I Kissed an Earl(5)

By: Julie Anne Long



The bounty was entirely dependent upon delivering the pirate into justice. It was a diabolical proposition. It was a thing of beauty, really: practical, capricious, and cruel. Flint greatly admired it.

And Flint rejected it.

Not since he was a lad of ten years old, when Captain Moreheart of The Steadfast had given an abandoned boy a home, a purpose, and the knowledge he’d needed to become the man he was today, had he danced to anyone’s tune but his own. He didn’t intend to start now, even if the King of England was the one playing the hornpipe. Even if, in one fell swoop, it held the potential to give him everything he wanted.

Of course, if he failed, it could destroy him.

The King wheedled. Flint demurred. The King cajoled. Flint demurred. The King, astonished, resorted to issuing subtle threats. Flint, amused and unafraid, demurred. When he heard the King had actually thrown a wee tantrum, he began to thoroughly enjoy the game.

And then Le Chat sank The Steadfast.

The news reached Flint in evening while he sat with his crew in a pub in Le Havre. He’d gone still, his hand tightly curled around a pint of ale, roars of bawdy laughter eddying around him. He was stunned to realize the news felt like taking a shot to the gut. Steel-spined Captain Moreheart, going gray and gouty but still shrewd, ferociously opinionated, dignified…forced at swordpoint into a launch by that damned pirate and floated with his men to an almost certain death on a rough sea.

While behind him the pirate blew The Steadfast to smithereens with cannon fire. This was why he agreed to become the Earl of Ardmay.

And now those great tracts of English lands, a century-old estate included, dangled like both a carrot before a donkey and like a Sword of Damocles.

A half hour ago the press of the ballroom and his mission and the memory of Moreheart sent Flint strolling restlessly to the doors on the terrace to open them an inch. Outside the wind was howling like a cornered, wounded animal and smelled of coal-sullied London and sea. His schooner The Fortuna was anchored out there. Calmer winds would likely prevail tomorrow, and they would sail as early as possible with his small but loyal—and gleefully violent when necessary—crew.

Well, loyal save one. He might be an earl now, but the duties of a captain were myriad, mundane, and often maddening.

“Did you manage to find a replacement for Rathskill in between, shall we say, bouts of ecstasy at The Velvet Glove?” Rathskill, the boob of a cook’s mate needed to go before Hercules, the cook, finally lost all patience and sent him through the meat grinder. Rathskill was lazy, he was sloppy, and they’d all stared in morbid fascination at the biscuit crumbs clinging to his lips while he’d lied about stealing rations with his hand over his heart. He’d grossly exaggerated his experience in a ship’s mess, making fools of both Flint and Lavay. Neither of them countenanced being made to feel a fool. Ever.

Lavay sighed. “I spoke to a few men at the docks but naught were suitable. Perhaps we’ll have better luck in Le Havre. We can sail at least that far without a cook’s mate.”

“Hercules will be…unhappy.”

Unhappy seemed too pale a word for what Hercules would be. Their cook was Greek, diminutive, and he expressed displeasure…operatically. All of his emotions were operatic.

“Speaking of unhappy, Flint, your scowl could wilt flowers at fifty paces. This is a ballroom, and do recall it’s a title you’ve been handed, for God’s sake, not a Turkish prison sentence. God knows I have done my best to impart my gentlemanly ways to you—”

Flint snorted.

“—but you really ought to try smiling. One of those women in fact described you as a

‘savage.’”

Savage. Flint went still. Even after all these years, the word still touched between his shoulder blades like the cold point of a rapier.

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