'The next time I decide to kill a man,' Jacquelyn thought, 'I really need to find better help.'
She struggled toward consciousness, but pain blocked her way. Jacquelyn sank back with dreamlike slowness, as though it wasn't her body lying beside the dusty Cornish road. She lightly skimmed the surface of blackness, ready to plunge downward again, when the voices above her began to make sense.
"No more than a whelp," a deep baritone said with disgust.
"Dead?" another voice asked, the tone reedy and unabashedly cheerful.
Work-roughened fingers searched for the pulse point below her jaw line. "Not yet."
Jacquelyn hardly dared breathe.
"No blood so far as I can tell, but he took a wallop. Look at that goose egg. Still, we may get some answers from him." A booted foot nudged her hip. "Wake up, lad."
Lad. At least her disguise still held. Her eyes rolled in their sockets before she forced her lids open. A stab of sunlight made her squeeze them closed again. Her head pounded in tandem with her heart.
"Rum, Meri," the deep voice ordered, punctuated by a commanding snap of his fingers.
"There's no call to waste good rum on-"
"Whose rum is it, Mr. Meriwether?"
Jacquelyn peered from beneath her brown lashes. Grumbling under his breath, the one called Meri fished a silver flask from the gelding's saddlebag and handed it over. The other one, the one whose strong arms forced her to sit up, the one she loathed with every fiber of her being, held the drink to her lips.
"Steady now. Not too fast," he urged. "This rum's raw enough to put hair on your chest."
The spirits burned down her gullet. When she choked and sputtered, he pulled the flask away. She didn't dare look up at him.
He was coming to destroy her life and the lives of all she held dear. She didn't want to see his face up so close.
Not until she had a sword in her hand.
"Well, lookee there, Cap'n. He's still in the land of the living, after all. Must have just had the breath knocked from him, I warrant. Good. I like me boy's livers fresh." Meriwether flashed a wolfish grin. "Pity we've no onions to fry up with it."
She'd been warned the new lord and his minions were heartless and utterly without conscience, but Meri's threat was beyond the pale. Even so, she felt the blood draining from her face. She was probably blanching white as a fish belly.
Damn her weakness! Why hadn't she been born a man?
"You aren't really going to eat my liver." She tried to sound sure about it, but her voice broke with a squeak.
"I won't," he promised. "But Mr. Meriwether spent longer in the Caribbee than I. He has peculiar tastes. But if you tell me what I want to know, I'll make certain your liver stays where it is. Now what's your name?"
She needed time to gather her wits. Keeping her eyes downcast, she wobbled to her feet. A sword lay a bare five feet away, the hilt faced toward her.
"J-Jack," she stammered as she edged toward the weapon. "I'm called Jack."
"Very well," he said. "You may have been with that lot that tried to waylay us, but perhaps you can make amends."
With them? She'd tried to lead them, but her last fuzzy memory was one of the oafs clobbering her senseless with his sharp elbow as he drew his sword. The wretches professed to be experienced assassins and the royal seal they flashed about gave their claims the ring of truth. The ruffians must have grown wings since their initial assault failed. There was no sign of them now.
"I'm willing to believe you fell in with bad company sort of accidental like," the captain went on.
"Aye, tis easy enough to fall in with villains, bad company being so much more pleasurable than good company as a general rule," Meriwether chimed in. "And who should know better'n you, Cap'n?"
"In any case, I've done you a good turn for an evil one," he said. "Will you help me then, Jack?"
She crossed her arms over her chest, pulling the ill-fitting smock-shirt tight around her form, trying to seem as if she were weighing her options. She glanced at Meri, who was now picking rocks from his horse's hooves, totally disinterested in her since it appeared his captain wasn't going to let him cook her liver.
This might be her only chance.
"Aye, I'll help you." She dove for the sword and by some miracle came up with the hilt in her hand. "I'll help you on your way to Hell." Remembering her training with Dragon Caern's master-at-arms, she brought the blade up in a glittering arc, trusting to surprise for success.
