Surrender of a Siren (The Wanton Dairymaid Trilogy #2)

A hand clapped on her shoulder.
Milk sloshed over the side of the pail, dousing her hand and splattering her skirts. A startled cry whooshed out of her as an arm whipped around her waist. Her back collided with a wall of heat and muscle.
“Is this what you wanted?” The rough whisper warmed her ear.
“Gray.” She nearly fainted with relief. He held her tight against him with one arm, his other hand skimming over the curve of her hip. “Gray, what on earth are you doing? You made me spill the milk, drat you.”
“It won’t go to waste.” Resting his chin on her shoulder, he untangled her fingers from the pail’s handle. Bending her arm at the elbow, he lifted her fingers to his mouth, sucking them clean one by one. His tongue traced each finger and the delicate webs between them, sending gooseflesh rippling down the backs of her legs.
“Isn’t this what you wanted?” His fingers interlaced with hers, squeezing them until they hurt. “Your dream lover, lurking in the shadows of the stables, the larder…the storeroom? Lying in wait for his wanton dairymaid?”
Sophia froze. Dear God, he’d seen The Book. He nipped at the curve of her neck, and she gasped. “You-“ She swallowed hard. “You had no right to look through that.”
“You had no right to put me in it.” She could hear the raw edge of anger in his voice. His fingers still gripping hers, he pressed her own hand to her breast. “But let’s not dwell on rights, sweet. Not when wrongs are so much more interesting.

Ahoy!” a seaman called out. “The English frigate Polaris, ten days out from Antigua, bound for Portsmouth.”
“Ahoy, yerself!” It was O’Shea’s rough brogue. She’d never heard sweeter music. “This be the clipper Sophia, of no particular country at the moment. Seven days out from Tortola, bound for…well, bound for here. Captain requests permission to board.”
Gray. It had to be Gray.
The officers of the Polaris exchanged wary looks.
“Oh, for Heaven’s sake.” Sophia pushed forward to the ship’s rail and cupped her hands around her mouth, calling, “Permission to board granted!”
A cheer rose up from the other ship’s deck. “It’s her, all right!” a voice called. Stubb’s, Sophia thought.
Oh, but she hardly cared who was on the other deck. She cared only for the strong figure swinging across the watery divide as the two ships came abreast. Turning back toward the center of the ship, she pushed her way through the sweaty throng of sailors, desperate to get to him. Her foot caught on a rope, and she tripped-
But it didn’t matter. Gray was there to catch her.
And he was still wearing those sea-weathered, fire-scarred boots. No doubt for sentimental reasons.
“Steady there,” he murmured, catching her by the elbows. She looked up to meet his beautiful blue-green eyes. “I have you.”
“Oh, Gray.” She launched herself into his arms, clinging to his neck as he laughed and spun her around. “You’re here.”
“I’m here.”
And he was. Every strong, solid, handsome inch of him. Sophia buried her face in his throat, breathing in his scent. Lord, how she’d missed him.
She pulled away, bracing her hands on his shoulders to study his face. “I can’t believe you came after me.”
“I can’t believe you actually left.” He lowered her to the deck, and her hands slid to his arms. “I thought you were bluffing with that bit. I’d have never allowed you to go.

An irregular birthmark stood out on the crest of her hip, like a splash of wine on snow.
He touched a finger to it, and she stirred.
“Don’t look at that,” she mumbled, rubbing sleep from her eyes. “I know it’s horrid.”
“Horrid?” Despite the pained expression on her face, he had to laugh. “Sweetheart, I can honestly say that there is nothing about you that’s horrid in the least.”
“My painting master would not agree.”
The bitter taste of envy filled his mouth. “Do you know, that Frenchman of yours had better hope I never meet with him.
“Oh, no,” she said quickly. “Not Gervais. Never Gervais. My painting master was an old, balding prig called Mr. Turklethwaite.”
Gray’s bafflement must have been obvious.
She went on, “There was never any Gervais. I mean, you know that I’d never taken a man to my bed, but you must understand…I’ve never allowed another man into my heart, either.” She kissed his brow, then his lips. “I love you, only you.”
God. How brave she was. Tossing those words about as though they were feathers. Could she possibly suspect how they landed in his chest like cannonballs, detonating deep in his heart?
Struggling for equanimity, he asked casually, “So when did this other painting master have occasion to see your birthmark?”
She laughed. “He didn’t. But I painted something like it once, on a portrait of Venus. I told him I thought it lent her an air of reality. Oh, how he scolded me. A lady who paints, he said-“ She gave Gray a teasing look. “He would not apply the term “artist” to a female, you see.”
“I see.”
“A lady who paints, he said, should approach the art as she would any other genteel accomplishment. Her purpose is to please; her goal is to create an example of refinement. A true lady would not paint an imperfection, he said, any more than she would strike a false note in a sonata. Beauty is not real, and reality is not beautiful.”
Gray shook his head. “Remarkable. I believe I despise your real painting master even more than I hated the fictional one. I wouldn’t have thought it possible.

