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 tried to have his way with her. In a women’s pamphlet she’d picked up the day before sailing for Plymouth, she’d read what pirates did to innocent women. They were heathens, all of them, only seeking pleasure for themselves and not caring a whit what their victims might think. Every hair on her arm stood as she beat back the panic welling in her breast.
On the other hand, she had read novels in which the lady had enjoyed the pirate’s passionate kisses. The heroine in the book actually fell in love with the ruthless man. Isabelle rolled her eyes. It was beyond her knowledge how any woman could feel that way. Yet, Hawk had been attentive while she was being jolted atop his horse. It had seemed he almost cared about her discomfort when offering to have her lean against him.
Heavy footsteps echoed down the corridor. With her heart thumping at an incredible speed, Isabelle bolted up from the bed, standing still. She glanced at the dagger in her cold, trembling hand, and tightened her fingers around the hilt. If Captain Hawk made one wrong move she’d maim him. She’d do anything to protect her virtue.
Footfalls drew closer, creaking on the wooden floor as the heavenly scent of roasted duck wafted through the air. Her stomach growled reminding her she hadn’t eaten since breakfast. So she’d eat first, and then protect herself.
Murmured voices floated from down the hall. She hurried to the door and pressed her ear against it. The deep timbre of the captain’s voice sent shivers over her. The rotten man was the devil himself. Why else would he be able to make her react in such a manner? While living with her aunt and uncle, Isabelle had an unlimited choice of suitors. Not once did a gentleman stir butterflies in her stomach or make her legs weak. Neither did they cause her heart to flutter. She feared she’d never find a man to love—one who swept her off her feet and declared his undying love.
Why in Heaven’s name was she thinking about this and Captain Hawk at the same time? Utterly, ridiculous! Her mind must be half-crazed because of her near starvation.
Any minute now the captain would come and take her to his room. No matter what, she couldn’t let him see the dagger. Where on her person could she hide it? Unfortunately, those obvious places wouldn’t be very accessible if she needed it quickly. She’d have to conceal it after she entered his room.
Saying a prayer for strength, she gripped the weapon and put it in the folds of her skirt. Before the erratic pounding of her heart slowed, keys rattled in the keyhole then the door squeaked open. Captain Hawk filled the doorway. Wearing a clean billowy white shirt and black breeches, he looked magnificent. He’d combed his hair and shaved his face, except for the mustache. Still wearing the same mask, he looked mysterious. A hint of musk wafted around her the further he stepped into the room.
He swept an arm out in a mock bow. “Greetings again, my dear Miss Stanley. Are you ready for a bite to eat?”
She arched a brow. “Only to keep food in my stomach and give me strength. It matters not who I dine with. One rat is like the others.” After she’d said the words, she inwardly cringed. Why hadn’t she learned to simmer her temper?
“Oh, now, milady.” He stepped closer and stroked his fingers along her jaw. “I thought I told you there was a proper time to hold your vicious tongue. If you don’t adhere to my instructions, I shan’t be lenient with you.” His grin widened. “However,” he continued, “you will see how kind I can be if you choose to speak gentle words. I can be quite charming with the right lady.”
She was quite certain about that. Swallowing to moisten the cotton dryness in her throat, she took a step back. “You were saying the meal is ready?”
He smiled fully and a dimple dented his cheek. Why did he have to be so ruggedly masculine? It mattered not. He was still the enemy.
Captain Hawk held out his elbow. “May I escort you?”
She laid her hand on his arm. “You need not act like the gallant gentleman, because I know you are far from it.”
“Oh, you wound me. All I’m trying to do is escort you into my room so we may partake of a delicious meal. What’s so gallant about that?”
“The way you offer the invitation on a faux silver platter as if it was a courageous act.”
Chuckling, he opened the door to his room. It was three times larger than the tiny box she’d been kept prisoner in for the past several hours. A few expensive rugs, vases, and silks decorated his chamber. Only in her dreams could she imagine such finery. Her father had mentioned to her the many expensive rugs and paintings he had while living in Plymouth. They were supposed to be part of her inheritance. Could any of these items be those her father had before his death?
Sadness consumed her. She would never get to see her father again, and it was all Captain Hawk’s fault. If the thieving highwayman keeled over dead any minute, it wouldn’t be soon enough.
Hawk pulled out the chair to the small table set for two. Plates of food were waiting for them. Graciously, she slid on the seat, still keeping the dagger hidden. As soon as the captain moved away, she quickly opened the linen napkin and covered the weapon resting on her lap.
Hawk sat across from her. “Eat up. I’m certain you’re famished.”
“Indeed, I am.” With a shaky hand, she lifted her fork and speared a carrot. “Captain Hawk, may I ask what your other prisoners are eating at this moment?”
The fork was halfway to his mouth when he stopped and stared her way. “Pardon me?”
“You are feeding them, are you not?”
“But of course. They are enjoying the wonderful meal of stew.”
She nodded and cut her meat. “Thank you, Captain. I feared you would starve them.”
