Pleasures of a Tempted Lady (Donovan Series #3)by Jennifer Haymore
Captain William Langley knows the ocean well, but nothing could prepare him for what he discovers adrift on the cold Irish Sea. The tiny boat carries two passengers: a child--and Meg Donovan, Will's long-lost love. Meg's disappearance at sea eight years ago was a devastating blow. Now she's back, as beautiful as ever, and with secrets as deep as… See more details below
Captain William Langley knows the ocean well, but nothing could prepare him for what he discovers adrift on the cold Irish Sea. The tiny boat carries two passengers: a child--and Meg Donovan, Will's long-lost love. Meg's disappearance at sea eight years ago was a devastating blow. Now she's back, as beautiful as ever, and with secrets as deep as Will's own . . .
After years held captive by a cold-blooded pirate, Meg has finally escaped with little Jake, the boy she's come to love as if he were her own. But the pirate wants his revenge--and Meg must do whatever it takes to shield Jake from the madman. Determined not to lose Meg again, Will vows to protect them both, yet Meg can't risk putting the only man she's ever loved in danger. With the threat to her safety growing, and her passion for Will burning brighter every day, surrendering herself to Will might be a pleasure too tempting to resist . . .
Read an Excerpt
Pleasures of a Tempted Lady
By Haymore, Jennifer
ForeverCopyright © 2012 Haymore, Jennifer
All right reserved.
William Langley gazed over the bow of his ship, the Freedom, at the rippling gray surface of the ocean. Though the seas had finally calmed, a slick of seawater coated everything, and half of his crew were still snoring in their bunks, exhausted from the exertion of keeping the ship afloat through last night’s storm.
Will ran his fingers through the cold beads of water along the top edge of the gunwale. It’d probably be a month before they dried out, but they were no worse for wear. Now they could go back to the task at hand—seeking out smugglers along the Western Approaches.
In the nearly windless morning, the Freedom crept along in an easterly direction. They were about halfway between Penzance and the Irish coast, though the storm had certainly blown them off course, and they wouldn’t get an accurate reading on their position until the skies cleared. God knew when that would be. In the interim, he’d keep them moving east toward England so they could patrol the waters closer to the shore.
“She did well, didn’t she?”
Will glanced over his shoulder to see his first mate, David Briggs, approaching from the starboard deck, freshly shaved and calm, a far cry from his harried demeanor last night.
Will smiled. “Indeed she did.” The Freedom was a newly built American schooner rigged with triangular sails in the Bermuda style, a sight rarely seen among the square-rigged brigs and cutters common on this side of the Atlantic. But Will’s schooner was fast and sleek—perfect for the job she had been assigned to perform. And sturdy, as proven by her stalwart response to last night’s storm.
She was, above all, his. Will owned a fleet of ships captained by various men involved in his import business, but since before the first planks were riveted together the Freedom had been his. Three years ago, he’d sent his carefully rendered plans to Massachusetts with detailed instructions on how she should be built. And now, with every step along her shiny planked deck, the satisfying twin prides of creation and ownership resonated through him.
The only area in which Will had relinquished control in the building of the Freedom was in the naming of the ship. The name he’d wanted for her would be too obvious. It would raise too many smirking eyebrows in London society. Even his best friends in the world—the Earl of Stratford and his wife, Meg—would frown and question his sanity if he’d given the ship the name his heart and soul had demanded.
So instead of Lady Meg, he’d agreed to the name suggested by the American shipbuilder—likely as a joke, since they knew well that he was a consummate Englishman. Freedom. It seemed everything the Americans created involved their notions of freedom or liberty or national pride. Yet, surprising himself, Will had found he wasn’t opposed to the name. For him, this ship did represent freedom.
Being out here again, on the open sea, on this beauty of a vessel and surrounded by his hardy crew—all of it was freeing. The bonds that had twisted around his heart for the past two years, growing tighter and tighter, stifling him until he was sure he’d burst, were slowly unraveling.
Out here, at least he could breathe.
He glanced over at Briggs, who was scrubbing a hand over his eyes. “Sleep well?”
“Like the dead.”
“You should have slept longer.”
Briggs raised a brow at him, causing the angry red scar that ran across his forehead to pucker. “I could say the same to you, Captain.”
Will chuckled. “Touché.” Briggs was right. Will had achieved no more than two hours of sleep in the predawn hours. He could have slept in later, but he’d been anxious to survey the Freedom in the light of day. He was glad he had. The anxiety and energy that had compelled him into action since the beginning of the storm were gone now, and he felt… not exactly happy, but peaceful. For the first time in a long while.
“No sightings this morning,” Briggs said.
“No surprise there,” Will answered.
Briggs scanned the horizon with narrowed eyes. “Aye, well, it’s bloody foggy.”
“And we’re too far offshore.” Will had a theory that the particular ship they pursued—a brig smuggling rum from the West Indies—remained close to the shore for several weeks at a time. Instead of using one cove as a drop for its cargo, it used several—depositing a few barrels of rum here and another few there so as to throw the authorities off its scent. The captain of this ship was wily, and he had proved elusive to the coast guard as well as the revenue cutters. They had a vague description of the man, but nobody knew his name—or, perhaps more accurately, no one was willing to reveal his name.
The Freedom was, in essence, a spy ship—with only four guns and a crew of twenty, they wouldn’t stand in a fight against a fully armed brig with a crew of a hundred. Their task, instead of capturing the pirates, was to log the brig’s activities and hand over the information to the revenue officers, who in turn would seize the ship and its illegal cargo, then prosecute the smugglers.
Will glanced over at Briggs and saw the muscle working in his jaw. He clapped a hand over the man’s shoulder. “Patience,” he said in a low voice.
Briggs was a few years younger than him, and patience had never been his strong suit. He was anxious to find the culprits, whereas Will preferred to take things slowly, as if they had all the time in the world. The best plan of action was probably somewhere in between the two men’s methods. If they waited too long, the brig would be on its way back to the West Indies for its next illegal mission, not to be seen in these waters for at least another year.
Briggs turned to Will and nodded, the edges of his blue eyes crinkling against the glare of the morning sun’s attempt to burn through the fog. “We’ve been out here a fortnight and haven’t seen a hint of them.”
The wind had picked up, and it ruffled through the other man’s thick, tawny hair and sent wisps of fog swirling through the rigging behind him.
“We’ll find them.” Will squeezed Briggs’s shoulder. Neither man said any more; instead both turned back to gaze out over the ocean. The sea and wind were slowly gathering strength after their rest from the gale, and the schooner sliced through the small waves at a faster pace now. Will took a deep breath of the salt air. So much cleaner than the stale, rank air full of sewage and coal smoke in London.
“What’s that?” Briggs asked.
Will glanced at the man to see him squinting out over the open ocean.
His first mate pointed straight ahead. “That.”
Will scanned the sea. Could he have been wrong all this time? Might they encounter the smugglers way out here? Even as he thought it, he realized how unlikely it was. More likely they’d come across another legal English or Irish vessel.
