Melina's discovery of a priceless statue is her one hope of saving her family from ruin, if she can only persuade the Earl of Warrington to grant her safe passage on his ship to London. But Melina knows she's gone too far when he takes her for a lady of easy virtue!
Thrown together during the voyage, he shockingly comes to realize his mistake. Now he's honor-bound to keep her safe. But thrust into London's social whirl, how long will it take before she discovers his scandalous, dark past?
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Being wrapped in a shroud of sailing clotha shot ball secure at his head and one at his feetand tossed into the Aegean Sea could only increase Warrington's spirits. He linked his fingertips together, braced his elbows against the railing and ignored the sting of the wind slapping his hair on to his face.
His brother's sparring remarks didn't help.
Warrington turned his head from the words. 'I swear you are not related to me,' he grated out, interrupting the flow of Ben's jests. 'You talk more than any two women I've ever heard.'
Ben chuckled, moving so their shoulders touched briefly. 'And you've made me proud on the voyage. Not of you, of course. Of myself. I'm a fine captain to be able to have an old melancholy miss like you on board and still keep from throwing you over the side.'
'You've sailed us to an island that doesn't even have the comforts of hell.' Warrington used both hands, pushing back the hair from his face, and then he rested clenched fists on the railing of the ship.
'You do not give me the respect due me,' his brother said, shaking his head in exaggerated dismay. 'I saved our lives by steering us here when the ship caught fire. You may have the title, but an earl drowns just as quickly as a mere captain when a ship sinks.'
Warrington didn't speak, hoping to let Ben have the last word and himself some silence.
He'd had to leave Englandhe'd thought his memories would be easier to bear at sea. He'd been wrong. His wife's face wouldn't appear in his mind, but he could see the letters of her name carved on to the crypt.
He leaned into the rocking of the boat, letting it numb his mind from the endless days of sameness broken only by tribulation aboard the Ascalon. He wanted dry boots, freshly blacked, and not covering sodden stockings. Sea-misted trousers dried stiff and looked no better than a stable master's discards.
Across the water, he saw the longboat returning from shore, and hoped the Ascalon could cast off with the next tide. With the crew back and the repairs almost finished, surely they would leave soon.
In minutes, the longboat thumped against the side of the ship. Gidley, the first mate, reached his gnarled hands to the top of the ladder. His face came into view. The mate's eyes twinkled and he'd not yet moved on to the ship. 'We have us another one of them problems yer so good at sol-vin', Capt'n Ben.'
Warrington watched his younger brother take a forceful step forward.
'If anyone has stolen a goat this time, I'll personally throttle them until they are unconscious.' Ben straightened his shoulders and stared at his second-in-command.
'Not goats, Capt'n.' Gidley pulled himself on to the deck, his face showing a barely reined-in pleasure at whatever news he was about to speak.
'What, then?' the captain asked.
'It be a woman.' Gidley spoke slowly and stepped aside to give the other three men from the longboat a chance to board. They rushed in behind him, feet thumping on to the deck, faces anxious to hear the response.
'A woman?' Ben straightened and strode to Gidley. 'The island is practically afloat with whores.' He spat the words out. 'Why can't the men understand how to handle a simple transaction and be done with it?'
'Well ' Gidley gave a demure smile. 'This one claims she be savin' herself for the capt'n.' He stepped back against the railing, one arm resting on the wood, and with the other hand pulled his gangly chin whiskers. 'I tried to give myself to her in yer stead, but she'd have none of it. Capt'n, she said. Kept insistin' she had a treasure for the capt'n.'
Ben smiled, his even teeth too white in the sunlight. 'Is she lovely?'
Gidley shrugged, but his grin flashed back hearty approval. 'She's some kind of mark here.' He touched above his breast. 'The birthmark ' he smiled ' pulled my sight right to her breasts.'
Not a ripple of emotion passed behind Ben's eyes. He turned to Warrington, indicating the shoreline with a quick tilt of his head. 'Go ashore and see what the woman wants.'
Warrington could not believe his brother's words. He examined Ben's face and took a step towards him. 'No.' Warrington shook his head.
Ben's eyes lost all familial ties. 'Captain's orders.' The smug words slashed in the air.
'I'm an earl.' Warrington's voice was tight.
