Copyright 2003 by Barbara Davies.

Warnings

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A PIRATE'S TREASURE

by

Barbara Davies

(Email: bhdavies@cheltenham1.demon.co.uk )

Margaret Etherege snapped her fingers. "A glass, prithee, Mister Mostyn." The quartermaster slapped the spyglass into her open palm, and she extended the instrument and raised it to her eye.

The smudge on the horizon snapped into sharp focus and she sighed with relief at the sight. There in the lens was a brigantine in full sail, a red flag with the cross of St. George in one corner fluttering from her mainmast. From her course, she must have left Jamaica two days ago, headed north-east up the Windward Passage, and was almost certainly bound for England.

"Is it the Bristol?" asked Mostyn.

Meg nodded. "Ay, 'tis. She's flying the Red Ensign, and she's right where she's meant to be." She turned to regard the eager faces of her crew. "There's our prey, lads. And if my informant is correct, her hold is full of silver and gold, rubies and diamonds."

Most of the men cheered, but one man's brow creased. "She's flying British colours, Captain. Shall we not be risking our Letters of Marque by attacking her?"

Meg pursed her lips then gave the young sailor with the beaky nose a grudging nod. Plague take it! Killigrew was frequently a boil on her backside, but he had a point. Normally they restricted themselves to Spanish prey. Attacking one of their own countrymen was a different matter.

"Strike our colours," she told Mostyn. "Run up the black flag instead. The Governor won't be able to revoke our commission on those grounds at least."

The Quartermaster nodded and gave the order. The now sombre crew watched in silence as a plain black flag replaced their own Red Ensign. Now they were no more than common pirates, stripped of even the pretence that they were working for the Crown.

"Take heart, lads." She gave them a broad grin. "Murdering Meg will get you through this encounter in one piece. And you'll be richer by the end of it."

As she had calculated, the use of her nickname and mention of money raised her men's spirits. And, hopefully, keeping busy would keep the rest of their qualms at bay.

Meg turned to the Sailing Master, waiting patiently beside the helm for her order. "Your best speed, Mister Coke. I'll have that ship's treasure in our hold by dusk tonight or know the reason why."

"Ay, Captain." Coke began gesturing and yelling orders, and sailors ran to man the ropes or rushed barefoot up the rigging.

Absently, she buttoned up her doublet and watched the topsails unfurl then belly out as the wind caught them. The Kestrel increased her speed perceptibly, and she grunted in satisfaction. This time of year, the trade winds shifted slightly to the north, blowing strongly towards the Bahamas. To make any headway back to England, a ship's fore and aft sails must be set just so and frequent tacking was the order of the day. But she need have no worries on that score while Henry Coke was at the helm. If the wind didn't drop, they should catch their prey before nightfall. But if it did ...

She squashed that thought at once. After five long years, she was on the verge of keeping the most important promise she had ever made. That goal alone had kept her going, while battered mind and body slowly knit themselves together, while she struggled to prove herself the equal of other pirates and work her way up through the ranks.

Getting her own ship had been almost impossible, but she had done it, gaining hard-won experience as captain of a sloop before progressing to a brigantine. Yet all her hard work had so nearly come to nothing! Had news not reached her a week ago during that brief visit to Port Royal... She shivered, and it wasn't the spray driving off the ocean that had caused the chill. Here it was. The moment she had been dreaming of. But this was a game of high stakes and she would have but one throw of the dice ...

Deliberately, she relaxed her shoulders and trained her glass on the distant ship once more. A wry smile creased her lips when she realised she was subconsciously willing the Kestrel closer to its prey. As if that would make any difference!

The Swift would have made short work of this chase - a sloop was much faster than any brigantine, more manoeuvrable too. But the Bristol's cannons (six according to Meg's informant) would have seen off The Swift, whereas the Kestrel carried her own guns, also six (she had room for ten, but Meg had reduced the number to allow more speed and cargo space).

So. In terms of cannon, hunter and prey were equal. But what the captain of the fleeing brigantine could have no way of knowing was that with Meg was Woodes Read, the best Master Gunner she had ever sailed with.

She lowered the glass and winked at a passing sailor. He blushed and hurried on.

"Are you certain of this course, Meg?"