Seeing nothing, he methodically scanned the blurred horizon once again, and then he saw it: the prow of a boat emerging like a specter from the fog.
Will frowned. The vessel was too small to be this far out at sea on its own.
After half a minute in which they both stared at the emerging shape, Briggs murmured, “Holy hell. Is it a jolly boat?”
“With a broken mast,” Will said, nodding. “I don’t see anyone in it. Can you?”
Briggs leaned forward, squinting hard. He shook his head, but then frowned. “Possibly. Lying on the center bench?”
The mast looked like it had snapped off to about a third of its height, and half the sail draped off the side of the little boat, dragging in the water. No one was attempting to row.
The boat was adrift. And the Freedom was headed straight for it.
Will could see at least one figure now—or at least a mound of pinkish fabric piled on one of the benches. And then he saw the movement. Just the smallest shudder, like the twitch of a frightened animal, beneath one of the bench seats.
He spun around and shouted to Ellis, the helmsman, ordering the man to turn into the wind on his command. If they timed it properly, rather than barreling right over the little boat and reducing it to splinters, they could pass it on the larboard side without getting its floating sail tangled in their keel or rudder.
“Aye, Captain!” Ellis answered.
Will heard a shout. He turned to take stock of the other seamen on deck. There were six additional men, four of them clustered near Ellis, speaking in excited tones and pointing at the boat emerging from the fog. The other two had been at work swabbing the deck but were now gazing at the emerging vessel in fascination.
“Fetch the hook,” someone shouted, and a pair of seamen hurried down the starboard deck where the telescoping hook was lashed.
Everyone else was still asleep, but Will could easily make do with the nine of them. The Freedom was sixty feet of sleek power, and one of the most impressive of her attributes was that her sails were controlled by a series of winches, making a large crew unnecessary. In fact, Ellis and three others could easily control the ship while Briggs, Will, and the other seamen secured the vessel.
“We’ll draw alongside it on our larboard side,” Will murmured to Briggs. Even after such a short time aboard his new ship, Will had impeccable timing when it came to the Freedom. Briggs and the crew often joked that the ship was such a part of him he could command it to do anything he wanted with a mere thought. The truth was, Will knew the Freedom intrinsically. He could predict with great accuracy how it would react to any manipulation of its sails and rudder—certainly a product of controlling everything about its design since its earliest conceptualization.
“Aye, sir,” Briggs said. “I’ll prepare to secure it larboard-side.”
“Very good.” Will turned back toward the jolly boat as Briggs hurried amidships. He could see the figure on the bench more clearly now, and he swallowed hard.
It was definitely a woman. The pink was her dress, a messy, frothy, lacy concoction spattered with the gray and black muck that constituted part of the inner workings of any sailing vessel. She lay prone and motionless on the bench. Beside her, the brownish lump wasn’t entirely clear. A dog, Will guessed, probably half dead from fear, with its head tucked under its body.
He waited another two minutes, judging the wind and the closing distance between the two vessels. Finally he shouted, “Haul up!”
Ellis responded instantly to his order, turning the wheel so the Freedom sailed directly into the wind. The sails began to flap wildly, but Will heard the whir of the winches, and soon they were pulled taut.
The Freedom lost speed quickly as the jolly boat approached, and they drifted to a halt just as a seaman reached out with the grappling hook to snag the gunwale of the small vessel.
Will hurried to the larboard side while Briggs lashed the boat to the Freedom and one of the seamen secured a ladder. He had already descended into the jolly boat when Will arrived at the scene.
“There’s a lady here, sir!” The seaman, Jasper, who was really little more than a boy, looked up at Will wide eyed, as if uncertain what to do.
“Can you heft her up, lad?” Will called down. The poor woman hadn’t budged, and her matted hair and torn clothing covered her features. He hoped she could breathe through that thick tangle of blond hair. He hoped she was alive.
Jasper appeared rather horrified at the prospect of carrying her, but with a gulp that rolled his prominent Adam’s apple, he nodded. Widening his stance for balance in the bouncing jolly boat, he leaned over and gingerly tucked his arms under the figure of the unmoving woman and hoisted her up.
Will sensed movement from the corner of his eye, and he glanced over at the lump he’d thought was a dog.
Two brown eyes stared at him from under a mass of shaggy brown hair. It was looking up from its position curled into a ball on the floor of the jolly boat, but it was no dog. It was a child, and he was creeping backward, as if he were considering escape.
Seeing that his first mate had looked up from his task and had noticed the child as well, Will nodded at Briggs. “Go down and grab him,” he told him. “Best hurry, too—looks like he’s about to jump overboard.”
Briggs vaulted over the side of the Freedom, his movements graceful. The man had a way about him on a ship—no matter where he was from the bilge to the top of the mast, he was inherently graceful and self-composed, even in twenty-foot seas.
Briggs’s fast motion evidently frightened the boy, because he scrambled backward, and when Briggs stepped over the bench toward him, the child scurried up the side of the hull and leaped overboard. Briggs was lightning quick, though. He whipped out his hand, grabbed the urchin by the scruff of the neck, and hauled him back into the boat.
Without making any noise, the boy kicked and flailed, his hands gripping the strong arms around him and trying to yank them away.
“Feisty one, aren’t you?” Will heard Briggs say above the slap of the waves against the jolly boat’s hull. “But don’t worry, lad. We’re here to help you, not hurt you.”
That seemed to calm the boy enough for Briggs to get a firmer grip on him, and Will turned back to Jasper, who was struggling with hoisting the lady up the ladder. The second mate, MacInerny, had climbed halfway down to help, and they’d managed to heft her most of the way up.
Will bent over and reached down for her, managing to grasp her beneath the armpits, and with the two men’s help, he was able to maneuver her onto the deck. It wasn’t that she was heavy—she was actually a slip of a thing. But the movement of the ocean combined with her dead weight and the frothy torn clothing combined to make it a cumbersome process.
Cradling her head, Will gently lay her on the deck.
“She’s breathing,” Jasper gasped as he scrambled up the ladder. “She lives!”
Will heaved out a sigh of relief.
Holding the little boy—who looked to be about five or six years old, though Will was certainly no authority on children—Briggs stepped onto the deck. The four men hovered over the woman. Crouched near her feet, Jasper cleared his throat and tugged the filthy hem of her dress down over the torn and dirty stockings covering her legs.
Something about those legs was… familiar.
With his heart suddenly pounding hard, Will raised his hand to push away the blond mass of hair obscuring her features. Her hair was dense with wetness and salt, but he cleared it from her face, his callused fingertips scraping over the soft curve of her cheek.
“Oh, God,” Will choked, his hand frozen over her hair. “Oh, my God.”
“What is it, Captain?” The question came from somewhere above him.
Will blinked away the water threatening to stream from his eyes. Was he overtired? Was he having visions? Had the intensity of the storm and lack of proper sleep caused him to have strange, perverse dreams?
