Dismissed from the Royal Navy for a rebellious act of heroism, Gabriel Hawkins is now the captain of his own ship. Having earned his living on the high seas as a blockade runner, he is now employed to rescue Lady Aurora Lawrence, who is being held captive on the Barbary coast. The pirate Malek Reis demands a small fortune in ransom, but he’s dealt with Captain Hawkins before—and knows to expect the unexpected.
Lady Aurora is truly shocked when the handsome, steely captain refuses to pay the ransom, and instead agrees to take her and her captor on an even more dangerous mission. But soon Gabriel and Aurora face another kind of danger—an attraction that burns hot within the confines of his ship. Now, even as they endure the perils of the sea, they wonder if their love can survive a return to England, where the distance between a disgraced captain and an earl’s daughter is wider than the ocean.
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Lord and Lady Lawrence were enjoying a pleasant afternoon in the library when the letter arrived. The butler himself delivered it to the earl. Sylvia Lawrence glanced up and saw that the missive was wrapped in stained oilcloth and must have traveled a great distance. "Is that a letter from Rory?" she asked eagerly. "We haven't heard from her in so long! Is she coming home?"
Her husband unwrapped the letter and read it with a deepening frown. Then he swore with the vibrant profanity that only one person ever invoked. "Your daughter, Lady Aurora Octavia Lawrence, has gone and done it this time!"
"She's your daughter, too," Sylvia pointed out as she began to worry. "What's wrong?"
The earl snarled, "The letter is from the British consul in Algiers. Your damned daughter was captured by Barbary pirates and they're demanding an outrageous ransom to return her!"
Sylvia gasped as levity was replaced by horror. "How is that possible? I thought the Barbary pirates had given up their thieving ways after the Americans fought them and forced a treaty."
"The pirates of Barbary are not great believers in treaties," her husband said bitterly. "The consul says she's unhurt, but she's locked in a harem and will be sold into slavery unless she's ransomed." His voice rose. "Fifty thousand pounds! Fifty thousand pounds!"
He slapped the letter onto the desk, sending a fine goose quill pen flying. "Well, they can damned well keep her! I'm not paying a ha'penny to get the girl back."
"Geoffrey, you can't possibly mean that!" Sylvia gasped. "Our youngest daughter! Rory was the delight of your life."
"Until she grew up, and she's been nothing but trouble ever since." He scowled at Sylvia. "She won't make a proper marriage and she's spent her inheritance from her great uncle on her travels. She's a clever minx. Let her get out of this scrape on her own. I can't afford her anymore."
"She's our daughter!"
"You think I don't know that?" His initial rage was cooling and there was pain in his eyes. "I may be an earl, but I can't afford a sum that large. It took me years to pay off debts left by my father, and you know the amount of the mortgages we've had to take out to establish the rest of those eight children you had."
"You had something to do with all those children," she pointed out dryly. "We've been blessed with eight healthy, charming, intelligent offspring. Which of them would you give up?"
He sighed. "None, but giving them the futures they deserve has exhausted the family resources. There simply isn't the money available to pay such an enormous ransom. Not even for Rory."
Sylvia bit her lip because she knew how difficult it had been to raise the money to establish the older offspring. "But slavery in Barbary, Geoffrey! That's not a scrape — it's disaster! Just think of the horrors she might suffer!"
His mouth tightened. "She's pretty enough to avoid the worst atrocities. She'll probably end up as chief concubine of the dey of Algiers. I'm sorry, Sylvia. Rory has made her bed." His voice broke and his pain showed. "Now she must lie in it with whatever man is willing to pay her price."
The countess cringed. Geoffrey had decided that the ransom was impossible and he wouldn't lift a finger to help Rory. She closed her eyes, shuddering as images of her youngest filled her mind. She loved all her children deeply, but Rory had been such a golden, happy baby. That was why Sylvia had named her Aurora, for the dawn.
Aurora had quickly become Rory as her daughter had grown into laughter and mischief. Yes, she sometimes got into trouble, but that was because of her appetite for life. There was no malice in her.
Sylvia knew her husband. Now that Geoffrey had analyzed the situation and decided there was nothing he could do, he would close the door on Rory and concentrate on problems closer to home that he could solve. He'd bury the fate of his daughter so deeply that he wouldn't feel the pain, except in his nightmares.
But that didn't mean that Sylvia must do the same. She'd heard of a man who was good at dealing with difficult situations. An aristocrat with connections to people in all walks of life. She'd call on him in the morning. Perhaps — pray God! — he knew someone who could bring her daughter home.
The schooner ZephyrPool of London, England
As a boy, Gabriel had dreamed of being the bold captain of a sailing ship, a privateer like Drake and his own legendary namesake, Sir Jack Hawkins. Imagination did not include long, boring weeks at sea or weevilly ship biscuits or granite-textured hardtack.
Nor accounting. His was casual because he was owner as well as captain, but some figuring was required to keep the Zephyr running properly. Luckily, his last mission to America to rescue a stranded English widow had been very profitable, thanks to the lady's generous family. As a bonus, he'd even avoided being blown up by the Royal Navy warships that had been thundering up and down the Chesapeake Bay.
