The night air was filled with restless spirits, imps, and other vile creatures of the dark. Something evil wandered the port town of Twist of Fate. Raven Kinsley cursed his luck. He wanted out of the swirling mist. A warm fire, with a cold tankard of ale, and a soft wench are what a man needed on a night such as this, not to be roaming the streets.
Smoke, curses, and the pungent odor of unwashed bodies filled the air of the Broken Dragon Wing. This was the fourth tavern Raven had been in today. He knew The Gypsy Princess was anchored in the bay so its captain, Black Heart, had to be somewhere in the settlement of Twist of Fate. Briefly, he had considered using magic to locate the pirate but decided against it. Raven wanted his appearance to be a surprise.
Raven stood a few feet inside the Broken Dragon Wing letting his eyes adjust to the dim light. His fingers rested on the hilt of his cutlass. Only the few who were looking for someone lower on the food chain bothered to turn in his direction. He ignored their stares. Regardless, the challenge would be issued, and he would have to fight.
Twist of Fate was one of the few harbor towns that welcomed pirates. It had been the first place he had begun his search for Black Heart.
“Strangers aren’t welcomed here,” a cold, deep voice from his left announced.
Raven didn’t bother to look at the man issuing the threat but continued to study the crowd. A smile curled his lips. He had found his prey, the captain of The Gypsy Princess. The sound of shuffling footsteps told Raven the challenger approached. “This isn’t a fight you want, friend.”
“I’m no friend,” the man spat.
“Trust me. You want to be a friend. I kill my enemies.” Now that he’d located his quarry, he turned to give the stranger his full attention. A tall man with a skeletal build limped closer. His face reminded Raven of an owl, flat and round with large perturbing eyes and a long, sharp nose. He had a stringy mustache that stuck out like a weasel’s whiskers. “Is this the day you choose to die?”
Raven grimaced as a wheezy laugh forced the man’s putrid breath into his face. “I could ask the same of you.”
“That would make you a truly stupid chap.” He began to slide his cutlass from the scabbard. “Tell the Devil, Raven Kinsley sent you. I’ve heard there is a special section for those I help along the road to hell.”
The blood drained from the man’s face, and small beads of sweat formed on his brow. His oversized black eyes darted, trying to locate an ally in the crowd. None stepped forward. The man’s mouth drew tight, and his left eyebrow jerked as despair filled the man’s face.
“Tell me your name. I never kill a stranger,” Raven said as he rested the sword’s tip on the man’s chest.
“I-I-I” he stammered, his Adam’s apple bobbling.
“Could we be quick about this? I have pressing business.”
The man stepped around the tip of Raven’s cutlass. He pressed closer and the loud, boastful voice dropped to a whisper. “I’m sure we can work something out.”
Raven slid his blade back into place. “Be careful in the future who you challenge and be thankful I have a far more important task to complete than killing you.” He made his way through the crowd, which now allowed him a wide path. Low, harsh voices muttered and all now looked different directions to avoid his gaze.
“DeLaney.” Raven reached for a chair from the neighboring table and spun it around. DeLaney Black Heart refused to look up and acknowledge him, for which he was thankful. Desire tightened his muscles just from the memory of her golden green eyes. She wore a misty gray silk shirt, the front laces open, exposing an ample amount of cleavage. Her long dark auburn hair hung in a thick braid down her back. He did harden at the remembrance of the long strands woven through his hands as he guided her lips to his. “I see you still have lousy taste in drinking establishments.”
“You weren’t invited to join me,” she snapped, still not looking up. “I’m sure if you were to glance down, the blood from the last unwelcome visitor would be visible on the floor.”
He knew without checking what she spoke was the truth. “You’d run through an old friend?”
This did prompt her to lift her head. The lush, full red lips that had brought him repeated pleasure curved into a small cold smile. “Odd choice of words, old friend. Clearly, your definition of friend is different from mine.”
He slid into the barrel chair and studied her. There was absolutely no doubt he still wanted her, and if he were honest, needed her. Even through the stench of the tavern, he could smell the tangy hint of cinnamon. Delaney’s scent. “Would you have preferred old lover?” He smiled as he watched the golden flecks in her eyes light with anger.
“I would prefer you left my table.” She lifted the shot glass to her lips. Slowly, she ran the tip of her tongue along the edge.
