by Paula Reed
Zebra Historical Romance
"I vow, should I ever meet another English damsel in distress, she will have to look to someone other than Diego Montoya Fernández de Madrid y Delgado Cortés for help."
Captain Diego Montoya is working toward one goal—owning his own ship. His patron saint, Mary Magdalene, has a different idea—appearing to him in visions as compelling as they are troubling, she promises that true love awaits him. With no idea where or when he will meet the demure bride he's sure the saint has foreseen, Diego is certain of only one thing—the spirited Irish lass who winds up on his ship cannot be the woman he is fated to fall for. Bold, stubborn, and hot–tempered, Mary Kate O'Reilly is the victim of her grandfather's cruel plan to marry her off to a shipbuilder in Port Royal. She's not only a woman engaged to another man—she's a temptress, determined to seduce him to escape her unwanted betrothal! Diego can't allow the independent beauty to steal his heart. But on second thought, he's nobody's saint...
Magdalena had entered into the Gulf Stream days ago, and the change in both the weather and the nature of the ocean was always a welcome one. The water had gone from an impenetrable green to a crystalline blue, reflecting the warm sun and clear sky above it. A brisk but pleasant wind kept the sails round and taut, and Diego was enjoying the feel of it through his hair at his place at the helm. He could only hope that it was the sun's warmth that made him suddenly dizzy, or its brightness that forced him to close his eyes for a moment, but he knew better.
He tried to open his eyes again, but couldn't do it.
She was back in her modest robes, still beautiful, but no trace of seduction. As always, her Spanish had that foreign, lilting quality.
"Yes, my lady?"
"Send half your men below deck. Have guns and cannon at the ready."
"Maybe we should run. The men will not like this, even if we win."
"IF you win? When have I led you astray? Do you question me, Diego?"
"Then order your men below. You will need the element of surprise."
Diego rubbed his eyes and opened them, giving his men a weary look. "I need half of you below deck. Prime the cannon and your firearms."
"But Captain," one protested, "there is not another ship to be seen."
"A ship, Captain!" his man in the crow's nest called. "Just there, on the horizon!"
The first crewman looked at Diego in horror. "How...?"
Enrique, the first mate, stepped in. "Perhaps it would be better to let this one pass," he suggested.
Diego turned to him, feeling torn. He, too, would prefer to let it pass, but he was too close to his dreams to turn his back upon the woman who made them all possible. In a voice that brooked no argument, he said, "We fight."
"But we do not know yet what kind of ship she is. She may have us outgunned."
"It will be an even match. Let her think she has us outmanned. Hold the crew below until we are boarded and I give you the signal."
As always, Enrique obeyed without further question, but Diego's heart sank to see his second in command glance at him and then cross himself as he ordered the rest below.
"She's Spanish, Cap'n!" The crewman who delivered the report to the pirate captain stood just inside the cabin doorway. "And from what we can see, she's short some crew. Easy pickins."
The captain showed what few teeth he had through a nasty grin. "She'd better 'ave somethin' good in her 'old. The booty from the last ship weren't bad, but it'll take a damn sight more to make up for 'avin' to put up with 'er." He nodded his head toward Mary Kate, who sat bound in a miserable heap at the foot of the captain's filthy, rumpled bed.
Damned if she would let him see how desperately she hoped that there would be enough men on the Spanish vessel to save her.
"Well, aren't you fine ones?" she snapped. "You haven't the guts to take on anyone your own size! God forbid you give chase to a ship with a full crew."
"We made short enough work of yours."
Mary Kate gave a contemptuous sniff. "They were English."
"We're English," the captain rejoined.
"Humph! Maybe you and half a Spanish crew are an even match after all."
The pirate glowered at her from under one enormously long eyebrow. "Shut up wench. Fer yer sake, ye'd better 'ope yer man can pay yer ransom. If 'e can't, I'll rip that she-devil's tongue right out of your mouth."
For all of her bravado, she couldn't shake the fear that she was to be witness to another massacre. She had despised Fortune's captain and crew, but they hadn't deserved their fate. She hadn't watched, but she knew that they had gone down with the ship. Sir Calder could never have foreseen this, but somehow, she hated him all the more for it. He had shipped her off across the ocean to be kidnapped by pirates and watch helplessly while innocent men died.
"When the day comes that they hang you in irons," she snapped, "I swear, I'll sail all the way from Ireland to see it!"
"If the poor swab 'oo's marryin' ye 'asn't killed ye first," the captain rejoined, then slammed out of the cabin.
Left alone, Mary Kate went back to the task that she had been working on while the captain was sleeping. She had convinced him that the bindings on her wrists were too tight and that, if they infected, the damage would impact her value. It wasn't a lie. Her wrists were truly a mass of lacerated skin. But the pain didn't stop her from slowly loosening the binding, pulling and stretching the strips of cloth, letting her own blood wet them and make them more pliant. When she had started, she had no further plan than to get loose. Now, she had far greater motivation. If she could surprise someone, be of real help to the Spaniards, she might help them to victory, and they would owe her something. Passage to Ireland would be ample compensation.