No. God no, he was awake. There was too much color—the dewy flesh of her skin, the light brown spatter of freckles on her nose, the pink and white of her dress. Beyond the rancid smell of bilge water—originating mostly from the boy, he thought—he could smell her, too. She’d always smelled sweet and pure, like the sugarcane from the plantation in Antigua where she’d been raised.
Was she a ghost?
Half fearing she’d evaporate like fog beneath his fingers, he clasped both sides of her face and turned it upward so she would have been staring at him if her eyes were open.
“You’re real,” he whispered. He crouched over her mouth and nose and closed his eyes as the soft puff of her breath washed over his cheek.
Jasper was right—she was alive.
This was impossible. She’d been lost at sea eight years ago—on the other side of the Atlantic. Had she been adrift all this time, like some sleeping beauty, waiting for him—her prince—to find her and kiss her awake?
Did he dare hope that this was a true miracle and not some cruel joke of fate?
“Meg,” he breathed. The dewy feel of her skin beneath his fingertips swept through him like the stroke of a rose petal. “Meg? Wake up,” he murmured. “Wake up, love.”
The urge overcame him, and forgetting the men staring at him—at them—he bent forward and pressed his lips to hers.
Her mouth was soft and cool, with a hint of salt. God help him, but memories slammed into him. He remembered the feel of her lips against his, the feel of her body against his. And his body could do nothing but respond to the images rolling through his mind. The sweetness of her body tucked against him. Her trusting gray eyes… the way she’d looked at him. No one had ever looked at him like Meg had.
He drew back, his movement slow. She hadn’t moved.
Keeping himself just over her, he held her precious face cupped in his hands. He couldn’t bear to let her go. He couldn’t bear to pull farther away from her. Instead, he touched her nose with his and reveled in the soft feel of her breath as it whispered over his forehead.
She was alive. Meg was alive.
It was Briggs’s voice. Will closed his eyes and waited until she exhaled once more, and then he dragged his face up to look at his first mate. Briggs still held on to the shoulders of the dark-haired little boy, though he’d stopped struggling and was staring at Will with wide blue eyes.
Was the child hers?
The thought nearly toppled him. He lowered a hand onto the deck to steady himself and said through his teeth, “Yes, Mr. Briggs?”
“Perhaps we should take the lady below?”
Will hesitated. Of course they should take her below, but where to put her? This wasn’t a large ship—there was no sick bay or surgery, and none of the men possessed much in the way of medical expertise. There was only one reasonable place.
Rising to his feet, he let out a sigh that misted into the cold morning air. “Yes. Take her to my quarters.”
Before anyone else could move, Jasper had gathered her in his arms and risen to his feet. MacInerny led the way to the stern, where he held open the door to Will’s quarters.
Jasper hesitated, glancing back over his shoulder with his heavy brows raised in question.
“Lay her on the bed, if you will, Mr. Jasper.”
“Aye, Cap’n.” With infinite gentleness, he settled her on the bed. Jasper was a rough mountain of a man, born in the slums of London and raised by the Navy. Will wouldn’t have expected tenderness from him in any circumstance. But here he was, behaving like the gentle giant with this lady.
Jasper stepped back and gazed at her as Will stepped to his side, and the rest of the men formed a semicircle around Will’s bunk, all looking at Meg, all awaiting his next command.
Will glanced over at Briggs, who now held the boy’s hand in a firm grasp. “All of you, back to your duties.” As the men turned to go with muttered aye, sirs, Will added, “Briggs, you and the boy stay.”
When the room was cleared, Will knelt in front of the boy. “What happened, lad?”
The boy didn’t say a word, but his wide eyes fixed on Will as if he were entranced.
“Was your ship lost in the storm?”
Will gestured to Meg. His next words were taut. “Is that lady your mama?”
Again, there was no response, but the boy’s gaze flickered over to Meg.
With a sigh, Will rose. “What do you think, Briggs?”
“No idea, sir.” Briggs hesitated, his gaze sharpening. “Are you somehow acquainted with this lady, Captain?”
After a long, uncomfortable hesitation, Will nodded slowly. “I knew her. Long ago. You’re probably going to think me mad, but…”
Briggs raised an expectant eyebrow, and Will found himself unable to voice the truth. It would make him sound crazy if he said the lady had been lost at sea eight years ago. He glanced significantly down at the boy. “Later.”
Briggs nodded, but his speculative blue gaze didn’t falter.
Meg let out a soft puff of breath, jerking Will’s attention to her. He hurried over to her. “Meg?”
She’d grown still again.
Briggs came to stand beside him, the boy at her side. “What’s her name?”
“Margaret Donovan,” Will responded instantly. Was it still her name? Had she married? He glanced downward, but the child stared at the unconscious woman without a change of expression, giving him no clues.
Suddenly, the lad tugged out of Briggs’s grip and scrambled up the side of the bed, smearing his dirt and grime over the silk counterpane. Briggs reached out, intending to stop him, but Will held up his hand. “Let him go.”
The boy tucked himself against Meg’s body, slung his arm around her, and closed his eyes. Without waking, Meg wrapped her arm around the boy’s thin shoulders and drew him close.
Will watched them for a moment longer. “Perhaps it’s simply that both of them are exhausted from their ordeal.”
“It seems that way,” Briggs agreed.
Will’s curiosity gnawed at him like a hundred mosquito bites begging to be scratched, but for now, Meg and the child needed to rest.
He could wait a few hours. Hell, he’d waited for Meg for six years before he’d learned that she’d been lost at sea. A few hours longer couldn’t hurt.
He released a shaky breath. “I want them watched at all times. I don’t want to see any more escape attempts from the little one. Or from the lady,” he added as an afterthought. It seemed a reasonable assumption that she might try to escape. If she’d kept herself hidden from him for eight years, why on earth would she want to be found now?
Meg hurt all over, but it felt like she was drifting on a cloud.
Where was she?
Her body didn’t want to respond to her commands for it to open her eyes, but she managed to peel them open a crack.
Nausea overcame her so fast and so hard, her eyelids slammed shut again.
Slower. More slowly this time.
She was wide awake now. Jake’s slumbering body was heavy and warm beside her—a familiar, comfortable presence. The ship rocked beneath them—and the everyday creaks and groans of the rigging sounded overhead.
She drifted off again but then came wide awake with a painful jolt.
This wasn’t right. She wasn’t supposed to be on the Defiant. She and Jake had escaped. They’d been sailing for Ireland… and then it had begun to storm…
She couldn’t remember what had happened during the storm. Obviously, something had gone terribly wrong. Caversham had found them.
She kept her body very still, combating the choking sobs that welled in her throat. After all this time… she’d planned it so perfectly. She’d spent years planning it, for heaven’s sake. It had been her and Jake’s only hope of escape.
And now Caversham would punish them both. He’d make sure it never happened again.
She gathered Jake closer against her body, bending her head to bury her lips in the little boy’s hair. The strands weren’t as baby soft as they usually were—they were stiff with salt and reeked of the sea.
She froze, not breathing. She didn’t recognize that voice… and yet she did.