Blood flooded his throbbing groin, and he silently cursed himself for not bedding a wench earlier in the day. But he knew it would have been useless. No matter how many other women’s charms he claimed, none could satisfy him. The only woman who had ever been his match, in bed and out, sat across from him.
“I have a business deal to offer you.” Raven cleared his throat in an effort to rid the clear lust it carried and bring it closer to normal. He didn’t want DeLaney to know the effect she still had on him.
“The land pirate seeks a ship, or are you simply looking for me to remove my clothes?” She downed the shot and set the glass on the table.
“I’m seeking a treasure, but if you are willing to make the removal of your clothes part of the deal, I wouldn’t stop you. What I came looking for is a ship, but if you’re in the market for a lover,” he leaned forward, “I could be persuaded.”
The sweet melody of her laughter erupted as she tipped the bottle and refilled the glass with a dark amber liquid. Raven reached for the bottle and felt cold steel press against his arm.
“I’m not interested in any business deal you have to offer. I’m not taking my clothes off, and I’m sure as hell not sharing my rum.”
“DeLaney, put the knife away. Listen to what I have to offer. You’ll change your mind.”
She arched an eyebrow. “Lies coated in the deceitful silk of trickery.” She drove the tip of the blade into the wooden table top. “I was a fool once and believed them. Never again.” She drank the liquid and stood. “I’ll run you through the next time you come to my table. See you in hell.”
Raven watched the sway of DeLaney’s ass as she stalked across the room and silently cursed the actions that had driven them apart.
A heavy hand landed on his shoulder and squeezed. “Sorry, lad.” A deep voice rumbled from behind him. “We’ve had two bad runs. The boys are balking, and DeLaney is feeling the pressure of it.”
Raven turned to face DeLaney’s trusted first mate, Adaih, a grizzled old man with a face wrinkled from the sun and salt water. A long scar ran from his chin to the corner of his left colorless eye. The man’s height was mere inches shorter than a giant’s. He eased around the table and slowly sat in the chair Delaney had occupied moments earlier.
“Here, this will help those aching bones.” Raven reached for the bottle DeLaney left on the table and poured the golden liquid into the glass. “Tell me about the runs.”
Adaih arched a white bushy eyebrow. “You interested for what reason?”
“Purely business.” Raven lifted the bottle and drew a mouthful. He let it slide down his throat, burning a path to the pit of stomach. He silently prayed to the Goddess that the fire would burn his heart and the feelings it harbored for DeLaney. “What’s plaguing The Gypsy Princess?”
The burly man shrugged his shoulders, “No direct curses from the Gods or Goddesses. Falken Sands is making good on his threat.” Adaih lifted the glass to his lips.
Raven clenched his jaw. He should have run Falken Sands through when he’d had a chance. “Since when has Dragon Breath been a better ship? The crew is sloppy, the boat itself is a waterlogged bucket, and Falken is an ass.”
Adaih’s booming laughter drowned the other sounds of the Broken Dragon Wing. “Lad, you be right on all three counts, especially the last. Some rumor has it that Falken has made a deal with the Black Goddess.”
“If that is the truth, the man is dumber than even I thought.” Again, Raven lifted the bottle to his lips. He hadn’t heard of any such pact involving Falken and the Black Goddess. But if Dragon Breath were besting The Gypsy Princess, it would only make sense. DeLaney was a better pirate and ran a tighter ship. As underhanded as it was, Raven could play this to his benefit. He needed a ship, DeLaney’s ship, to retrieve a treasure of a lifetime. “So if what you are saying is true, it would seem DeLaney would be in the market for a profitable run.”
The first mate shook his head. “You play with fire. She was unbearable for three months after you left. Hell, that cat of hers wouldn’t even go near her.”
Raven’s heart raced. So the black hearted pirate has missed me after all.
DeLaney Black Heart walked down the uneven wooden sidewalk, her blood boiling. She couldn’t believe her body was betraying her like this. The moment she had looked into the swirling brown pools of his eyes, DeLaney’s insides had turned to burning lava.
A thick bank of fog had rolled in from Ghost Whisper harbor. The dense gray mass carried the moans and wails of the lost souls of dead fishermen, sailors, and pirates that gave the cove its name. On nights such as these, only shadows walked the streets of Twist of Fate.
