Ashley strolled past the ancient tall case clock outside the supper room in Lord Rundale's large town house as nonchalantly as possible. One of Rundale's footmen arched a brow at this, her fourteenth pass, and Ashley raised her brows back. Now, if only she felt as confident on the inside.
The clock ticked incessantly, loudly reminding her of each passing second. Without looking she knew the hour was ten past eleven, a full forty minutes after Lord Nicholas Martingale had told her he would meet her. She should pretend she didn't care. She should return to the ballroom and dance with one of the gentlemen who offered to partner her.
But she wanted to be in the garden with Nick's hot mouth on her flesh and his skilled hands teasing their way under her skirt.
Ashley fanned herself.
She must compose herself.
She paused, listening to the muted strains of the orchestra playing a quadrille in the ballroom. Men and women laughed, the sound mingled like the citrus, rose, and lavender of the guests' purchased scents. The noise, the frenzy, the energy of a ball—of any social event—never failed to excite her. For hours afterward, she would feel revitalized.
But lately, something else—rather someone else—had revitalized her far more. Just thinking about Nick was enough to make her heart pound and her hands shake. For the past two months, she'd feared that she was falling in love with him. But after last night, after all the wonderfully sinful things he had done to her, she knew she was in love with him.
Not that she was going to tell the man. She was no foolish ninny, no novice to the game of courtship. Nick might be her first lover, but she had five brothers, and she understood the intricacies of the male mind—what few intricacies there were, at any rate. She'd also had more than her share of suitors, and the one thing she'd learned from that concentrated male attention was men liked to pursue. Men liked to stalk and hunt and capture.
She'd hold her affection for Nick close, wait to reveal it until she was certain of his sentiments.
Ashley marched before the inexhaustible clock again—her fifteenth pass—and frowned at the hands. Where was he?
Ashley stiffened. The insidious thought crept into her mind and dug its tentacles in deep. In defense, she smoothed her dress carefully over her legs.
He couldn't have seen. He couldn't have.
Annoyed at her foolishness, she blew out her breath as the clock chimed the quarter hour. She couldn't afford to be absent from the ball any longer. A sob rose in her throat, but she pushed it down and notched her chin up. Turning swiftly, she marched right into Lord Geoffrey. The third son of a duke and one of Nick's good friends, Lord Geoffrey had obviously left the ballroom and come to the narrow hallway in search of her.
He caught her arm now and smiled down at her. Indicating the Rundale's dining room, where the supper would soon be served, he said, "Eager to sample the offerings from Lord Rundale's kitchens, Miss Brittany?" His smile and tone were flirtatious, and normally Ashley, a consummate flirt herself, would have answered with her own teasing phrase. But just now she didn't feel like flirting. She felt ugly and unwanted.
Damn Lord Nicholas!
She smiled tightly. "Good evening, Lord Geoffrey. Actually, I'm on my way back to the ballroom."
"I'd be happy to escort you, but I have a feeling you might want to tarry a moment longer." He extracted a small slip of vellum from his cuff and held it out. Ashley grasped it, tucking it in her skirt before anyone might see. Her heart raced and her thoughts were a jumble. Somehow she managed to smile and murmur some words of thanks. Leaning close, Lord Geoffrey whispered, "Save me a dance."
She nodded, watching with barely disguised impatience as he sauntered away. As soon as he was out of sight, Ashley dove into a nook at the end of the corridor occupied by a half-clothed statue of a Roman goddess. She ducked behind the goddess and, ignoring the footman's pursed lips, flicked open the note and read the words scrawled in Nick's elegant hand.
Her gaze jumped to the clock. It was now quarter past. Nick wasn't late. She was!
Dash it all and dash Lord Geoffrey in particular.
She turned and raced toward the library, slippers shushing on the marble floors as she crossed the vestibule, where a stray guest or two arrived or departed. "May I help you, miss?" the butler called after her, but Ashley ignored him. Instead, she lifted her ivory and blue skirts and ran the rest of the way, stopping outside the library door to catch her breath.
She put a hand to her heart, took three deep breaths, and patted her hair back into place. Then, with a smile pasted on her lips, she opened the door and practically tumbled inside.
"Nick?" she whispered, her voice tinged with exhilaration.
But instead of an answer in his deep baritone, another sound entirely greeted her. The woman's moan was carnal and bespoke supreme pleasure.
Ashley knew the sound well. She had made it herself just last night.
"Oh!" She put her hands to her lips and began to back up. Her face felt hot, and she prayed she had not interrupted anyone she knew. "I'm so terribly s—"
"Ashley." The voice was calm, unperturbed.
The use of her given name wasn't what stopped her. It was the way the man ran the s and the h of her name together that was familiar and sensual. She could picture his lips moving slowly, languorously over those consonants.
Ashley froze, but her eyes moved without permission. They fastened on the couch in the corner of the room, on the two forms sprawled there. The man's cravat was loose and his black hair tousled. The woman's dress was falling off her shoulder, the curve of one white breast exposed.
Ashley couldn't breathe. The air in her lungs burned hot and dry. "No," she wheezed. She stumbled back, shaking her head, willing the sight of the lovers to vanish.
She blinked, but Nick was still holding another woman in his arms; his face was still slightly flushed from desire for another. His cerulean blue eyes met hers, and their gazes held. His was expectant. Unrepentant.
"You bastard," she spat.
"You're going to thank me for this one day," he said.
Ashley shook her head and fumbled behind her for the door. While her hands groped, her mind easily grasped the situation. Nick had wanted her to see this. He wanted to hurt her.
She managed to close her fingers over the knob and yank it open. "You bastard!"
She flew out the door, the sobs already threatening to rise up and spill over. Instead of giving into tears, she slammed the door shut as hard as she could. The house seemed to shake around her.
Small mewling gasps escaped her throat, and she covered her mouth to silence them.
No. She would not cry. She would make him cry.
She stumbled numbly forward, the light from the chandelier in the vestibule too bright and revealing. Thank God she was alone for the moment. The butler must see her, but his expression was blind and his gaze situated somewhere a few feet above her head.
The tinkle of familiar feminine voices echoed in the vestibule, and Ashley had enough wits about her to dive behind a thick potted plant. She could not allow her cousin and friends to see her like this. They would know instantly that something was wrong. And no matter what else she did to revenge the wrong Nick Martingale had done her—and she would revenge it—she would never tell anyone how he'd shamed her. How he'd used her. How she'd allowed it.