She only managed to catch a corner of his hat and knock it off his head.
Quick as an adder, his sword was out and facing her down. He was much bigger than she expected. He stood a hand's width more than six feet and carried fifteen stone in weight. Most of it looked to be in work-hardened muscle.
Jacquelyn swallowed hard. The folk of Dragon Caern depended on her to make good decisions. Clearly, this was not one of her finest.
She'd imagined the new lord would be whey-faced, powdered and perfumed, slightly effeminate in the manner of most courtly folk. But this man's face was bronzed the color of oiled cedar and there was nothing the least soft about him. Something inside her rebelled at the injustice. He had no right to such a strong-boned handsome face. Not with as black a heart as he must possess. She felt a surge of triumph when a trio of red beads appeared on his smooth-shaven chin. He wiped them off and gave her a mocking bow.
"First blood to you then, Jack."
Meri chuckled. "And I was a-feared life as a landsman would be dull."
Circling, the captain retrieved his fallen hat. The tip of his sword never dipped as he slapped the tricorn against his thigh, sending small clouds of dust puffing. The cockade and plume were decidedly worse for the wear but he cocked the hat on his head at a rakish angle.
"I don't think you want to do this, boy," he warned.
The fine brocade frock coat and velvet breeches bespoke him a gentleman, but his dark eyes glinted beneath his darker brows, feral and cold as a dragon.
The dragon that would devour her world, the note with the royal seal had promised. She clenched her teeth and gripped the hilt of her sword all the tighter. "Oh, yes, I do."
"Me thanks to ye, Jackie-boy. Cap'n Gabriel swore anyone who wished him bodily harm was still sailing the Spanish Main." Meri settled on a rock to watch the combatants in comfort. "I recollect he wagered fifty sovereigns on the matter."
A wry grin lifted one corner of Gabriel's mouth.
"Apparently, I lose." The smile faded. "But I must warn you, Jack. I don't make a habit of it."
"Don't worry," Jacquelyn said with more bravado than she felt. "I don't intend for you to live long enough to get used to losing."
She lunged at him, swinging her blade with all the spite she possessed.
* * *
Gabriel parried the stroke with economy of movement. "Bad form. Is it a lesson you're wanting then?"
"No, tis your head I'm after."
"Don't think I can accommodate you. I'm rather attached to my head." Despite the dirty face, there was no disguising the delicacy of Jack's features. Gabriel narrowed his eyes in speculation. Jack was definitely female.
A wickedly angry female.
She recovered from her initial blunder and launched a fresh assault that showed some skill with a blade.
"Better," he said as they danced with steel. He followed the praise with a rumbling chuckle. "Keep your knees bent."
"Keep your teeth together," Jack said hotly, cheeks flaming.
The livid blush made her pink mouth seem all the more ripe for the taking. Even with her spitfire temper, he wanted a taste of her.
A unique combination of strokes forced Gabriel to jerk his attention back to her blade. Her lips might look sweet as honey, but her sword arm carried a sting. She must've thought hiding her sex under boy's rags would make it easier for her to attack him. Gabe would play along for the time being. Uncovering the truth of the matter might prove amusing.
"You take too many chances, Jack." He side-stepped her rushing blow and whacked her on the backside with the flat of his blade. Not hard enough to truly hurt her, but he knew a rap like that smarted like the dickens.
She yelped and rubbed her bottom with her free hand.
"I warned you. You invited that with your carelessness." One corner of his mouth jinked up. "Perhaps when we're done here, I'll take you over my knee and warm your arse properly."
After all, she was attempting to kill him. The least she might expect was a paddling. He'd even try not to enjoy it too much.
"You truly are evil," she spat the words at him.
"Did you hear that, Meri? Evil, Jack calls me."
"Evil, is it?" Meriwether's scrub-brush eyebrows rose. "Aye, well, he don't know ye like I do, else he'd not be so charitable."
Gabriel turned back to parry Jack's latest thrust. "I don't like being called evil when I've done nothing to warrant it. Not lately, at any rate."