Mostyn had come up beside her. His voice was low, his address informal. She nodded her thanks for not questioning her judgement in front of the crew.

"Ay. For five years I've been searching for a way to repay Thomas Digges and his poxy sons. He cares for naught but money and his family. And both should be on board the Bristol today."

"Digges. Did he not..." The quartermaster's voice trailed off.

"Ay," growled Meg. "That whoreson gave me the pretty scars on my back. Devil take him and his poxy sons!"

Just the thought of what the sugar plantation owner and his sons had done to her made her stomach roil, and her heart threaten to pound out of her chest. Even now she still had nightmares about the flogging and what had come after ...

Mostyn waited, his silence tacit invitation to confide, but as always she declined. She had served with him for three years and counted him her closest friend. But telling him about the ugly scars on her back had been one thing - they were all too visible. There were other scars, however, invisible ones...

The Quartermaster sighed, breaking the silence first. He had always been good that way. "I pray 'tis a valuable haul, Captain." She noted his return to formality with relief. "Nothing irks the men more than the risk outweighing the spoils."

She shrugged. "On my head be it. But it will be rich pickings, I wager." She gave him a crooked smile. "The Bristol is carrying Digges' daughter and her dowry. Her marriage contract is to seal an undertaking between Digges and a business acquaintance back in England."

Mostyn whistled through his teeth. "That's the song that little bird in The Black Dogg sang in your ear, eh?"

"Ay," she said dryly. "A little bird with a big appetite for reales."

The wind freshened, and the ship surged forward like a long-stabled colt sighting open meadow at last. Meg raised her glass once more and stared at the distant brigantine, which was piling on more sail. Its lookouts must have sighted the pirates. The Captain was probably hoping to outdistance them, but the Trade Winds were against them both, and he had reckoned without the skill of Henry Coke.

If her informant was correct, there was treasure on board that ship. It had once belonged to her, and, by hook or by crook, she was going to get it back.

***

The Kestrel caught up with the Bristol just before dusk. The cannons facing the pirate ship were at last out of action, though for a while it had been touch and go.

There had been casualties during the exchange of fire. The Kestrel lost her aft sail and two men overboard with it - fortunately, Meg always insisted any man who sailed with her learn to swim, so they soon re-emerged, safe but dripping, on deck. A cannon crew was less fortunate. A lucky shot from the Bristol destroyed their gun, the resulting explosion and gout of flame burning five men beyond recognition, and certainly beyond all hope of saving by even Surgeon Avery's skilled hands.

Meg would get Mostyn to send the dead pirates' share of the plunder to their grieving wives and families, but she expected it was the whores in Port Royal and Tortuga who would miss them the most.

Coke had done his part, but it was her Master Gunner who finally brought the fleeing ship to heel. Read lashed the brigantine's rigging and sails with chainshot, then brought down the Bristol's mainmast with a single spectacular shot. Loud whoops and cheers greeted his success, but Meg winced and hoped the passengers were safely below decks.

After that, the outcome of the battle was inevitable. Though the crew of the now-drifting brigantine were determined not to go quietly, judging by the musket balls still peppering the Kestrel's decks and puncturing her canvas.

There had been enough death and destruction, decided Meg. She despatched a quarter boat with instructions to row secretly round to the far side of the Bristol and board there, then ordered her men to prepare stinkpots.

As the gap between the two ships narrowed, she raised her cutlass then made a slashing gesture. At her signal, the pirates lit the pots' fuses and lobbed them onto the other ship. Foul-smelling black clouds of smoke obscured the wide-eyed faces of their opponents, and wisps of the rank stuff began drifting across the gap. The pirates held their noses and made uncomplimentary comments. From the other ship came sounds of choking and cursing. The rain of musket balls lessened noticeably.

"Grappling irons," she called.

The pirates crowding the rail threw the grappling irons they had been holding, and the air was filled with the sound of metal thudding into wood. Meg's cheek stung. She pulled out a splinter of wood with bloodstained fingers and flicked it away, then returned to watching her men work. Once the hooks were secure, brawny arms hauled on the thick ropes attached to them, bringing the two ships inch by inexorable inch closer together.

It was time. Meg leaped up onto the rail, grabbed the rigging to steady herself, then turned, and bellowed at the members of the boarding party awaiting her command.