The three girls stopped in front of the clock, and Ashley slouched down as much as she could in her low-cut crepe and satin ball gown.
"Where could she have gone?" Catie was saying. "I'm starting to worry."
"Oh, you know Ashley," Josie said with a flip of her hand. "She's probably wriggled herself into some delicious trouble. She'll tell us all about it tomorrow."
Maddie looked concerned. "Trouble? Should we have a word with Lady Rundale?"
Ashley bit back a low sob. She tasted blood on her lip and didn't care. Wise Catie, impetuous Josie, and caring Maddie—what would she do without them? The four girls had always shared everything, but Ashley hadn't shared her romance with Lord Nicholas Martingale. She'd planned to, but she'd been afraid they would see right through her, see how deep her feelings for him ran.
And she'd vowed with the other members of the Spinster's Club never to fall in love or marry. Ashley could still remember the night the four of them had made their solemn pact. She'd been eight, and the other girls much the same age.
The promise had been Catie's idea.
"I propose that we make a pledge," Catie had said, her hazel eyes shining. "We should promise never to marry."
Ashley had blinked and then her heart had done a somersault. Never marry! What an exciting idea!
When she'd been seven, after reading a story about the travels of a man named Gulliver, Ashley had asked her mother why girls never went on exciting adventures like Gulliver. Her mother had sighed and said that when Ashley had a husband and six children to look after, she would be too tired to think about adventures.
The solution had seemed clear to Ashley. Do not marry. Then nothing could interfere with all the wonderful adventures just waiting to be experienced.
Catie had raised her hand. "I, Catherine Anne Fullbright, swear never, ever, ever to marry so long as I live. Now your turn Maddie."
Ashley half-expected Maddie, prim and proper even then, to balk. But she said, "I, Madeleine Richael Fullbright, swear never, ever to marry so long as I live. Now your turn, Josie."
Josie was practically jumping with eagerness. "I, Josephine Linet Hale, swear never, ever, ever, to ever marry so long as I live." She jumped up and put a hand on her heart. "I promise to be a pirate!"
Ashley quickly raised her own hand. If Josie was allowed to go on about pirates it would be nigh impossible to make her stop. "I, Ashley Gweneira Brittany, swear not to marry for as long as I live. But you know what this means, don't you?" She didn't wait for an answer. "We're going to be spinsters."
"It won't be bad to be unmarried if we're all unmarried," Josie said. "Nothing is bad as long as you're not in it alone."
"So we'll make it fun," Catie said. "We'll be the Spinster's Club!"
Josie cheered. "That's right! We'll stick together. No men or mean girls allowed."
At the time the promise had seemed so easy, so simple. She'd held onto it over the years, especially after the...well, when she'd realized no man would want to marry her.
She'd thought Nick Martingale was different.
Foolish, stupid girl, she chided herself. Why had she ever trusted Nick? Why had she ever believed that a man could love her after he had seen how truly ugly she was?
Catie, Josie, and Maddie moved back toward the ballroom, and Ashley took a deep breath. Well, she wasn't going to make that mistake again. She wasn't ever going to open herself up to being hurt like this again.
In fact, she was going to hurt him. One way or another, she was going to make Lord Nicholas Martingale sorry.
Eight months later, Gretna Green, Scotland 1811
Nicholas Richard Martingale, second son of the late Marquess of Blackthorne, was sorry. He was sorry he'd followed his brother to Gretna Green. He was sorry he'd bowed to Jack's—devil take him—wishes and agreed to wed Lady Madeleine. And he was especially sorry he hadn't married Lady Madeleine because the goddamn anvil priest had been so drunk he'd made a muddle of the ceremony. How did a priest manage to marry the wrong couples?
Nick bent over the priest's unconscious form. He pried the marriage certificate out of his hand and read his death sentence.
This is to certify to all it may concern that Nicholas Martingale...
Nick grit his teeth and skimmed down.
...and Ashley Brittany...
Nick closed his eyes momentarily.
...being now both here and present, and having declared to me that they are single persons, have now been married after the manner of the Laws of Scotland...
"Is it still true?" Ashley asked, coming up behind him. The light from the low fire in the hearth made her wheat blond hair look like spun gold falling in waves down her back. Her sea green eyes gazed at him, and, as always, he felt his chest tighten. She was so beautiful. So beautiful it hurt to look at her.
He looked away. "Congratulations, sweetheart, you're still married to me."
She scowled at him and ripped the certificate from his hand, perusing it for herself. He studied her as she read. Her dark green undergown with the gauzy overlay had undoubtedly been the height of fashion when she donned it a few days ago. Now the gauze was ripped, the green material stained, and the fichu tucked at her bosom to preserve modesty was all askew. At one point during their travels she must have had to dress herself and been unable to fasten all of the hooks and eyes in the back because the gown was too loose and one shoulder kept sliding down. "How did this happen?" she moaned.
"Well, you stood there, and I stood here—"
"No, no, no!" She covered her face with her hands. "I wasn't supposed to marry anyone. I was Maddie's chaperone."
"You? A chaperone?"
She fisted her hands on her hips, wrinkling the certificate in the process. "Well, someone had to chaperone her. She was going to elope with that Mr.—I don't even remember his name. The dog-breeder. I couldn't allow her to run off with him alone. If you and your brother hadn't waylaid the carriage, I would have convinced her the entire elopement was folly."
"We did not waylay your carriage. We merely accompanied you on your jaunt to Gretna Green."
"Because of you, the Duke of Bleven's men shot at us! We were almost killed!"
That much was true. He should have never insulted the duke, but he couldn't regret saving the poor housemaid the bastard was intent on raping.
He pointed a finger at her. "Don't forget your father and Lord Castleigh shot at us as well. That's how we lost the dog-breeder."
She blew out a breath. "Fathers are supposed to shoot at men eloping with their daughters."
"I didn't want to elope with you or with Lady Madeleine!" Nick protested. "I was trying to save her reputation!"
She rolled her eyes. "As though you are some sort of hero. If you were a hero, you would have at least married the right woman!"
Nick gaped at her, too angry to even argue. Finally, he sputtered, "The priest was drunk. That's not my fault!"
