Artwork (at AO3 version), significant brainstorming, and beta reading by dorothydeath.
Captain Nolan Ross strolled along the deck of the Amanda, one hand tucked in his jacket, the other clutching a tumbler of rum.
Jack nodded a greeting from his place at the wheel. Nolan knew nothing about boats except that they belonged floating on the water and not sinking beneath the waves. He'd hired Jack to help him choose a boat – sorry, ship - and to sail it. Nolan felt that being captain meant being in charge and that involved delegating all the irritating sailing stuff to Jack, leaving him free to do more important things like drink rum and admire the view.
He hadn't had chance to do much of either for the last few hours. Declan had told him lots of decorated naval officers got seasick. It was nice of him to say so even if it still felt most unbecoming, and Nolan had smiled weakly before fetching up the last of what had been a really nice meal he'd had shortly before boarding. Declan was Jack's brother, and was on board doing whatever non-captain-y, non-steering-the-boat things needing doing. Adjusting the masts and hoisting the anchor or somesuch.
"Feeling better, Captain?" Declan waved at him and Nolan nodded.
Declan returned his attention to the ocean, telescope in hand.
Nolan wondered if he'd made a huge mistake in buying the boat. Sometimes an idea came to him and he followed it through without due forethought. He was a mathematical genius who'd made a small fortune in stocks and shares – not born a noble and so never accepted by the ruling classes, but rich enough that they couldn't keep him out of their clubs and away from their parties. Nolan didn't even enjoy smoking cigars with most of the rich bastards, but he did like annoying them with his presence, so he tended to go to as many dinner parties as possible.
Maybe he ought to have stuck with just buying the outfit, he thought, because damn he looked good in it. He'd been propositioned by two girls and one charming sailor on his way to the docks. The boat was just an accessory. He didn't really need it. They should probably turn back.
"Captain, look! Dolphins!"
Nolan joined Declan at the rail and they watched the graceful creatures for a while. He found himself envying their carefree life. They didn't worry about appearances or money or potentially deadly rumours about their "unnatural" proclivities. The sight of them stirred something inside him and he finished the rum. A few days at sea would do him good, let the wind clear the cobwebs. Where was the harm?
Nolan forced his eyes open. It was daylight and the room was rocking up and down which was an unwelcome change from spinning round and round. His head wasn't too sore though…right, the boat. He was on the boat. Ship. Jack had been specific about that. Not a room, then, a cabin.
He blinked and came to his senses. Yes, he was on the ship and he was the captain and Declan was yelling for him. He thought he'd left his responsibilities and concerns on dry land. No rest for the wickedly handsome.
After almost knocking himself out on his bunk, Nolan managed to get to his feet and pull on his jacket and his boots. He staggered up the wooden steps and onto the deck. A strong salt breeze hit him in the face.
"Captain, a boat!" Declan pointed overboard with teenage excitement. Boat was a small craft, Nolan thought, pleased when Declan confirmed this. "It shouldn't be out this far. Could be from a wrecked ship."
The boat was tiny next to even the Amanda, a small ship with a small crew. Jack got them close to the vessel with a skill that impressed Nolan. There was a passenger huddled under an oilcloth and Nolan hailed them. The cloth stirred and a woman's head poked out from under it. She swallowed and waved one hand, desperation writ large on her beautiful face.
Of course they had to bring her aboard. It was the gentlemanly thing to do.
"My name is Emily," she told them through chattering teeth. Jack had fetched a blanket for her shoulders because her dress was not really suitable for seagoing. Nolan hadn't taken her to his cabin in case she thought he had untoward intentions, though if she didn't stop shivering soon he might suggest she go below deck. He had poured her some rum though and she'd taken a grateful gulp, now nursing the rest in one well manicured hand.
Emily. It was a lovely name. She had incredible cheekbones, Nolan thought, and beautiful lips. He gave himself a mental shake. It was not the gentlemanly thing to think about a newly rescued woman that way.
