The pops of gunfire all around Isabelle Stanhope sounded like she stood on a battlefield, instead of riding in a stagecoach. The few other passengers screamed, sliding down into their seats. Fear of the worst kind surged through Isabelle as she bent over and clutched her trembling legs.
Her life may end today.
“Everyone stay low!” the driver yelled. “Highwaymen are swarming around us.”
Panic thrashed inside Isabelle like a turbulent wave, threatening to suffocate her at any moment. A gang of highwaymen had killed her father less than a year ago and she feared the same fate would befall her.
Another pistol fired, closer this time. Mrs. Winters, Isabelle’s companion, screamed then slumped against her. Tears filled Isabelle’s eyes and a sob rose to her throat. She dared not look to see if her companion had been shot or if the frightened woman just swooned, since Mrs. Winters had been prone to do that. Isabelle had never been able to handle the sight of blood, especially from someone she cared so deeply about.
As the fast-moving stagecoach rocked to and fro, small satchels fell to the floor. The other passengers had been holding these at one time. Looking at them now, Isabelle didn’t know which one belonged to whom.
One of the satchels was slightly opened, and the gleam of the golden handle dagger caught her attention. Without a second thought, she snatched the weapon and held it close. She wouldn’t bat an eye if she had to kill a highwayman to save her own life.
The stagecoach came to a jerking stop and had her sliding to the floor. She landed on another passenger, and mumbled her apologies as she tried to climb back on the seat. Her gaze fell to Mrs. Winters, who was still unconscious and thankfully, didn’t have any blood on her—that Isabelle could see, anyway.
The door flew open and a masked man wearing a black cloak framed the door. “Everyone outside if you want to live!”
Of course she wanted to live—the imbecile! She nodded, and waited for those in front of her to exit first.
With a shaky hand, she hid the dagger underneath waist of her traveling jacket. She followed the woman in front of her, taking careful steps until they all came to a halt. Armed highwaymen stood everywhere, each wearing a mask that covered their eyes only. A different type of fear sliced through her. Silently, she prayed for strength and courage.
She glanced over her shoulder at the stagecoach. Where was Mrs. Winters? The still body of Isabelle’s companion made her stomach twist with sadness and she wondered if Mrs. Winters had indeed been shot. Isabelle then looked to the driver and the guard. Both were slumped over, while blood continuously spilled from each head as their bodies remained unmoving. Bile rose to her throat, and she placed a hand over her mouth, looking away.
Someone standing next to her pushed her forward and she stumbled into another highwayman. He grasped her shoulders to keep her from falling. As soon as she gained her footing, she took one step back and looked at the tall, man. A shaky breath caught in her throat. Black silk cloth covered the top part of his face—save for the eyes—which served as a mask as it hid his true identity. Once-white linen stretched across wide shoulders and a broad chest, opened at the throat to display sun-bronzed skin. Black jackboots and breeches molded to his powerful legs. And he was muscular beyond belief! His hair hung to his shoulders, and was black as midnight. He looked more like a pirate than a highwayman.
The man who’d forced them out of the stagecoach stepped next to the broad-shouldered highwayman. “Captain Hawk, all the passengers are here, Sir.”
A gasp caught in her throat. Captain Hawk! Here stood the very person responsible for killing her father! Rumors about a retired pirate who’d turned highwayman had spread through France where she’d been living when her father and his friends had died.
Desperate to stay strong, she squared her shoulders and met his hooded gaze. The longer the captain stared at her, his mouth slowly dropped open. His focus moved over every part of her from the top of her crooked bonnet down her body to her booted heels. Did he know she was Commodore Stanhope’s daughter?
“Very well, Simon.” Although the captain spoke to the member of his crew, Hawk’s eyes never left hers. Slowly, the leader of this ruthless gang of cutthroats grinned. “Who do we have here?” He swept his gaze over her once more in leisure.
“I—I—I—” She couldn’t tell him her real name. He might remember her father, and then she would end up with her sire’s doom.
“Miss, will you please remove your bonnet?”
“Sir, I don’t see why I need—”
He stepped closer and yanked on the silken pink ribbons securing the bonnet that sat crooked on her head then pushed it off. She reached for it, but the bonnet fell by her feet as the wind blew unbound curls against her face. His eyes widened.
Fear suffocated her. Why did he act in such a manner? Perhaps she would indeed have to defend herself against him. The knife she still clung to may indeed come in handy.
“What’s your name?” His voice boomed louder than before.
She gulped, praying the Lord would forgive her for lying. “Miss Stan—ley. Belle Stanley.”