"Oh, stubble it." She balled the marriage certificate and threw it at his chest. "Stop talking for once and do something. Fix this." She gestured toward the priest, snoring loudly on the floor of the blacksmith's shop.
Nick clenched his fists to keep from throttling her. "And what exactly do you want me to do?"
"Wake him up. Make him do the ceremony over."
Nick peered closely at the unconscious priest. "This one's not going to wake for some time." He pried the jug of brandy from the man's plump hand and put it to his mouth. Only a trickle of the sweet liquor flowed over Nick's tongue. Would nothing go his way? "He's out for the night."
Ashley frowned, his pronouncement quite obviously not what she wanted to hear. He didn't particularly give a damn right now. He didn't want to be married to her any more than she wanted him. In fact, he'd done everything in his power to avoid this fate.
And here he was anyway.
Nick didn't care for Lady Madeleine one way or the other, but he would have much preferred being leg-shackled to her than Ashley Brittany—a woman who made his head spin every time he looked at her. A woman who had tried her damnedest to see him killed by sending her bloodthirsty eldest brother after him. She hadn't counted on Nick besting Thomas Brittany and sending the lad back with a bloody nose and a broken finger. She was no saint. He would do well to remember that—and remind her as often as possible.
"Well, at least try to wake him," Ashley demanded, pointing at the priest.
Nick stepped back and opened his arms wide. "You want to try, you're welcome to it, sweetheart. I'm going to see if my brother and Lady Madeleine have come up with anything better."
"Fine. And stop calling me sweetheart."
"You prefer another sobriquet? Because I can think of a few that fit you far better than sweetheart."
"And I can think of several choice names for you. Starting with—"
He put a finger over her lips silencing her. "Save them for later." He winked. "When we're alone."
He turned and strolled out the back door, leaving her to call a sampling of her favorite epithets after him.
He smiled and closed the door.
She was still feisty as hell. At least that hadn't changed.
He surveyed the moonlit courtyard where he'd left his brother and Lady Madeleine. After they'd dispatched Lord Castleigh's footmen, Jack had suggested they split up to make it more difficult for Ashley's father, should he still be in pursuit, to catch them. Nick had argued and gone back to attempt to rouse the priest. Jack and Lady Madeleine would just have to wait for the priest to wake and repeat the ceremony—marrying the correct couples this time—and the four of them might as well all wait together. "Our noble priest is half-seas over," he announced to the courtyard. "He won't—" Nick paused.
The courtyard was empty.
Jack and Lady Madeleine were gone.
Nick leaned back against the wall of the blacksmith's shop and wished he had a cheroot. Better yet, he wished he had a jug of rum. Maybe if he was as drunk as the priest he'd understand how all of this had happened. At the very least, he wouldn't care that his brother and Lady Madeleine were gone and Nick was now irrevocably wed to Ashley, The Hellion, Brittany.
He deserved his fate, of course. He was the one who'd insulted Bleven. He was the one who'd pulled Jack—who'd been completely innocent of any wrongdoing—into the muddle, and Nick was the one who reveled in the adventure of escaping Bleven and his small army of thugs. Nick loved a challenge, always had. Well, he had one now. But Ashley Brittany was more than a challenge. She was a trial by fire, a test of his patience and his sanity.
If they made it through even one day without killing each other, he would count their marriage a success.
How could he be married? What the hell was he going to do with a wife?
No, not just any wife. What the bloody hell was he going to do with Ashley Brittany? She'd cared for him once, but he'd made damn sure he'd annihilated that feeling.
Regret slammed into him like a hammer. His insides wanted to shatter, but he fought the feeling. He didn't have the luxury of regret. He'd done what he had to do, done what was best for Ashley.
Nick stared at the dark sky and shook his head. Sometimes he wondered if somebody up there didn't have it in for him. Whoever was in charge of the universe had one cruel sense of humor.
A piercing shriek rent the quiet night, and Nick jumped. His hand went to his belt, but he'd forgotten he wasn't wearing his cutlass.
He heard the scream again, and this time he placed it. Inside the blacksmith's shop.
He tore the door open and flew into the room with the only weapon he had—his fists. Immediately, he knew that wouldn't be enough. Four large men stood in the center of the shop facing Ashley, who waved a poker at them. All four were smiling, and all four were dressed alike: colorful bandanas or plumed hats on their heads, hoop earrings glinting in their ears, and fearsome pistols and cutlasses gleaming at their waists.
Nick shook his head. He should have known.
"Nick!" Ashley screamed. "We're under attack!" She waved the poker menacingly at the big brute in the middle. He had mahogany skin, a head full of long black braids, and when he sneered at her, she could see that one of his front teeth was gold. He seemed to be the leader.
One of the leader's companions stepped forward. This one was fair with red hair and freckles, and Ashley swung the poker to ward him off. "Stay away!"
She darted the poker back and forth, trying to fend off both men.
She glanced in Nick's direction, hoping he had devised a better way to defend them than the woefully inadequate fire poker she held.
But Nick looked completely unconcerned. He was standing with one shoulder braced against the wall, arms crossed over his broad chest, and a dubious smile on his lips.
"Nick!" She seethed his name. "Don't just stand there. We're being attacked by"—she glanced at the men—"highwaymen."
"Pirates," Nick drawled. "Well, privateers, actually."
"Pirates?" She frowned, unwilling to believe it.
A tall whale-sized man who looked as though he could lift a cannon with one hand stepped closer. He grinned, showing several gaps where teeth should have been. "Argh."
Ashley gasped and brandished her poker. "No, these can't be pirates, they—" She took in the men's appearance once again and swallowed.
"Hello, Cap'n," the leader with the gold tooth said in a voice rife with the lilt of the Caribbean. "Might we have a word alone?" He nodded at Ashley.
Ashley swung the poker back at him, but he only scowled at her attempts to cow him.
Not a good sign.
She'd seen drawings of pirates in books and the periodicals, and these men looked to have taken their fashion advice straight from those illustrations.
But which one was their captain? Gold tooth? Perhaps if she tried to reason with him...
"Keeping busy, Captain?" the red-haired man asked.
"I haven't been exactly sitting around reading poetry," Nick said, and the men—all except Gold Tooth—laughed.
Ashley gaped at her new husband. Was he actually joking with these cutthroats? And why did he keep leaning against that wall instead of doing something to help her? Lord, was she going to have to defeat four pirates all by herself?
