of the habit, but some things truly were impossible feats.

“Not like you to let someone get that close,” Nicholas said, nodding at the cut on his forehead. “Need the surgeon?”

“And be forced to admit that one of this ship’s cabin boys caught me unawares with a spoon as I went below? Wicked little bugger. I’d rather be boiled in oil.”

Nicholas snorted. “Did you find the women?”

“Aye, they’re in one of the officers’ cabins in the stern. Safe and sound, the little doves,” he said.

Relief bloomed through Nicholas, replacing his fury at the dying man’s last words. Good.

“This job…” the captain began, for the fifth time that day. “I have to tell you, Nick, I’m grateful for the prize and its cargo, but I feel uneasy. I would rather you have nothing to do with the family. It seems like there’s more to this than simply transport to New York.”

Of course there was more to it; with this family, there always was. Ironwood’s note had arrived a few days after the much-awaited Letter of Marque and Reprisal had come to Nicholas’s employer, Lowe & Lowe Shipping, authorizing Hall’s ship to act as a privateer and legally—at least in the colonies’ view—hunt British ships. He’d had less than a week to consider the man’s offer, to bring it to Hall and ask for his compliance in searching for this particular vessel and her passengers. They’d agreed to secrecy over the truth of their focused hunt, rather than draw any of the crew into Ironwood business. He’d been slow to send his acceptance of Ironwood’s terms for this job, all the while turning over the chances of it being a ploy to lure him back into Ironwood’s nets for one last act of revenge.

But—it had been three years. They’d known precisely where to find him, having stranded him here themselves. Surely they would have come sooner if they’d wanted blood for blood?

He could live with a fair bit of uncertainty, and he could fight to protect himself if it came to that. But the simple facts were these: the job Ironwood offered was a good one, and the reward for its completion would help him achieve his life’s aim far faster than simple privateering.

The neat, meticulously formed words had leapt off the page. Bring the two women into New York City by the 21st of September. Do what you will with the ship and its cargo.

He’d spent these three years in the employ of Lowe & Lowe, toiling on merchant vessels, overseeing shipments from the West Indies to the colonies until the outbreak of the war, all the while forcing himself to close off the part of his heart that stung deeply at any thought of Julian, of traveling. Nicholas had been hoping that Messieurs Lowe would reward him with his own privateer ship to captain, but he’d seen the uneasy way the old man and his son had surveyed him when Captain Hall first suggested it. He delivered results for them; he knew their hesitation couldn’t be due to that. So then, it was merely him—the reality of the color of his skin—that made him unworthy. Their hesitation only renewed his interest in purchasing his own ship, one not beholden to any company.