"What happened?" Nolan asked, wishing he'd found his hat before rescuing Emily so that he looked more impressive. "Where's your bo, er, I mean, ship?"
"It sank with all hands. I'm the only survivor." Tears welled up in her expressive eyes. Nolan felt around in his jacket but it was Jack who found and provided a handkerchief. This being a gentleman thing was difficult.
Emily gave Jack a weak smile and dabbed at her face. "The captain, Takeda, made me take the lifeboat just before the Initiative crew reloaded their cannon and blew the Revenge to pieces."
Nolan saw Jack's expression. "What?"
"The Initiative is helmed by the pirate who calls herself Queen Vic. Some say it's secretly in the employ of Conrad Grayson."
Nolan knew the name; Conrad Grayson was a baronet who operated a thriving shipping business. That he employed a pirate – a female pirate at that – to literally fight his battles for him…most ungentlemanly, putting it mildly. It didn't surprise Nolan too much that Conrad was stooping to piracy though. The man made Nolan's skin crawl.
"The Initiative scuttles a lot of Grayson's competitors," Declan said, as if trying to convince Nolan.
"The Revenge was a competitor?" Nolan asked.
Emily sipped her rum and said, "Not exactly. They wanted something in particular."
She lifted one perfect eyebrow. "Me."
Lady Emily Throne had recently entered society under a false name and with a dark secret. Her father was David Clarke, executed for treason. Emily had always believed him innocent and when she came of age she received what riches he'd hidden away before his arrest and a letter that told of a notebook detailing the true facts behind the plot to kill the king.
"Clearly Conrad, whose name I believe is in the book, has sent his cutthroats after me before I can expose him. I wouldn't be telling you this had I not put you all in danger already by being onboard, and that you, Nolan Ross, spoke at my father's trial."
For all the good it had done. Nolan sat down heavily on a nearby barrel, too moved by the mention of his mentor to be stunned that Emily knew him on sight. "David Clarke made an investment in my education without which I would be begging for scraps. If you are his daughter, I owe you a great debt. I never believed he was guilty. Never."
He'd watched his old friend and benefactor hang. He hadn't wanted to, but he'd felt it was his duty to witness the atrocity. Nolan blinked away tears that threatened to unman him in front of Emily and was gratified when she placed one hand on his sleeve, her eyes filled with understanding rather than shame.
"If I can help prove Clarke's innocence I shall," Nolan said, trying to keep his voice steady. "Do you have the notebook?"
Emily sighed. "No. With the letter was a map with clues to finding it, but not the exact location, to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands."
She reached inside her dress. All three men gawped. Jack nudged Declan when he caught his little brother staring and then turned away himself. Emily met Nolan's unwavering gaze with a smile as she produced the map from her cleavage.
Nolan jumped down from the barrel and Emily spread out the map on top of it. Two large figure of eights were drawn across the much creased and yellowed map, several red crosses dotted various locations on both land and sea, and a list of letters and numbers was written on one side.
"I've been searching for months." Emily pointed with one fingertip. "Here. Here. And here, just before the Initiative attacked."
Nolan read over the list again and again. "I think it's a code. Not as simple as latitude and longitude though. I need to think." He began to pace the deck, one finger drumming at his forehead.
"Does he do that a lot?" Emily asked.
Nolan ignored them. Some sort of cypher. He'd need the key. Could be a phrase, a book, a poem. Could be anything. No, not anything. Clarke needed his daughter to be able to decipher the map. It had to be something she'd recognise. Something obvious but not too obvious. Nolan knew a couple of books that Clarke had recommended to him, and there was that song, wasn't there, that he used to sing when he'd been drinking. Same song he said he sang to his daughter Amanda as a lullaby. Something about eternity?
"That sign on the map? The figures of eight?"
"Double infinity," Emily said.
Nolan nodded. He was close, he could feel it. "There was a lullaby your father used to sing to you? Something about infinity?"
Emily opened her mouth to respond but Declan pointed out to sea. "Ship!"
Emily grabbed the telescope and peered at the approaching vessel. She turned to Nolan, paler than ever. "It's the Initiative. It's coming for us."