Knowing Nick Martingale, she probably was.
"Gentleman!" If she was going to save them, best begin now. She waved the poker at the men again to get their attention. "That's enough talking. I want you four to listen and listen carefully, damn it!" She supposed she was going to have to make good on that promise to stop swearing next week.
"Look at the little lass," a short blond man said. "Acting like she's the cap'n."
Ashley banged the poker on the floor and had the satisfaction of seeing three of the four pirates jump at the sound. Gold Tooth was the only one who seemed unfazed.
"I said no talking!" she ordered in a stern voice. "I don't know what you had in mind when you walked in here, but you're going to have to change those plans." She jabbed the poker at them to punctuate her words. "You're going to turn around, open that door, and walk right back out."
Gold Tooth crossed his arms over a chest as thick as a tree trunk. "And if we doan?"
Ashley nodded. Right. Good question.
What would happen if they didn't comply?
Lord. She'd have them shaking in their boots with that threat.
She decided to use an old trick her father liked to employ with her five brothers. She gave the men a menacing look. "If you don't leave right this instant, you're going to be very, very sorry."
The men broke into fits of laughter. "Oh, we'll be sorry, will we?" the redhead managed between chuckles. "I'd like to see that."
Ashley frowned. This wasn't the response her father usually got from her brothers. Had her look not been frightening enough? And now Gold Tooth was moving closer. That was definitely not a good sign. She glanced over her shoulder, sending one last look of appeal to Nick. But he was frowning at the pirates and ignoring her.
If he wasn't going to help her, the least he could do was to run for aid from one of the local villagers.
If nothing else, she knew the man was good at running away.
"Come on," Gold Tooth said, moving closer still. "Give me the poker, lass. I doan have time for this." He swiped a large hand at her, and Ashley squealed and stumbled back. The priest was still lying on the floor, and she stepped on his arm, losing her balance and her grip on the poker. The metal rod clanged on the wooden flooring, and Ashley swayed backward.
The hearth was behind her, and she was acutely aware of the crack of the logs in the fire. The thought of falling near to that fire, of seeing its angry orange flames reach out hungrily for her, sent her into a panic. Anything but the fire. She pinwheeled her arms wildly, her hands grasping desperately to catch hold of something. But her fingers closed on air, and she went back and back, the fire rising up...
In one quick motion, Nick stepped forward, reached out, and caught her arm. He hauled her securely against him, and she didn't fight. Instead, her gaze landed hard and fast on the hearth, and she was embarrassed to note that it was much farther back than she had imagined. She would not have fallen near it after all.
Nick's body was large and solid, and without a sense of danger from the fire, she couldn't help but notice the tingle she felt where his hands touched her and his familiar scent of musk and man. Both sensations had the predictable effect of making heat rush into her belly. And that, of course, had the predictable effect of making her angry.
Traitorous body! Why did it have to keep reminding her that, despite everything, she still wanted him? Tamping her desire down, Ashley struggled free of his embrace and reached for the poker. One of the pirates—the short blond one who'd been standing in the back—grasped it first.
"Oh, no, missy. I think we'd better keep a hold o' this."
The redhead was still laughing at her. "Toss the lass here, Captain," he said. "I want to see how very, very sorry I'll be."
"That's enough," Nick said.
Ashley blew out a breath and tried not to roll her eyes. That was his big defense? He thought that if he told these bloodthirsty pirates enough they'd actually listen...
Wait a moment.
Did the four men look contrite?
The redhead shrugged sheepishly. "We don't mean nothing by it, Captain."
"We're just having ourselves a bit o' fun," the blond said.
"Argh." That from the whale of a man.
"You're scaring her," Nick answered.
Ashley stiffened indignantly. "I am not scared!"
Well, not very scared. But she'd rather face a roaring fire than show any fear to these men. She was no coward.
The redhead held up both his hands. "Sorry for frightening you, lass. We got carried away. Right boys?"
The other pirates nodded earnestly.
Ashley shook her head. "B-but I'm not frightened." She crossed her arms over her chest. "I could have beaten you."
Beside her, Nick snorted. "Quit while you're ahead."
Angry, she rounded on him. "And you!" She pointed her finger at him. "You better explain what's going on. Why are these men listening to you? Are you"—her eyes widened as the possibilities occurred to her—"are you in league with these pirates?"
Instead of answering, he glanced at the so-called pirates, and Ashley knew right then that her presumption was true. Oh, no. She'd known Nick had a reputation for finding himself in all sorts of trouble. She'd even heard his brother jokingly call him Robin Hood. She hadn't thought anything of the sobriquet before, but seeing these pirates made her wonder. Had Nick's foolish escapades escalated beyond an adventurous hobby?
"Who are they, Robin Hood?" she spat, gesturing to the other men. "Your band of merry men?"
Nick shrugged. "You might say that. They're my crew."
"Your crew?" Ashley looked at Nick then back at the men. What would the second son of a marquess need with a crew? "What crew?"
Gold Tooth doffed his black hat and bowed. "Crew of the Robin Hood. Best privateer ship in the Atlantic. Cap'n, I need to speak with you."
Ashley stared at him. "The Robin Hood?" She swallowed as the air in the room seemed to evaporate. That name was familiar. A ship. A privateer ship? Ice raced through her veins. Now she remembered. The ship—it was a pirate ship—had been in the papers. Her brothers had discussed it at length one evening. The ship and its captain were wanted by the navy for acts so vile her brothers would not discuss them in her presence.
But Nick couldn't be—he wasn't—
She turned to stare at him. With his bronze skin, unruly black hair, and startling blue eyes, he certainly looked the role of a pirate.
But he was also Lord Nicholas Martingale. He was charming and polished and accepted in the best homes in Society.
This Captain Robin Hood nonsense couldn't be true.
Please, don't let it be true. Don't let her be married to—
"Allow me to introduce myself." Nick bowed with a flourish. "Captain of the Robin Hood at your service."
The look Ashley gave him was so full of hate that Nick almost stepped back. Well, he hadn't exactly expected her to rejoice at her new status. And he supposed that the only thing worse than being the wife of a wayward rogue who broke your heart was being the wife of Captain Robin Hood.
But then this situation wasn't exactly his fault. He'd tried to protect her from finding out his true identity. He'd tried to protect her from being part of this life he knew she couldn't possibly support.