Shaking his head, he tsked. “You have judged me harshly, my dove. I’m a civil highwayman. I do think of others, you know.”
Inwardly, she seethed. Only if they have valuables to steal. “Good to hear.” She bit into her duck, and nearly sighed with satisfaction. The salty meat practically melted on her tongue. It had been quite a while since she tasted anything so mouth-wateringly delicious.
“However,” he continued, “neither you nor any of the other prisoners will have leave to speak your mind while under my command. Although I have given you clemency to say a few vicious things to me, I won’t let it continue when we are in the presence of others. Is that understood?”
Nodding, she stuffed more food into her mouth lest she spout off her thoughts again.
He sipped his wine and looked at her over the rim of his pewter cup. Shadows played in the holes of his mask, making him more mysterious. If only she could see his eyes, maybe she’d know what he was thinking.
He set his cup down, pushed away from the table and stood. Her heart picked up rhythm as he walked around the table to her side and knelt. She clutched the fork, wishing it were the dagger. Hawk’s strong fingers stroked her hair then his touch moved to her cheek. The light caress nearly suffocated her. Her chest tightened and breaths came so fast she feared she’d swoon.
“My dove, if you shower kind words upon me, there isn’t much I wouldn’t do to please you.”
His heated gaze was almost as scorching as his fingers, and heaven help her, they were both tantalizing. Fear suffocated her again, but it was different this time. He could make her melt with the right words and a soft touch. Then again, perhaps she could use this to her advantage. What if the only way to make Hawk lower his guard was to be nice, submissive, or even charming? If she could accomplish this, could she convince him that ravishing her wasn’t what he really wanted to do?
It was worth a try.
“P—please forgive me, Captain. I have never been held prisoner before, and from what I have heard and read, it’s not a pleasant experience.”
“Ah, but I’ll make it pleasant, I assure you.”
When he stood, she sighed with relief. Her mind refused to work when he was so close. She gulped the wine, hoping it would stop her from shaking. “Captain Hawk, you do have quite a reputation, you know.”
He arched an eyebrow. “Indeed?”
“Yes. At least most of your prisoners eventually walk away after you’ve taken them, which is a very good thing.”
He chuckled. “You have heard the truth. I’m not the evil person you have thought me to be. I don’t kill and torture people for the mere sport. I only kill if they are threatening my life or the lives of my men.”
“Tell me, Captain Hawk, why did you attack the stagecoach, kill the driver and guard, and take us prisoner? We are all humble people and far from wealthy.”
“This I know, Miss Stanley. All I wanted, however, was some documents that were being carried by someone in your group.”
“Have you found these documents?”
He shook his head. “Not yet, but I shall not give up my search.”
“Are you certain the documents and the person carrying them were in the stagecoach? Could you have been mistaken?”
He sat back and linked his fingers across his chest. “Miss Stanley, men such as myself do not get where we are in life by making mistakes. I have many informants, and I trust their word.”
She frowned. “I understand.” She sipped her wine. “But when you finally obtain these documents, will you release us?”
“But of course. As you have said before, I have a reputation, and I certainly release my prisoners when I’m through with them.” He studied her over the rim of his cup. “You seem in a hurry to leave.”
“Of course I am.”
“You mentioned earlier you were on your way to Plymouth to settle your father’s affairs.”
“Tell me how he died.”
Taking a deep breath, she laid down her fork and placed her hand over the hidden dagger on her lap. She couldn’t tell Hawk the truth. So what could she say that he would believe? “My father had a business in Plymouth. He has an estate and a townhouse as well. He fell ill, and before he could sail home, he died.”
“Why are you in charge? Does he not have a solicitor who can take care of this?”
“If he does, I wasn’t told. When debt collectors sent me letters demanding money, I feared the worst—that he didn’t have a solicitor. That’s why I’m here.”
Hawk lifted his cup of wine toward her. “I wish you well in your endeavors. I do know how tedious the task will be if not done correctly.”
“Pray Captain, may I be so bold as to ask if you know anyone I can contact that might help me in this matter?” After she asked, she nearly patted herself on the back for thinking of such an idea. How else could she lead him to think she was starting to trust him?
He leaned forward and rested his elbows on the table. His finger stroked his mustache as his gaze stayed on her. “Hmm… Let me think on this. I’m quite certain I know someone who might help.”
“Thank you, Captain. A woman such as I, in a strange place like this, would be very appreciative of your kindness.”
“How much would you appreciate it?”
Inwardly, she seethed. By the stretch of his cheesy grin, she knew what inappropriate thoughts ran amok through his head, and she’d like to slap those wicked ideas right out of his head. Just continue to be nice and cooperative, she reminded herself. “Very much.”
“Then I’ll eagerly find a person to assist you, my dove.”
“I shall anxiously await your answer.”
As she took another sip of her wine, she didn’t know if the drink was calming her worry, or if Hawk was charming her. Either way, she wasn’t as nervous as before, and she quite enjoyed talking with him. “Captain? May I ask what you have planned for me and the other prisoners?”