Seconds ticked by into incredibly long minutes of silence. Only the wind slapping through the trees and the softening cries of the stagecoach passengers blended together to disrupt the stillness.
Finally, the captain’s jaw hardened. “Miss Stanley, what is your purpose for this trip?”
She gnashed her teeth. Curse those stubborn highwaymen thinking they owned the world. “I—I’m on my way to Plymouth to settle my father’s affairs.”
“Where are you from?”
“I’m from Marseille, France. I arrived only just this morning.”
“Why would any father send his daughter across the sea during turbulent times such as these?”
“My father didn’t send me. He’s dead, if you must know.”
His gaze swept over her again as his finger smoothed across his thick, black mustache. “Tell me, Miss Stanley. How long ago did your father die?”
She hesitated, knowing she couldn’t tell him the truth. “Just a few months past, Sir.”
“Indeed?” He folded his arms across his wide chest. “Has the length of time for mourning changed? The last I heard, a family member wore black for a year.” He motioned his hand in front of her. “Yet there isn’t a stitch of black on you. Can you tell me why that is?”
She fought the urge to slap his arrogant face. He was correct, of course, and his sharp wit made her pause. Why couldn’t she think of an impressionable answer? It was as if a fog impeded the thoughts in her mind.
The wind lifted the midnight black hair resting on the back of his nape, and blew the edges of his shirt open. A square jaw and thick neck emphasized his masculine build. Indeed, men would fear the captain even without his mask, but Isabelle wouldn’t allow the horror stories to make her cower.
Someone nudged her arm, and she peeked at the person who had just come up next to her. Mrs. Winters, her companion, gave her a small nod. So relieved the older woman wasn’t dead, Isabelle wanted to throw her arms around her companion and cry, but before she could, Mrs. Winters cleared her throat, stepped closer to the captain, and aimed her gaze toward him.
“Sir, you must forgive Miss Stanley for not being in proper mourning attire. There was hardly time, and certainly no funds. Her father didn’t leave a shilling for her in Marseille, which is why she had to sail to Plymouth where he resided. Once she receives money from his estate, she will purchase suitable black gowns, I assure you.”
Tears of respite stung Isabelle’s eyes. She’d have to thank her companion later for coming to her aid and thinking up the lie so quickly.
The tilt to Hawk’s head and his dark scowl showed his irritation as his gaze pinned the older woman. “Pardon me, but who are you?”
“Mrs. Winters. I’m Miss Stanley’s companion.”
“Ah yes, I see.” His face hardened. “If you will, Mrs. Winters, don’t speak until you are spoken to.”
The older woman gasped. “Why I never—”
“I’m quite certain you have never, but then you have never known anyone like me.” He took several steps back to look over his prisoners. “And I expect all of you learn your place posthaste.” The volume rose in his voice. “Because you are all my prisoners, you will follow my rules or end up with the fate of your stagecoach driver and guard.”
Isabelle let out a rushed breath. Why had she even dared hope the leader of this group of men would have any morals or show a shred of kindness?
Amongst those standing with Isabelle as prisoners were a widow and two older gentlemen. The woman sobbed into her handkerchief, wrenching Isabelle’s heart. Her older companion, Mrs. Winters, clutched shaky hands against her bosom, her face deathly pale, mirroring Isabelle’s own fear. Highwaymen violated women, and took much more than their dignity. She vowed she would not let Captain Hawk take hers.
Hawk turned to one of his men who stood by the stagecoach. “Simon, escort the prisoners to the wagon so we can take them away.”
“Aye, Captain.” The other masked man motioned his pistol in the air. His long, dirty blond hair waved in the wind. He smirked, displaying a full set of yellowish-brown teeth.
Everyone fell into step and walked in the direction Simon indicated. As Isabelle shuffled a couple of feet, Hawk strode to her and grasped her elbow.
“Miss Stanley, you won’t be going with them.” The corner of his mouth lifted slightly. “I have a more suitable place for you.”
Fear gripped her throat and froze her limbs. She didn’t want to be torn from her companion.
Mrs. Winters grabbed Isabelle’s other elbow. “Captain Hawk? I must protest.”
He cocked his head. “I’m quite certain you must, but you’re wasting your breath. Miss Stanley will accompany me without your companionship. Should you choose to not follow my instructions, then you will be the first prisoner tortured.” He flashed an arrogant grin. “Do I make myself clear?”
Mrs. Winters lifted her chin. “Remarkably so.”