Now maybe she'd understand why he'd cut things off between them all those months ago.
She snatched the poker from Mr. Fellows and turned, waving it at Nick. "You bastard."
Or maybe not.
Nick clenched his jaw. He didn't really want to play this out in front of his men. He'd sent a message to his ship a day or two ago informing the crew of his planned arrival in Gretna Green and asking his officers to meet him. Now that they'd arrived, he was eager to return to the Robin Hood.
Without Ashley Brittany—make that Ashley Martingale—in tow.
But what other choice did he have? He couldn't exactly leave her here, alone and unprotected in Scotland.
She waved the poker at him again, and Nick tried to hold his temper.
"How dare you be a pirate? How dare you make me the wife of a pirate? How—"
"Uh, Captain?" Red, his bos'n, said tentatively, stroking his patchy red beard. "I hate to interrupt this er—domestic moment, but we 'ave a bit o' a crisis on our hands."
Nick straightened. "Crisis?" He grabbed the poker out of Ashley's hand and tossed it to Mr. Johnson, who was one of his yardmen and, with all of his arghs, playing the role of a pirate very well. Nick hauled Ashley up against him, where she wouldn't get in any trouble. "What crisis?"
"Unhand me! Let go."
He ignored her struggles, instead focusing on Chante, his quartermaster. "Mr. Chante?"
The quartermaster barely gave the fighting woman a glance before saying, "I tried to tell you." He scowled at Ashley as though this were her fault. Then he looked back at Nick. "Trouble with our old friend again. But this time it's more than a swipe at the Robin Hood. This time old Yussef gone too far."
Nick felt fear, cold and hard, settle in his belly. "What do you mean?"
Ashley must have heard something in his tone because she stopped struggling. Nick glanced down at her and saw that she was watching Chante, a mixture of curiosity and concern on her face.
"Sir, I doan like to be the one to tell you this—"
The fear in Nick's gut was like ice now. So cold it hurt. "Spit it out, Mr. Chante."
"It's the isle, sir. Right after we got your message we heard a rumor that Yussef attacked—"
"Isla de las Riquezas," Nick whispered. "No." The ice pierced his heart, freezing it.
"We doan know if it's true. And maybe it was just firing the cannons for show."
But Nick knew better than that. So did Chante, but the quartermaster obviously hadn't wanted to alarm the men before informing the captain.
"What's Isla de las Riquezas?" Ashley asked.
Nick ignored her, addressing his men. "There's no time to lose. Where's the ship? What provisions have you made? I want to leave yesterday!"
"Aye, Cap'n," Chante said. "I thought you'd say that. We're more than eager to be gone. Had to wait for fresh horses."
"The ship is docked in a cove not too far from here," Red told him. The bos'n looked pale now and sober. "If we ride all night, we should be there by morning. We can sail on the next tide."
"Make it so." Without thinking, Nick released Ashley and headed for the door to the blacksmith shop. His heart was ice, gripped by the chilling knowledge that everything he had ever loved could be gone.
He had the door to the blacksmith shop open and was halfway through when Mr. Fellowes, his short, blond third mate, cleared his throat. "Uh, Captain, begging your pardon, but wot do you intend to do about her?" He hooked his thumb back at Ashley. "I—ah couldn't help but overhear her say that she was"—he swallowed—"your wife."
Nick clenched his jaw and turned to look at Ashley, who was, little as he liked the fact, still his wife. She was still standing in the blacksmith's shop, the low fire in the hearth behind her and the unconscious priest at her feet.
He couldn't leave her. She was his now. He had to protect her.
She glared at him. "Keep walking, Martingale. Don't even think about it."
He spread his hands in a gesture that said what-do-you-want-me-to-do?
"I'm not going." She braced her feet and put her hands on her hips defiantly. "I'm not going on any pirate ship—"
"It's a privateer ship. We have a letter of marque." Somewhere.
"—I'm going back to London, and if you won't take me, then I'll go on my own."
"I can't let you do that," Nick said quietly.
"Oh, yes you can." She took a step back—toward the rear exit, Nick noted. A nod at Chante and the quartermaster was behind her, blocking her escape route.
"You just keep going your way," she said, taking another step back, obviously unaware of Chante behind her, "and I'll go mine!"
With that, she spun around and slammed into Chante's broad chest. Nick's man easily captured both of her arms and, though she fought him, he pinned them to her sides in seconds. "Come on Mrs. Cap'n."
"Let go!" she screamed. "Nick! Make him unhand me."
"Sorry, sweetheart." Nick nodded to Chante, who grasped Ashley around the waist, lifted her, and tossed her over his shoulder. She screeched, more from surprise than anything else, Nick surmised, and began pummeling Chante with her fists.
Nick winced. He was definitely going to owe Chante for this one.
But a moment later, she was Nick's problem again. He climbed on one of the five horses tethered out front, but before he could grasp the reins, Chante tried to hand him a kicking and screaming Ashley.
Nick frowned at her. "Mr. Chante, could I possibly persuade you to—"
"No, Cap'n. Mrs. Cap'n belongs with you."
"I am not Mrs. Captain!" Ashley bellowed.
With a sigh, Nick took her, settling her in front of him.
As thanks for his pains, she swiped at him with her nails and elbowed him in the jaw.
"Goddamn it," he hissed. "Calm down."
"Let me go!"
The horse shied at all the noise, and Nick, out of patience, pulled her against his chest, wrapping his arms about her waist and pinning her arms. He held her tight, so tight that she wouldn't have enough breath to continue fighting for long.
"Ashley." He bent his head and whispered in her ear. "If you don't stop fighting, I'm going to have to bind you. Tempting as tying you up might be to me, I don't think you'd enjoy it much."
Whether because of the threat or the lack of air, she suddenly ceased moving. Nick could feel the pleasing weight of her breasts on his arms, and he could picture them in his mind.
Plump and full, sweetly curved, her skin pale and milky as moonlight. Unbidden, more images came to him: the fullness of her hip, the slope of her shoulder, the nip of her waist.
She wiggled against him again, and he felt himself grow hard. She must have felt it, too, because he heard her sharp intake of breath.
"Keep moving against me," he answered, "and I'll show you."
"Try it," she said, voice deceptively sweet, "and you may end up with nothing to show."