As she passed the door to Gray’s study, a familiar, muscled arm shot out into the corridor, catching her by the waist.
Laughing, she stumbled into the room, quickly finding herself caught between cool walnut paneling at her back and the hot, solid wall of man before her. Ever since their wedding-or since the Kestrel storeroom, more likely-Gray seemed to find it an irresistible challenge, to catch her unawares in an unlikely location and pull her into a feverish embrace.
Sophia had no wish to discourage the habit, but this wasn’t the ideal time for a tryst. “Gray,” she chided between kisses, “what are you about? The housekeeper said there was an urgent matter requiring my attention.”
“And so there is. I require your attention. Most urgently.” His hand slid to her bottom, and he lifted her easily, pinning her to the wall with his hips. The beaded ridges of the wainscoting dug into her spine. “Don’t think we’ve used this room yet,” he murmured, nibbling at the curve of her neck.
“I’m entertaining,” she protested.
“Yes, you are,” he said, grinding against her. “Highly entertaining.”
Sophia sighed with pleasurable frustration. “I mean, I have a guest. Lady Kendall’s in the salon, with Bel.” She levered her arm against his chest, carving out some space between them. “And I thought you were at your shipping office.”
“Yes, well…” Mischief gleamed sharp in his eyes. “I decided to go riding instead.

But he hadn’t appeared that night. Not the next morning, either. By the time she finally crossed paths with him the following afternoon, his mumbled “Merry Christmas” was the extent of their exchange.
It seemed they were back to silence.
I don’t want you.
She tried to ignore the words echoing in her memory. They weren’t true, she told herself. She was an expert at deceit; she knew a lie when she heard one.
Still. What else to believe, when he avoided her thus?
Although he rarely spoke to her over the next two days, Sophia frequently overheard him speaking of her. Even these remarks were the tersest of commands: “Fetch Miss Turner more water,” or “See that her canopy doesn’t go slack.” She felt herself being tended, not unlike a goat. Fed, watered, sheltered. Perhaps she shouldn’t complain. Food, water, and shelter were all welcome things.
But Sophia was not livestock, and she had other, more profound needs. Needs he seemed intent on neglecting, the infuriating man.

But whether I’m on deck or below it, I’ll never be far.”
“Shall I take that as a promise? Or a threat?”
She sauntered toward him, hands cocked on her hips in an attitude of provocation. His eyes swept her body, washing her with angry heat. She noted the subtle tensing of his shoulders, the frayed edge of his breath.
Even exhausted and hurt, he still wanted her. For a moment, Sophia felt hope flicker to life inside her. Enough for them both.
And then, with the work of an instant, he quashed it all. Gray stepped back. He gave a loose shrug and a lazy half-smile. If I don’t care about you, his look said, you can’t possibly hurt me. “Take it however you wish.”
“Oh no, you don’t. Don’t you try that move with me.” With trembling fingers, she began unbuttoning her gown.
“What the devil are you doing? You think you can just hike up your shift and make-“
“Don’t get excited.” She stripped the bodice down her arms, then set to work unlacing her stays. “I’m merely settling a score. I can’t stand to be in your debt a moment longer.” Soon she was down to her chemise and plucking coins from the purse tucked between her breasts. One, two, three, four, five…
“There,” she said, casing the sovereigns on the table. “Six pounds, and”-she fished out a crown-“ten shillings. You owe me the two.”
He held up open palms. “Well, I’m afraid I have no coin on me. You’ll have to trust me for it.”
“I wouldn’t trust you for anything. Not even two shillings.”
He glared at her a moment, then turned on his heel and exited the cabin, banging the door shut behind him. Sophia stared at it, wondering whether she dared stomp after him with her bodice hanging loose around her hips. Before she could act on the obvious affirmative, he stormed back in.
“Here.” A pair of coins clattered to the table. “Two shillings. And”-he drew his other hand from behind his back-“your two leaves of paper. I don’t want to be in your debt, either.” The ivory sheets fluttered as he released them. One drifted to the floor.
Sophia tugged a banknote from her bosom and threw it on the growing pile. To her annoyance, it made no noise and had correspondingly little dramatic value. In compensation, she raised her voice. “Buy yourself some new boots. Damn you.”
“While we’re settling scores, you owe me twenty-odd nights of undisturbed sleep.”
“Oh, no,” she said, shaking her head. “We’re even on that regard.” She paused, glaring a hole in his forehead, debating just how hateful she would make this.
Very.
“You took my innocence,” she said coldly-and completely unfairly, because they both knew she’d given it freely enough.
“Yes, and I’d like my jaded sensibilities restored, but there’s no use wishing after rainbows, now is there?”
He had a point there. “I suppose we’re squared away then.”
“I suppose we are.”
“There’s nothing else I owe you?”
His eyes were ice. “Not a thing.”
But there is, she wanted to shout. I still owe you the truth, if only you’d care enough to ask for it. If only you cared enough for me, to want to know.
But he didn’t. He reached for the door.
“Wait,” he said. “There is one last thing.”
Sophia’s heart pounded as he reached into his breast pocket and withdrew a scrap of white fabric.
“There,” he said, unceremoniously casting it atop the pile of coins and notes and paper. “I’m bloody tired of carrying that around.”
And then he was gone, leaving Sophia to wrap her arms over her half-naked chest and stare numbly at what he’d discarded.
A lace-trimmed handkerchief, embroidered with a neat S.H.