"Mark me well. Any man who breaks the Articles - especially Article 10 - will answer for it. I tell you now ... the punishment is DEATH!"

Those pirates who knew what she was talking about mouthed 'women' to those who didn't. Satisfied that she had damped down their bloodlust a little at least, Meg took her cutlass in one hand, and leaped for the other ship's rail. She made it easily, got her balance back, and pulled a flintlock from her belt. Then she twisted round and yelled, "Kestrel. To me!"

With a bloodcurdling roar, the boarding party followed her.

***

Though the foul smoke from the stinkpots had cleared, soot-stained sailors lay curled up on the Bristol's deck, some trying to catch their breath, the remainder heaving up the contents of their stomachs. Meg stepped round them, placing her boots with care, and trying not to gag at the stench.

The temporarily disabled sailors paled even further when they saw who it was they faced. This raven-haired female pirate wearing male attire could be none other than 'Murdering Meg, Terror of the Spanish Main', and they did the only thing they could in the circumstances, threw down their arms and begged for mercy.

Smiling, she granted their request. There was a kernel of truth in the wild tales she liked to encourage her men to spread, but they didn't need to know how small it was.

Meg detailed five pirates to gather up the weapons and stand guard, and sent Mostyn and fifteen others forward to get the transfer of loot from the hold underway. Beckoning the three remaining members of the boarding party to come with her, she picked her way aft to where the sound of pistol fire and the clash of swords indicated fighting was still in progress.

It was hard going. The deck was slippery with blood and gunpowder, blocked by massive pieces of splintered mast and spar, with the frayed remnants of canvas and rigging still attached.

The sounds of clashing blades grew louder. Up ahead was the hatchway to the passenger quarters. If Meg were Captain, that was where she would make her stand, protecting the passengers. Sure enough, when she rounded a corner, she saw a knot of six sailors defending the closed hatchway, and standing at their centre a tall fair-haired man, whose expensively cut doublet and breeches looked the worse for recent fighting.

Three pirates who had crewed the quarter boat lay dead or groaning on the deck nearby. Only Killigrew and a pirate called Teach had survived, and they had exhausted their flintlocks and were now using cutlasses. A discarded blunderbuss and several muskets showed the defenders were likewise reduced by lack of ammunition to using their blades.

Meg raised her flintlock to shoot the Captain cleanly through the heart then changed her mind. She fired into the air instead then jammed the now useless weapon back in her belt. Teach and Killigrew turned grimy faces in her direction and grinned in relief as the three men with her hurried to join them. The odds were even now, and for a moment the two sides simply stared at one another.

The quickest way to end this, Meg knew, was for the fair-haired Captain to surrender his ship, but his face had twisted with disgust at the sight of her and she doubted whether an appeal to his better nature would work. Unfortunately, this was one occasion where notoriety would work against her. Her bloodied cheek and the avid gleam in her eye couldn't be helping...

She raised her cutlass, and stepped forward. "Stand back, lads. This is between the Bristol's Captain and me."

Her men stood back, leaving the way clear. For a moment, she thought the opposing sailors weren't going to do the same, then their Captain nodded and they too stepped aside.

"Winner takes all?" She raised an eyebrow in query.

He spat, the gob of spittle landing on the deck beside her boot. "A plague on you and all your kind!"

"You may dress well, but your manners leave much to be desired, sir!"

As they closed, the clash of his blade on hers sent a shock up her arm. He was strong, she realised, but then so was she, and they were of a height. More problematic was the fact that he was wielding a sword not a cutlass, with two edges and a longer reach. She darted a rueful glance at the slice that had appeared on her forearm, and the blood beginning to stain her favourite shirt, then redoubled her efforts.

The trick was to keep her opponent close, so his sword's longer reach would be a hindrance not a help. After several minutes of slashing and parrying, she managed to get under his guard, and slash him in the side. It was only a shallow wound but it made him falter. When they closed once more, his grey eyes were more respectful.

"Surrender your ship, and I will not harm your passengers," she told him, panting with effort and trying not to skid on the wood-splinters, dust, and blood that seemed to coat everything. "My word on it, sir."