She made a show of distancing herself from him—not easy or feasible when they were sharing a saddle—and he spurred the horse into motion. His men followed with Chante gradually taking the lead.
Nick settled in for a long night. As enjoyable a diversion as Ashley could be, he had far more serious concerns. Funny how the life of a pirate wasn't near as blithe and carefree as he'd imagined it all those years ago as a young officer in the Navy. And still Nick wondered whether had he known, he could have chosen any differently. The Barbary corsair Yussef had been a hook in the Royal Navy's cheek even then. Indeed, it was Yussef and Nick's desire for revenge on the corsair that had necessitated Nick's transformation from honorable Navy lieutenant to detestable pirate.
And here he was, ten years later, faced with another of Yussef's evil deeds. But this one was personal. There was no doubt of that.
Isla de las Riquezas held nothing of interest for a mercenary like Yussef. The Robin Hood did occasionally store booty and stolen cargo there, but that was a pittance compared to the tributes Yussef exacted from the European countries as protection from him and his kind.
The men might not know what Yussef was capable of, but Nick did. No, Yussef hadn't attacked the island for treasure. He'd attacked because he wanted revenge for Nick's triumph over him a few months ago near Tripoli. The two ships had exchanged fire, and the Robin Hood had been the victor. Nick could have taken the Barbary corsair's ship then, but it would have been at great cost of life. Now Nick swore and wished he'd sunk Yussef in Tripoli. If Yussef had done as Nick feared, he would never forgive himself for allowing the corsair to escape.
Obviously the loss at Tripoli had only left Yussef humiliated and aware his years of dominance over the sea were coming to an end. The Barbary corsair had plotted retribution against Nick and the Robin Hood.
And against the innocent woman and children of Isla de las Riquezas.
The women and children the men of the Robin Hood called lovers, wives, sons, and daughters.
Nick's hands clenched on the horse's reins. Chante had said the attack was only a rumor, but Nick hadn't needed Chante to tell him what he already knew. Nick knew how Yussef operated.
The corsair was efficient and ruthless. He would have attacked the island under cover of darkness. The sleeping women and children would either have been enslaved or, more likely, have had their throats slit. The corsair would then have burned the cabins and huts, taken any treasure the crew could find, and left the island smoking in the rising sun.
Nick had seen the Barbary corsair's handiwork before. And he'd lost a good friend because of it. But that loss would be nothing compared to this one.
Nick clenched his fists on the reins and bit back a volley of curses.
If Yussef had so much as touched her, Nick vowed he'd kill the man with his own hands.
Ashley snapped her eyes open and tried to keep them open this time. With all that had happened this night, she should be too anxious to sleep. But exhaustion had finally overcome anger and fear, and she'd dozed off.
The sky above was black and dotted with stars, but she thought she caught a few wisps of gray in the distance. She could smell the sand and salt of the sea. They'd been riding on a beach for what seemed like hours now, and the crash of the waves had become almost familiar.
Her eyelids began to droop again, and, with supreme effort, she forced them back up. It didn't help her effort that she couldn't remember the last time she hadn't been running from an irate father or the furious Duke of Bleven and had snatched more than a few moments of sleep. It also didn't help that the horse's gait was so steady or that Nick was so deliciously warm and so solid to lean upon.
She would have liked to turn, put her arms about him, and curl up against his muscular chest. And she would have.
If she didn't still hate him.
In fact, now she hated him more than ever.
Liar, thief...pirate captain.
Was nothing about him what she'd thought?
"You're getting all stiff again." Nick's voice floated forward on the wind. "Thinking about me?"
"Not by choice."
His arms were around her, holding the horse's reins, and she saw one of his hands flex on the leather.
Good. She hoped he was furious. She wanted no sweet, whispered words from him. She focused her gaze on the landscape around them. The sky was definitely lightening, and she could make out sandstone cliffs in the distance. The white sand beach was leading them into the shelter of a rather dramatic bluff.
"And I assure you that seeing you again, marrying you, and taking you to the Robin Hood was not my choice," he said in clipped tones.
"How kind of you to remind me. Perhaps we should call ourselves fortunate that the priest accidentally married you to me and not Maddie. She would have swooned from heart palpitations by now. Though, with you being a thief and a pirate, you really have no business marrying anyone at all."
She felt him stiffen.
"I'm not a thief. I occasionally liberate cargo—"
She knew what he was going to say. "Yes, yes. You steal cargo from His Majesty's Royal Navy."
"No. I have, on the rare occasion, liberated cargo from enemies of the navy, from other pirates. And when I sell said items, the proceeds go to the poor and needy."
Of course he did. And she was the Queen of England. "The poor and needy?" She gestured to the men riding beside them. "Like your crew."
"They have to eat too."
She rolled her eyes. "So you're not actually a thief, but a hero."
"Some might call me that."
She could almost hear the pleasure in his voice. She didn't like it. "Hmm. Interesting. The owners never miss these items, you say? Is that why the Duke of Bleven attacked us on the road to Gretna Green? Because he didn't miss whatever it was you liberated from him?"
He hissed in a breath. "I didn't...the whole affair was a minor miscalculation." His teeth sounded clenched tightly together.
"Would you say that you make many of those, my lord?" Her voice sounded sweet and innocent, but she knew he felt the barb.
"Not near as many as you, Lady Nicholas."
Now it was her turn to stiffen. His use of her new name brought all her anger back to the surface.
"For example," he continued, "if you recall, it was you and my brother who wanted me to marry Lady Madeleine. I tried to refuse."
He had, and Ashley wished she could have listened, but refusal wasn't an option. She said, "What else could we have done? After spending all those days and nights on the road to Gretna Green, Maddie couldn't return to London unmarried. She would have been ruined."
"And marrying a pirate captain wouldn't have ruined her? I had reasons for my rejection."
If only she'd known that then...
"Considering those reasons," she said, "what made you change your mind?"
She heard him sigh and turned to gauge the look on his face. His expression was strained and tense. "I'm not completely without honor." Before she could laugh, he added, "And my brother made the request. He asked, and I owe him."
"But surely he doesn't know that you're a—"
"He has his suspicions." Nick shook his head. "But no one knows."
"An unfortunate occurrence."
"What are you going to do now? Make me walk the plank?" She'd expected him to at least chuckle. Even at the most stressful times, like when Maddie's father had been chasing them to Gretna Green and shooting at them, Nick hadn't lost his sense of humor.