Come on, Gray,” another sailor called. “Just one toast.”
Miss Turner raised her eyebrows and leaned into him. “Come on, Mr. Grayson. Just one little toast,” she taunted, in the breathy, seductive voice of a harlot. It was a voice his body knew well, and vital parts of him were quickly forming a response.
Siren.
“Very well.” He lifted his mug and his voice, all the while staring into her wide, glassy eyes. “To the most beautiful lady in the world, and the only woman in my life.”
The little minx caught her breath. Gray relished the tense silence, allowing a broad grin to spread across his face. “To my sister, Isabel.”
Her eyes narrowed to slits. The men groaned.
“You’re no fun anymore, Gray,” O’Shea grumbled.
“No, I’m not. I’ve gone respectable.” He tugged on Miss Turner’s elbow. “And good little governesses need to be in bed.”
“Not so fast, if you please.” She jerked away from him and turned to face the assembled crew. “I haven’t made my toast yet. We ladies have our sweethearts too, you know.”
Bawdy murmurs chased one another until a ripple of laughter caught them up. Gray stepped back, lifting his own mug to his lips. If the girl was determined to humiliate herself, who was he to stop her? Who was he, indeed?
Swaying a little in her boots, she raised her tankard. “To Gervais. My only sweetheart, mon cher petit lapin.”
My dear little rabbit?
Gray sputtered into his rum. What a fanciful imagination the chit had.
“My French painting master,” she continued, slurring her words, “and my tutor in the art of passion.”
The men whooped and whistled. Gray plunked his mug on the crate and strode to her side. “All right, Miss Turner. Very amusing. That’s enough joking for one evening.”
“Who’s joking?” she asked, lowering her mug to her lips and eyeing him saucily over the rim. “He loved me. Desperately.”
“The French do everything desperately,” he muttered, beginning to feel a bit desperate himself. He knew she was spinning naïve schoolgirl tales, but the others didn’t. The mood of the whole group had altered, from one of good-natured merriment to one of lust-tinged anticipation. These were sailors, after all. Lonely, rummed-up, woman-starved, desperate men. And to an innocent girl, they could prove more dangerous than sharks.
“He couldn’t have loved you too much, could he?” Gray grabbed her arm again. “He seems to have let you go.”
“I suppose he did.” She sniffed, then flashed a coquettish smile at the men. “I suppose that means I need a new sweetheart.”
That was it. This little scene was at its end.
Gray crouched, grasping his wayward governess around the thighs, and then straightened his legs, tossing her over one shoulder. She let out a shriek, and he felt the dregs of her rum spill down the back of his coat.
“Put me down, you brute!” She squirmed and pounded his back with her fists.
Gray bound her legs to his chest with one arm and gave her a pat on that well-padded rump with the other.
“Well, then,” he announced to the group, forcing a roguish grin, “we’ll be off to bed.”
Cheers and coarse laughter followed them as Gray toted his wriggling quarry down the companionway stairs and into the ladies’ cabin.
With another light smack to her bum that she probably couldn’t even feel through all those skirts and petticoats, Gray slid her from his shoulder and dropped her on her feet. She wobbled backward, and he caught her arm, reversing her momentum. Now she tripped toward him, flinging her arms around his neck and sagging against his chest. Gray just stood there, arms dangling at his sides.
Oh, bloody hell.

Dare I ask how you were received?”
“Warily, at first. Then somewhat belligerently.” His eyebrow quirked. “But my reception improved markedly, once I extended the invitation to a dinner party with my aunt.”
A rueful smile curved Sophia’s lips. Yes, that would be her parents’ reaction. They’d dine with the Devil himself, if a duchess were in attendance. “They are dreadful, aren’t they?”
He shrugged. “Isn’t everyone’s family? I doubt your father and I will ever be great friends, but we did discover one interest in common.”
“What’s that?”
“You.” Strong fingers cupped her chin. “We both want to see you happy. We both love you.”
For a moment, Sophia did not trust herself to speak. Relief and joy swelled within her, until there was room for nothing else.
His lips brushed hers in a gentle kiss. “Am I forgiven, for not telling you first?”
Yes, yes. Forgiven, cherished, treasured, adored. Loved, beyond reason.
“I suppose,” she said coyly, tracing the line of his jaw with her fingertips. “So long as you will extend me the same forgiveness.”
“Why?” His eyes narrowed. “Have you been keeping secrets again?”
“Just one.” Smiling, she took his hand and pressed it meaningfully against her gently rounded abdomen. “A very, very tiny one.