Simon pushed the older woman back into the line. Mrs. Winter’s wide-eyed gaze stayed on Isabelle as her companion’s face lost color the farther away she staggered. Tears filled Isabelle’s eyes. Nothing could change the situation. They had to obey the captain or suffer the consequences.
After the group had shuffled toward the large wagon, she spun to face her captor and glared. “What do you want with me? I have done nothing to deserve this punishment.”
Hawk grinned. “Punishment? Nay, fair maiden, I’m not punishing you at all. Women consider it a privilege to be in my favor. I have saved you from staying with the rats in a dark, nearly suffocating cellar of our hideout with your friends.”
She tilted her head. “You, Sir, have saved me from nothing, for I will be with the biggest rat of them all.”
Hawk growled and grasped her shoulders. She stiffened, not daring to release the whimper bubbling up from her throat. Show no fear.
“Miss Stanley, this is a warning. Speaking to me in such a tone will only provoke me. I’d hate to harm such a lovely woman, but I won’t tolerate such behavior from a prisoner. You should be grateful I saved you from venturing with the other prisoners. I cannot control my men when I have my back turned. I fear what they might do with you if they wanted a little diversion from today’s activities.”
She seethed. He was correct. It was either Hawk or his men. “Where I was raised, I wasn’t used to holding my tongue, Sir.”
His grip relaxed. “You had best learn quickly then, Miss Stanley. I don’t want my men thinking I cannot handle such a feisty woman.”
He stepped back and smiled. His face didn’t look as hard as it’d been earlier. “I’d like you to dine with me tonight. I’ll feed you the finest food I have to offer. You can stay in my room until that time, unless of course you would rather remain with the others in the filthy cellar. I assure you, it won’t be as pleasant.”
As much as she preferred being with her friends, she might be able to defend herself better with him, than his crew of scallywags. “I—I’m most appreciative of your offer, Captain, and I shall count myself privileged to dine with you.” The words were hard to say, and hopefully, Hawk wouldn’t know she had lied through her teeth.
“Splendid.” He offered his arm like a gentleman.
Suppressing the urge to sneer at the gesture, she slipped her hand around his elbow and allowed him to take her to his horse. He lifted her up before mounting behind. He tugged at a scarf wrapped around his arm until it fell loose.
“Before we go, however, I must blindfold you. I cannot have you or the other prisoners seeing the way to our hideout.”
She glanced at the others in the wagon. Hawk’s men were tying their hands behind their backs and blindfolding them as well. Isabelle was grateful the captain didn’t bind her hands.
Nodding, she held herself still. His nearness made her nervous. Was it because of his ruggedly handsome appearance or the fact that he had killed her father? She didn’t know why his deep voice had sent shivers through her more than once. As she gazed on the days-old growth covering his chin and cheeks, she couldn’t help but wonder what he would look like clean-shaven, and without his mask?
He placed the scarf over her eyes and tied it in the back of her head. His gentleness surprised her. A large, muscular arm secured her body against his as he urged the horse to a trot. She had no other choice but to grasp his arm for fear of slipping to the ground.
Against her ribs, the pressure of the hidden dagger gave her some comfort. She would certainly use it if Hawk made any improper advances toward her. Men like Captain Hawk didn’t deserve to live. He killed men in cold blood as he had her father.
What had her father ever done besides try to save his own life that fateful day? His valet had been freed after their stagecoach had been attacked and told her the story of how her father died a brave man. In the end, Captain Hawk and his crew of cutthroats still stole all the valuables they could get their greedy hands on, which in turn left Isabelle penniless.
Bile rose in her throat. If she couldn’t sell her father’s estate in Plymouth, she would have to find the wealthy man her father betrothed her to and hurry along the marriage she didn’t want. Hopefully, the latter wouldn’t happen. She’d heard her betrothed, Matthew Winston, was ruthless and underhanded—a vile, selfish man. Why her father had picked him was beyond her knowledge, unless it had something to do with the man’s wealth.
She shivered. One obstacle at a time was all she could handle, and right now, she needed to keep a rodent from invading her person so she could walk away from all this when Hawk finally freed his prisoners.
Marcus Thorne glanced at the enchantress sitting so close to him with her hands clutching his arm. Good fortune had been with him as of late, and taking his enemy’s daughter prisoner topped the day. It didn’t matter if his men found nothing of consequence on the stagecoach, Marcus’ world had brightened because of the treasure sitting very close in front of him.He didn’t know Miss Isabelle Stanhope, just her father. Marcus had done the world a service when he purged the scoundrel from society. Marcus had dealt with the older man on several occasions and concluded the weasel couldn’t be trusted. He hadn’t planned on killing Commodore Stanhope, but the foolish man tried to stab him in the back. Literally. On impulse, Marcus shot the man between the eyes, killing him instantly.