Her heartbeat pounding in her chest, she tried cracking her eyes open again. The cabin was bright and blurry, and she couldn’t make out any shapes. Pain sliced through her skull, and she choked back nausea. She squinted, trying to discern the shadows and figures in front of her.
“Are you in pain?” The voice was soft, full of compassion. She wasn’t used to male voices sounding like that. She was only used to the harsh, guttural noises of the men from Caversham’s ships. And Caversham himself, coldly aristocratic. A shudder prickled her skin at the thought of his voice.
And then it struck her as she squinted harder and the blobs of color turned into the unfamiliar shapes of a cabin she didn’t know: She wasn’t on the Defiant. He hadn’t found her.
Someone else had.
She didn’t know whether to cry from relief or fear. Yet, whoever it was, surely it couldn’t be as bad as Caversham finding them.
Jake’s dark brown hair blocked her view of the room, and she struggled against the pain to raise her head. Jake grumbled softly and snuggled harder against her. She tightened her arm around him. Above all, she thanked God they were still together. She didn’t know what had happened, but there were all sorts of scenarios in which she might have lost Jake. He was the most important thing. As long as he was with her, she could protect him.
She blinked hard. That seemed to clear her vision a bit, and she blinked again. She could see buff trousers tucked into shiny black Wellingtons, and a sea-blue waistcoat with a line of gold buttons—far finer than anything Caversham’s men wore, although Caversham himself was quite the fop. This man, though—he filled out his clothing in a way Caversham never could. Powerful thigh muscles pressed against the wool of the trousers. The waistcoat cinched a narrow waist that widened to strong, broad shoulders. He seemed endlessly tall.
Finally, she was looking up into the man’s face. The face was familiar, like his voice, but who was he? She frowned. Something about him…
He stared down at her; his lips parted as if he was about to speak but lost the words before he was able to push them free.
He blinked, and her gaze riveted to his eyes—dark as chocolate swirled with bits of amber. Beautiful eyes. Eyes that hadn’t changed.
She must be dreaming. Having visions. The days in the Defiant’s jolly boat and the storm had muddled her mind. She was probably, at this very moment, lying on one of the jolly boat’s benches as they drifted toward Ireland.
“Meg,” the man whispered.
And his name—and all the memories associated with it—flooded through her in a powerful rush.
Commander William Langley.
She wrapped both her arms around Jake and gathered him close. The boy was her only link to reality. If she lost him, she’d have nothing. He shifted, and she glanced down to see that he was awake and gazing at her.
She looked back up at the man—no, Commander Langley. He was still standing there, pale and motionless, his dark eyes swirling with emotions she couldn’t begin to name.
How should she address him? When she’d last seen him, she’d called him Will. But that was years ago. Surely it wouldn’t be appropriate after so long. She swallowed hard against the lump that had formed in her throat.
“Commander Langley?” Her voice emerged low and cracking.
He released a hissing breath, and his hand covered hers over Jake’s back, heavy and warm. “Yes. It’s me. William Langley.”
“How…?” She choked on the word.
He hesitated, then gave her a tight smile. “We found you. Floating in a jolly boat with a broken mast. You’ve been unconscious since we brought you aboard.”
“Jake?” She looked down at the boy again. “Are you all right, darling?”
“Mmm hmm,” he said with a sober nod.
She struggled to raise herself into a sitting position, but the world swirled around her, her vision blurred, and she groped to hold on to the bed sheet.
Instantly, firm arms came around her shoulders, holding her steady. “There now. Lie down. I… we found a lump on your head—looks like you were hit quite hard by the mast when it fell.”
“I think I… I’m going to…” Her body pitched forward. It was too much. Unthinkable that after so long she should be on a ship with—of all the people in the world—William Langley.
Unthinkable that she was about to vomit all over his fine silk bedspread.
“I’m sorry,” she groaned, willing it not to happen. But it was. As if he knew he might be the target of the imminent disaster, Jake scrambled away from her.
“Hold on,” Commander Langley murmured.
She closed her eyes tight and focused on the rapid thump of his boots over the wooden floorboards.
Within a few seconds, his hand was on her shoulder again. “Here. Lean forward. I’ve got you.”
Opening her eyes, she saw the silver gleam of the tin bucket he’d placed in her lap. She leaned forward and released the sparse contents of her stomach as William Langley held the hair back from her face.
For years she’d fantasized about seeing this man again. Never once had the reunion of her dreams included bile, an overwhelming headache, and dizziness so pervasive she couldn’t think straight.
When she’d finished, she leaned over the bucket panting, tears seeping from her closed eyes. “I’m sorry,” she murmured. “So very sorry.”
His fingers tightened on her shoulder. “There’s nothing to be sorry about.”
He took the bucket away, and when he returned, he drew a handkerchief across her lips and then pressed a glass into her hands. She opened her eyes and stared into the pink liquid, then up at him, her brows drawn in question.
“Watered-down wine,” he explained.
She took a cautious sip. The wine flavored the water but wasn’t overwhelming, and the concoction flowed smoothly down, ridding her mouth of the awful taste.
She offered a game smile to Jake, who had scuttled to the foot of the bed and was still gazing at her, terrified. She reached her hand out to him. “There’s no need to be afraid, darling. We’re safe now.”
She glanced at William Langley and sent up a silent prayer that she was telling the truth. Eight years was a long time, but she had no doubt that the Will she’d known would have tried to protect her from a man like Jacob Caversham. She could only hope that time hadn’t altered his character too much.
When Jake took her hand, she murmured, “I’d like to introduce you to this gentleman. His name is Commander Langley, and he’s an old friend”—an old lover—“of mine. Commander Langley, this is Jake, my…” Her voice trailed off.
Once they’d escaped from the Defiant and were safely in Ireland, Meg had planned to pass Jake off as her son. William Langley was the first soul she’d seen since they’d slipped away several nights ago.
For some reason, she couldn’t bring herself to tell him she was Jake’s mother. She closed her eyes in a long blink, and when she opened them, she was thankful that the commander had chosen to ignore her unfinished sentence. Gravely, he held out his hand to Jake.
“Pleasure to meet you, lad.”
“Hold out your hand,” Meg murmured. “Like I taught you. Remember?”
Tentatively, Jake reached out. Commander Langley took the little hand into his grip and shook it firmly. “Good. Now that we’re friends, I trust you won’t try to leap overboard again?”
“Oh.” Meg gathered the boy against her chest. Jake didn’t speak much, he was easily frightened, and no one would dream of thinking him a “typical” boy. But Meg was convinced that while he would always be rather unusual, with proper love and care he might grow into a well-adjusted and capable man. It was what she wanted so badly to give him in Ireland. She looked up at Commander Langley. “I’m sorry. He’s very easily frightened and was probably terrified when you brought us aboard.”
He gave Jake an easy smile. “It’s all right,” he said to Jake. “Of course you were frightened, surrounded by unknown men and with your mama unconscious.”
He’d placed a soft emphasis on the word “mama.” She knew it was a question, and he paused, awaiting a confirmation or correction. She offered neither, instead looking down to hide the heat flaring in her cheeks.