Go back to your berth.”
The lightning had ceased, but her eyes sparked with a fire all their own. “But I-“
“You’re not safe here.” He wrenched open the door to the ladies’ cabin and waved her through it. “Go to bed, Miss Turner.”
Yes, go to bed, he thought, as she wordlessly swept through the door and he drew it shut behind her. Go to your bed, before I sweep you off to mine.

He could not look at her, be near her, think of her, and keep the Kestrel afloat at the same time. No red-blooded man could.
“Go back to your cabin.”
“No.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “I’ll go mad if I spend another day in that cabin, with no one to talk to and nothing to do.”
“Well, I’m sorry we’re not entertaining you sufficiently, but this isn’t a pleasure cruise. Find some other way to amuse yourself. Can’t you find something to occupy your mind?” he made an open-handed sweep through the steam. “Read a book.”
“I’ve only got one book. I’ve already read it.”
“Don’t tell me it’s the Bible.”
The corner of her mouth twitched. “It isn’t.”
He averted his gaze to the ceiling, blowing out an impatient breath. “Only one book,” he muttered. “What sort of lady makes an ocean crossing with only one book?”
“Not a governess.” Her voice held a challenge.
Gray refused the bait, electing for silence. Silence was all he could manage, with this anger slicing through him. It hurt. He kept his eyes trained on a cracked board above her head, working to keep his expression blank.
What a fool he’d been, to believe her. To believe that something essential in him had changed, that he could find more than fleeting pleasure with a woman. That this perfect, delicate blossom of a lady, who knew all his deeds and misdeeds, would offer herself to him without hesitation. Deep inside, in some uncharted territory of his soul, he’d built a world on that moment when she came to him willingly, trustingly. Giving not just her body, but her heart.
Ha. She hadn’t even given him her name.

I can’t believe this. You go ashore for two hours of trade, and somehow you’ve exchanged an experienced sailor for a governess.”
“Well, and goats. I did buy a few goats-the boatman will have them out presently.”
“Damn it, don’t try to change the subject. Crew and passengers are supposed to be my responsibility. Am I captain of this ship or not?”
“Yes, Joss, you’re the captain. But I’m the investor. I don’t want Bains near my cargo, and I’d like at least one paying passenger on this voyage, if I can get one. I didn’t have that steerage compartment converted to cabins for a lark, you realize.”
“If you think I’ll believe your interest in that girl lies solely in her six pound sterling…”
Gray shrugged. “Since you mention it, I quite admired her brass as well.”
“You know damn well what I mean. A young lady, unescorted…” He looked askance at Gray. “It’s asking for trouble.”
“Asking for trouble?” Gray echoed, hoping to lighten the conversation. “Since when does the Aphrodite need to go asking for trouble? We’ve stowed more trouble than cargo on this ship.” He leaned back, propping both elbows on the ship’s rail. “And as trouble goes, Miss Turner’s variety looks a damn sight better than most alternatives. Perhaps you could do with a bit of trouble yourself.

I don’t know what to do with you,” he said, his voice growing curt with anger again. “Deceitful little minx. I’m of half a mind to put you to work, milking the goats. But that’s out of the question with these hands, now isn’t it?” He curled and uncurled her fingers a few times, testing the bandage. “I’ll tell Stubb to change this twice a day. Can’t risk the wound going septic. And don’t use your hands for a few days, at least.”
“Don’t use my hands? I suppose you’re going to spoon-feed me, then? Dress me? Bathe me?”
He inhaled slowly and closed his eyes. “Don’t use your hands much.” His eyes snapped open. “None of that sketching, for instance.”
She jerked her hands out of his grip. “You could slice off my hands and toss them to the sharks, and I wouldn’t stop sketching. I’d hold the pencil with my teeth if I had to. I’m an artist.”
“Really. I thought you were a governess.”
“Well, yes. I’m that, too.”
He packed up the medical kit, jamming items back in the box with barely controlled fury. “Then start behaving like one. A governess knows her place. Speaks when spoken to. Stays out of the damn way.”
Rising to his feet, he opened the drawer and threw the box back in. “From this point forward, you’re not to touch a sail, a pin, a rope, or so much as a damned splinter on this vessel. You’re not to speak to crewmen when they’re on watch. You’re forbidden to wander past the foremast, and you need to steer clear of the helm, as well.”
“So that leaves me doing what? Circling the quarterdeck?”
“Yes.” He slammed the drawer shut. “But only at designated times. Noon hour and the dogwatch. The rest of the day, you’ll remain in your cabin.”
Sophia leapt to her feet, incensed. She hadn’t fled one restrictive program of behavior, just to submit to another. “Who are you to dictate where I can go, when I can go there, what I’m permitted to do? You’re not the captain of this ship.”
“Who am I?” He stalked toward her, until they stood toe-to-toe. Until his radiant male heat brought her blood to a boil, and she had to grab the table edge to keep from swaying toward him. “I’ll tell you who I am,” he growled. “I’m a man who cares if you live or die, that’s who.”
Her knees melted. “Truly?”
“Truly. Because I may not be the captain, but I’m the investor. I’m the man you owe six pounds, eight. And now that I know you can’t pay your debts, I’m the man who knows he won’t see a bloody penny unless he delivers George Waltham a governess in one piece.”
Sophia glared at him. How did he keep doing this to her? Since the moment they’d met in that Gravesend tavern, there’d been an attraction between them unlike anything she’d ever known. She knew he had to feel it, too. But one minute, he was so tender and sensual; the next, so crass and calculating. Now he would reduce her life’s value to this cold, impersonal amount? At least back home, her worth had been measured in thousands of pounds not in shillings.
“I see,” she said. “This is about six pounds, eight shillings. That’s the reason you’ve been watching me-“
He made a dismissive snort. “I haven’t been watching you.”
“Staring at me, every moment of the day, so intently it makes my…my skin crawl and all you’re seeing is a handful of coins. You’d wrestle a shark for a purse of six pounds, eight. It all comes down to money for you.