Magdalena's crew stood in groups, whispering nervously. The white flag had been hoisted, and now they waited for the pirate crew to board. They'd win the day, they had no doubt of that, but none were eager to taste victory if it was delivered in the hands of Satan. How had the Captain known about the ship before the lookout had spotted it, and how had he known that they were, in fact, an even match, in terms of size and weapons?
Although he knew what occupied his crew, Diego had to concentrate very hard to keep from smiling. He could not help the sense of elevation, the thrill that came with the anticipation of another sure victory. But he was under the pirate captain's close scrutiny, and he could not afford to let his confidence show. He had enough men to win a hand-to-hand fight, and the element of surprise would make it all the easier.
When the grappling hooks hit the side of the ship, he heard a quick flurry of activity below, but it was abruptly quashed. He had made it very clear that they were to remain absolutely silent until they heard the order to ascend. Although it was tempting to cry out the moment the first of the pirates swung from their ship to his, he waited. None of his crew raised a weapon, but as could be expected, the pirates drew cutlasses and flintlocks. They swaggered on board, pleased to have the Spaniards surrender without a fight, and they brandished their weapons carelessly, obviously not prepared to actually have to use them.
"Now!" Diego shouted, and the hatch flew open, spewing sailors onto the upper deck. Flintlocks thundered and clashing blades rang out. Diego systematically worked his way past enemy seamen and over bodies of friends and foes to take on the captain of the pirate vessel. That man, seeing the dogged determination in Diego's eyes, fled to the rail, grabbed a rope, and swung back to his own ship. Undeterred, Diego followed.
They were, by no means, the only two to have carried the battle from the decks of Magdalena back to the other ship. The scene here was very similar, with Diego's men beating back the pirates, even as the pirates tried to retreat. His quarry, the filthy, bearded leader of the criminals who had attacked them, stepped ever backwards, never taking his eyes from Diego's. It was with satisfaction and pride that Diego read the hint of fear in the other man's eyes.
And then, for a critical, split second, Diego was distracted by a shocking jolt of recognition. In the midst of the battle around him, a vision of beauty and vengeance stole his attention. She wore the clothing of any woman of the day, but the long, dark hair, the sapphire blue eyes, the bold mouth set in a delicate face were unmistakable.
Magdalena stooped down and seized a fallen sailor's cutlass, brandishing it with the gleam of retribution in her eyes. Above the hands that clutched the sword, her wrists were ravaged and bloodied, like a tortured martyr, but she seemed oblivious to the pain they must have surely caused her.
That split second of distraction should have cost Diego his life. The pirate captain saw his moment and seized it, lunging toward the Spaniard, blade held high. As if time had slowed down, Diego watched Magdalena leap forward and sweep her own blade with all her might against the pirate's neck. The force was not enough to sever it, but she hit the crucial artery, and blood pulsed forth in a wide arch, splattering the deck.
"What the hell is the matter with you?" Magdalena berated him. "You can't stand there like a bloomin' idiot in a fight. The bastard would've run you right through your bloody heart!"
His mind was in such a dizzying spin, he could barely spare a thought for the next attacker, whom he ran through with his blade almost without seeing him. English? Why was she speaking English?
"Look about you!" she cried.
Diego spun and took on the man behind him. He could not think of her now. He wanted to look over his shoulder, make sure that she was safe, but she was right, he needed to be aware of the men around him. Besides, she was a saint. What harm could befall her?
But why was she speaking English? And what had happened to her wrists? And were saints permitted to use that kind of language?
He was about to dispatch his latest adversary when the man threw down his weapon.
"Mercy!" the man cried.
His sword already poised over his head, it would have been easy for Diego to bring it down. Was not a swift death a form of mercy? From all around him, Diego heard similar pleas. He glanced about to see that the battle had been won. What few pirates remained were on their knees, begging for clemency.
He wiped away the sweat that stung his eyes and sought Magdalena, though he knew that she would be gone, of course.
But she was not. Her skirts stained with blood, she was leaning against the main mast, trying to catch her breath. One of his crew approached her, reaching out to touch her shoulder. She twisted away, eyes on fire, cheeks flushed.
This was no vision, no saint. She was a woman. The woman—the one that Magdalena had promised. He was as certain of that as he had been of his victory here.
"Enrique!" Diego shouted across the deck to his first mate, but he kept his eyes on the woman. "You and the men, put the pirates who are still living in the brig. Let their surgeon treat their wounded there. Empty this ship then set her afire."
"Yes, Captain." He gave Diego a wary look, then followed orders.
Diego walked over to the woman, who watched him approach with a look no more trusting than Enrique's had been. In rapid Spanish, an apology tumbled from his lips. "I am so sorry. I thought you were a vision. Forgive me, forgive me, please. But our saint, she was guarding us both, no? She made sure that we would, at last, find each other."
The woman only stared at him, not the slightest trace of comprehension on her face.
"Forgive me," he said again. "You are in shock, as am I. But you are safe now, and I promise, no harm will ever again come to you."
She took a deep breath. He smiled, and his heart soared at the anticipation of the first words his flesh and blood saint would speak to him.