Meg knew he would assume it was true now. It was as it should be. Just as she’d intended. Though she’d never intended to encounter this particular man when she’d been planning her escape from Caversham. She had been prepared to face the condemnation of society—society meant little to her now after all she’d been through. But to face the condemnation of William Langley… the thought of it made her stomach clench into a tight iron ball in her abdomen.
Looking down at Jake, she forced herself to speak. “You needn’t be frightened anymore. I’m certain Commander Langley will help us.”
When she glanced up at him, unable to hide the pleading in her expression, he gave a polite incline of his head, his expression completely unreadable. “I’ll assist you in whatever way I can, of course. Shall I return you to your husband? Where—?”
“I am not married,” Meg said quickly.
He raised a single eyebrow. “I see.”
She’d intended to inform the world that Jake’s father was dead, but once again the words snagged on the back of her throat, simply unwilling to emerge. She had learned to lie in the past years, and lie well, but lie to this man about such a thing…
She couldn’t have conceived of lying to him about anything when they’d been lovers so long ago. More than anyone else, even her twin sister, Will had known the real Meg. To lie to him now seemed a betrayal of that.
But she knew she must. She’d already lied to him by omission, anyhow.
She took a deep breath and forced her lips to curl into a semblance of a smile. “It’s just Jake and me now,” she said softly.
“Ah. His father is gone, then?”
At the mention of his father, Jake had made a small whimper and clung tighter to her. She knew it was from fear of Caversham, but Commander Langley interpreted it as a confirmation.
“I’m very sorry,” he said in a low voice. He patted Jake’s back, attempting to comfort the boy. “Sorry, lad.”
Not quite meeting his eyes, she gave a jerk of a nod. “We must get to Cork. My father’s family lives near there, and they will take us in.”
Will frowned at her. “What of the rest of your family? Your mother and your sisters?”
Her sisters. She’d dreamed about reuniting with her sisters—especially Serena—almost as often as she’d dreamed about seeing Will again. But if she went to her mother or her sisters, Caversham would surely find her, and they’d all be in grave danger. It was one fact she’d long ago come to terms with—to ensure their safety, she could never see them again.
Going to Cork to be with her father’s relatives was different. Caversham knew nothing of that obscure branch of her family.
Blinking hard, she looked at the far wall, at the brass oil lamp bolted to the wall. It wasn’t lit right now—sunlight aplenty streamed in through the row of windows along the back wall of the cabin. The room as a whole was downright luxurious, as ship cabins went. She realized with a jolt that she must be in the captain’s quarters.
“Perhaps… perhaps I should speak to your captain.”
For a second, he looked perplexed, as if her question had jolted him from his train of thought. Then a slow smile curved his lips. “I am the captain of the Freedom. I haven’t been a commander for five years now. I own this ship, and I designed her as well.”
For a long moment, they simply gazed at each other. Satisfaction welled sweetly within her. When she’d known him long ago, his dream had been to someday captain his own ship. It seemed he’d made that dream come true. She’d never doubted he would.
“I am happy for you,” she said quietly, meaning it.
“Thank you.” His gaze lingered on her face and then swept lower. Feeling suddenly shy, she resisted the urge to cover the front of her bodice with the blanket.
He frowned a little. “This is… difficult, I’m afraid. I’ve no lady on board to assist you with your needs.”
She shook her head. “I’ve no need of help, but thank you for the thought.”
“We haven’t any clothes, nor have we the convenience of a bath for you. I’m very sorry.”
“That’s quite all right.” Once Caversham had had a bath for her, Sarah, and Jake, but he’d had it thrown overboard before Sarah died. The bathtub had been one of the many things he’d blamed for causing Sarah’s fever. Meg hadn’t had a bath in months, but she’d become adept at bathing herself with a cloth and basin.
“All I can offer you is fresh, warm water.”
“We’d appreciate that.” Her body was covered in salt and grime, and so was Jake’s. Squeezing a wet cloth over her face might help clear her muddled brain.
“I might be able to find some clothes for the boy.” He tapped his fingers on his chin. “Guernsey, one of my sailors, is a dwarf and about the same height but a mite wide, I daresay. We’ll have to cinch his belt.”
She glanced down at Jake. His cherubic face was streaked with dirt, and his shirt was so soiled it was impossible to tell that it had once been white. She gave him a mock-stern look. “You were sleeping in the bilge again, weren’t you?”
He nodded, and Meg sighed. Jake had been fearful of sailing in the small jolly boat, and whenever a bit of a wave splashed over the bulwark, he had squeaked in terror and dived into the bilge. The child was born at sea and had spent most of his life there, but despite the fact that his knot-tying abilities were as good as some sailors’ four times his age, she had never known a soul less suited to be a sailor.
“I’m sorry I haven’t any clothes for you, though.” Captain Langley—no, he was and always would be Will to her—gave her a rueful smile. “In fact, I believe you’re the first lady to ever step foot on the Freedom.”
“The Freedom,” she repeated, liking the sound of the ship’s name on her tongue. “I’m honored to be the first woman aboard. But about the clothes, I’ll manage.” She thrust aside the counterpane that still covered her lap, swung her legs off the side of the bed, and when the dizziness faded and she was certain of her balance, she took stock of her dress. It was truly a disaster—her skirts were torn and streaked with dirt and grease, and the lacy overdress covering her bodice was in shreds. It was a near-hopeless cause, really.
By the look on his face, Will had come to the same conclusion. His brow furrowed. Then he met her eyes and said, very softly, “I don’t want any man to see you like this.”
She was too stunned by the words to point out the fact that it was likely that most of his crew had seen her in even worse condition when they’d brought her aboard.
“I’ll find something,” he added.
It had been a long time since anyone had made her feel shy. It was like the Meg of eight years ago, the Meg she’d thought long dead, was rising from a very long slumber.
“Thank you,” she murmured.
Will reached out for Jake’s hand. “Come along, lad. We’ll find some hot water and some clothes for you.”
Jake clutched Meg’s arm and stared at Will, who gave him a kind smile. “Do you know what I had the cook bake today?”
Jake looked at Meg, then back to Will.
“Peach pies.” Will winked. “He swears they stave off scurvy, but I just like the crust and the sugar sauce. Do you like peach pie?”
Jake nodded, and to Meg’s surprise, he slowly reached out to take Will’s hand.
“Good,” Will said. “We’ll give your mama some time alone, but we’ll return directly, all right?”
Jake nodded again.
Meg winced. Your mama.
Well, in a way, it was true. She was all Jake had now, and she’d make good on her promise to Sarah. She’d be a mother to him, no matter what.
“Come along.” Will glanced at Meg. “We’ll talk more later. For now, I think it’s most important for you to get cleaned up and feeling better.”
Will led Jake out to the deck. Meg stared at the door for a long moment after it closed behind them. She didn’t think she’d ever seen Jake go off with a stranger so easily. Usually, and for good reason, it took him weeks to warm up to a person.
Then again, Jake trusted Meg like he’d never trusted another soul, and she’d told him that Will was a good man. He’d believed her. And Will’s gentle, friendly demeanor hadn’t hurt matters.
