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British West Indies, February 1813
He'd stolen a bride.
Sebastian Blake gripped his knife with white-knuckled force and kept his face impassive. If the beauty in front of him were to be believed, he'd stolen his own bride.
He watched as her chin lifted with defiance and her dark eyes met his without fear. She was tall and slender, with blonde curls tumbling down from a once-stylish arrangement. Her lovely watered-silk dress was torn at the shoulder, revealing a tempting display of creamy breast. A sooty handprint marred her flesh, and unable to help himself, Sebastian reached out and rubbed the offending mark away with gentle strokes of his thumb. She stiffened, and lifted her bound hands to knock his away. He met her gaze and held it.
"Tell me your name again," he murmured, his hand tingling just from that simple contact with her satin skin.
She licked her bottom lip, and his blood heated further. "My name is Olivia Merrick, Countess of Merrick. My husband is Sebastian Blake, Earl of Merrick and future Marquess of Dunsmore."
He lifted her hands and stared at her ring finger, noting his crest etched in the simple gold band she wore.
He scrubbed a hand over his face and turned away, striding to the nearest open window for a deep breath of salt-tinged air. Staring out at the water, he espied the debris from her ship bobbing in the waves. "Where is your husband, Lady Merrick?" he asked, keeping his back to her.
Hope tinged her voice. "He awaits me in London."
"I see." But he didn't, not at all. "How long have you been married, my lady?"
"I fail to see—"
"How long?" he barked.
"Nearly two weeks."
His chest expanded on a deep breath. "I remind you that we are in the West Indies, Lady Merrick. It is impossible that you were married only a fortnight ago. Your husband would not be able to await you in England if that were true."
She was silent behind him, and finally he turned to face her again. It was a mistake to have done so. Her beauty hit him with the force of a fist in his gut.
"Would you care to explain?" he prodded, relieved he sounded so unaffected.
For the first time, her bravado left her, her cheeks flushing with embarrassment. "We were married by proxy," she confessed. "But I assure you, he will pay whatever ransom you desire despite the unusual circumstances of our marriage."
Sebastian moved toward her. His calloused fingers caressed the elegant curve of her cheekbone and entwined in her hair. Her breath caught, and her lips parted in response to his gentle touch. "I'm certain he would pay a king's ransom for beauty such as yours."
Through the smoky smell that clung to her, he could detect the arousing scent of soft woman, warm and luxurious. He reached for the blade strapped to his thigh and withdrew it.
She flinched away.
"Easy," he soothed. Sebastian held out his hand and waited patiently for her to step forward again. When she did, he sliced through the rope that tied her hands together, and sheathed his knife. He rubbed the marks on her delicate wrists.
"You are a pirate," she murmured.
"You have taken my father's ship and all of its cargo."
Her head tilted backward on the slender neck, and she gazed up at him with melting chocolate eyes. "Why, then, are you being so kind to me, if you intend to rape me?"
He caught her fingers and placed them on his signet ring. "Most would say a man cannot rape his own wife."
She glanced down and gasped at the heavy crest that mirrored the one on her own band. Her eyes flew up to his. "Where did you get this? You can't possibly ..."
He smiled. "According to you, I am."
Olivia stared up into intense blue eyes and felt certain her heart would burst from her chest. Her mind faltered, stumbling over the shocking revelation that the notorious Captain Phoenix was claiming to be her husband.
She backed away from him in a rush, and he reached to steady her when she started to fall. A whimper escaped as his touch burned her skin. The day's events had shaken her, but it was the gorgeous face of the infamous pirate that made her legs feel weak.
He was tall and broad-shouldered, and his presence sucked all of the air from the tight confines of the cabin. His black hair was unfashionably long, and the darkness of his skin betrayed how much time he spent outdoors. He was wild, untamed—a man of the elements.
She'd watched, fascinated, as he'd swept onto her ship and took command of it within moments. Phoenix had executed the attack with brilliant precision—not one man was seriously injured, and no one had been killed. Having spent most of her childhood on her father's ships, Olivia recognized skill when she saw it.
The way he'd used his sword and barked commands, the way loose tendrils of his hair had blown across his face, the way his breeches had delineated every stretch of his muscular thighs—she'd never experienced anything so thrilling. So exciting.
Until he'd touched her.
Then she'd discovered what excitement truly was.
Now she watched, mouth agape, as his long, elegant fingers went to the open collar of his shirt and plucked at the laces. Phoenix tugged the billowing linen from his breeches and drew it over his head.
"Good grief," she gasped, startled by the heat that tore through her veins and flushed her skin as his chest was revealed to her. Her breasts grew heavy, the tips aching.
