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She'd been told to hide, and stay hidden. That had been Gabrielle Brooks's first thought as well after the noise had drawn her up to the deck and she'd seen what was causing the commotion. It wasn't the captain who'd given her the order, though. He'd been nothing but confident that he could lose the ship bearing down on them. He'd even laughed about it and shaken his fist at the Jolly Roger flying from the attacking ship's mainmast, which was visible now to the naked eye. His enthusiasm -- and dare she say delight? -- had certainly relieved her mind. Until the first mate pulled her aside and told her to hide.
Unlike the captain, Avery Dobs didn't appear eager for the upcoming confrontation. His complexion as white as the extra sails being swiftly hoisted by the crew, he hadn't been gentle about shoving her toward the stairs.
"Use one of the empty food barrels in the hold. There are many of them now. With any luck, the pirates won't open more than one or two, and finding them empty, they'll move on. I'll warn your servant to hide as well. Now go! And no matter what you hear, don't leave the hold until someone whose voice you recognize comes for you."
He hadn't said until he came for her. His panic was infectious, his roughness surprising. Her arm was probably bruised where he'd gripped it. It was such a change from the courteous way he had treated her when the journey began. He'd nearly been courting her, or so it had seemed, though that was unlikely. He was in his early thirties and she was barely out of the schoolroom. It was just his deferential manner, his gentle tone of voice, and the inordinate amount of attention he'd paid her during the three weeks since they'd left London, that gave her the impression he liked her more than he should.
He'd managed to instill his own fear in her, though, and she'd raced toward the bowels of the ship. It was easy to find the food barrels Avery had spoken of, nearly all of them empty, now that they were nearing their destination in the Caribbean. Another few days and they would have sailed into St. George's harbor in Grenada, her father's last known whereabouts, and she could have begun her search for him.
Nathan Brooks was not a man she knew well, though all her memories of him were fond ones, but he was all she had now that her mother had died. While she'd never once doubted that he loved her, he had never lived at home with her for any length of time. A month, maybe a few months at a time, and, one year, an entire summer -- but then several years would pass without a visit from him. Nathan was captain of his own merchantman with very profitable trade routes in the West Indies. He sent home money and extravagant presents, but rarely did he bring himself home.
He'd tried to move his family closer to where he worked, but Carla, Gabrielle's mother, wouldn't even consider it. England had been her home all of her life. She had no family left there, but all her friends were there, as well as everything she valued, and she had never approved of Nathan's seafaring occupation anyway. Trade. She'd always spoken the word in disgust. She had enough aristocracy in her ancestry, even if she bore no title herself, to look down on anyone in trade, even her own husband.
It was a wonder they'd ever married. They certainly didn't seem to like each other much when they were together. And Gabrielle would never, ever mention to him that his long absences had led Carla to take a...Well, she couldn't even bring herself to think the word, much less say it. She was so embarrassed by her own conclusions. But Albert Swift had been a regular visitor to their two-story cottage on the outskirts of Brighton during the last several years, and Carla had behaved like a young schoolgirl whenever he was in town.
When he'd stopped coming around and they heard the rumors that he was courting an heiress in London, Gabrielle's mother had undergone a remarkable change. Overnight, she turned into a bitter woman, hating the world and everything in it, crying over a man who wasn't even hers.
Whether he had made Carla promises, whether Carla had intended to divorce her husband, no one knew, but her heart seemed to have broken when Albert turned his attentions to another woman. She had all the signs of a woman betrayed, and when she took sick in early spring and her condition had worsened, she'd made no effort to recover from it, ignoring her doctor's advice and barely eating.
Gabrielle was heartsick herself, having to watch her mother's decline. She might not have approved of her mother's obsession with Albert, or her unwillingness to try harder to save her marriage, but she still loved her mother deeply and had done everything she could think of to cheer her up. She'd filled her mother's room with flowers that she scoured the neighborhood for, read to her mother aloud, even insisted their housekeeper, Margery, spend a good portion of her day visiting with her, since she was such a chatty woman and usually quite funny in her remarks. Margery had been with them several years at that point. Middle-aged with bright red hair, vivid blue eyes, and a host of freckles, she was opinionated, outspoken, and not at all awed by aristocrats. She was also a very caring woman, and had taken to the Brookses as if they were her own family.