If you leave me, I will follow you. And I will find you. I’ve the fastest ship on the sea, and boundless determination. I don’t lose what’s mine.” His eyes burned into hers. “I will find you.

If you’re the cook,” he said between mouthfuls, “I’m your captain. You can’t continue speaking to me that way.”
“You aren’t dressed like a captain.”
Gray looked down at his homespun tunic and the loose-fitting trousers cinched with a knotted cord. The clothes of a common seaman,, borrowed from a sailor now dead. He hadn’t the luxury of fine attire on the Kestrel. With the ship so undermanned, he had to be everywhere-climbing the rigging, down in the hold.
“Don’t look apologetic. They suit you.” Her gaze glanced off his shoulders, then dropped to the floor. “But I see you’ve kept the detested boots.”
He shrugged, spooning up another bite of chowder. “I’ve broken them in now.”
“And here I hoped you were keeping them for sentimental reasons.

I'll keep the girl out of trouble," Gray said, in what seemed to him a rather magnanimous gesture. "I'll watch out for her."
"Oh, I've no doubt you will. But who's going to watch out for you?"
Gray's nerves prickled. So, it wasn't the girl Joss was concerned about. No, he expected Gray to cock it all up.
"Right, Joss. I'm an unprincipled, lecherous bastard." He paused, waiting for his brother to argue otherwise.
He didn't.
Gray protested. "She's a governess, for the love of gold. Prim, proper, starched, dull." Soft, he thought in counterpoint. Delicate, sweet. Intriguing.
"Ah. So you'll dally with any chambermaid or serving wench who'll lift her skirts, but you'd draw the line at seducing a governess?"
"Yes. Have a look at me, man." Gray smoothed his brushed velvet lapel, then gestured upward at the banners trimming the freshly tarred rigging. "Look at this ship. I'm telling you, my libertine days are over. I've gone respectable."
"It's easy to change your coat. It's a great deal harder to change your ways.

It’s all right.”
“It’s not. Nothing’s right. I’ve never done a right thing in my life, it seems.”
“That makes a pair of us then.” Her lips pressed against the spot under his ear. “But I believe we are right together, don’t you? People like us…we have no talent for following rules. We can only follow our hearts. I’ve wronged people as well, but is it horribly wicked that I can’t bring myself to regret it? It brought me to you.”
He took one of her hands and kissed it. “You’re so young, you can’t know the meaning of true regret. It’s never what you’ve done, love, it’s what you’ve left undone.

I want to have you in every way known to man, and then
invent a dozen more.