He slashed at her thigh, but the tip of his blade snagged in the bucket-top of her boot, and she sidestepped quickly.

He evaded her thrust. "What good is a pirate's word?"

"For the love of God, sir, will you not listen?"

His heel came down in a smear of gore and the resulting slip momentarily distracted him. Now was her chance. She slammed the hilt of her cutlass into his temple. Shock registered in eyes and his legs buckled. His men surged forward, but the pirates managed to keep them back.

Bringing all her weight to bear on her cutlass, she forced the other Captain's sword down, and him along with it.

"My word is as good as yours, I'll wager."

"The Devil take you!"

As the Captain of the Bristol struggled to free himself, she hooked her foot behind his calf, and pulled. Unbalanced, he fell, in the process loosing his grip on his sword. He hit the deck with a thud, rolled over and looked round wildly for his weapon. His fingers had just closed round it when she stamped on his wrist, feeling the crunch of bones. He cried out and let go.

She kicked the discarded weapon aside, then pressed her blade to his throat. "Do you surrender?"

He blinked up at her in surprise. He had clearly been expecting a swift death. A long moment passed then his head dropped and his voice when it came was barely audible.

"Ay. The ship is yours, madam."

She removed her foot from his wrist. "I am overjoyed to hear it, sir. I accept." His brows drew together. Something about the formalities displeased him, she guessed.

"Captain James Bracegirdle, at your service."

Ah. "Captain Margaret Etherege at yours."

She held out a hand. He stared at it and for a moment she thought he was going to refuse it, then he clasped it and pulled himself up. The pirates, meanwhile, had relieved his dejected men of their weapons. Bracegirdle, one hand cradled in the other, went to join them.

"Teach, Killigrew," said Meg, "with me. The rest of you take our prisoners to join their fellows."

"Ay, Captain," chorused her men.

As he was shepherded away, Captain Bracegirdle paused and looked back at her. His gaze was shadowed. "Now we shall see what a pirate's word is worth."

"Ay, sir." She turned and gestured to Teach and Killigrew, who heaved open the hatchway leading to the passengers' quarters. "That you shall."

***

The reek of fear was strong below decks and Meg wrinkled her nose.

The first passenger cabin she came to was locked and she told the two pirates accompanying her to break it open. They did so with wide grins of anticipation, and Meg wondered if her own face bore the same expression. Her heart rate was increasing and sweat was trickling between her shoulderblades.

The door creaked open, and Meg found herself face to face with a fat old woman whose ample bosom threatened to spill over the top of her low-cut blue dress.

"Mercy!" The woman fell to her knees. "Mercy! Spare me, I beg you. Take what valuables you want, but spare me."

Something about her was familiar. Meg cast her mind back to her serving days. A friend of Thomas Digges? One of his many sisters, perhaps? No matter. Her gaze fell on the necklace adorning the woman's fat neck.

"Your life is spared," she agreed, "and I'll take these as payment." She reached for the string of pearls, and gave it a sharp tug. The clasp broke and the necklace came free.

"My pearls!"

"No, madam." Meg gave the woman an icy glare then tossed the necklace to Killigrew, who stuffed it inside the bucket-top of his boots. "Mine."

Leaving the wide-eyed woman staring after her, she turned on her heel and set off to investigate the cabin next door. A snickering Teach and Killigrew followed her, breaking down doors at her request, confiscating any valuables they came across, and there were many, for only the wealthy could afford passage from Jamaica back to England.

If was fortunate for Thomas Digges and his sons that they were not among the passengers. Meg had not yet taken her revenge, for fear of hurting his daughter, but she knew her veneer of civility would crack wide open if she encountered the three men again. One of his plantation managers was on board though, tasked with ensuring the dowry reached England safely. She took great pleasure in informing him that it was now in the hands of the infamous 'Murdering Meg'.

As she moved along the dark passageway, opening cabin after cabin, and there was still no sign of the person she sought, her mood began to darken. Perhaps her informant had been wrong. A cloud of depression was settling on her when the door of the last cabin (a cramped room, surely not fit for a plantation owner's genteel daughter to inhabit) finally thudded open, and Meg ducked her head to avoid the lintel and stepped inside.