The Amanda turned and headed for port but the Initiative was surprisingly fast and probably had a full complement of rowers down below. The larger ship gained on them.
"I'm sorry," Emily said.
Nolan glared at the Initiative, the Jolly Roger clearly visible now. "Don't be. Fate has brought us together. We'll survive this, and then we'll find your treasure, Emily."
She squeezed his hand in a very forward and familiar gesture. Nolan swallowed and forced a smile. "I wish I'd had cannon installed now."
"I did suggest it," Jack yelled over his shoulder as he clung to the ship's wheel. "You said we weren't going far out to sea. You said we didn't have anything of value on board!"
They hadn't until now. Nolan was no fighter, but he'd do his best to protect the beautiful Emily who was also Amanda, daughter of the man he'd loved more than his own father.
"Prepare to be boarded," a woman's voice called as the Initiative drew level. Slim and elegant in tight black trousers and with a bandana over her face, the pirate queen wore a tricorn hat that Nolan was instantly jealous of. Long black hair fluttered in the breeze as she held a cutlass aloft.
"We have nothing of value," Nolan shouted.
"I want the girl. Hand her over." The pirate queen gestured at Emily.
Nolan shook his head. "I will not."
A grappling hook came over the side of the Amanda, then another. The smaller ship was drawn closer to the Initiative. Two stout bearded men scrambled over, followed by a leaner figure wearing a mask, and then the captain herself.
Jack nodded to Nolan. Nolan gave a brief nod in reply. He edged closer to the tarpaulin near the cabin. Jack and Declan, hands raised in surrender, joined him. Emily, chin held high, stood at his side.
"Emily. Hand over the notebook and I might let you live," the pirate queen purred, her sword held casually in one hand.
"I don't have it," Emily said. "It's with someone I trust and you will never find it!"
The queen tipped her head. "I don't believe you."
"She's telling the truth," Nolan said, earning himself a glare from Queen Vic.
Queen Vic stepped forward, her sword pointed at Emily. Emily held her ground. "My employer wants that notebook," Queen Vic said, circling Emily.
"Your employer will be disappointed." Emily moved swiftly and one arm blocked the pirate's sword arm while the other pulled the bandana from her face. Nolan stared at the cold beauty beneath the mask and tried to rearrange his world around this new fact.
Victoria Grayson. The pirate queen was Victoria Grayson. Conrad's society wife, Lady Victoria was also Queen Vic, scourge of the seas. He'd never have believed it if he hadn't seen it for himself.
"Foolish child! Now I will have to kill all of you!" Victoria lifted her sword but Emily was already several steps out of her reach.
Jack had reacted while Nolan and the others were still stunned, pulling a sword from beneath the tarpaulin. He advanced on one of the stout pirates, driving him back before he could draw his own weapon. Declan grabbed a cutlass and went head to head with the other guard. Nolan grabbed for a weapon and found himself exchanging blows with Victoria herself.
The other man advanced on Emily and she moved to the side of the ship. Nolan couldn't get to her and could barely see what was going on, too focussed on his own fight for survival. Victoria's blade sliced open his sleeve – that was going to be costly to repair! – but not the shirt or flesh beneath. He wished he'd taken more lessons.
Jack was a much better fighter than Nolan would have given him credit for, and killed his opponent with a vicious slash across the man's throat. Nolan wondered if the resulting blood would stain the deck. Jack ran to help Declan, who was tiring under the second pirate's onslaught.
Then Emily acted, stamping on her would be captor's foot, bringing up her knee into his groin, and then taking his dagger from his boot. When she called, "Oh, Victoria!" the queen looked over and Nolan was able to take a step back and see for himself that Emily had turned the tables. She was standing behind the man who was now her captive, one hand wound into his hair, and she had the blade to his throat.
"Send your ship away."
Nolan was surprised when Victoria gestured desperately to her second of command still onboard the Initiative. "Retreat."