Look at that ship. That clipper cost me a queen’s ransom, even with the Kestrel thrown in the bargain. But it was the fastest ship to be had.” He took her hands in his. “Forget money. Forget society. Forget expectations. We’ve no talent for following rules, remember? We have to follow our hearts. You taught me that.”
He gathered her to him, drawing her hands to his chest. “God, sweet, don’t you know? You’ve had my heart in your pocket since the day we met. Following my heart means following you. I’ll follow you to the ends of the earth if I have to.” He shot an amused glance at the captain. “Though I’d expect your good captain would prefer I didn’t. In fact, I think he’d gladly marry us today, just to be rid of me.”
“Today? But we couldn’t.”
His eyebrows lifted. “Oh, but we could.” He pulled her to the other side of the ship, slightly away from the gaping crowd. Wrapping his arms around her, he leaned close to whisper in her ear, “Happy birthday, love.”
Sophia melted in his embrace. It was her birthday, wasn’t it? The day she’d been anticipating for months, and here she’d forgotten it completely. Until Gray had appeared on the horizon, she hadn’t been looking forward to anything.
But now she did. She looked forward to marriage, and children, and love and grand adventure. Real life and true passion. All of it with this man. “Oh, Gray.”
“Please say yes,” he whispered. “Sophia.” The name was a caress against her ear. “I love you.”
He kissed her cheek and pulled away. “I’ve been remiss in not telling you. You can’t know how I’ve regretted it. But I love you, Sophia Jane Hathaway. I love you as no man ever loved a woman. I love you so much, I fear I’ll burst with it. In fact, I think I shall burst if I go another minute without kissing you, so if you’ve any mind to say yes, I’d thank you to-“
Sophia flung her arms around his neck and kissed him. Hard at first, to quiet the fool man; then gently, to savor him. oh, how she loved the taste of him, like freshly baked bread and rum. Warm and wholesome and comforting, with just a hint of spice and danger. “Yes,” she sighed against his lips. She pulled back and looked into his eyes. “Yes, I will marry you.”
His arms tightened about her waist. “Today?”
“Today. But you must let me change my gown first.” Smiling, she stroked his smooth cheek. “You even shaved.”
“Every day since we left Tortola.” He gave her a rueful smile. “I’ve a few new scars to show for it.”
“Good.” She kissed him. “I’m glad. And I don’t care if society casts us out for the pirates we are, just as long as I’m with you.”
“Oh, I don’t know that we’ll be cast out, exactly. We’re definitely not pirates. After your stirring testimony”-he chucked her under the chin-“Fitzhugh decided to make the best of an untenable situation. Or an unhangable pirate, as it were. If he couldn’t advance on his career by convicting me, he figured he’d advance it by commending me. Awarded me the Kestrel as salvage and recommended me to the governor for a special citation of valor. There’s talk of knighthood.” He grinned. “Can you believe it? Me, a hero.”
“Of course I believe it.” She laced her fingers at the back of his neck. “I’ve always known it, although I should curse that judge and his ‘citation of valor.’ As if you needed a fresh supply of arrogance. Just remember, whatever they deem you-gentleman or scoundrel, hero or pirate-you are mine.”
“So I am.” He kissed her soundly, passionately. “And which would you prefer tonight?” At the seductive grown in his voice, shivers of arousal swept down to her toes. “Your gentleman? Your scoundrel? Your hero or your pirate?”
She laughed. “I imagine I’ll enjoy all four on occasion. But tonight, I believe I shall find tremendous joy in simply calling you my husband.”
He rested his forehead against hers. “My love.”
“That, too.

Mr. Grayson was just…explaining the workings of the ship.” She attempted to tug her hand from Gray’s grasp, shooting him a pained look when he refused to relinquish his prize.
Gray said smoothly, “Actually, we were discussing debts. Miss Turner still owes me her fare, and I-“
“And I told you, you’ll have it today.” Beneath that abomination of a skirt wrapped about his leg, she planted her heel atop his booted toe and transferred all her weight onto it. Firmly. Once again, Gray regretted trading his old, sturdy boots for these foppish monstrosities. Her little pointed heel bit straight through the thin leather.
With a tight grimace, Gray released her hand. He’d been about to say, and I have her handkerchief to return. But just for that, he wouldn’t.
“Good afternoon, then.” A sweet smile graced her face as she stomped down on his foot again, harder. Then she turned and flounced away.
He made an amused face at Jonas. “I think she likes me.”
“In my cabin, Gray.”
Gray gritted his teeth and followed Joss down the hatch. Whether he liked being Gray’s half brother or not, Joss was damn lucky right now that he was. Gray wouldn’t have suffered that supercilious command for any bond weaker than blood.
“You gave me your word, Gray.”
“Did I? And what word was that?”
Joss tossed his hat on the wood-framed bed and stripped off his greatcoat with agitated movements. “You know damn well what I mean. You said you wouldn’t pursue Miss Turner. Now you’re kissing her hand and making a spectacle in front of the whole ship. Bailey’s already taking bets from the sailors as to how many days it’ll take you to bed her.”
“Really?” Gray rubbed the back of his neck. “I hope he’s giving even odds on three. Two, if you’ll send young Davy up the mast again. That got her quite excited.”
Joss glared at him. “Need I remind you that this was your idea? You wanted a respectable merchant vessel. I’m trying to command it as such, but that’ll be a bit difficult if you intend to stage a bawdy-house revue on deck every forenoon.”
Gray smiled as Joss slung himself into the captain’s chair. “Be careful, Joss. I do believe you nearly made a joke. People might get the idea you have a sense of humor.”
“I don’t see anything humorous about this. This isn’t a pleasure cruise around the Mediterranean.

That girl loves you, Gray. We’re going to get out of this, and when we do-I’d bet a hundred sovereigns to one, Sophia will be there waiting for you.”
“Sophia?” Gray blinked. “Her name is Sophia?”
Joss chuckled. “I was right. You didn’t know.”
“But-“ Gray scratched the back of his neck. “But how did you? Since when have you known her name?”
Joss shrugged, his expression composed. “Since sometime yesterday.” He laughed at Gray’s befuddled silence. “When you dropped your trousers to take a piss. It’s painted on your arse.