A whirlwind hit her, and she raised her hands in self-defence. "'Strewth!" Grabbing hold of slim wrists, she forced down the hands hitting her around the face. "Stop that! You'll have my eyes out!"

It was difficult manoeuvring in such a confined space, but she managed to get behind her yelling attacker, who proved to be a nubile young woman with long fair-hair. Meg recognised her at once and thought her heart would burst with happiness. Alice Digges!

As she successfully pinned Alice's arms to her sides, Teach and Killigrew popped their heads round the door and looked a question. Meg shook her head and gestured for them to go. Killigrew wrinkled that beaky nose of his then withdrew. With a shrug Teach followed him.

"Unhand me, you brute!" The woman in her arms gave an angry wriggle.

That beautiful face, that quick temper, that intoxicating much missed scent of warm skin and fresh sweat ... Meg tightened her arms and pressed her nose into the fair hair, ignoring the indignant squeal the gesture provoked. The fragrance brought back such sweet memories she could feel the prick of tears. Alice's puppy fat had disappeared, and some fine lines had appeared around her eyes, but considering five years had passed, she had changed very little

"My father will hunt you down like the dog you are. And when he catches you, you will swing from the nearest yardarm."

Meg suppressed a smile at the bloodthirsty threat. "Then I must take that risk. For I let go of you once, my dear, and I have no intention of doing so again."

Her words made the woman in her arms freeze for a long moment, then Alice was twisting round like an eel in her efforts to get a good look at her captor. Meg laughed, and loosened her grip, and next minute startled green eyes were locked on her face.

"Meg?" Alice's voice was shaky. "Is it really you?"

"Ay. I told you that I'd - Devil take it!" For the young woman's eyes had rolled up in her head, and her body was as limp as a rag doll.

Meg resisted the urge to roll her own eyes, and lifted the swooning Alice into her arms, supporting her carefully beneath her knees and back. She ducked her head and eased herself and her precious cargo back out into the cramped passage, then headed for the Kestrel.

"Good God! That villain is kidnapping Alice!" called someone. The cabin doorways filled instantly with passengers gaping at Meg in wide-eyed horror.

Kidnapping, indeed! thought Meg. Did they but know it, she was taking Alice back where she belonged.

"Put her down this instant, you rogue!" The old woman who had donated her pearls to the pirates was blocking her way.

In truth, Meg admired anyone who would defend Alice, but she took care not to reveal that fact. Instead, she pinned the woman in blue with a murderous glare. The results were instant. The old woman quailed and stepped back, her face gone pale, one hand pressed to her rapidly heaving bosom. Meg brushed past her without word.

Teach and Killigrew were waiting for Meg up on deck. She strode past them and they glanced at one another, raised an eyebrow, then followed her. And if they had any remark to make about the unconscious woman in their Captain's arms, they wisely kept it to themselves.

***

A knock at the cabin door proved to be George, the cabin boy.

"Chicken feathers, Captain." He held out his hand. "With Cook's compliments."

Meg accepted the feathers. "By Heaven, lad, but you took your time." Avid brown eyes tracked from her to the pretty young woman lying supine on her bunk then back again. She grinned. No doubt the men were agog for news of their eccentric Captain's latest jape. Well, they would just have to wait. "Thank you, George. You may go."

With a last reluctant glance at the sleeping beauty, the boy exited and closed the door softly behind him. Meg reached for her flint.

The Kestrel, her hold full of plunder, was sailing back to Tortuga, leaving Captain Bracegirdle to make what repairs he could to the damaged Bristol and limp for the nearest port not under Spanish control. The other ship had got off lightly. Some pirates would have slaughtered everyone on board and sent the brigantine to the ocean bottom.

In celebration of their success, and to toast to their dead comrades, Meg had ordered the men to break out the bumboo - the mixture of rum, water, sugar, and nutmeg was a favourite with her crew. Meanwhile the quartermaster was supervising the tallying of the booty, which he would in due course divide it into equal shares, and the carpenter, tutting all the while and shaking his head, was examining the damage to the Kestrel and estimating the cost of repairs.

Surgeon Avery had been and gone, examining Alice and pronouncing her in no danger. He recommended a good whiff of sal volatile to bring her round from her deep swoon.

"Pirates do not carry smelling salts," Meg had told him with some asperity.