Thin, wispy fingers reached out for DeLaney, but she ignored them. Raven Kinsley had her mind twisted, and her thoughts spun out of control. Her body tingled with the remembrance of his touch.
What business deal did he have to offer? She snorted, surely something totally impractical, which was why he came to her. Anger surged through her body. He had figured she would melt to his charm and offer her ship and crew. He had stood at her table, a smile on his sensual lips, like they were crewmates reunited. His black hair was tied back neatly at the nape of his neck. The finely woven blue cotton shirt hugged his muscular arms and pulled across his chest. The wide black belt that held his cutlass and scabbard rested on his narrow hips and his soft leather breeches outlined…
DeLaney shook her head. She wouldn’t go there. She closed her eyes and drew a ragged breath as her body shuddered with desire.
“’Tis a moonless night, one filled with spirits, and yet you walk alone,” a husky voice whispered.
DeLaney’s hand tightened around the hilt of her cutlass. “What is it you want, Falken?”
“You, DeLaney. I’ve said that all along. You in my bed. Your ship. Your crew. I want it all.” A dark form emerged from the fog. “I heard your last run was less than profitable; I’m sorry if I had anything to do with that. The port echoes the murmurs of your crew.” Falken closed the space between them. He stood three inches taller than DeLaney’s five foot nine. He wore a long velvet vest over a ruffled shirt. He held a dark tricorn hat sporting several flowing plumes. The night concealed the pistol which DeLaney knew would be nestled in the front of the sash. It wasn’t the gun that sent fingers of dread dancing along DeLaney’s spine but the unnatural orange glow around his eyes.
“Come sail with me, Black Heart. Together we will rule the seas. There won’t be a ship able to escape us. We will have a mountain of gold, silver, and jewels.” Falken’s hand reached toward her. “And a bed always warm from our lovemaking.”
DeLaney drew a dagger and pressed it against his neck. “I sail under no man’s flag. The Gypsy Princess is mine.” Before DeLaney could think or react, she found herself flat on the cobblestone road with Falken’s boot pressed against her throat.
“You’re a foolish woman. One who has been tolerated long enough.”
A low, menacing purr surrounded them as two glowing red eyes appeared in the swirling mist. DeLaney smiled as Falken’s body flew through the foggy night air. His muffled screams competed with a snapping growl.
“Esmeralda.” DeLaney stood and wiped the back of her pants. “Are you out hunting tonight?”
The tiger extended the claws on her left paw and snarled.
“I see you have caught yourself a large sea rat.” DeLaney smiled. “Falken, I am tired of dealing with your threats. Tell me how Dragon Breath managed to beat me to both cargos.”
“There is nothing to say. I am a better pirate, bitch.”
Esmeralda raked her claws down the man’s chest, shredding the shirt and vest to draw small rivers of blood.
“You are too stupid to call yourself a pirate. This is your last chance to talk before I turn and walk away to let Esmeralda eat her supper in peace.” DeLaney looked down at the man. He truly showed no signs of fear. This puzzled her. Not many people could remain unaffected when they had a two hundred and sixty-three pound hungry tigress sitting on them.
“No, you will be the one to regret this,” Falken whispered and disappeared.
Esmeralda arched and snarled. DeLaney drew her cutlass and slowly circled in the dark street. “What the hell?”
“Taking your kitty for a walk?” Raven’s voice pierced the night.
“Did you pass Falken?” DeLaney asked.
Raven shook his head. “But this is thick soup. I guess I could have and not noticed.”
DeLaney returned her cutlass to its sheath and drew a weak breath. Falken Sands had made some type of pact with evil, and now it was focused on her.
Raven could sense DeLaney Black Heart’s fear. Esmeralda padded over to DeLaney and wrapped her tail possessively around the woman’s legs. The tiger’s actions heightened Raven’s sense of foreboding. He stepped forward, closing the spaced between them, which extracted a deep rumble from Esmeralda.
“Nice kitty.” Raven reached down and stroked the animal behind her ear.
“Why she doesn’t eat you, I’ll never understand. She’s a Siberian tiger, not an alley cat.” DeLaney looked up. Her eyes were a dark green; the golden flecks that usually made them dance were hidden by worry. Her firm, lush red lips were drawn into a tight grimace. Raven noticed the slight shake in her hand as she smoothed the long, silky ginger strands. To occupy his hands so he wouldn’t pull her into an embrace, Raven gripped his cutlass.