Jack had helped Declan render the other pirate unconscious or dead. While Declan stood guard just in case, Jack moved to the ropes tethering the Amanda and cut through them. Slowly, the larger ship began to move away.
"We can negotiate." Victoria held up one hand though the other still clutched her sword. "Let him go."
"Get off the ship," Emily said.
"I need the notebook."
"More than you need your son?" Emily jabbed at her captive's neck. A bead of blood showed against his pale skin
Daniel Grayson was onboard too? Wait, was Emily's captive Daniel? Were all the Graysons pirates? What about Charlotte Grayson? Was she a pirate in training? It was a lot to think about.
Victoria bit at her lip until it seemed she'd draw blood. Nolan raised his sword again, certain this standoff couldn't last much longer.
"Mother?" Daniel choked, held fast by Emily, whose beautiful eyes were now ice cold. She'd kill him, Nolan, thought, without hesitation. He ought to have been horrified but instead he found himself enraptured.
Victoria swallowed. "Kill him and you're dead."
Emily shrugged. "I'm dead either way." In one swift motion she drew the knife across Daniel's throat and flung him overboard.
"Daniel!" Enraged, Victoria swung her sword at the closest person to her, which happened to be Nolan. He staggered backwards and barely parried the first blow, aimed at his throat. However he missed the second thrust, aimed much lower, which found its mark.
"Nolan!" Emily's shout was piercing over the noise of the wind and the waves.
Victoria sprinted to the side of the boat and jumped over into the water. Emily dashed over to Nolan, horrified at the red stain spreading over his torso.
"Nolan," she wept. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
"It's all right." Nolan examined the sticky substance, rubbing it between his finger and thumb.
"It's not. It's not. Let me see."
"It's not even a good vintage," Nolan explained as Emily's scrabbling fingers pulled out his perforated wineskin.
She stared at him, uncomprehending, and then realisation and relief dawned. She began to laugh hysterically. She dropped the ruined bag to the floor and flung her arms around his neck.
Jack spun the wheel and the Amanda began to pull away from the Initiative. They left the larger ship behind with the cries of the crew ringing out as they sought to retrieve their captain. Nolan hoped she had drowned trying to find her son's body, and didn't care if that made him a bad person. The woman had stabbed him, after all, and was a threat to Emily besides.
Declan kept watch and all too soon lowered the telescope. "They're coming," he said, eyes wide in terror.
"We can't outrun them," Nolan said.
"We can take a lifeboat." Emily grabbed at his shoulders. "We set the Amanda on fire and escape during the distraction."
Burn his ship? Emily was a woman of extremes. Unfortunately she might have the best escape plan.
There was a bang, a whistle, and something hit the water just behind and to the right of them with a splash that sent spray over the railing.
"They won't keep missing," Emily said, just before a second cannonball landed even closer. Nolan was about to give the order to abandon ship when Jack yelled, "Hold on!"
The ship lurched and Emily clutched at Nolan to keep herself upright. Another cannonball whizzed past and then, to Nolan's amazement, the Initiative abruptly began to turn.
"They're leaving? Why are they leaving?"
Jack nodded to three ships in the distance with a huge grin. "Navy warships."
Finally their luck had turned. Nolan released Emily and sank to the deck in relief. "I'm doubling your wages," he said, and Declan whooped in joy.
Nolan had never been so glad to back on dry land. Jack and Declan stayed with the ship to try and clean it up while Emily took Nolan by the hand and dragged him off to meet with a customs officer named Aiden Mathis.
"Emily! Thank God!" Aiden said, briefly hugging Emily and sending an expected jolt of jealousy through Nolan. "Someone reported a ship matching the description of the Revenge had been destroyed. I thought you were dead."
Emily shook her head. Aiden glanced at Nolan. "What happened to you?"
Nolan brushed at the dried wine. "Little dining accident."
Emily briefly explained what had happened. "I don't know how deep I cut him, and with the cold water slowing the bleeding, Daniel could still be alive."
