1 Chapter 1

Emma didn't have many options. As an orphan, there was no one in her life to look out for her. She had to do it herself. For years, she'd subsisted as an ordinary street rat, stealing what she could to scrape by. She had been more than lucky to find herself employed at the tavern some months back. The owner, Robin, had unexpectedly taken pity on her when he'd caught her attempting to steal scraps of bread from his kitchen.

Her role as a serving wench and cleaning girl was not particularly enjoyable, but she had been given comfortable chambers and regular meals in exchange for her labor. She even earned small wages as well. It really seemed to be the best life that she could hope for. Still, she had always had a stubborn, rebellious streak inside her, and she refused to believe that these meager accommodations were all she would ever have. That was what persuaded her to continue to pick a pocket from time to time, despite Robin's unceasing hospitality. Having once lived that life himself, he even looked the other way when she did it, though he didn't condone it. As long as she was subtle, and only took carefully from those who could spare it, he would not put her out.

Everything changed after that night she robbed the huntsman. How was Emma supposed to know that the standoffish man was carrying property of the Evil Queen Regina? He didn't look well-groomed enough to be one of her personal servants, with his long curly hair and scruffy beard. All she knew was that his fur cloak over expertly crafted armor suggested he wouldn't miss the purse he carried. It wasn't until he had come back seeking what he'd lost that she'd found out that the purse was not his to begin with.

Robin had covered for her, thankfully, but he called her into the kitchen that night during a slow moment.

"I can't keep you anymore, Emma." He sighed, wiping his hands with a rag. "I've let you get away with it for this long, but you stole from the queen. I can't keep taking the risk. There's a reason I straightened out my life."

That reason was his son, his family. His wife had passed away not long after the child's birth, and Robin was all that the boy had. Emma swallowed hard. She knew all too well what the world was like without family, and she would not put theirs in jeopardy. Robin had been so generous with her, she would not beg him for another chance.

Instead, she nodded curtly. "I understand."

"I'll pay you for your shift tonight to put some coin in your pocket, but I'll need you gone by the morrow."

Tears of frustration burned behind her eyes, but she would not shed them. "I'll be gone by first light." She had no inkling of where she might go, but she would not fight him on this. He was being fair, so for once, she would not argue. Besides, she had always landed on her feet before, she could do it again. She didn't know how yet, but it would happen. She would figure it out.

Sure enough, her opportunity came swaggering through the door later that night.

----------

It was like any tavern in any port. They had traded goods for gold and restocked the ship. Now it was time to let the ale flow freely and allow his men to find the pleasures they lacked at sea. The captain seated himself at one of the back tables with a few of his crew, making sure to take a seat where he could see the door. He called out an order to the man behind the bar as his first mate slammed a pair of dice down on the table.

"Care to lose your share of the take, Captain?" Jack Connors asked with a cocky grin.

They made quite the sight, he knew. Though the tavern was obviously frequented by sailors, none of the groups in the crowd were quite so boisterous as his. Crowds parted for them in the streets, warily eying the hook at the end of his left arm. Some had heard of his reputation, he was sure, but many could sense without prior warning the danger that radiated off of him. He could scare a man off with a smile.

He flashed his teeth at his crewman now. "I think I'd rather take some of yours, mate." He scooped the dice up in his long, ringed fingers, and shook them in his palm. He casually dropped them back to the worn, wooden table, raising an eyebrow at Connors when winning numbers showed. The man cursed under his breath as he retrieved a coin from his person and threw it down beside the dice.

"One of these days, Captain, your luck is going to fail you."

"Perhaps, but that day is clearly not today."

As he said it, his gaze darted over the pretty young thing that was approaching their table, carrying their drinks on a tray. She was dressed simply, in a brown linen skirt with a copper-toned bodice and flowing white sleeves, but somehow that made her shine all the brighter. No cosmetics adorned her porcelain face, and her sunlight hair was tied back haphazardly with two braids forming a halo around her crown.

"Have a seat, love." He gestured toward his knee with his hook as she unloaded her tray. "Join us in a toast."

She didn't sit, but she did lean forward flirtatiously as she asked him "What are we toasting?"

He licked his lips absentmindedly as he took a moment to appreciate the sight of the soft rounds of her chest. He grabbed the rum glass in front of Connors and handed it over to her. He glanced over at his first mate's face, watching him struggle not to react. "To the spoils of victory!" He proclaimed loudly enough for the entire tavern to hear him. A cheer went up from his men while others around them turned in their seats to see the commotion.

The girl raised the glass that was now hers before tipping it back and pouring the amber liquid down her throat. The captain admired the long lines of her neck before downing his own drink. She winked a green eye at him before she sauntered off without another word.

Most women would not have walked away from a man like him, and he found himself unused to her response. A lesser man would have chased after her. Captain Hook was no such man. He would let her come back to him.

She appeared each time they ordered another round. She smiled sweetly and batted her lashes at him, but ignored his invitations to join them. Still, she didn't seem to mind when he laid his charms on her. It certainly didn't look like she was having trouble keeping up with the orders in the crowded tavern. She practically danced between the tables, moving gracefully on light feet.

When he ducked away to use the tavern's facilities, he found her feet were silent as well. She made only the slightest sound, but it was enough. Instinct took over as he heard someone sneaking behind him, and he spun, seizing her wrist and pinning it to the wall behind her.

"It's you," he realized, loosening his grip, but not releasing her.

"Emma." She told him, completely unfazed.

"Emma, then. I take it you wanted to see me privately, or we would be having this exchange at my table." He leaned in closer, and saw as her lips parted. "I wonder why?"

She cleared her throat. "The men with you, they call you 'Captain.'"

"Aye. Captain Hook, at your service. What of it?"

"You have a ship?"

"As a good captain should. The Jolly Roger, she's called." He let her arm drop, taking a step backward. "Where's this going, lass?"

"Take me with you." She didn't blink. The girl actually meant it.

"It's not a passenger vessel." He started to turn, to head back toward his table, but she darted in front of him, blocking his path.

"I can pay you," she blurted out. "Please. I have to get out of here."

That gave him pause. Payment was always tempting, but it didn't seem a girl like her could have that much coin to her name, at least not enough to board his ship without him knowing more. "Bad luck to have a woman on board." Or at least it had been, when he had ignored the superstition in the past. He wasn't going to make that mistake again. As much as he enjoyed making himself of use to a damsel in distress, it wasn't worth the risk.

He lowered his voice as he stepped toward her again. "Have you heard of me or my ship, love? Do you know which flag we sail under? We fly the crimson flag. Do you know what that means?"

She nodded. "Pirates."

"Pirates who give no quarter," he corrected. "My ship is no place for a girl like you."

"You don't know what I'm like."

"I know you think you've got mettle. I'm sure you've seen your share of brawls here in this tavern, or maybe in the streets." He closed the last of the distance between them to whisper in her ear. "But have you ever watched a man die, love? Have you ever seen the light go out in a pair of eyes as blood drips from a body in front of you?"

Her breath caught audibly in her throat, and she didn't answer.

"I thought not," he breathed before pushing past her.

"If I were a boy, would you take me?" She called after him.

"Aye," he shot back over his shoulder. "I'd put you to work. I could use a new cabin boy."

Next chapter