He was glad to set aside his account book when Landers, his auburn- headed American first mate, rapped on the frame of the open door and entered his cabin. "Morning, Captain. We'll be through with the provisioning by tomorrow or the day after." He handed over a list. "These are the supplies we're waiting for."
Gabriel scanned the list, then nodded. "Even if it takes longer, it's worth waiting for Halford sails. One should never skimp on good sails."
As he handed the list back, Landers asked, "Where will we be heading next?"
"That's an excellent question." Gabriel leaned back in the chair that was secured to the solid oak floor and absently scratched the head of the white and gray ship's cat that was snoozing on his desk. "I'm not sure. With Napoleon in exile and the British and Americans in peace negotiations, there aren't many blockades to run. I'll have to rustle up some regular cargo. Safer but less profitable."
"I'm getting old," Landers said with a sigh, being all of twenty-six years of age. "We've dodged enough cannonballs that safe is sounding good."
"Even without cannonballs, the sea can kill us quickly enough if she chooses," Gabriel said dryly. Being past thirty himself, he'd seen enough danger to agree with his mate, but a man must do something to keep himself busy, and he was well experienced with the sea. "I'm considering the China tea trade."
"The Zephyr's speed would be an advantage there, but the voyages are very long." Landers hesitated before continuing. "I wouldn't sign on for that. My father is halfway done building a first-rate coastal trading vessel. It will be ready in the spring. I've been thinking that it's time to go home to Maryland and find me a wife before all the pretty girls marry someone else."
"I'd miss you," Gabriel said with real regret, "but the China trade isn't a good fit for a man who wants a home and family. It's time you had a ship of your own."
Speaking with the zeal of a happy romantic, Landers asked, "Have you thought about settling down and finding a pretty wife of your own?"
Gabriel's brows arched. "I wouldn't know which side of the Atlantic to settle on, and in my business, I meet very few pretty ladies, so the answer is no."
"If you settle in St. Michaels, I guarantee you'd find no shortage of attractive females interested in furthering your acquaintance," Landers said with a grin.
"A first mate has many important duties on shipboard," Gabriel said acerbically. "Matchmaking isn't one of them."
"I have a very fine cousin named Nell," his mate volunteered. "Pretty as a picture, and can bake a cherry pie that would make angels beg!"
Gabriel gave his best ferocious captain glare. "Go!"
The glare must not have been working because Landers was laughing as he withdrew. When his mate was gone, Gabriel returned to his accounts, but his mind wandered.
He'd seen more than his share of dire times, but in recent years, he'd done rather well. In fact, he had reached the point where he had choices. But what the devil did he want for his future?
Since he had no idea how to answer that question, he was relieved when Landers stuck his head in the door again. "There's a Mr. Kirkland here to see you, and he looks like someone you might want to talk to." Landers vanished again.
Kirkland? Coming to sharp awareness, Gabriel got to his feet. He knew the name, but why on earth ...?
The tall, dark-haired man who entered the cabin ducked to avoid hitting his head with the ease of someone accustomed to sailing ships. At first glance, he appeared to be merely a well-tailored gentleman, not a spymaster who worked magic behind the scenes. A second glance revealed rather more. "I assume you're not Mr. Kirkland, but the legendary Lord Kirkland?"
His guest smiled. "If our mutual friend called me legendary, surely it was with sarcasm."
"A bit, perhaps," Gabriel allowed as he offered his hand. But there had also been respect in that description. "Welcome to the Zephyr, Lord Kirkland."
The other man returned a firm handshake. "Kirkland will do. Do you have a few minutes? I have a proposal I'd like to discuss with you."
What could a spymaster want with Gabriel? Intrigued, he said, "I have the time." As he gestured his visitor to a chair, a gray and white streak darted from Gabriel's desk and out the door.
Kirkland blinked. "That was a cat?"
"The ship's cat. He's a very good mouser, but shy. He doesn't like to be noticed so pretend you didn't see him." Gabriel crossed the cabin and closed the door. "Speaking of our mutual friend, have you seen Gordon and the intrepid Callie since their return to London?"
"Yes, and they're flourishing." Kirkland settled in the other chair. "It was during our discussion of Gordon's mission that he suggested I should make your acquaintance because you're well suited for certain kinds of work."
"Work that involves sailing ships, I presume," Gabriel said as he took his own seat. "But what can my ship offer that you can't find in your own merchant fleet?"
"Experience of the Barbary states," Kirkland said succinctly.
The back of Gabriel's neck prickled. "Where did you get that idea?"
"Gordon said that one night when you were transporting him to America, the two of you shared brandy and stories," Kirkland explained, an amused glint in his eyes. "Apparently you told him that you'd spent time in Algiers and had also visited some of the other Barbary states."
Gabriel had talked about that? He must have had more brandy than he'd realized. But he and Gordon shared a bond formed in mutual danger, and it was easy to talk to him. Plus, Gordon had more than his share of amazing stories. It had been quite a night. "What did he say?"