“DeLaney, what is it?” He would kill Sands. A sense of satisfaction filled him with that decision. “Let me help.”
Her laughter cut through the dense fog. “Is the legendary Raven Kinsley, treasure seeker and master lover, offering his services?”
No longer able to resist, he wrapped an arm around her waist and drew her ample body to his. “In both areas,” he whispered, his lips moving against hers. He took possession of her mouth. Her sultry lips starred in more than a few of Raven’s dreams. His fingers twisted in her hair to hold her head so he could savoir the spicy taste of her mouth. The kiss started out gentle, tender. Raven meant it to be a gesture of compassion, but in the end he was a starving man, craving DeLaney with an unbridled passion.
Esmeralda’s low rumble forced Raven to break the kiss. He braced himself for DeLaney’s fierce temper, but instead she remained in his arms.
“What does the treasure seeker have to offer?”
Raven smiled and ran his thumb along her swollen lips. “I thought you weren’t interested in a business deal with me.”
“Things have changed. If I’m to keep The Gypsy Princess, you are my only option.” DeLaney stepped back and separated them. Raven’s body instantly protested. His erection throbbed with a need so strong it was past pleasure to the point of pain. “I allowed this kiss to test myself.”
“A test?” With an extreme assertion of willpower, his hand still rested on her waist, ignoring the invitation sent by her silk shirt to his fingers for exploration, to toy with her firm breasts.
She moved completely out of his embrace. “Yes. I needed to I confirm I was beyond your ability to seduce. And I am. The kiss was nice but nothing more. So why don’t we go out to The Gypsy Princess and discuss your business deal?” DeLaney placed a hand on his chest. “Understand, my bed no longer comes with The Gypsy Princess, and my share will be forty percent of the plunder. If those terms are acceptable, I’ll leave word with my men to allow you to board.”
Raven watched the fog swallow DeLaney and Esmeralda. The forty/sixty split didn’t bother him, but to sail for months aboard the ship and be denied her bed was a condition he was not willing to accept. He rocked back on the heels of his boots and smiled. He knew she had lied, because the kiss was something. He had sensed her body’s response. For all those long months, the only thing that had kept him sane was thoughts of DeLaney. The memory of her face after they made love and his commitment to her had helped him survive what would have killed most.
DeLaney rowed the small boat through the dark waters. In the harbor, the spirits of the dead were much stronger. Fingers pulled at her hair and scratched at her skin. She heard a voice of despair whisper in her ear. The cat snarled at the intrusive beings.
“I know what you’re thinking. That I’m crazy for coming out on the waters at night without a shaman.” Esmeralda snapped her reply. “It’s only a short distance to the ship. We’ll manage. And no, I’m not running because of the kiss. Yes, I lied about the kiss meaning nothing. But it did tell me I could never let Raven next to me. We can retrieve whatever treasure he seeks and reestablish The Gypsy Princess to her rightful place.”
Esmeralda’s tail swished in the air, and she turned her head from DeLaney. “Great, now even my cat is against me.” DeLaney sighed.
The outline of The Gypsy Princess appeared in front of DeLaney. The dampness of the cloud bank distorted the yellow glow of lanterns. She heard Blink shout to the crew, “The Black Heart approaches. On task.”
As DeLaney’s dinghy slid against the larger vessel, a thick knotted rope was lowered. She pulled herself up and over the rail. “Be careful lifting the boat. Esmeralda is aboard.”
“Aye, captain.” Blink nodded. He oversaw the nighttime crew. While the man stood only four foot, his rule was never challenged. Eyes a single shade of deep purple and skin so translucent the veins were clear—the markings of a ghostling. Few of Blink’s race sought to be part of the human’s world, so the rumors were wild and greatly exaggerated. DeLaney had no idea where the truth ended and the fiction began, nor did she care. Blink’s abilities in the dark gave her ship an edge, making it the most feared and profitable pirate vessel in the Cannequ waters, until recently.
A ghostling could see in a darkness so dense it would render others blind. Blink could also sense all things that traveled under the cover of night. He let DeLaney know of approaching ships or sea monsters in ample time to prepare for battle. Yet, for some reason, in the last month Falken’s ship had been able to elude the ghostling’s senses.