"I've no care for your likes or dislikes." Her chin jutted upward in defiance. She hurled him a murderous frown as she raised her sword again. "All I wish is for you to die."
"You'll forgive me if I don't quake in my boots." Gabriel cocked his head at her and gave her a grudging nod. Perhaps he needed to change tactics if he hoped to expose her true colors.
"You know, Jack, you took a nasty blow. Might have cracked a rib or two in your fall." He bared his teeth in a wicked smile. "Best shuck out of your shirt so we can have a look-see."
Her eyes flared and she backed a step or two. "My ribs are fine."
"Don't be so sure. You were knocked senseless. A cracked rib might puncture one of your lights. Nasty thing that. Have you bubbling blood in no time. Now, I ask you, would an evil man be so concerned for the well-being of one who tried to waylay him? Let me help you there."
Gabriel flashed his blade and, quick as thought, flicked the top button from Jack's shirt.
She squealed and clutched the shirt closed, but not before Gabriel was rewarded with a glimpse of the sweet meeting place between two tightly bound breasts.
There be a hidden treasure well worth the finding. He smiled in satisfaction at having correctly divined one of Jack's secrets. Two actually, he thought as his smile deepened.
"Aw, Cap'n. Ye shouldn't frighten the lad so," Meri chided as he inspected the gelding's tack and cinched the girth tighter. "Sours the liver, it does. Makes 'em hardly worth frying."
"Steady on, Meriwether." Gabriel circled the girl slowly. She turned with him, her eyes spitting cold venom. "I think I've discovered a better way to loosen Jack's tongue than your threat to fry his liver for breakfast. Come now. Off with the shirt."
She shook her head with vehemence. "You're not just evil. You're a beast!"
"Freely admitted with pride." He lifted his tricorn and made a courtly leg to her. She thrust the tip of her sword at him, but he turned it away neatly. "You may dress him in lace and gold trim if you like, but dandy or not, there's a beast in every man."
"Don't tar others with your sins."
"No need, since I'm sure they have plenty of their own." With a deft movement, he caught her blade in his and whipped it out of her grasp. The sword turned end over end, but he caught the hilt cleanly. "But all men are part beast, the part that craves what it does not have and stops at nothing to possess. Now, Jack, if you value your skin, you'll stand still."
Gabriel stepped behind her and slashed the back of her long shirt in a deep upside-down vee, exposing the backside of her skin-hugging leggings and the muslin winding cloth she'd used to bind her breasts. She gasped but couldn't stop him from looking his fill.
"I must say, you're a forward looking lad. Seems he's already bound his ribs, Meri."
Gabriel's gaze traveled lower.
No boy ever had such a bottom, the round mounds shaped like an inverted heart. It was as snug a cove as a man could hope for.
The beast in Gabriel roared for a moment, tempting him with a vision of Jack bent over the nearest boulder, leggings twisted at her ankles. His mouth went dry and his breeches were suddenly uncomfortably tight. He'd been without a woman far too long, but he bridled himself.
Once, in another life it sometimes seemed, he'd been the son of a gentleman.
Perhaps he might be again.
"At least, an honest man will own up to his beast," he said between clenched teeth, as he tamped down the desire she stirred.
"An honest beast," she all but snarled at him over her shoulder. "So you make a virtue of admitting your faults."
"A man like me must take virtue where he may." He came full circle and deliberately strafed her form with a hot, knowing look.
Gabriel had never taken a woman by force in his life and wasn't about to start now, but Jack didn't know that. Let her think what she might. He needed answers.
"You'll pardon me for saying so, but you're not much of a fighting man, Jack. Why did the men who attacked me need you?"
Her lips clamped together.
He raised his blade. "You have more buttons."
"We were warned that a new lord was coming to take possession of Dragon Caern. We were told you plan to turn out all the souls who shelter there now. I was to lead a party of fighting men to a likely spot to catch you before you reached the castle," she admitted.