Phoenix smiled, well aware of the effect he was having on her. His body moved with arrogant grace, powerful muscles rippling beneath tautly stretched skin. Dark hair spread lightly over his chest, tapering to a fine line that traveled down his stomach to disappear beneath his waistband. His arms bulged as he shook out his shirt and stepped closer.
She'd never seen a bare-chested man. Even on her father's plantation, the workers were required to remain clothed, her doting father's way of shielding her maidenly sensibilities. Despite this lack of knowledge, she was certain no other male could claim Phoenix's magnificent form.
Olivia snapped her mouth shut and waited until he was close enough so she could feel the heat radiating from his skin. It took everything she had to resist touching him, to resist burying her face in his chest and breathing him in. He smelled wonderful, a sun-warmed and salted male in his prime. His hands came toward her, his hot gaze dropping to the exposed curve of her breast.
"Hell's teeth!" he growled as the edge of his blade met his aroused cock. Incredulous, Phoenix looked down at her hand, then again at her face. He released a slow, wary breath. "I wouldn't recommend castrating me, sweetheart. One of your duties, after all, is to bear my heirs."
She inhaled a shuddering breath. "I do not believe for even a moment, Captain, that you are Lord Merrick." But the idea was not distasteful. Romantic notions and girlish fantasies—Phoenix met both of those and so much more. Her father would never have approved of this man, a pirate worlds apart from the carefully selected earl she'd been told to expect. The pirate would not be to any father's taste, but he suited her secret desire perfectly.
Phoenix's brow arched in sardonic amusement. "But you cannot be certain. Have you ever met your husband?" Her hand shook nervously, and he winced. "Steady, love," he cautioned. "You may one day desire the appendage you are so grievously threatening."
"The only appendage of that nature I'll be desiring is my husband's," she retorted.
She watched his grin come back in full force, revealing a dimple on the left side of his lush mouth. How could a pirate have a dimple?
"I'm relieved to hear that." His voice was deep and seductive, purring like a predatory cat. "I wouldn't be agreeable to an adulterous wife."
"I am not your wife!" she snapped, flustered by his charm and her response to it.
"If what you say is true, then you are indeed my countess. And despite—," he shot a pointed glance at his blade, "—your charming introduction, you are not displeased with me as a spouse."
"How can you say that?"
"I didn't. Your nipples did. They are hard and aching for my touch, pressing so delightfully against the bodice of your gown."
With a horrified gasp, Olivia covered her breasts, and he easily plucked the wicked knife from her fingers. He handed her his shirt. "Here. Cover yourself until I can locate your trunks. I have no wish to display your bountiful charms to my men. We've been at sea for months, and their control is stretched." He eyed her appraisingly for a long moment and then chuckled. "Bold as you please," he murmured.
She stiffened, wondering if Phoenix found her deportment unappealing, and was disturbed to realize that she cared if he did. All of her life, she had accompanied her father on his frequent trips to London. With a child's awareness, she'd quickly discerned that Polite Society disparaged them because of their common background and her father's work in trade. To protect her feelings, Olivia had learned to disregard the opinions of others. But the pirate's opinion mattered. More than it should.
"I've learned to care for myself," she said defensively.
His dimple flashed again, momentarily stunning her wits. "I'm not complaining," he assured her. "Your father is well-known to me, sweet. I am aware that he is a busy man. I'm pleased you acquired some independent thought and intrepidness." He moved toward the door, apparently unaffected by the attraction that seared her senses.
"Wait!" she cried. Unreasonably, she didn't want to be left alone. His crew was a coarse lot. They'd pinched and groped her, tugged at her hair, and ruined her gown. Intrepid she might be, but a glutton for punishment she was not. "You cannot leave me here alone!"
Phoenix paused on the threshold, his features softening. "No one will come into this cabin without my permission. You'll be safe here."
She shook her head in denial. Her hands began to shake as they clutched his shirt against her chest, the garment still warm from his body and scented of his skin. "Don't leave me."
"I must go," he replied gently. "I have to give orders to my crew, secure your ship, and locate your belongings." He frowned. "Where is the proxy?"
"It was returned to England with the solicitor immediately after the signing."
"Who signed for me?"
Olivia started at his angry tone, and the first seeds of doubt entered her mind. "Lord Dunsmore," she answered softly.
His eyes narrowed. "And you didn't find it odd that your husband didn't come for you himself? You never wondered why he was unable, or unwilling, to at least sign the proxy even if he couldn't be bothered to marry you properly?"
Her bottom lip quivered at his sudden vehemence, and she bit it to hide the betraying movement. But Phoenix was too perceptive. With a muttered oath, he came back to her. His thumb brushed across her mouth, freeing her lip from her teeth. His gaze remained anchored to the spot where he had touched her. Olivia couldn't breathe. Her lip burned.