"That you'd been a slave," Kirkland said steadily. "That you managed to escape with a mixed crew of American and European sailors by capturing this very fine ship from the corsairs who had originally taken it from the Americans. Those are impressive qualifications, Captain."
He had definitely had too much brandy that night. "The escape was a joint effort that involved a number of men, providentially dreadful weather, and a good bit of luck."
"After I heard the story, I did some investigation. The consensus was that without your sailing skills and your fluency in the local Arabic dialect, there would have been no escape."
That was true, so Gabriel didn't try to deny it. "Why does this interest you?" he asked bluntly.
Equally bluntly, Kirkland said, "A young woman, Lady Aurora Lawrence, was taken prisoner when her ship was captured by an Algerian corsair. When her captor learned that she's the daughter of an earl, he demanded a ransom of fifty thousand pounds. Her father can't pay that."
Hawkins whistled softly. "That's a king's ransom! But refusing is a harsh thing for a father to do. Did he consider negotiating?"
"There are a number of other children and the family doesn't have limitless wealth, and of course negotiating is difficult from so far away. But yes, it's harsh." Kirkland's gaze was steady. "And a situation you might have some sympathy with."
The spymaster had obviously done research into Gabriel's past. His mouth tightened. "I do, but I still don't see what this has to do with me."
"Lady Aurora's mother doesn't agree with her husband's refusal, and she's pawned her jewels and other personal property and borrowed every penny she can in hopes of obtaining her daughter's release."
"Has she managed to raise the fifty thousand pounds? If so, it shouldn't be too difficult to arrange the ransom and retrieve the girl."
"She could only find about half the amount, which is why she needs a shrewd and knowledgeable agent. She'd heard of my reputation and approached me, hoping I knew a man who was brave, honorable, familiar with Barbary, and a really good negotiator." Kirkland smiled a little. "With half the experienced diplomats of Europe dancing around each other at the Congress in Vienna, the list of possibilities was very short. Is this a job you'd be willing to undertake?"
Even though Gabriel had guessed where the conversation was leading, Kirkland's words were like a kick in the belly. The Barbary Coast. Scene of the worst hells of his life, and also the beginning of his resurrection.
Gabriel didn't even realize that he'd risen from his chair and started pacing until he found himself automatically dodging the two cannons that shared his cabin. He stopped and stared out a porthole at the busy Thames, where boats of all sizes skimmed back and forth in happy turmoil, a quintessential London scene. So very different from the sun-scorched shores of the Mediterranean.
Kirkland said quietly, "I gather that is a question not lightly answered."
"You gather correctly."
"Since our countries aren't at war and you'd be carrying legitimate credentials, you shouldn't be in any danger if you return," Kirkland said in a neutral voice.
"True, and I'm not likely to be recognized anyhow. I had a shaggy beard in those days and I'm not particularly distinctive looking."
"Would the Zephyr be recognized? She was captured by Algerian corsairs and spent time in the harbor there."
Gabriel shook his head. "Because of storm damage and repairs, there have been modifications over the years, including changes to the rigging. She might be identified as of the same American schooner type, but not as the same ship. Yet even if the ship and I aren't recognized, the Barbary shores are volatile. I've avoided the area ever since I left."
"It's currently even more volatile than usual," Kirkland agreed. "With Europe busily rebuilding after Napoleon's defeat, it must be like sharing a bed with a restless elephant for the countries on the south shore of the Mediterranean."
Amused by the other man's vivid description, Gabriel turned to Kirkland. "Tell me more about the suggested arrangements and about the young damsel in distress."
"You'll be paid a reasonable charter fee for your efforts, though it won't be as profitable as your journey to America with Gordon," Kirkland replied. "I can get you letters of introduction from high-level government officials, and I think I can get you a temporary rank of consul."
"Those things could be useful, unless some corsair captain attacks for no good reason and blows holes in my ship."
Kirkland nodded with rueful acknowledgment. "That's not impossible. I'll personally reimburse any repairs that might be necessary for such a reason."
"That's generous, assuming my ship isn't captured or sunk," Gabriel said with desert dryness. "What of the girl? Do you know her? Is she worth all this effort?"
"Her mother thinks so. I've never met Lady Aurora, but her nickname is Roaring Rory Lawrence and she has a reputation for being intelligent, charming, and dismayingly independent." Kirkland reached into an inside pocket and pulled out an engraved gold locket. Snapping it open, he said, "Her mother lent me this miniature in the hope it would help me recruit a champion for the girl's freedom."
Gabriel opened the locket, and felt a strange, painful shock as if lightning had savaged his heart. Lady Aurora was a golden blonde, very pretty, but what made her irresistibly engaging was her laughing face. She looked like a young woman who deserved to be free and happy, not imprisoned for life in a foreign harem, a possession rather than the vibrant woman he saw in the miniature.
In an odd way, she reminded him of all the ways his life might have been different. He couldn't change his past, but perhaps he could help this golden girl regain the freedom and laughter she deserved.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Once A Scoundrel"
Copyright © 2018 Mary Jo Putney.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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