DeLaney stepped away from the rail. “Raven Kinsley will seek permission to board. Allow him.” She started toward her cabin when she heard a snicker behind her.
“We have become the laughingstock of the sea, yet she entertains her lover,” a low voice whispered.
DeLaney drew her sword and spun around before the man realized he had been heard. The point of the blade dug into the man’s exposed throat. “Blink.”
“Captain.” The man floated to her side.
“This sailor no longer wishes to sail with us. See he is disposed of with his belongings. And do so before Esmeralda is brought aboard. I’m unsure if she has eaten this evening and may enjoy a little sport for her evening meal.” She looked into the man’s wide eyes. “I do hope your swimming skills are stronger than your brains.”
“It ’twas a joke, Captain. I meant no disrespect by it.” The man struggled to swallow without burying the sword in his throat. “I have no wish to leave ye service nor swim with ye cat.”
DeLaney withdrew her cutlass. She flashed the man her best cold smile. “You do possess some sense not wishing to leave The Gypsy Princess, and even a man with no faculties doesn’t wish to tease a tiger. Too bad these things became apparent too late to save your skin.” She turned to Blink. “Dispense with him now.”
She stormed into the cabin. She felt her grip on the crew slipping. To be humiliated by Dragon Breath twice was unimaginable. If she didn’t sweep a plentiful bounty soon, she would have a mutiny. Her heart slammed against her ribs at the thought of losing The Gypsy Princess. She offered a silent prayer to the Gods and Goddesses that whatever treasure Raven sought would be enough.
The sharp rap of knuckles on the wooden door forced her to draw a deep breath and push all self-doubt away.
The door swung open. Blink drifted in. His gray pants and shirt blended with the hue of his skin, making it hard to determine where one ended and the other began. His small size was emphasized by Adaih’s near giant status.
“Captain. We wish to speak with you.” Adaih’s shoulders were too broad to allow him to enter the planning cabin without turning sideways. His long white hair was braided. A worn cotton shirt hung open, allowing gold chains to glitter in the lantern’s light against the dark skin of his chest.
DeLaney kept the wide wooden table between them. While she didn’t doubt either man’s loyalty, she also knew them to be what they were. Men of fortune. She forced her body to take a stance of ease and willed her hands to remain steady.
“Feel free to speak. You both know I welcome your counsel.”
“There are two things we need to bring to your attention.” Adaih moved so he stood against the wall and slid down so his weight rested on his heels. It always amazed DeLaney that a man of his size could find comfort in such a position. “Tell the Captain what you felt tonight, Blink.”
The short man hovered across the table from her. He ran a hand over his hairless skull. “I was in the bird’s nest. Something about the fog seemed unnatural.”
“It is Ghost Whisper Harbor,” DeLaney pointed out, but she knew Blink would never be put at unease by a few restless spirits.
“Yes, Captain. But it was more. Tonight’s fog carried the weight of evil.” He shifted and focused his purple eyes on DeLaney. “Something was hunting for you. That is why I sent Esmeralda into town looking for you.”
“I had a run-in with Falken. Before Esmeralda could dine on him, he disappeared.”
“He outran her?” Adaih asked.
“No.” DeLaney turned to meet his gaze. “He vanished into thin air.”
Blink made an odd noise which she knew to be a grunt of disgust. “He dabbles in things his mind is too small to understand and his spirit is too weak to resist.”
“It seems the rumors of his deal with the Black Goddess have merit.” Adaih shifted his weight to reflect his unease with the situation.
“Do you know what it was that sought me?” She looked back at the ghostling.
Blink shook his head. “I have never felt anything like this. I could tell it is old and primitive. It hunts through smell not sight, a creature with a simple mind. Kill and eat.”
“Nice, so I’m its main course.” DeLaney ran a hand through her hair and turned to her first mate. She didn’t question the man’s reliability. He had stood beside her since she freed him ten years ago from the slavers. “What is it you wish to discuss with me?”
“Rumors in town. It is said even if we do find gold, jewels, or silver, no one is to take it. All our treasure will carry a curse to any who accept it. We are cursed.”
DeLaney shrugged. “I didn’t see inn owners turning down our coins tonight. It is merely talk.”
Adaih stood. “You left early. Before the witch came.”
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