The ship pitched gently over a wave, and Meg rose on unsteady feet. Not because she’d lost her sea legs, but because of the brutal nausea that still hadn’t faded. For a long moment, she just stood there, studying the space she found herself in.
William Langley’s space.
The bed she’d just left was larger than the cot she shared with Jake on the Defiant, and built into the corner of the large cabin. Beside the bed stood a counter with a recessed porcelain basin under built-in shelves holding folded white towels. A large navigation desk dominated the center of the room. Organized wooden bins bolted atop the desk contained rolled-up charts and other nautical tools.
A cushioned bench chair was built against the back and far walls, partially encircling a fine mahogany dining table. Behind the chair on the wall opposite to Meg hung three small portraits. She stepped closer to study them.
She’d seen the first one before. It was a painting of Will’s house in the English countryside, a pretty, small white Palladian mansion on the banks of the River Till. When he’d first shown her this picture, she had dreamed about living there after their marriage.
She’d since learned that dreams never came true. Life threw at you the opposite of what you expected, the opposite of what you wanted. She suppressed a small snort and moved to the next painting.
This one was of a ship—clearly a naval vessel. It looked like the one she’d seen anchored in the Thames just before she’d left London. Will’s naval ship.
The third portrait was of a pretty, dark-haired young woman with two boys tucked near her skirts, the younger holding a small dog. That one, she was sure, was Will. She could see the amber glint in his eyes that he hadn’t lost as an adult. The older boy was probably Charles, a lieutenant in the Army who’d died at Waterloo when Will was still a youth. The woman was Will’s mother, who’d succumbed to an illness shortly after Will had joined the Navy. His father, who wasn’t pictured, had died when Will was very young.
Meg stared at the portrait for a long while, wondering who Will’s family was now. He’d lost his parents and only brother. Had he ever married? Did he have children and a wife waiting for him in England? The thought made something clench hard in her chest.
There were certain things she was best off not knowing. She’d been aware of this truth for a long time. Years ago, she’d come to the conclusion that pining after Will, after her twin Serena and her other sisters, would only drive her to madness.
As a woman placed in so many situations in which she’d found herself utterly helpless, she’d learned to focus on the present and on the few things in her life she could control. For the past several years, her reality had consisted only of Sarah and Jake.
And now, even though Will had come back into her life—in a very odd way—Jake was still her priority. He was a little boy with needs only she understood, and above all, she loved him. She’d made Sarah a promise. She’d do right by them both.
She turned as the door opened to see Jake enter, followed by Will and two other men. She smiled at Jake, whose mouth was covered with what appeared to be sticky orange syrup, and crumbs were scattered over the front of his soiled shirt.
“From my recent experiences with children,” Will said in a low voice as he came to stand beside her, “I have learned that promises of sweets from adults can go a very long way in winning a child’s affection.”
She nodded. Had those recent experiences with children involved his own offspring? She tried to banish the thought, but she couldn’t seem to let it go, even though she knew it was ridiculous. It had been eight years. A very long time. It was natural that he’d have a family of his own by now.
The two sailors walked in carrying steaming buckets of water, one of which they poured into the basin. They diligently kept their eyes averted, making her wonder if Will had ordered them not to look at her.
Will handed her the clothes for Jake, then he held up a pair of trousers and a clean white linen shirt that looked like they would fit a small adult. “I probably shouldn’t even offer these, but they look as though they might fit, and perhaps offer more… coverage than the dress.”
She took them gratefully. “They will, thank you. And if you have a needle and thread, I can mend the dress.”
He looked relieved. “Yes, of course. I’ll have them brought straightaway.”
The men hurried out of the room without glancing in their direction, and Jake wandered over to the basin to draw his fingers through the water.
“I’ll leave you to your toilette, then,” Will said. “Afterward, I’ll have some food brought. If you’re hungry, that is.”
“Yes. Thank you again.” Despite the fuzzy head and the nausea, she felt half starved. She’d eaten very little in the past few days. They hadn’t had the time to steal much from the Defiant before they’d escaped, and she’d given most of it to Jake.
“And then we’ll talk,” Will said, his voice low.
He’d ask questions, demand details about why she and Jake had been sailing alone in a jolly boat in the middle of the Irish Sea. And after saving her and assuring her safety, he deserved answers.
The question was, could she manage to tell Will all the lies she’d planned to tell?
Will stood on the stern of the Freedom, barely registering the sun as it slipped behind the layer of clouds and fog that separated the horizon from the sky. He fought to keep his feet stationary on the deck, to prevent himself from striding back into his quarters and demanding answers.
Meg intended to go to Ireland. Why?
There was so much Will didn’t understand. Why wasn’t she looking for her family, for her sisters? And Ireland, of all places? He knew her father was Irish, but her mother’s people, the branch of her family with the most connections, were in England. As were her sisters.
When he’d known her, Meg had adored her four sisters. Now, she didn’t even speak of them, and when he’d brought them up, she’d grown vague and distant.
Meg was different. Changed. More reserved, more guarded than she’d been before. She’d grown up. Her innocence of so many years ago had vanished. As his own had.
She was still so damn beautiful. The differences between her and her twin, Serena, were subtle. They were almost completely identical in looks, except Serena had been in society for over a year now, and her skin had lightened and her body had filled out. Meg was thinner but not frail, and she had obviously been outdoors more—the splash of freckles across her nose had become more pronounced rather than faded, like Serena’s had. Her hair, too, was a shade lighter than her sister’s, bleached by the sun.
Personality-wise, the years of separation had seemed to bring them closer rather than further apart. Eight years ago, Meg had been the shy, demure one. He still saw that sense of shyness in her—that tendency toward reticence and to blush and look away when something embarrassed her. But she was a woman now, and it was clear to him that she had a goal she didn’t intend to stray from.
What was that goal?
Will wasn’t the sort of man who demanded answers. He always bided his time and waited. Hadn’t he, just this morning, chided Briggs for his impatience?
But, God, he wanted answers. He needed them.
And he wanted to look at her again. To touch her and make sure she was real and not some extended fantastical dream.
He squeezed his eyes shut, welcoming the image of the little boy who’d refused to speak but wouldn’t remove his grip from Will’s hand as he gorged himself on peach pie.
Meg obviously loved her son. Perhaps the boy was at the root of her change. With a son to protect, she would fight for his needs now; when before she was so easygoing he’d had to remind her to ask for what she really wanted rather than constantly allowing other people to make her choices for her.
“Changing course, eh?”
Will opened his eyes to see that Briggs had come to stand beside him.
“Yes. I intend to take Miss Donovan”—how was it that he didn’t know whether that was still her name?—“to her family in London. She and I will disembark in Plymouth. You’ll replenish our supplies, and then I want you to continue to the search for the smuggler off the coast between Falmouth and Penzance.”
Briggs merely raised a brow at this information, and Will continued, “I’m leaving you in command of the Freedom, Briggs. I’d appreciate it if you didn’t sink her.”
