As it was now, the Lowes would get the bulk of whatever payment the ship’s cargo brought in, and the rest would be divided among the crew of the Challenger. It could be months before they found another prize. The ocean was wide and vast and the shipping companies were growing cleverer about avoiding privateers—perhaps this would be it for them, and Nicholas would be left to scrape together coins, scrimp and save, until he was dead in the heart and old in his bones. He hated the Ironwoods with the fury of a hurricane, but they owed him a debt for the time they’d stolen from him. And he intended to collect it.
“Did you survey the cargo?” Nicholas asked.
Hall sighed, recognizing the diversionary tactic. “A glance here and there.”
A sailor exploded through the cloud of smoke in front of them, hollering and whooping, a cutlass brandished over his head. Nicholas whirled, his hand on his knife, but by the time he had it out, the captain had whipped out his pistol and fired.
“Sugar, rum, cotton, munitions for the ballast,” Hall continued blissfully. The dead man slid away in a smear of blood. “I’m almost frightened of how well this has played out—you have your ladies, and we have a fair share of wealth coming to each of us. They’ve even got a bulkhead for us in the hold to detain the crew. Speaking of which, I’ve yet to see anyone I could reasonably believe would be the captain. Why don’t you go find him so we can get the business of lowering their colors done with—” Hall broke off, distracted by something.
Nicholas had not seen such a look of unwelcome surprise on his captain’s face since the time their former cook announced he had served the crew stewed rat instead of salted beef.
He followed the man’s line of sight. There, between the sailors snarling at each other, a towheaded figure was emerging from below decks, rising through the curling smoke like Persephone returning from the underworld.
Nicholas winced as she slammed into the bare, scarred back of the master gunner, but she didn’t scream, not even when Davies swung around, axe in hand, and made as if to gut her. It was his startled yelp that drew the attention of every man around them, damn his eyes—
It wasn’t Sophia—he knew to expect another woman aside from her, but who was this…?
“Poor darling has her feathers all ruffled,” Captain Hall said at his back. Despite the wash of blood at his feet and the bodies strewn around him, his features went as soft as a kitten’s. The old bastard couldn’t help himself in the presence of young ladies, especially those in need of rescue. And this one was. Her white gown was torn at the hip—and bloodstained?
“She’s hurt,” Nicholas said sharply. “What the bloody hell is she doing?”
She spun in Nicholas’s direction as if she had heard his words. He should have barreled forward and plucked her out of the mess of gore and violence, but it felt as though the whole deck, the whole ocean, gave a rolling shudder. Captain Hall knocked into him with a surprised grunt.
The girl backed away steadily as they advanced toward her, until finally she bumped into the bulwark lining the edge of the deck and had nowhere left to go. Her eyes darted around her before fixing on a nearby spear. Without a second thought, she swept it up from the deck, shouting, “Stay away from me!”
There was a sudden, almost painful tightening of his body as he caught sight of her face, her fierce expression as she swung the weapon back and forth in desperation. Hair thick and white-gold, generous brows, eyes with an almost feline tilt to them. A long nose, balancing out the generous curve of her lips. Awareness of her moved through him like slow, warm honey. She was, in a word—
No. None of that, now. Dangerous thoughts. But he could appreciate that she was, apparently, a fighter—though she seemed surprised herself at the fact, looking uneasily between the weapon in her hands and the two dozen men gaping at her. The last half-hearted scuffles had been abandoned in favor of dumb shock at her unexpected appearance. That was reasonable, he supposed. And now the effect of seeing her bloodied and fierce, like a queen on a battlefield, was rather singular. It spoke to his own blood, made it sing its secrets. She was…
A job. Nicholas shook his head, stomping out the blaze of heat that cut across his chest. Payment owed for services rendered.
A sharp, deafening crack broke through the faint hum in his ears; Nicholas swung his attention up, toward the aft of the ship. A section of the mizzenmast, the third mast of three, had finally snapped under its own weight, just as he’d feared it might.
And it slowed, time did. He let out a sound that was less a warning and more a terrified shout as the wood splintered and the sails collapsed in on themselves with a thwack and flutter. The lines supporting the mast snapped as if God himself had cut them, and the whole of it—the topgallant, the topmast, the rigging, the metal hardware—came crashing down over them.
The sailors who dove to escape the mast’s crushing weight weren’t able to move far or fast enough to avoid the tangle of sails and rigging. Captain Hall roared out, “The girl! Find the girl!”
The men from both crews fell on the wreckage with their axes and swords, cutting it away, searching beneath it. Nicholas knew better. She’d been standing near where the mast smashed through the bulwark, but not in its path. The impact wouldn’t have struck her directly, but knocked her back—
He leaned over the rail, searching the dark water between the hulls of the two ships, and—yes, there—a ring of white where something had fallen, struck the surface, and promptly sunk.