"A totally unnecessary plan as I have no intention of taking possession of anything," Gabriel said. "Besides, I suspect my father would have a thing or two to say about being turned out. Rhys Drake may be getting on in years but the old dragon won't leave the Caern till they carry him out feet first."
Jack's brows lowered and she studied Gabriel through narrowed eyes. "Lord Drake is dead, God rest him."
She wielded no sword, but she couldn't have delivered a more ringing blow. A stone lodged in Gabriel's chest. He sank onto the nearest rock as he tried to wrap his mind around the thought of a world where his indomitable father was no more.
"But unless you're bastard born," Jack said, quick to follow up her verbal wallop with another telling strike, "Lord Drake couldn't have been your sire. The old lord only had two sons and they're both gone to God, too. The elder by a fever and the younger by the sea."
His brother dead, too. This was an ill-starred day all around. Gabriel dragged a hand over his face and looked up to find Jack staring at him quizzically.
"You can't be him." She swiped her nose on her shirtsleeve. A nice boyish touch, but it came far too late to fool him. "The youngest son's ship went down with all hands."
"Aye, well, there's down and there's down," Meriwether explained. "When we poor mariners what sank the Defiant found out Gabriel was a navigator trained, we sort of commandeered him as it were."
"Mariners?" Jack's gaze swept the old rascal. "You mean pirates!" She turned back to glare at Gabriel. "And you went with them willingly?"
Gabriel snorted at her outrage. Had he ever been that cocksure about anything?
"They fished me out of the burning wreckage and offered me a choice. Turn to piracy or claim a watery grave then and there." Gabriel knew his father wouldn't have approved, even to save his skin. Not that Rhys Drake had ever approved of anything Gabriel did. He crossed his arms over his chest. "It was a compelling argument for a change of career at the time."
"And a brilliant career he made of it, let me tell ye-"
"That's enough, Meri."
"Aye, Cap'n," Meriwether said with a grimace, then he lowered his voice conspiratorially. "But one who can claim to be the Dragon of the Caribbee-"
"That'll do, Mr. Meriwether."
A flash of recognition crossed Jack's face. "I've heard of you. The Cornish Dragon, terror of-"
"Just Gabriel Drake, if you please." He rose and sketched a mocking bow. "Your servant."
"Gabriel Drake," she repeated, her ears and cheeks going scarlet as she realized her error. He was no usurper. Gabe had every right to be here. Jack dipped in a quick curtsey, then remembered herself and returned his bow. She was doggedly determined to keep up her male disguise. "My Lord Drake." Then her eyes turned wary. "If that's who you are in truth."
Gabriel was suddenly weary of the game.
"I've no need to prove it to you. Let's away to the castle," he said as he lifted her up onto the gelding. The lass gave a startled squeak when Gabriel pinched her bottom. He swung himself up behind Jack with a satisfied nod. She tried to wiggle down, but he pulled her tight to his chest. "You can go upright or you can go flopped over the saddle with your bottom bouncing to the sky. In fact, now that I think on it, I believe I'd prefer you like that. But either way, but you're going with me."
She went still as a hare in a thicket.
"That's better." He nudged the gelding into a sedate walk. "To start with, you might tell me what a young lady is doing traipsing about the countryside dressed as a lad."
"My lord, I'm not-"
"Spare me your denials, or I'll just have to finish unbuttoning that shirt to make doubly certain," Gabriel threatened. "I may have been at sea a long time, but I still know the feel of woman's rump when it meets my hand. Now talk."
He flicked open the top remaining button on Jack's shirt and moved down to the next one. Her bared skin was satin to his touch. A bit of meddling with this cheeky wench was just what he needed to ease the fresh ache in his heart. He suspected the best way to irritate Jack was to make sure she enjoyed it as well.
Since irritating her was the best idea he'd had all morning, he'd make certain of it.
He dipped his head to take her earlobe in his mouth and was rewarded by her sharp intake of breath. He bit down just enough to make her shiver and then released her.
His voice rumbled by her wet ear. "Who are you in truth?"