Briggs’s lips twisted. “If you’re worried I’ll sink her, perhaps you shouldn’t leave me in command.”
Will chuckled softly. “I’m not worried. You know I trust you.” As a sailor, he trusted Briggs more than anyone. Will could count the number of gentlemen he trusted on one hand, and Briggs was among them—even though his first mate wasn’t technically a gentleman.
Briggs was a middle son in a long string of Briggses. A hard worker but entirely ignored by his family, he’d struggled through the ranks of the Navy on his own. After his near-fatal injury in the battle of Gramvousa two years ago, he’d gone home to recover, but his parents had both died since he’d joined the Navy, and he was politely turned away at his brother’s door and given the excuse that the house was full.
He’d returned to London, where Will, having just left the Navy himself, took him in, helped him heal, and hired him into his fledgling shipping company.
Briggs looked out over the gray waves, his face etched in severe lines, his scar wind-reddened. Will couldn’t fathom what weighed so heavily on Briggs’s mind, but Will himself was still engaged in the battle to refrain from rushing back to Meg.
After a moment, Briggs asked, “How is it that you know Miss Donovan, Captain?”
Will hesitated. It wasn’t something he liked to talk about. But Briggs was a trusted friend, and the truth of Meg’s identity would be common knowledge soon enough. In any case, it was better that Briggs learned it from him than someone else.
“I intended to marry her eight years ago.”
Briggs cut him a look of astonishment. “That woman?”
“That very one.”
Briggs let out a whistling breath. “What happened?”
“It’s a long story,” Will warned.
Briggs shrugged. “We’ve got all night, haven’t we?”
They didn’t, really. Soon, enough time would have passed that Meg and Jake would have completed their toilette and he could bring them their dinner. He slid a glance toward Briggs.
“Her twin sister is the Countess of Stratford.” That would probably confuse the hell out of Briggs, but it would also bring to light the monumental nature of Meg’s reappearance into the world.
Briggs was silent for a moment, but Will watched as his lips slowly turned down into a frown. Finally, Briggs said, “I see two impossibilities in that. The first is that, if I recall it right and if the gossip is correct, the Countess of Stratford’s twin perished some years ago. Second, isn’t the countess’s given name Margaret? How is it possible for twin sisters to have the same name?”
“I told you it’s a long story.”
“Perhaps you should tell it from the beginning, then.”
Standing there, with the cold breeze ruffling his hair and the waves slapping against the hull of his ship as it forged toward England, Will told Briggs all of what had happened between himself and the twin sisters whose lives had become inextricably entwined with his own, Meg and Serena Donovan.
Well, he told Briggs almost the entire story. He left out those moments—so many of them—that would always be for him and Meg alone.
“Meg and her twin sister came to England eight years ago,” he began. “They were raised on a sugar plantation in the West Indies, but their father had died some years earlier, and their mother sent them to London for a Season with the hope they’d find husbands. Meg and I… grew very fond of each other.”
He hesitated, trying to calm his pounding heart. Even now, speaking of that time made his blood heat and surge through his veins. Taking a deep breath, he continued. “During the same period, Serena made the acquaintance of Stratford. While Meg and I tried desperately to be discreet, Serena and Stratford put little thought into discretion. In the middle of the Season, they were caught in an… ah… extremely compromising position at a ball, and a tremendous scandal ensued.”
Briggs frowned. “I’m not part of all that beau monde stuff and nonsense, but even I recall that scandal.”
Will tightened his fingers over the gunwale. “Serena and Meg were sent back to Antigua in disgrace. On their journey home, Meg fell overboard and was lost at sea. But since they were perfectly identical and since Serena’s reputation was ruined beyond repair, their mother believed that if Serena took on Meg’s identity, she might still be able to find a proper husband. Everyone knew of Serena’s disgrace, and Mrs. Donovan felt that if Serena didn’t become Meg, her future was in true peril.”
Briggs’s lips parted in shock. “And she agreed? To steal the identity of her twin?”
Will gave a grim nod. “Eventually. She wasn’t offered much of a choice. By the time Serena learned about it, her mother had already sent news of ‘Serena’s’ death to England. Serena herself was placed in a thorny situation—if she told the world the truth, she would compromise her family’s reputation. However, it was difficult for her to pretend to be Meg, whose personality was very different from her own.”
“Damned if she did, damned if she didn’t…”
“Exactly,” Will said. “So she returned to London two years ago, pretending to be Meg. And a few months later, she married the Earl of Stratford.”
Will left out the bit about the short time he’d been engaged to Serena, thinking she was Meg. Briggs had already heard about his failed engagement, but he knew Will well enough to know that it was a forbidden subject. Even now, Will had no desire or intention of speaking about that painful time.
Briggs mulled over the story for a few moments. Then his brows climbed toward his hairline. “Does Stratford know her true identity?”
“And who else knows, besides you two?”
“Only her sisters. And now you.”
Briggs shook his head. “Good God. What a deception.”
“It has succeeded thus far, although Meg’s reappearance will no doubt complicate matters.”
“And yet you intend to take her to London to reunite her with her family.”
“Where she’ll learn that her identity has been stolen by the sister she once admired.”
“Undoubtedly.” Meg would forgive Serena, surely, once she learned about the impossible position her twin was forced into. Still, an uneasy feeling stirred in Will’s gut.
Briggs snorted. “I’d like to see the looks on all those fine lords’ and ladies’ faces when they discover there are, in fact, two Meg Donovans.”
“Ultimately, the matter of identity will work itself out. The point is, she needs to be taken to her family. They need to know she is alive, and I think she needs their help.”
“Do you believe this has something to do with the smugglers?”
Will glanced sharply at Briggs, wondering where he intended to go with this train of thought. “I don’t know. I hadn’t considered it. Why? What are you thinking?”
“Perhaps she’s involved somehow.”
Will coughed out a laugh. “With the smugglers? I don’t think so.”
He gazed at the widening path of wake the Freedom left in its trail. “Because,” he bit out, “I know her.”
“You knew her long ago. People change. What has she told you about her whereabouts for the past… How long did you say? Eight years?”
“Not much,” Will admitted, his voice grim. “Just that she is running away from someone.” And she hadn’t even openly told him that—he’d inferred it from what he’d seen and heard from her and the boy.
“What is the name of her captor?”
Will didn’t answer for a moment, but then he replied, “She hasn’t said.”
Briggs arched his brows. “Why not?”
Will crossed his arms over his chest and slid his first mate a cold look. “This is not the Inquisition, Briggs. She’s guilty of nothing, and I won’t treat her as though she is.”
Briggs shrugged, then spoke so quietly that Will could hardly hear him over the sound of the waves slapping against the hull. “But how can we be so sure she’s guilty of nothing, Captain?”
Will shook his head in absolute denial, but Briggs didn’t know when to stop.
“Uncovering the truth seems simple enough. Ask her. If she has nothing to hide, then she should tell you everything. However, if she’s in league with the smugglers—”
“Enough,” Will growled. There was no way in hell Meg could be in league with rum smugglers. That Briggs would accuse her of such a thing made his blood boil.