That”-Mr. Grayson slammed the door of the captain’s cabin-“was the most breathtaking display of stupidity I have ever witnessed in my life.”
Sophia cringed in her chair as he plunked a basin of water on the table. Liquid sloshed over the side, trickling toward the floor. With jerky motions, he removed a flask from his breast pocket, unscrewed the top, and added a splash of brandy. Then he threw back a healthy swallow, himself.
She’d never seen him so agitated. He took everything as a joke, laughed off confrontation, deflected insult with a roguish smile.
“You’re angry,” she said.
“Damn right, I’m angry. I’d like to string every one of those bloody idiots up to the yardarm and shout them deaf.”
“So why are you here, shouting at me?”
He yanked open a drawer and removed a box. When he flung it on the table and flipped the latch, the box proved to be a medicine kit, crowded with brown glass vials and plasters and rolls of gauze.
“Because…” With a sullen sigh, he dropped into the other chair. “Shouting the crew deaf is the captain’s privilege. And I’m not the captain. So I’m here instead, playing nursemaid. Give me your hands.

The two men brushed shoulders in passing, in what Sophia assumed qualified as an acceptably masculine substitute for an embrace. How grateful she was to be female.

Two sailors hauled on ropes, hoisting the jolly boat up to the ship’s side, revealing two apocryphal figures standing in the center of the small craft. At first glance, Sophia only saw clearly the shorter of the two, a gruesome creature with long tangled hair and a painted face, wearing a tight-fitting burlap skirt and a makeshift corset fashioned from fishnet and mollusk shells. The Sea Queen, Sophia reckoned, a smile warming her cheeks as the crew erupted into raucous cheers. A bearded Sea Queen, no less, who bore a striking resemblance to the Aphrodite’s own grizzled steward.
Stubb.
Sophia craned her neck to spy Stubb’s consort, as the foremast blocked her view of Triton’s visage. She caught only a glimpse of a white toga draped over a bronzed, bare shoulder. She took a jostling step to the side, nearly tripping on a coil of rope.
“Foolish mortals! Kneel before your king!”
The assembled sailors knelt on cue, giving Sophia a direct view of the Sea King. And even if the blue paint smeared across his forehead or the strands of seaweed dangling from his belt might have disguised him, there was no mistaking that persuasive baritone.
Mr. Grayson.
There he stood, tall and proud, some twenty feet away from her. Bare-chested, save for a swath of white linen draped from hip to shoulder. Wet locks of hair slicked back from his tanned face, sunlight embossing every contour of his sculpted arms and chest. A pagan god come swaggering down to earth.
He caught her eye, and his smile widened to a wolfish grin. Sophia could not for the life of her look away. He hadn’t looked at her like this since…since that night. He’d scarcely looked in her direction at all, and certainly never wearing a smile. The boldness of his gaze made her feel thoroughly unnerved, and virtually undressed. Until the very act of maintaining eye contact became an intimate, verging on indecent, experience.
If she kept looking at him, she felt certain he knees would give out. If she looked away, she gave him the victory. There was only one suitable alternative, given the circumstances. With a cheeky wink to acknowledge the joke, Sophia dropped her eyes and curtsied to the King.
Mr. Grayson laughed his approval. Her curtsy, the crew’s gesture of fealty-he accepted their obeisance as his due. And why should he not? There was a rightness about it somehow, an unspoken understanding. Here at last was their true leader: the man they would obey without question, the man to whom they’d pledge loyalty, even kneel.
This was his ship.
“Where’s the owner of this craft?” he called. “Oh, right. Someone told me he’s no fun anymore.”
As the men laughed, the Sea King swung over the rail, hoisting what looked to be a mop handle with vague aspirations to become a trident. “Bring forth the virgin voyager!

Well then. Let us begin with essentials. Are you free to marry me?” He exhaled slowly, in a pointed effort not to hold his breath.
“Of course. When I come of age, that is.”
“Tell me your birthday.”
She smiled. “The first of February.”
“It will be our wedding day.” He traced the shape of the birthmark on her hip. “Very convenient for me, for your birthday and our anniversary to coincide. I’ll be more likely to remember both.”
“I wish you would stop touching me there.”
“Do you? Why?”
“Because it is ugly. I hate it.”
He tilted his head, surprised. “I quite adore it. It reminds me that you are imperfectly perfect and entirely mine.” He slid down her body and bent to kiss the mark to prove the point. “There’s a little thrill in knowing no one else has seen it.”
“No other man, you mean.” He kissed her there again, this time tracing the shape with his tongue. She squirmed and laughed. “When I was a child, I would scrub at it in the bath. My nursemaid used to tell me, God gives children birthmarks so they won’t get lost.” Her mouth curled in a bittersweet smile. “Yet here I am, adrift on the ocean on the other side of the world. Don’t they call that irony?”
“I believe they call it Providence.” He tightened his hands over her waist. “You’re here, and I’ve found you. And I take pains not to lose what’s mine.”
He kissed her hip again, then slid his mouth toward her center as he settled between her thighs.
“Gray,” she protested through a sigh of pleasure. “It’s late. We must rise.”
“I assure you, I’ve risen.”
“I’ve work to do.” She writhed in his grip. “The men will be wanting their breakfast.”
“They’ll wait until the captain has finished his.”
“Gray!” She gave a gasp of shock, then one of pleasure. “What a scoundrel you are.”
He came to his knees and lifted her hips, sinking into her with a low groan. “Sweet,” he breathed as she began to move with him, “you would not have me any other way.