"I don't suppose you speak any English," she said.
The smile of delight froze on his face. Switching to her language, in a voice of disbelief he asked, "You are English?"
"You may have saved me from a fate worse than death, but that doesn't give you leave to insult me," she replied.
Hope surged back up. "You are not English?"
It died again. "That is the same thing."
The woman's eyes scanned the deck full of dead and injured men. She seemed about to say something else to him, but then she set her mouth in a grim line.
"I don't want to stay here," she said.
Ashamed again at having been so insensitive, Diego quickly stepped in front of her, blocking the carnage from her line of vision. "Of course not. Come with me. I will help you to my ship." His gaze fell back to her wrists. "You were bound?"
"Aye." She glanced down at them. "They'll heal."
"I will have my surgeon look at them."
"Nay, you must look to your men first."
"Soon, then," he promised. He had to admire her for thinking of his men before herself.
Mary Kate nodded and let the Spaniard lead her to the rail just across from his own vessel. She could have swung across on her own, but it felt blissfully secure to wrap her arms around this man's lithe torso and let him hold her with one sinewy arm while they swung together. He smelled of sweat, and his body was still hot from combat, his clothes slightly damp. The fevered rush that had engulfed her when she had swung the cutlass at the pirate captain's neck still churned inside of her. She had actually killed a man.
When her feet found the deck of the Spanish ship, she pressed herself closer to its captain, reluctant to leave his embrace. She could feel his heart beating hard against her cheek, hear its distinct thumping. Finally, she peered out around them. It hardly seemed possible, but the scene on the Spanish ship was worse than that on the pirate vessel. The crew was busy tossing pirate bodies overboard and respectfully tending to their own few dead. An older, well-dressed man was stitching a deep gash on one man's arm, and Mary Kate assumed that this must be the ship's doctor. Judging from the number of injured men on board, it would be a while ere he could see to her wounds.
The Spanish captain's arm tightened around her. "Look away," he whispered, and though it felt cowardly, she obeyed. He was whipcord lean and firm, and she suddenly wished that he would stop and kiss her, long and hard. She almost laughed at the bizarre notion. There were stories of old, tales of Celtic warriors and of the lust that came in battle, first for blood, then for women. Was that what was happening to her? She had taken blood, and now she wanted this? Mary Kate wet her parched lips and looked up into his deep brown eyes. He looked back, and his gaze became darker still with answering heat. The passion of the fight seemed to be taking the same turn in her rescuer, and the thought sent her emotions into a heady tumble.
He led her down a ladder, below the main deck, and into a fairly spacious room. Light poured in through a window, illuminating a neatly made bed and a table filled with charts.
"This is my cabin," he said cordially. It was as though he had willed away every trace of whatever she had seen in his face on deck. "As soon as I can, I will see to it that my first mate's cabin is made ready for your use. For now, rest here."
Mary Kate didn't know if fear had at last begun to take hold, or if desire still had her in its grip. She knew only that she didn't want this man to leave her. Not yet. "I—I think I may have some things on board the other ship. If you could look ere you sink it, I would be in your debt." She added a silent prayer that her ledger was still safely tucked inside one of them.
The captain nodded. "We will try to find them."
"My thanks. And Captain—?"
"Montoya. I am Capitán Diego Montoya Fernández de Madrid y Delgado Cortés, and I am at your service."
She curtseyed. "Mary Katherine O'Reilly. Captain Montoya, 'tis not the same thing."
He looked at her quizzically. "What?"
"Irish and English. They're not the same."
He smiled apologetically, and Mary Kate became acutely aware of her heart beating inside of her chest. The expression tugged one corner of his mouth just a bit higher than the other, and his teeth were dazzling against his olive skin. "I meant no offense."
"I will send water so you can wash away your ordeal."
"Again, my thanks." She smiled back and heard the satisfying sound of his own breath catching in his throat.
"Catholic, no? The Irish?" he asked.
"Not officially in Ulster, where I'm from."
"Oh." He seemed disappointed. With a sad shrug, he turned away.
Mary Kate laughed lightly. "Not officially. Nonetheless, d'you think that where you're headed you can find me a priest that speaks English? I'll be doing penance for a year over that pirate, I'm sure."
Captain Montoya turned back with a grin, and Mary Kate thought again of that hard, lean body against hers. "It was self–defense, and the man was surely Protestant. Nothing a few Hail Marys and Our Fathers will not absolve you of. Trust me, yours is a sin I have confessed to many times."
"I suppose you have duties," she said.
He sighed. "Sí, but I will be back as soon as I can."
As soon as he shut the door behind him, Mary Kate sank onto his bed, her thoughts humming in her head like a swarm of bees. She had to regain control of her senses. He was a fine specimen of a man, that was sure. But it wasn't as if she'd never been in the presence of handsome fellow. She'd even been kissed by a few and kept her wits soundly about her. Still, if the Spanish captain was as drawn to her as she to him, he could be putty in her hands, for it was a well–known fact that women were much better than men at controlling their physical desires. Aye, opportunity was ripe here. She was as good as on her way home.