"Yes, a privateer, a man who has been empowered by the British government to capture ships on behalf of their king. Not only are we outgunned by the privateer vessel, but I am certain the first mate began to incite mutiny among my crew when I told him we would parley." The Dutchman closed his eyes and shook his head. "The men are angry. None of them wanted to crew on a slaver ship—it was de Heeckeren, the first mate, who got us into this. But now that we are..." Graaf opened his eyes and must have seen the lack of sympathy on her face. He held up his hands in a gesture that was both placating and beseeching. "Please, Miss Fisher, you must believe me when I tell you dealing in slaves was not my idea."
"I. Don't. Care." She had to force the words through clenched jaws, and it was all she could do not to shoot him for wallowing in self-pity while people died beneath his feet. "I don't care whose idea it was," she repeated. "Do you have any idea what happened to our lives? People are suffering and dying because of you," she said, her voice rising. "This is a chance for you to help stop this nightmare. It will not redeem you—not even close—but it will be a start. Now, here is what you will do: you will take the ship back to shore and release everyone from the hold, or I will shoot you."
He snorted. "You would be doing me a favor. I think you have a mistaken notion about what is going on, Miss Fisher. While I and many of my crew did not want to run this cargo—"
"Cargo? These are people, Captain Graaf—I want to hear you say it."
His jaw tightened, and he swayed a little, sweat pouring down his temples. "While I and many of my crew did not want to buy and sell people, I think you do not understand the situation. I am merely a token, a representative of the Graaf family—I'm not even a captain, although I am using the title. The real person in charge is de Heeckeren." Graaf grimaced. "He is an experienced sailor and greatly feared—and not just by me."
Sarah frowned, confused. "He is the captain?"
"In everything except name. He is also the reason we left Ouidah with a hold full of...people. The men didn't realize they were signing on to crew a slave ship, but they know there will be no pay if they turn back. Some of them will not let that happen and will follow my first mate." He shook his head. "I cannot say how many." He suffered another coughing spell.
Sarah stared at him, trying to gain his measure. What was the Dutchman trying to get at? Was he saying he might be agreeable to returning to shore—for the mythical thorn of Christ, if for nothing else? Just how much did he regret his decision to allow his first mate to fill his hold with human cargo? Enough to risk his life to let them go?
Graaf regained his breath and continued in a hoarse voice. "The men know the privateer will bring the captain and crew before the Vice-Admiralty Court once we reach Freetown—and some of them do not view this threat lightly. Without the proper leadership, they will follow de Heeckeren and fight the privateer vessel rather than parley. And then we will all most likely die."
"I'm afraid I don't understand your position in all this, Captain. What are you trying to say?"
"I propose we join forces."
His words surprised a laugh out of her. "And what do you have that I might want? A mutinous crew? The imminent arrival of a shipload of marauding privateers? Please, I am curious to know what you bring to the bargain."
He sighed, the grooves that bracketed his mouth deepening. "If all my crew was on the side of my first mate, then I would be bobbing in the ocean, and you and I would not be having this conversation, Miss Fisher. I'm telling you that if we act before it is too late, we may be able to gain the support we need." He stopped and pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, wiping sweat from his brow and staring at her through red-rimmed, watery eyes.
Sarah examined his face for any trace of deceit, but all she saw was exhaustion and illness.
"We do not have much time," he prodded.
Sarah drew in a deep breath before speaking.
"What about the privateers?"
"Once we have control of the ship, we parley. The privateer will attack us if we do not. Either way, I will be boarded, and the ship will be confiscated for violation of a recent Anglo-Dutch treaty. I would prefer to surrender without any damage to my ship or loss of life."
Sarah chewed her lip so hard the metallic tang of blood flooded her mouth. Could she trust him? She snorted at the thought. What other choice did she have? She stared, not seeing him but the faces in the hold. The only way people got out of the hold was when the crew threw their bodies over the side of the ship. This might be everyone's only chance.
"If I agree to help you, how will we go about it, Captain?" His shoulders sagged with relief, as if she'd already agreed.
Well, he could think whatever he wanted. Sarah had no qualms about using him, at least until she had the backing of the only people on the ship she trusted: those imprisoned in the hold.
"I will summon my first mate with an offer to capitulate. If we can capture him, I believe the mutiny will die quickly. You wait behind the door as you did with me. I will take the other pistol and confront him when he enters."
This excerpt ends on page 14 of the paperback edition.
Monday we begin the book Met Her Match by Jude Deveraux.