'In case you're unaware, we're not on English soil. Captain ranks higherhere.' His brother bit out the commanding words and adopted the cocksure stance he'd perfected by five years old. 'And my crew does obey me. See to the woman, or I will have you left on the island when we haul anchor.'
Ben smiled. 'You're going to have to have a go at another woman some time. You might as well get some use out of your little man as to let it wither up and wash overboard.' He raised a hand, summoning three other seamen who'd stilled to listen.
Seven men were ready to toss Warrington on to the longboat should he not go on his own. He stared at his brother's face. He would kill him.
'So go ashore.' Ben crossed his arms. 'Take care of the matter for meand you might be able to return to England on this vessel.'
'I' His hands clenched.
'No. No,' Ben interrupted, head dropping but his hand still high. 'Trust me. Once you've been called captain by a woman in that breathless momentyou'll fashion yourself a captain many times over.' He waved his hand in the air. 'Correct?'
Seven male heads quickly gave assent, eyes flashing amusement and watching Warrington.
'Fine,' Warrington snapped out, moving to give his brother a shove from his path, but Ben moved asidethe man was nimble as an eeland Warrington strode to the port side, stopping to give Ben a bitter glance.
He grabbed the railing and turned, scrambling down the woven ladder. He saw the first mate's boots next on the rope rungs. They would see him to the woman.
When the men reached the bank, the boat's bottom grated into sand underneath. Warrington jumped from the longboat into the water. He stopped for a moment. The immobile land beneath his feet jarred him. He'd been at sea too long.
He sloshed to shore. The others splashed behind him, then pulled the boat free of the waves, showing no more effort than moving a child's toy.
They started on the path. Water sluiced from War-rington's boots. Gidley slogged beside him. 'She's near the town. Said we'd find her 'fore we reached Castro.'
The blowing wind pushed whiffs of the tainted egg smell that lingered at the base of the island. The shoreline reeked as badly as a demon's breatha scent Warrington supposed left over from volcanic eruptions centuries earlier.
Warrington nodded sharply, but gave no other acknowledgement. He trudged up the path and soon the sand gave way to a coal-hued surface. Glass-like shards of earth now crunched beneath his feet. The unusual land piqued his interest, but the scent didn't. Warrington wished they had risked another island to recover from the ship's fire, which had nearly cost them their lives. This one stank.
Gidley expounded on what a woman such as the one he'd seen could do for a man's pleasure. He described the mark at her breast in fifteen different ways and each one included more details of skin than he could possibly have seen.
The mate spoke so earnestly and with such conviction, he'd convinced at least one of the other seamen the woman was a descendent of some goddess. Warrington wasn't certain Aphrodite herself would be so free with her charms as Gidley recounted. The sailor loved his mythologybut it was all Gidley's tales, not the ancients.
The road disappeared into a growth of olive trees and brush.
Warrington wondered about the womanthis bold woman who shouldn't disturb an earl who'd been a month without a decent mattress, longer without a decent night's sleep and even longer without a deliciously indecent tumble.
Meeting the woman might be interesting, he decided. He would return and tell his brother what it was like to bed a goddess in the flesh. No matter how the events unfolded, Warrington would manage a supreme tale of unsurpassed passion.
Gidley stopped where a path shot out from the road. 'She lives in one of them red-roofed houses up this traila home overlookin' the sea.'
Warrington stopped and turned to the seamen. 'I will continue the rest of the way alone.'
Gidley and six other pairs of feet ceased all movement and their faces weighed Warrington's words.
Gidley spoke softly, his downturned lips showing hurt at the exclusion. 'We want to see yer meet her.'
'I can meet her alone and need no help,' Warrington said.
Gidley stepped nearer Warrington, facing him. Gid's worn cap slid into a jauntier position when he raised his head. He clapped Warrington on the arm. 'I wager a earl knows a bit about pleasurin' himself. I mean ' he paused for effect '.with a woman.'
The others snickered. Warrington raised a brow and gave them the glare that hours spent with a fencing master had made him confident to use, and that hinted Swords or pistols and choose your seconds.
Gidley took a step back and turned away with a disgusted grunt. 'We be takin' the longboat back to the boat in an hour or so,' Gidley muttered. 'Sun will be settin' not long after. Ought to give you enough time to meet 'er, fall in love and get yer trousers back on.' Gidley's words faded away as he left along the road.