He'd rolled his eyes. "Well. Burned feathers will do at a pinch."

She eyed the feathers - providentially, cook was planning to make chicken broth tonight - then struck a spark with her flint and set them alight. Raising and supporting Alice with one hand, she carefully positioned the smouldering quills so the pungent smoke would curl up into her nostrils.

A wrinkling of a pert nose and a low groan were her reward. Then eyelids fluttered open, and she found herself captured by familiar green eyes at close quarters. Willingly, she fell into their depths, until a burning sensation dragged her back to her surroundings.

"What the Devil?" She dropped the feathers which landed on her thighs and started to char her breeches. "Argh!" Leaping to her feet, she brushed the smouldering feathers to the floor, and stamped on them until they were well and truly out.

"I thought it was a dream," murmured Alice, "but no dream woman would curse so." Meg sat back down and sucked singed fingers. A small hand reached out and touched her cheek, tentatively at first, then more firmly. "Oh yes! You're warm, soft ... real." Alice's lower lip trembled and tears sparkled against her pale eyelashes.

Meg grabbed the hand and kissed its palm. "Do not cry, my love. I promised I'd come back for you, and so I did." To her dismay, Alice snatched her hand away and sat up.

"'Twas five years ago!" Anger brought a flush of colour to the pale cheeks. "A tragic accident, father said. When you ran from him that night, you made for the stables, and the startled horses ...." She paused, her gaze turned inward. "He told me your corpse was too battered for me to see it. That he'd already buried you." She turned an accusing gaze on Meg. "But you were not dead. Whereas I ... I thought I would die of weeping for you."

Meg bit her lip. So that was Digges' story. Eventually she would have to tell Alice the truth - when she saw Meg's scarred back, she was bound to ask. It would break her heart to hear how the menfolk in her family had behaved.

"I beg your pardon," she managed. "I would not have hurt you for the world."

But Alice's gaze remained unforgiving.

"Truly, I did come close to death," pleaded Meg.

Thomas's vicious whipping of her should have been punishment enough, but Dudley and Titus had happened on the scene, and learned what had provoked it. That an indentured servant - a woman no less! -should be discovered in their sister's bed in compromising circumstances! They had resolved to teach her the error of her 'unnatural' ways.

"But you did not die."

In Meg's dreams, Alice had always taken her back with an eager and loving smile. She wondered if she should go down on her knees and beg for forgiveness. "No," was all she could manage.

She remembered Thomas Digges' shocked expression when he had found her later that night, her life hanging by a thread. She suspected that even he had not thought his sons would go so far. True, she was little better than a slave, but she was white and a woman too ... Throwing her body into the sea must have seemed the only way to avoid bringing more shame on his family. But she had survived.

"I was not dead," she continued, "but for a long time I did not know who I was."

A hand grabbed her forearm, closing unknowingly on her recent cut, and she tried not to flinch.

"Is that why you did not come for me?" Alice's voice was outraged. "You forgot?"

It sounded so feeble that Meg could only give a sheepish nod. "In the beginning at least."

She remembered regaining consciousness on board a fishing smack. She had been snagged by the fishermen's nets. They had thought her dead; certainly her body was so torn and bruised they feared she would not live. Their womenfolk, with their chapped hands and kind hearts, had nursed her back to health. She had made sure to repay their kindness with some of the booty from her first successful raid.

"Later ... well." She glanced at Alice, trying to will her to understand. "I knew that to keep my promise I must take you back by force. But an attack on your father's plantation was beyond my reach." She raised her hands then let them fall. "It took me longer than expected to get my own crew, my own brigantine ..."

"But five years, Meg!" Alice looked distressed. "He was sending me to England ..."

Ah. Now Meg understood the real source of Alice's anger. She was as scared as Meg had been at how it had nearly been too late.

"To marry his business partner, Bellamy," she completed. "I know."

"You know?" The other woman blinked at her in surprise, then at last her gaze softened.

Meg's relief didn't last long. A belated thought struck her and sent her heart pounding. "I ... Did you want to marry Bellamy? ... I ... I just ...." She tried again, "I thought ...."

Alice smiled and relaxed back against the pillows. "No," she said quietly, "I had no wish to become Mrs John Bellamy. After your 'death', I resigned myself to my fate. But now you have come back to me..."