When he’d ordered the Aphrodite converted to accommodate passengers, the builder had given him an option. Did he want four gentlemen’s cabins, similar to the ladies’? Or would he prefer to squeeze six smaller berths into the same space?
Gray’s answer? Six, of course. No question about it. Two extra beds meant two extra fares. He hadn’t dreamed he’d one day occupy one of these cramped berths.
Six feet of angry man, lashed into a five-foot bunk, in the midst of a howling gale-it wasn’t a recipe for a good night’s sleep. Gray craved the space and comfort of his former quarters aboard the Aphrodite-the captain’s cabin. But as his brother had so officiously pointed out, Gray wasn’t the captain of this ship anymore.
Throw his arse in the brig, had Joss threatened? Gray tossed indignantly, his chest straining against the ropes hat held him in the child-sized bed. The ship’s brig didn’t sound so bad right now. He’d put up with a few iron bars, the rancid bilgewater and rats, if it meant he could stretch his legs properly. Hell, this room was so damned small, he couldn’t even get his blasted boots off.
He kicked the wall of his berth, no doubt scuffing the shine on his new Hessians. He hated the cursed things anyway. They pinched his feet. Why the devil he’d thought it a brilliant notion to get all dandified for this voyage, Gray couldn’t remember. Just who was he trying to impress? Stubb?

You are mine,” he whispered into her. “And the world is ours. There is nowhere beneath this sky that we do not belong together.

You are so beautiful,” he sighed into her hair.
She tried to check her girlish giggle, unsuccessfully. “Gray, it’s dark as
pitch. You can’t even see me.”
“Even in the dark,” he murmured against her skin. “You are the most
beautiful woman I’ve ever known, even in the dark.

You let him go? What the devil for?”
“Something’s wrong with his eyesight.” Any man who mistook Miss Turner for a dockside whore had to be losing his vision.

You ought to take care how you bat those eyelashes, sweetheart. One of these days, you’re likely to knock a man overboard.

You’re the one who didn’t keep his word. And speaking of your word and its dubious worth, don’t change the subject. I saw the looks you and Miss Turner were exchanging. The lady goes bright pink every time you speak to her. For God’s sake, you put food on her plate without even asking.”
“And where’s the crime in that?” Gray was genuinely curious to hear the answer. He hadn’t forgotten that shocked look she’d given him.
“Come on, Gray. You know very well one doesn’t take such a liberty with a mere acquaintance. It’s…it’s intimate. The two of you are intimate. Don’t deny it.”
“I do deny it. It isn’t true.” Gray took another swig from his flask and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Damn it, Joss. Sooner or later, you’re going to have to trust me. I gave you my word. I’ve kept it.”
And it was the truth, Gray told himself. Yes, he’d touched her tonight, but he’d never pledged not to touch her. He had kept his word. He hadn’t bedded her. He hadn’t kissed her.
God, what he wouldn’t give just to kiss her…
He rubbed the heel of his hand against his chest. That same ache lingered there-the same sharp tug he’d felt when she’d brought her foot down on his and pursed her lips into a silent plea. Please, she’d said. Don’t. As if she appealed to his conscience.
His conscience. Where would the girl have gathered such a notion, that he possessed a conscience? Certainly not form his treatment of her.
A bitter laugh rumbled through his chest, and Joss shot him a skeptical look.
“Believe me, I’ve scarcely spoken to the girl in weeks. You can’t know the lengths I’ve gone to, avoiding her. And it isn’t easy, because she won’t stay put in her cabin, now will she? No, she has to go all over the ship, flirting with the crew, tacking her little pictures in every corner of the boat, taking tea in the galley with Gabriel. I can’t help but see her. And I can see she’s too damn thin. She needs to eat; I put food on her plate. There’s nothing more to it than that.”
Joss said nothing, just stared at him as though he’d grown a second head.
“Damn it, what now? Don’t you believe me?”
“I believe what you’re saying,” his brother said slowly. “I just can’t believe what I’m hearing.”
Gray folded his arms and leaned against the wall. “And what are you hearing?”
“I wondered why you’d done all this…the dinner. Now I know.”
“You know what?” Gray was growing exasperated. Most of all, because he didn’t know.
“You care for this girl.” Joss cocked his head. “You care for her. Don’t you?”
“Care for her.”
Joss’s expression was smug. “Don’t you?”
The idea was too preposterous to entertain, but Gray perked with inspiration. “Say I did care for her. Would you release me from that promise? If my answer is yes, can I pursue her?”
Joss shook his head. “If the answer is yes, you can-and should-wait one more week. It’s not as though she’ll vanish the moment we make harbor. If the answer is yes, you’ll agree she deserves that much.”
Wrong, Gray thought, sinking back into a chair.