"You are a beautiful and desirable woman," he murmured. "Why settle for marriage with a man sight unseen?"
"I'd hardly call marrying a marquess 'settling,'" she whispered against his thumb.
He stiffened, and dropped his hand from her. "For the title, then."
Olivia shook her head. The title was important to her father. All she'd ever wanted in a marriage was passion, like her parents were reputed to have had. "It was my father's wish that I marry Lord Merrick. I could not defy him."
She was all that her father had. To disappoint him or sadden him was more than she could bear.
Phoenix searched her face for a long moment. Then he turned and left the cabin without another word, taking with him all of the crackling energy he exuded.
Sebastian assessed the blessedly minor damage to his father-in-law's ship and cursed his father for putting him in this predicament. He leaned against the railing and closed his eyes as the salty breeze ruffled his hair.
The sea had been his demanding and quick-tempered mistress for five years now. Disregarding his past, she had welcomed him with open arms. She had soothed the hurts that had caused him to flee his home and had given him an existence as distant as possible from the one that had pained him. Now a new life had been created for him without his knowledge or consent. Miserable as he was to admit it, Sebastian had no doubt Olivia was telling the truth.
What exactly the marquess had intended by marrying him off he couldn't fathom. He hadn't been in touch with any member of his family in years. What had they planned to tell the poor girl when she arrived and found her husband missing?
He snorted. "Girl" was incorrect. Olivia Merrick was all woman. His woman. His wife.
Hell and damnation.
Sebastian kicked aside an abandoned sword and cursed so foully that all the men on deck looked his way.
For all intents and purposes, he was married. To the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen and the daughter of Jack Lambert, one of the richest merchants in the world. If marriage had been a goal of his, he'd have been pleased. But he didn't want to be married. He had no desire to return to England and assume the role that should rightfully have gone to his brother, Edmund.
Sebastian turned to face Will, his first mate, a burly man whose enormous physique contrasted sharply with his harmless-sounding name. "What is it?" he asked curtly.
"We found 'er ladyship's things." Will's bushy mustache twitched. "I've never seen the like. A bed, and bath, and fresh water stored for the use of it. But when we tried to take 'er trunks into yer cabin, she damn near shot Red's 'ead off."
"Aye, wiv yer pistol."
Sebastian pinched the bridge of his nose in a vain attempt to ward off a headache. Damned vixen, he thought, but a reluctant smile curled his mouth nevertheless. Olivia had fire and spirit—qualities he admired in his bed partners.
Good God! Horrified, he shook the thought right out of his head. No. He was not going to even think about bedding her. Bedding her meant keeping her, and he sure as hell wasn't keeping her. She deserved better than a pirate.
"I shall see to her," he grumbled. "Have the men begin repairs to her ship. I want to return Lady Merrick to her father posthaste."
He was briefly surprised at how easily he used his title to refer to her, and then hastily shoved the thought away.
"Aye, Captain." Will's laughter followed him below deck.
Sebastian rapped on his cabin door. "My lady? 'Tis I. I'm coming in." He entered cautiously, peeking his head around the door and searching out her shapely form. He found Olivia sitting at his desk, drowning in his shirt, leveling a pistol at his chest. The mere sight of her made him ache. Golden and determined, she was a tigress.
"Do you know what you're doing with that?" he asked.
"Yes, of course."
He kicked the door shut behind him and headed toward the sideboard for a much-needed libation. Her gaze burned into his back, causing him to smile. "Care for a brandy, sweet wife?"
"Is there any proof you are my husband?" she asked curtly.
"Is there any proof you're my wife?" he retorted, pouring her a glass of the deep red liquid with the hope that it would soothe her ill humor.
"The ring ..."
Sebastian held his hand over his shoulder and waggled his ringed finger at her.
"Who taught you the use of a pistol?" he queried as he warmed the liquor over a candle.
"The foreman on my father's plantation."
When he turned to face her, he found his gun resting on the desk and Olivia staring pensively out the window. "Your father approved?"
"My father doesn't know. I wanted to learn. There was no cause to distress him."
Withholding a smile, Sebastian moved toward her, admiring her elegant profile, with its pert nose and obstinate chin. Her bottom lip was caught between her teeth, and the thought of claiming that lush mouth with various parts of his body nearly made him hard. He set her brandy atop his nautical charts and propped his hip against the desk.
"What are you thinking, love?" he prodded gently.
Excerpted from Scandalous Liaisons by SYLVIA DAY. Copyright © 2006 Sylvia Day. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Stolen Pleasures.................... 1
Lucien's Gamble.................... 109
Her Mad Grace.................... 223