But something about him had changed tonight. Instead of teasing her—he wouldn't really make her walk the plank...would he?—Nick's fingers clenched angrily on the reins again.
"I don't know what I'm going to do with you yet. Hell's teeth!"
Ashley flinched from his sudden outburst.
"This is the last bloody thing I need right now. You are the last thing I need."
She huffed and pushed at the prison of his arms. "Then by all means, let me go."
He shook his head and tightened his arms about her. "I wish it were that easy, but I made a vow to you. I'm obligated to protect you."
"Obligated! Damn—I mean, drivel! That's drivel, Nicholas. I won't be anyone's obligation." This time she managed to free one hand and was in the process of throwing her leg over the saddle before Nick got hold of her again. He crushed her against him so hard that her breath whooshed out.
"Stop fighting me." His voice was raw and angry. "You're mine now. I won't fail you, like—" He broke off.
Ashley's heart lurched with sympathy. There had been pain in his voice, real anguish underneath the anger. She opened her mouth to offer words of comfort, and then she remembered her own anguish. She remembered her own pain the night he'd betrayed her.
Her sympathy dried up, and she pushed the tender feeling aside. No, she wouldn't feel sorry for him. She wouldn't forgive him.
She took a shaky breath. "Sweet as that sentiment is, Lord Nicholas," she began, keeping her voice brisk as the ocean breeze. "I'm afraid I must—for the last time—refuse offer of passage on your pirate ship. That type of thing is much better suited to my friend Josie. In fact, if you take me back to London, I know Josie would be more than willing to accompany you—"
"Even if you were not being ridiculous, it's too late for that," Nick said. "We're here."
Ashley looked around her. They were in a U-shaped area, craggy rocks rising from the seashore on both sides and the inky ocean spreading out before them. The cove looked innocuous enough to her—no hulking pirate ship flying the Jolly Roger and casting a shadow over the beach.
And yet Nick's men were quickly dismounting from their horses and heading deeper into the cove.
"What do you mean we're here?"
Nick dismounted and reached up to help her down. She swatted his hands away and jumped down—albeit ungracefully—on her own.
"Where exactly is here?"
"We've reached my ship," Nick said, leading the horse deeper into the cove, after his men.
"Ship? What ship?"
But as she watched, the four men hauled a battered rowboat out of the shadows, lugging it toward the water slapping on the sand.
Ashley turned sharply and stared into the black water behind her. It was impossibly dark and somewhat foggy, and there was no sound, no sign of a pirate ship lurking in those gloomy mists.
And then the clouds that had sheltered the moon cleared, and the moonlight penetrated the mist, glinting off a flickering white sail.
Ashley gasped. The vessel was huge, rising out of the black water like one of Poseidon's minions. The masts, most still bare of their sails, rose like burnt spires into the star-streaked sky. Ashley could make out small figures moving here and there, ants scurrying to attend to this task or that.
The pirate crew.
She shivered as someone hoisted a ghostly white sail through the wispy fog. The white canvas swayed and flickered in the dying moonlight.
And then the clouds passed again, and the ship was gone, swallowed by the black sea.
But Ashley knew it was still out there. She could sense it now: a living thing that pulled at her with the dual promises of adventure and ruin.
The men reached the water and thrust the small boat into it with a splash. They began to strategize, discussing how best to load their belongings and how many trips to make.
She turned and peered behind her. Open beach. If she ran now, she could probably get away. The men might not even notice that she was gone until it was too late. If they chased her, she could hide in the shadows, perhaps find a small cave. In the morning, she could walk back toward Gretna Green and send word to her father when she passed through a village. Perhaps she could find Maddie and Nick's brother. Or Lord Castleigh, Maddie's father. He had chased them to Gretna.
Ashley had no illusions about this course of action. If she returned to London now, her life would be in shambles.
But she was no coward. She could piece together shambles. She could repair shambles.
But if she set foot on that pirate ship, she knew without a doubt that her life would be irrevocably changed. She'd always longed for adventure, but had she ever considered the price? One didn't go pirating on the open sea and then return to the lofty drawing rooms of the ton to gossip and sip tea.
She glanced at Nick. Or did one?
Lord Nicholas Martingale had certainly made his double life work, but Ashley was no good at deception. Ashley Brittany didn't lie. She might omit, but she didn't dissemble.
And she didn't run.
Especially not from the most exciting adventure of her life or the chance to repay the man who had scorned her.
As though sensing her thoughts were on him, Nick turned and extended his hand. "My ship awaits. Are you ready?"
"That, Captain Robin Hood, is a question you should ask yourself." She smiled and, forgoing his offer of assistance, waded through the water to the bobbing rowboat.
As soon as Nick climbed the first rung of the Jacob's Ladder, he forgot all about Ashley Brittany—er, Martingale—Gretna Green, and the events of the past week or so. As always, when he stepped foot on his ship, a sense of calm and purpose filled him. When he was on land, in London, he might question his mission and his choices. But there were no questions aboard the Robin Hood. Nick was meant to lead this crew. He was meant to captain this vessel. And he was meant to destroy the pirate Yussef.
Yussef. Thinking of his enemy caused a wave of fury to crash through Nick. He grasped the ship's railing, waiting for the anger to pass.
Don't think about the isle, he cautioned himself. Don't think about her.
He needed all of his wits about him if he were to make the passage to Isla de las Riquezas quickly and successfully. He had no time to waste, no time for mistakes, no time for grief.
Nick turned to see his quartermaster approaching. Nick straightened and clasped his hands behind his back. "Yes, Mr. Chante."
"The crew is making the final preparations for departure, sir. The tide should turn within the hour."
"Very good, Mr. Chante." Nick strolled across the deck, and Chante followed. "Has Mr. Carey sealed the cargo hatches and taken care of all repairs?"
Nick nodded to his crew as he passed them. They were hard at work checking for rigging stress, hoisting the remaining sails, and swabbing the already gleaming decks. "And has Red seen to the food and water provisions?"
Nick threaded his way past more men and approached the helm. His second mate was at the helm, and when he looked questioningly at Nick, Nick gave him the sign to remain at his post.
"What course, sir?" Chante asked, though Nick and all aboard knew full well what course the Robin Hood would be setting. But Nick appreciated the formality, the structure, the order of life on a ship.