"And Victoria's a hard woman to kill," Aiden agreed. At Nolan's surprised look, he said, "I didn't know she was Queen Vic, but I've suspected her and Conrad of being behind my sister's kidnapping for many years. I've tried to kill Victoria Grayson twice and a lot of people have tried to take down Queen Vic. Until I see her lifeless body with my own eyes I can't accept that she's dead."
Emily touched Nolan's sleeve in a possessive way that made him feel proud. "Nolan has some ideas about deciphering the code on the map."
Aiden beamed at him. "Good. Sooner we find the notebook, sooner we take the Graysons down." He frowned. "You all right, captain?"
Nolan nodded, but his legs were shaking. What he really wanted was a bath and some rum and some food and some rum and a lie down and then some more rum. He wasn't sure if he was having trouble standing up on the solid ground because of his time at sea or if the terror of the day was catching up with him.
He tried for a witty remark but he found he couldn't speak. He couldn't even keep his eyes open and he pitched forward onto the floor of Aiden's office. His last thought was that it was most unbecoming.
When he opened his eyes again it was dark. At least the room wasn't spinning or bobbing up and down. The air was chilly against his bare chest and he had no idea where he was.
"You're awake." Emily was sitting on a chair by a cheap dresser, her blonde hair like warm honey in the candlelight. She smiled with relief.
"Where are we?"
"Aiden's lodgings. It was closer than my house and we didn't want to explain things to your servants."
She thought he had servants. Oh, Lady Emily, so far removed from his social circle. Yet she was also Amanda Clarke and his peer.
Emily moved to sit alongside him on the narrow bed. "You didn't have to be so brave."
Brave? He'd almost wept in front her, been bested by a pirate, and fainted on the docks. Nolan was hard pushed to find anything heroic in that. He shifted position and winced. His fingers went to his chest and found a rough bandage at his ribs.
"You were bleeding, which we only found when we washed off the wine. Not too deep," she assured him. "It probably won't even scar."
"Oh." If it hadn't been for the wineskin taking the brunt of the sword thrust he'd likely be dead. Nolan felt fresh shock wash over him. To distract himself he said, "I've heard ladies approve of scars."
Emily tipped her head, one diamond earring glinting. "I was there to see your heroism. I don't need to see a scar to remember it. When Jack came to check on you he told me you'd only had three lessons."
"And one of those was which way to hold the blade," Nolan quipped.
It was a poor joke but Emily laughed which made him feel much better. She ran gentle fingers down his exposed chest, making his breath catch in his throat, though not with pain. It was scandalous for her to even be here with him like this, but he realised that Emily didn't care while he'd never been one to readily accept society's restrictions.
"I've never seen a woman fight like that before," he said. "Of course I try to stay away from trouble." Emily's face fell. He grabbed at her hand. "That's going to change, I see. I will keep my promise to help you. I, and the Amanda, are at your disposal."
He'd have given anything to see the smile that lit up her face. Offering his ship was a small price to pay. "Can I ask why she's called that?" Emily asked.
Nolan shrugged. "It seemed appropriate. Jack named her after some girl he was sweet on years ago, and I liked the idea that it was Clarke's daughter's name."
She nodded and changed the subject, gesturing to the door where some rather fetching garments hung. "Aiden got you some clothes to travel home in tomorrow. I gave him very specific instructions. I hope they're to your liking."
Nolan smiled, noticing that the colours would complement Emily's gown nicely. "Very much."
"Are you hungry? You should eat if you can, and drink some sweet tea."
He considered it for a moment. "I think I can manage to eat." It remained to be seen if he could keep it down, but that was a problem for later.
"All right. Then you can get some more rest."
"After we talk about the code."
Emily took his hand in hers. "We can talk about the code tomorrow. I've been searching for months. One more night won't hurt. My clever captain needs his brain in full working order."
Nolan squeezed at her hand. "Tomorrow, then."
Emily's thumb rubbed across the back of his hand, drawing the symbol of double infinity as if marking him as hers. Which he was, he thought. He was confident that they would find the treasured notebook and expose the Graysons, finally clearing David Clarke's name. And they would do it together.