Gabrielle had thought her efforts were working, that her mother's will to live was returning. Her mother had even started to eat again and stopped mentioning Albert. So Gabrielle was devastated when her mother passed away in the middle of the night. "Pined away" was Gabrielle's personal conclusion, because she'd been on the mend from her illness, though she would never mention that to her father. But her mother's death left Gabrielle feeling utterly alone.
Although she'd been left a lot of money, since Carla had been quite well-to-do herself from a family inheritance, Gabrielle wouldn't see any of that money until she reached her majority at the age of twenty-one, and that was a long way off. Her father did send funds regularly, and there was the household money that would last quite a while, but she'd just turned eighteen.
She was also going to be turned over to a guardian. Carla's solicitor, William Bates, had mentioned it at the reading of the will. In her grief, she hadn't really paid attention, but when she'd been given the name, she was appalled. The man was a philanderer and everyone knew it. The rumors were that he chased his maids all over his house, and he'd even pinched Gabrielle's bottom once at a garden party, when she'd been only fifteen!
A guardian, and he in particular, wouldn't do a'tall. She still had one parent living. She merely needed to find him, and so she set out to do just that. She'd had to conquer a few fears first, of sailing halfway around the world, of leaving behind everything she was familiar with. She'd nearly changed her mind twice. But in the end, she'd felt she had no choice. And at least Margery had agreed to go with her.
The trip had gone very well, much better than she'd anticipated. No one had questioned her traveling with just her servant. She was under the captain's protection, after all, at least for the duration, and she had implied her father would be meeting her when they docked, just a small lie to keep any concerns at bay.
Now, thinking about her father and finding him kept her current fears in check for only a short while. Her legs had fallen asleep, curled into the barrel as she was. She'd had no trouble getting all of herself into the container. She wasn't a big woman at only five-four, and was slender of frame. A splinter had pierced her back, though, when she'd scrunched down into the crate just before she'd pulled the lid back over it, and there was no way to reach it even if she had enough room to try.
And she was partly in shock that it was even possible for a ship to fly a Jolly Roger in this day and age. Pirates were supposed to be extinct. She had thought they had all been routed in the last century, either pardoned or hung. Sailing the warm Caribbean waters was supposed to be as safe as walking down an English country lane. If she hadn't been certain of that, she never would have booked passage to this side of the world. And yet, she'd seen the pirate flag with her own eyes.
There was a tight knot of fear in her belly, which was also empty and adding to her discomfort. She'd missed breakfast and had intended to remedy that at lunch, but the pirate ship had arrived before lunch was served, and now it was hours later. At least, it seemed like she'd been cramped in the barrel that long, and there was no indication of what was going on topside.
She had to assume they were staying far ahead of the pirate ship, but if they had lost the other vessel, wouldn't Avery have come to tell her so? Suddenly a blast shook the entire ship, and another, and more, all exceedingly loud. There were more indications that a battle had begun, the smell of gun smoke from the fired cannons that seeped into the hold, the raucous yells, even a few screams, and then, a long while later, the horrible silence.
It was impossible to determine who had won the battle. It was nerve-wracking. As time passed, her fear grew. She'd be screaming soon, she was sure. In fact, she didn't know how she'd managed not to succumb to that urge already. If they had won the day, wouldn't Avery have shown up by now? Unless he was wounded and hadn't told anyone where she was. Unless he was dead. Did she dare leave her hiding place to find out?
But what if the pirates had won? What did pirates do with captured ships? Sink them? Keep them to sell or man them with their own crews? And their current crew and passengers? Kill them all? The scream was bubbling up in her throat when the lid was torn off of her barrel.
Copyright © 2006 by Johanna Lindsey
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