If Isabelle didn’t get out of this closet-of-a room soon, she would scream. Walls closed in slowly around her. Indeed, she would suffocate if not for the anger pumping through her. As she shrugged out of her traveling jacket and sat on the small bed, she wondered where to hide the dagger. She’d been given ample time to realize her situation. Perhaps Hawk taking an interest in her was a good thing. But if he took her to his bedchambers, would he want to take liberties with her? Her stomach rolled with fear. To be ravaged by a pirate—whether or not he was now considered a highwayman—was a fate far worse than death. She must fight every step of the way.Many scenarios danced in her mind, playing out how she should act if he tri
Every muscle in Marcus’ body ached when he breathed. It especially hurt to open his eyes. He hadn’t consumed so much alcohol before that it had caused such an ill effect on him. The sun peeked in through his window, making him squint. What time of the day was it? Looked to be somewhere near the noon hour. Why did he sleep so long? There was much to do.Then he remembered Isabelle, the kiss, and the moment she thrust the dagger between his ribs. It took much effort to lift his throbbing head to glance at his wound, so instead, he moved his hands to the bandage wrapped around him. Apparently, he wasn’t dead, especially if his body screamed in pain.Where was Isabelle? Did his men know she’d tried to kill him?
Isabelle’s head pounded and her stomach growled. For three days she’d stayed trapped in a room with no light, lying on a cot layered in dust. At least she assumed three days had lapsed. Time was near impossible to gauge. Particles from the air tickled her nose, and she sneezed. Groaning, she held her throbbing head and opened her eyes. A small glow peeked from under the door and gave her minimal light.Slowly, she pulled herself up to sit on the edge of the small cot. She rubbed the bruise on her jaw, the spot where the barbarian had struck her before she passed out that first night. Why hadn’t they come to take her away yet? Why were they prolonging her death?Voices in the hallway grew loud. So did the rush of footsteps. <
If not for the intense pain in Marcus’ chest where she’d stabbed him, he would be thoroughly enjoying this moment right now. Isabelle was quite lovely in her gown. The color looked exceptional on her, but then red fit the character of a she-devil perfectly. Although, it was her hair that had him mesmerized. Obviously, she needed a brush, but with her wild sandy waves flowing over her shoulders, she looked young and innocent. It was a good thing he knew better.As her expression turned from fright to undecided, a thought struck him. His punishment would be torture for him, too. Having her work in his room looking this alluring, knowing he couldn’t touch her would nearly kill him.He glanced at his friend. Gabe stood by the door in c
Marcus awoke with the sun, blinking as he rolled to his side. Pain speared through him and he cradled his wound and slowly adjusted onto his back, hissing. His physician had given instructions to rest without any big movements, but Marcus just couldn’t obey. There was way too much for him to do.Beginning today, he would have a new servant. How could he lay still at a time like this?Marcus had been anxious for the new day to start and lain awake most of the night, waiting for the sun to arise. He didn’t know how he’d treat Isabelle, whether to order her around like a slave or give gentle words of encouragement. He enjoyed their verbal swordplay, and if she were truly frightened of him, she wouldn’t have such a spirited tempe
Isabelle couldn’t breathe. For the life of her, she couldn’t even move off the bed. Hawk’s tenderness and kindness surprised her. She was his prisoner, and yet he promised to assist her. Indeed, he could have killed her by now and not had a second thought about it.She should thank him, even as no more than a means of self-preservation, but with a kiss? She couldn’t possibly put her mouth on his again. Not after memories of the other evening invaded her senses every minute of the day, only growing worse now.If she did bestow a kiss upon him, would he want more? Would he trap her in his embrace and not let her go since they were on his bed? She glanced to his bandages. Hopefully, he was as weak as he’d been yesterday. W
While the captain slept, Isabelle ate her morning meal in the kitchen with Gabe present. The man didn’t say much, but at least he watched to make certain no other man touched her improperly. Once she finished eating, she cleaned up the broken dishes in the hallway where she’d thrown them at Simon, and then she volunteered to help in the kitchen. She needed to keep busy so that she wouldn’t think about what Hawk had done for her today. More importantly, her thoughts turned to what he required of her when he awoke. Unfortunately, the cook didn’t need her help for long, and she wandered into a large room that she assumed was the parlor. Gabe kept his eyes on her, his towering height not frightening her any longer.“Pardon