Using his napkin, he wiped his mouth then stood. Because of his mask, she couldn’t read his expression; she could only watch his lips. Right now he was neither smiling nor frowning as he walked around the table to her side.
“I plan on releasing the prisoners soon, I assure you.” He slid a hand into hers and tugged, pulling her up to stand in front of him. She quickly grabbed the linen-covered dagger and placed it on the table next to her fork.
“As for you, my dove,” he whispered, cupping her face and leaning closer, “I plan on getting to know you better.”
She didn’t have time to panic before his mouth covered hers. She squeezed her eyes shut, hoping she could fight him off. Her mind screamed for her to stop him, yet cooperation was the best way to get him to bend to her will. But the longer he kissed her so tenderly, the more she melted. She didn’t want this, but he no longer acted the part of a fearsome highwayman. Instead, she saw him as a real man.
She clutched his shoulders just to keep from dropping to the floor. Immediately, every nerve in her body responded, and her mind quit fighting. No man had ever kissed her like this, and Heaven help her, she enjoyed it immensely.
He slid his hands around her and pulled her closer. His bulging muscles had her mesmerized, and all she wanted to do was run her palms over his shoulders, down his arms, and over his chest.
This was wrong, completely and utterly against all she’d set her mind to or been brought up to believe, but it didn’t matter. Suddenly she was paralyzed—melting—swirling in a haze of sensation and longing. Leaning into him, she fully participated in the kiss, sensually stroking her tongue against the velvety heat of his.
He broke the kiss and moved his mouth to her ear where he nibbled. She gasped and fell back against the table, her palm pressing on the hidden dagger. Awareness of where she was and what she was doing snapped inside her.
Although she had never felt so alive, she couldn’t let this continue. She knew what he wanted, and marriage and family were not included. Determination to stop Captain Hawk surged through her with renewed force. It didn’t matter if he kissed her with such tenderness; he would never love her or be the kind of man she dreamed of marrying.
She must remember Captain Hawk was the very reason her father died, and the very reason she had been left penniless.
Slowly, she moved her fingers under the linen napkin and grasped the dagger. While Hawk rained kisses over her neck, she brought the weapon out, moving the blade between them.
He lifted his head and smiled at her with dazed passion in his eyes. Why did he look so handsome? He studied her face and then frowned. Dropping his gaze, he pulled back slightly.
“I’ll not let you ravish me, you beast! You killed my father. I’ll not be another victim.” Panicked, she pushed the blade through the sinew and muscle of his chest. Blood flowed over her fingers, warm and sticky.
His face turned white, and he staggered backward, grasping the weapon. He pulled it from his body and met her gaze with a questioning look.
She sobbed and took slow steps away. Oh, no! What had she done? “I didn’t mean to… If you hadn’t kissed me…”
He shook his head and stepped toward her, but stumbled against the table. Falling, he smacked his head on the corner and collapsed on the floor, motionless.
Tears filled her eyes and she bit her knuckles to keep from crying. I killed him. I’m a murderer no better than these highwaymen! This wasn’t her plan. She had to get out of here. Now!
When her back slammed against the door, she turned and pulled on the doorknob. As she rushed out of the room, she ran into a bulky man who grabbed her shoulders and glared. His attention moved from her bloody hands, to inside the room.
His eyes widened. “Blimey, wench. Ye killed the Capt’n’!”
“No,” she sobbed, unable to look back and see the unmoving figure of the once interminable Hawk. The slick of his blood stained her hands. “It was an accident.”
“Don’t look like no accident to me, lady.”
She struggled to pull away from his harsh grip, but he held tight. “You don’t understand. I—I—was on my way to find someone to help him.”
“Ye’r lyin’, wench.”
His fist flew out and knocked her across the jaw. Blackness filled her vision and closed her mind as her body sank motionless to the floor.
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
Isabelle kept her eyes on the lad in the laundry room as he instructed her on how to clean Hawk’s clothes. The boy’s scraggly appearance tugged at her heart, yet he smiled as he taught her about the laundry, not seeming to mind how he looked.Although she tried to listen carefully, her mind wandered back to the captain’s bath and how understanding he’d been. Several times she had to remind herself that he was a highwayman. Yet he certainly didn’t act like one when they were alone.Her thoughts came back to what she was doing as the boy dunked a shirt in the water.“Then, ye take the shirt like this and scrub it up and down. Do ye s
Turbulent thoughts filled Marcus’ head the rest of the afternoon. Isabelle remained in his mind even though she wasn’t in the room. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw her eyes glistening with tears of gratitude. His lips still tingled from the memory of her brief, but earth-moving kiss, and his arms still ached to hold her.Isabelle would be here any moment with his dinner. Earlier, he’d sent word to the cook to have her bring two dinners so she could eat with him.Now he wanted to say things that would make her happy. Perhaps he’d ask about her aunt and uncle. He wanted to know more about what made Isabelle the kind of woman she was, especially since she had such a rotten example in a father. Strange thing was she didn&rs