"Set sail for Isla de las Riquezas, Mr. Chante. Depart as soon as possible."
"Aye, sir," Chante said.
Nick spent the next several hours issuing orders to his crew, approving the setting of the watch and the deck chores, and staring at the open sea, now deep blue in the late morning light. The winds were brisk, and the sails snapped as the ship made close to six knots. But Nick gripped the rail and mentally urged her on faster.
Isla de las Riquezas was a good ten days' sail in good weather, and Nick was impatient to arrive. He was even more impatient to find and punish Yussef. Nick scanned the ocean once again.
The Barbary pirate was out there somewhere. Running? Hiding? Laughing?
Laugh now, Nick thought. Because before long, you'll be mine.
Nick turned from the railing and his view of the open ocean to face the short third mate. Mr. Fellowes doffed his cap.
"What is it, Mr. Fellowes?"
"I'm sorry what to bother you wit' this."
Nick waved a hand, indicating it was no bother at all.
"But you put me in charge of the missy, sir, and I'm having a bit o' a time wit' her."
Nick frowned. "Missy?"
Fellowes nodded. "Yes, sir. And I'm having a bit o' a time wit' her. She don't want to stay in your cabin, and I don't know wot else to do wit' her. Seems like you should do an introduction o' sorts afore we let her loose on deck. Let the men know to keep hands off. But that's just me opinion. Begging your pardon, sir."
Nick took a deep breath. He'd actually forgotten about Ashley Brittany for a time. A fact she'd probably sensed and was wasting no time rectifying. And yet he wasn't quite ready to deal with her. He had work to do—work he could not accomplish in his cabin with her ranting at him. And yet, with her running free, he wouldn't be able to concentrate either.
"Leave her where she is for now, Mr. Fellowes."
"But, Cap'n, she—"
Nick held up a hand. "I know how she can be. Handle her, Mr. Fellowes. And while you're at it, bring me my maps and my logbooks. Let Mr. Chante know that I want a meeting with all the officers on the quarterdeck just after eight bells of the morning watch."
"Aye, Cap'n." Fellowes turned slowly, and Nick recognized the look on the man's face: sheer determination.
No doubt, Nick would have the same look when he faced Ashley later.
Later finally bore down on him. When Nick heard the first bell of the mid watch and realized it was after midnight, he glanced at his men. The same weariness he felt was reflected on their faces.
"Get some sleep," he ordered those not on watch. "You have your orders."
Fully intending to take his own advice, Nick stumbled numbly to his cabin. He reached for the handle and turned it. Nothing happened.
Nick frowned in the darkness. Why was his cabin locked?
Through the weight of fatigue, the answer dawned on him.
Ashley was in there.
Nick prayed she'd already fallen asleep. He wanted nothing more than a few hours of peaceful rest himself. He fished in his pocket for the key, opened the door, and stepped inside. It was dark and quiet. Thank God—
The door swung shut behind him, and he heard a whoosh. A bolt of lightning crashed through his skull as something hit him hard on the back of the head.
He stumbled forward, catching himself with one hand on his desk. "What the—"
But Ashley already had the door open, and in the dim light outside, he could see her running.
"Bloody hell." What did she plan to do? Jump overboard?
Nick took three large strides and caught her about the waist. He tried very hard not to notice how good she felt in his arms. He tried not to imagine throttling her.
He covered her mouth, hoping she hadn't already awakened the rest of the crew, and hauled her back inside the cabin. He held her tightly until he managed to light the lantern.
Her skin was impossibly soft under his hand. He'd forgotten about that—how that porcelain skin that looked so coldly perfect could actually be so warm and sensual.
It wasn't a realization he wanted at the moment, and he pulled his hands away, releasing her.
Immediately, she screamed and started for the door.
With a growl, Nick pushed her out of the way, fished his key back out, and locked the door. No fool, Nick tucked the key inside the waist of his trousers.
He rounded on her. "What the hell is wrong with you? I'm not going to hurt you."
She pushed away from him until she was flush against his desk. "What's wrong with me? What is wrong with you, sir? How dare you leave me locked in here all day? I am not a prisoner."
Nick shook his head. "Nor are you a sailor. The first day at sea is taxing for all aboard. I didn't have a man to spare to be your nanny."
"Nanny! I don't need—"
Nick closed his eyes. "It's late, and I'm tired. I haven't slept in two days. Whine all you want tomorrow, but tonight I want peace and quiet."
She glared at him, her eyes narrowing into slits. "You want peace and quiet? Go to your own cabin."
Nick looked around the familiar captain's cabin with its polished brass and scant mahogany furnishings—bed, table, desk, and chair. The light from the lantern flickered weakly in one corner. "This is my cabin."
"Not anymore. I sincerely hope you didn't think I was going to share it with you."
"Sleep here or in the crew's quarters. At this point, I don't care."
"I do. Get out."
She tossed her wheat-blond hair over one shoulder, and Nick had the urge to grasp that hair, haul her into his arms, and rid her of some of that impertinence. He could do it, too. He'd tamed her before.
Instead, Nick crossed his arms. Perhaps she needed a reminder of her new station in life—of exactly whom she was talking to and what his rights were. "You are my wife. I have every right—nay, I have a Christian obligation to share that bed with you."
Ashley's features hardened. "Well, sir, I hope you take your faith seriously because if you attempt to share that bed with me, you will meet your Maker tonight."
"Funny. I seem to remember a time you couldn't wait to share a bed with me."
"I must've been hit on the head."
Nick shrugged. "If that's what it takes."
"Nice." She gave his a forced smile. "That ploy might work if I didn't know you so well. You wouldn't hurt me."
He reached past her and smelled strawberries. He grit his teeth and wondered how she always managed to smell of some soft, juicy fruit.
Nick lifted a coil of rigging line Mr. Fellowes must have left lying on the desk behind her. "I won't hurt you, but at this point, I'll do anything for a few hours of sleep." He dangled the rope in front of her. "Give me your hands."
"You wouldn't dare." She took a step back but was out of room to retreat.
He grinned. "Then why are you trying to escape?"
"Nick, you can't. You won't. I know you won't."
"Sweetheart." He unfurled the rope, letting it fall with a hiss and a thud. "I don't think you know me as well as you think."
© Shana Galen