She reached for Meg's hand and squeezed it, and the awkward silence changed to a comfortable one at last as they contented themselves with gazing at once another.

After a while, Alice turned her gaze to her surroundings, her eyes darting round the cabin then back to Meg. "Am I aboard your ship?"

Meg nodded. "The Kestrel."

That got her a wide-eyed look. "You're 'Murdering Meg'?"

She rose to her feet and made Alice a courtly bow. "At your service, milady."

"Those terrible tales are true?"

Meg decided to tease the fair-haired woman and gave her a crooked smile. "Perhaps."

Green eyes widened even further. "The bloodlust, the cruelty?"

"Only if Cook burns my breakfast."

"The ravaging of women?"

"That tale is true indeed.... Oof!" A hand had slapped her in the belly. "No," she amended. "Though several wenches have offered to pay me a pretty penny for my ... services." She winked.

"I'll wager!"

They chuckled over that for a bit, then Alice raised a hand to her mouth. "By Heaven, but my father will have palpitations when he hears the news that 'Murdering Meg' has carried off his only daughter!"

"Indeed I hope so."

Fortunately for Meg, a knock at the cabin door diverted the questioning that her bared teeth response had provoked. Mostyn peeked round it, nodded politely at Alice, then turned his attention to Meg.

"The division of the spoils is done, Captain. 'Tis a good haul, more than we expected. There'll be celebrations tonight."

Meg nodded. "Good." A thought struck her. "Put my portion back into the pot."

His eyebrows shot up. "Do you not want your usual share-and-a-quarter?"

"I have all the treasure I want right here, Mostyn." She glanced at Alice and enjoyed the rosy blush now covering her cheeks.

"Well. I'll tell the men the good news." He nodded again and turned to go.

"Tell them 'tis only this one time, mind," she called after him. "Next time, the division will be as usual."

"Ay, Captain." The door thudded closed behind him.

"Did you mean that?" Meg turned to regard the other woman, whose serious gaze was fixed on her. "About the treasure?"

"Alice." She moved closer, and slipped an arm round a shapely waist. "With all my heart I meant it. Only the thought of being with you has kept me sane all these years." She leaned over and placed a kiss on a soft cheek. "I've a house in Tortuga, a fine home it is too, with servants well paid and loyal to me ... But 'tis lonely there for all that. Come live with me. Let us pick up where we left off."

Alice blinked at Meg, then gave her an enigmatic smile. "Could any lady resist such a gracious invitation from a notorious pirate?"

Meg gave her a squeeze. "Do not keep me in suspense, wench," she chided. "What is your answer?"

The smile widened. "Why, I accept, of course, Captain Etherege. What other answer could there be?"

Alice wound her hands behind Meg's neck, and pulled her closer. They kissed, tentatively at first, then more deeply, reconnecting after five long years of loneliness and at times despair.

At last, a need to breathe made them break the kiss. "'Twas so long ago, can you truly remember where we left off?" murmured Alice, her colour heightened.

Meg kicked off her boots, tore off her doublet, shirt, and breeches then climbed onto the bunk beside Alice and set about reducing her to a similar state of undress. "Ay, that I can." So impatient was she to rid her prize of dress, bodice, and chemise, she tore buttons, laces, and fabric in her haste.

Alice half-heartedly protested such treatment, but Meg's, "I shall buy you new ones when we get ashore, my sweet," soon stifled her objections.

The final garment came loose at last, and with a glad cry Meg flung it across the cabin and turned to regard pearls more valuable than any among her plunder. She smiled, caressed a creamy breast with one hand, and bent her head to the other.

The other woman trembled beneath her and let out a groan that Meg found extremely gratifying. She continued her attentions for a while longer, then paused and raised her head. "The question is," she said, "can you?"

"What?" Alice's face was the picture of confusion and frustration.

Meg chuckled. "Can you remember what we were about when your father caught us?"

"'Tis burned into my brain, love." Alice poked Meg's midriff with a forefinger. "My fervent hope is that this time matters will be allowed to progress to a satisfactory conclusion."

Meg bit the finger gently then smiled. "That is my hope too, my love." And willingly she applied herself to the task.

THE END

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