For a long moment, he struggled to calm himself. When he’d retained some composure, he spoke in a calm voice. “I am taking her to her family in England. We will help her.”
“Perhaps she doesn’t want your help,” Briggs said.
“I’m helping her if she needs it. Regardless of whether it’s welcome.” Will turned his glare on Briggs. “And now this subject is closed.”
Briggs gave a grim nod. One of the sailors working on the halyards behind them had been humming, and his song came to an abrupt stop mid-verse. Will turned to glance at the man and saw him staring openmouthed in the direction of the captain’s quarters. When Will moved his gaze to his door, he saw the flash of the descending sun on Meg’s loose blond curls before his gaze traveled lower.
Holy hell. She was wearing the shirt and trousers he’d given her. The clothes belonged to his cabin boy, a sixteen-year-old stick of a lad, but they didn’t make Meg Donovan look like a stick. The fabric clung to the feminine curves of her breasts and hips, sending sensual signals ricocheting through Will’s body like wild billiard balls.
As she spun toward him, he caught his breath and took a second to glance around at the men in viewing range of what just might be the most erotic vision any of them had ever experienced.
The man working on the halyards seemed to have sensed Will’s dark look and snapped his gaze back to his task. Another man, who’d been oiling the deck lanterns when she’d emerged, was staring at her, mouth agape, oil can dangling from his fingertips. Feeling Will’s scorching glare, he cast a guilty glance toward his captain, who had warned all of them earlier to go on about their duties and ignore the lady on board, and then turned—rather hesitantly—away.
Will cursed under his breath. The Freedom was no place for a woman. He had to get her off this ship.
Briggs had turned around and was looking at Meg, too, but his gaze wasn’t a lascivious one. Instead, it was filled with dark suspicion.
“If you give the lady anything less than the high level of respect she deserves,” Will said in an undertone to his mate, “you will have me to answer to. Do you understand?”
“Aye, Captain.” Clasping his hands together behind his back, Briggs walked away.
Meg marched toward Will, alarm blazing in her gray eyes.
“We’re heading southeast,” she told him.
“Yes, we are.”
“Ireland is to the north.”
“I told you, I must go to Ireland.” She licked her lips, a habit Will knew was a product of nervousness, yet he found it wildly erotic, remembering how he’d tasted those very lips so many years ago, how he’d licked and nibbled and sucked… God, he wanted to kiss them again. Right now. He didn’t care whether his crew watched—in fact, he wanted them to. Some primitive, feral part of him wanted to mark her with his ownership.
God, he’d loved her for so long. Too damned long. Only in the past year had he begun the difficult process of healing from the pain loving her had wrought upon him.
Shaking off those thoughts, he tried to make sense of what she was saying.
“I thought you had agreed to help us… that you would take us to Ireland before you continued on with your… assignment.” She frowned. “Whatever that might be.”
“Listen, Miss…” Donovan? Was that still her name? She said she wasn’t currently married, but that didn’t mean she’d never had a husband. “Er… Mrs….”
“Miss Donovan,” she said quietly. “I have never been married.”
So the child had been born out of wedlock. As soon as he had that thought, he pushed it from his mind. “Miss Donovan. I am still acquainted with your sisters. They believe that you died years ago, and they have been mourning your loss for a long time. They’ll be overjoyed to see you. Whatever trouble you’re in, I promise, they’ll do whatever possible to help you.”
As will I, he vowed silently. He’d failed to keep her safe so many years ago. And even though he didn’t know her anymore, even though he didn’t have the first idea where she’d been or what she’d been doing for the past eight years, he’d be damned if he’d let her drown again—even if it was only a symbolic drowning.
“My sisters are not in England, sir.”
So she believed they were still in Antigua. “Yes, Meg,” he said softly, “they are. They are in London for the Season. All four of them.”
She bowed her head, her shoulders trembling beneath the thin linen shirt.
Instantly, Will wrapped an arm around her and drew her against him as if she could absorb some warmth from him. “You are cold. Let’s go to my quarters, where it’s warmer.”
She held her ground, though. With a sweep of her hand over her eyes, she looked up at him with a shiny gaze. “No, thank you, Captain. Jake is asleep, and I don’t wish to wake him. And I don’t wish to move until I have your assurances that you’ll leave my family out of this. If you must go to England”—a shudder rippled through her thin frame—“then just deposit me at the nearest port, and Jake and I will find another means to get to Ireland.”
Briggs had stopped close by and had been inspecting the halyard the seaman was repairing. Will had no doubt he’d heard the entire conversation.
“Why Ireland?” Will asked her.
“Because my family is there.”
“Your family is in England.”
She pulled away from him. “That part of my family is one I have no wish to disturb. Or involve…” Her voice trailed off.
“Involve with what?” Will asked, the seeds of frustration beginning to take root.
Turning and approaching them, Briggs bowed at Meg. “If you’d like a warmer location to converse,” he said, his words and expression so polite that Will could find fault with neither, “please feel free to use my quarters.”
Will looked from his first mate to Meg, who had her arms wrapped around her thin body. She’d catch her death out here. His tone was a touch more curt than he intended as he took her by the upper arm. “Come with me, Miss Donovan.”
Meg tried not to grimace as Will led her to his officer’s cabin. Of course he’d wonder why she wished to go to Ireland instead of to her sisters, especially if her sisters were in London.
When had they gone there? And Serena, too? But after the scandal, their aunt had promised Serena she’d never step foot in England again.
For the first time, Meg wished it hadn’t been William Langley who’d found her. As much as she’d wanted to glimpse his face once more in her lifetime, his presence now made everything so much more difficult.
And what could she possibly tell him?
She entered the sparse, tidy space—about a third the size of Will’s quarters—and turned around as Will closed the door behind them. She made a show of rubbing her arms briskly. It had been cold outside, and the wind had seemed to slice right through her skin, but that seemed inconsequential compared to her desire to go to Ireland.
“Meg,” Will said.
She jerked her head up, unaccustomed to the sound of her proper name coming from a man’s mouth.
The lines around that handsome mouth softened, as did his dark eyes. “Please, tell me what happened. Tell me why you don’t want to go to your family. Why this desperate urgency to go to Ireland?” His voice was low and gentle. “I’ve just discovered that you’re alive after eight very long years. I keep having to convince myself that you’re real, not a ghost. Please help me, Meg. Help me understand how it came to be that I found you in the middle of the Irish Sea.”
Meg’s knees weakened, and she glanced around the tiny room for a chair. There was one, pushed beneath the table bolted to the far wall under a porthole that lent light to the small space. She took one step to it, then jerked it out and lowered herself into it.
Her shoulders deflated, and when she spoke, her voice was nearly a whisper. She clamped her hands in her lap and stared down at them. “I planned to lie about it.” She looked up at him. “I planned an elaborate lie. But I can’t lie to you, Will.”
Excerpted from Pleasures of a Tempted Lady by Haymore, Jennifer Copyright © 2012 by Haymore, Jennifer. Excerpted by permission.
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