Warrington pushed through a clump of tree branches over the path and saw the roof of a house. The structure had two storeys and the stairs leading to the upper floor had no railing. He knew from his first day's visit to the island that the house was made as the others he'd seen. The first levela barnheld the livestock. He supposed the tradition of making homes in this manner started because of the houses built near the sea. If a low-lying area flooded, the animals could be released and water would be less likely to harm the house's upper contents. Besides, the structure took fewer materials than if two were built.
He saw a nanny goat grazing near the corner, a kid at her side. And near the cliffs, a woman sat on one of the boulders overlooking the sea. She turned to him. In the chilled air, her red scarf fluttered around her face and she stood. He didn't move. Let her approach him. She'd summoned.
The covering on her head showed scarlet enough to use as a beacon and another garment draped around her shoulders had only a little less colour. She pulled the covering snug as she walked. The wind didn't warrant bundling so.
When she strode closer, he caught his breath. Even with the breezes constantly tossing the head covering against her, she drew his attention. Brown eyes with lashes thick enough he half expected them to flutter in the breeze, as well. She held her shawl closed with one hand and with the other brushed back the hair that kept blowing across her face. A waste of effort.
'I'm Melina. Are you the Ascalon captain?'
Her words shocked him. She spoke King's English and with only enough accent to give her words an exotic flair. And her voiceit purred into him, causing a jolt in his midsection that reminded him of how tempting a woman could be.
Melina appraised the man before her. She'd expected someone silver-haired. Perhaps scarred a bit. This oneshe could see how he kept from being mangled. His body showed strength. She doubted he'd be able to scamper across the rigging as she'd seen French seamen do, but he could probably toss another man up to do the job for him.
His clothing fit tight over parts that held muscle, and loosely everywhere else. When the wind blew at him, he stood impervious. His stare trapped the breath in her and caused a pleasing quiver in her stomach.
She'd waited months for an English ship to anchor in the bay because she had to leave the island and discover the truth about the treasure. She had to be right. Her sisters must eat.
'Where did you learn such speech?' He asked his own question, ignoring hers.
'I wish to go to London.' She kept the scarf tight around her.
'I wish for a soft bed at night, but the ship doesn't have one,' he said. 'And it has no room for passengers.'
'I've payment.' She raised her chin. She would not give away this chance. Not willingly. Only certainty of death would back her down.
His shoulders relaxed and he gave her an apologetic smile. 'We've had a fire. Our vessel is near ready for departure and we're finishing the last repairs, but it might not withstand a storm. Another ship will be along shortly. Bargain with them.'
She took a step forward, closer than she would normally stand near someone who'd docked on the island. She looked up at him. 'Before you decide, I must show you something.'
He gave a tilt of his shoulder and raised one eyebrow. 'I told you I'm not interested.' Then she saw his gaze drift to her chest and quickly move back to her face.
She pulled her shawl tight. 'In the stable,' she bit out, taking a step towards the structure.
He reached for her, trapping her arm, but his grip wasn't tight.
She snapped her head in his direction and stood ready to push him backfirst with words, then with force if she needed. He had to see her discovery.
'I don't wish' His voice softened, but he didn't release her arm. His eyes, not true dark but reflecting the same colours as the almost leafless tree he stood near, showed compassion. 'I can't take you to London with us. Wait for another ship.' His voice lowered. 'Or stay here. The world is not kind for women away from their homes.'
Words fled her mind and she couldn't look away from him. He'd trapped hernot with his hand, but with his gaze. His touch warmed her skin and his gentle grasp had taken her will to move.
'Come with me.' She thrust the words out, recapturing her strength.
He shook his head, still not releasing her arm. The grip held her firm, but she didn't feel imprisoned. She knew a quick tug and she'd be able to slip away.
'I The ship is no place for a womaneven a ' He tried again. 'I'm sure you could have many times your passage back in your pocket in the time it will take us to reach Londonbut the men don't need the distraction. They'd be competing for your favours instead of thinking of their duties. You'll not go with us.' He put his free hand in his waistcoat pocket, brought out a coin and held it to her. 'Take it.'
She stared and didn't move.
He kept his hand extended. 'You may keep it. For getting me from the ship for a few moments and for letting me hear a woman's voice. I want nothing more.' His eyes softened. 'I did not bring more funds or I would give them to you.'
She jerked her head in refusal of the coin.