- Imaginez qu’une femme soit trop peu attirante pour se trouver un époux. Forcerez-vous l’un de vos hommes à l’épouser au motif que chacun doit trouver sa chacune ?
À ces mots, Gideon sentit son sang ne faire qu’un tour. L’intelligence de Miss Willis et le mépris qu’elle affichait l’avaient mis hors de lui. Il se dirigea vers elle et esquissa un sourire satisfait devant l’inquiétude qui se peignit sur son délicieux visage.
- Mes hommes ont passé les huit dernières années en mer. Ils n’avaient qu’une nuit de temps à autre pour assouvir leur besoin de compagnie féminine. Et ce n’est pas une tête de cheval ou des dents gâtées qui les feraient reculer, croyez-moi !
Ce n’était pas tout à fait vrai, mais il en avait assez de l’entendre pérorer. Elle marcherait droit, même s’il fallait l’enfermer pour la mettre au pas !
Elle recula, le rouge aux joues. En se retrouvant adossée à la porte de la cabine, elle s’aperçut qu’elle était prise au piège. Ce qui ne l’empêcha pas de le contredire.
- J’ai du mal à croire que vos hommes voudront d’une femme qui…
- Assez !
Il plaqua les mains sur la porte en bois de chêne, de part et d’autre des épaules de la jeune femme. Elle ne pouvait plus s’échapper.
- Nos passagères ont une semaine pour se choisir un époux. Passé ce délai, je ferai ce qui me chante avec celles qui n’auront trouvé personne. Vous aurez beau vous plaindre, cela n’y changera rien.
- Vous êtes dans l’erreur, protesta-t-elle vivement. Si vous forcez les gens…
- Pourquoi vous montrez-vous aussi têtue ? Vous avez peur que personne ne vous choisisse, c’est ça ?
Le visage de Miss Willis blêmit.
- Comment osez-vous, espèce de sale…
- Ne vous inquiétez pas. Beaucoup d’hommes présents sur ce bateau vous trouvent très belle.
Avant qu’elle puisse l’en empêcher, Gideon dénoua sa coiffe et la fit tomber par terre. Elle le regarda, les yeux écarquillés et le souffle court. Il sentit le désir fondre sur lui, aussi soudainement qu’un orage d’été. Des mèches auburn s’échappaient du chignon où elle les avait rassemblées. Sa chevelure contrastait avec ses yeux d’une belle teinte marron clair, entourés des cils les plus longs et les plus délicats qui soient.
Seigneur, elle était magnifique.
Gideon enroula une boucle autour de son index. Ce qui sembla tirer Miss Willis de la stupeur où elle était plongée.
- Arrêtez, murmura-t-elle, d’une voix mal assurée.
- Pourquoi ? demanda-t-il en reposant cette belle chevelure sur l’épaule de la jeune femme.
Décidément, il n’avait jamais vu une peau aussi douce. Elle réclamait presque qu’on la touche !
Elle sursauta quand il laissa courir un doigt le long de la courbe de son cou.
- C’est… inconvenant, dit-elle.
Ce mot le fit sourire.
- Inconvenant ? Les limites de l’inconvenance ont été franchies dès l’instant où vous avez quitté le Chasteté. Vous êtes sur un bateau pirate, vous vous souvenez ? Seule dans une cabine avec un célèbre capitaine… Vous avez perdu votre coiffe… Et je suis à deux doigts de vous embrasser.
Dans la seconde où il prononça ces mots, Gideon sut que c’était une erreur — et pas seulement à cause de l’air outré de la beauté face à lui. L’embrasser ? Ce serait prendre un risque énorme. Non, elle n’était pas faite pour lui.
Sauf qu’il voulait la goûter une fois. Rien qu’un peu.
Avant qu’elle ose protester, il posa la bouche contre la sienne.
Extrait offert par Sabrina Jeffries :
Sara Willis looked around, feeling a sharp lurch of despair at the sight of the cabin’s lush interior and well-stocked gun cabinet. This wasn’t the cabin of a honest man, who would take pity on her hapless pupils. This was the cabin of a licentious murderer. And there would be no mercy for them, none at all.
“The captain will be with you in a moment,” Mr. Kent murmured before leaving.
She scarcely heard him. She was too busy scanning her surroundings. Every piece of furniture was made of the best mahogany, from the desk cluttered with instruments and papers to the cabinet that held guns and knives of every description behind its cut crystal doors. The royal blue curtains were shot through with gold threads, and a Persian carpet lay on the floor, an obvious extravagance where water was a constant threat.
But most alarming was the large mahogany bed presiding over one corner of the spacious cabin, its posts carved with the same satyr motif that graced the ship’s figurehead. A coverlet of insolent red silk was draped over the plush mattress, with a heap of jet-black pillows at one end. She walked to the bed in a trance, wondering aloud what debaucheries and horrors had been committed there.
Involuntarily, she reached out to touch the patterned scarlet silk as a sudden vivid image of the dark-haired pirate captain rose up in her mind. He must have had many women on this bed. A strange heat spread through her body to think of him bending over a woman, touching her body with those large hands, kissing her with that firm, mocking mouth—
“Looking for signs of ‘thievery, pillage, and rape,’ Lady Sara?” came a sarcastic voice behind her.
She whirled away from the bed, her cheeks glowing crimson to hear him quote her earlier words. Good heavens, it was him, the pirate captain himself. How utterly mortifying! Now she had something new to add to her list of humiliating experiences.
He closed the door, a smile playing over his lips. “The coverlet belonged to an obnoxious viscount on his way to America to marry an heiress,” he said as he removed the saber from his belt and hung it on a hook by the door. Then he strode to his desk and cast her a brazen look. “I enjoyed removing it from the bed he was sharing with his mistress.”
She winced, remembering what Mr. Kent had said about the captain’s hatred of the nobility. Perhaps she should tell him the truth about her own dubious connections. That might make him more inclined to listen to her pleas. “Captain Horn, I think I should…er…set you straight on one matter. I’m not actually a lady–not in the sense you mean it anyway.”
Although she dropped her gaze from him, she could feel the force of his disapproval as he approached her. “You’re not the Earl of Blackmore’s sister?”
“Well, yes, I am. His stepsister.” She swallowed hard. “His father, the late Earl of Blackmore, adopted me after marrying my widowed mother. So I’m not really Lady Sara, you see, but Miss Willis.”
He studied her, as if he wished to open up her mind and peer inside. Never had a man looked at her with such concentration. It was unsettling, to say the least.
She dropped her eyes from his, searching for something to say that would shift that intensity away from her. “In any case, I’m sure that’s not what you brought me here to discuss.”
That shook him out of his silence. “Certainly not.” Moving behind his desk, he sat down in the armchair, then gestured to a chair near her. “Sit down, Lady Sara.”
Though she did as he said, she protested, “I told you. You can’t call me—”
“I’ll call you whatever I damned well please.” His gaze skimmed her body before snapping back to her face. “It’ll remind me that the great earl, your stepbrother, is searching the seas for you.”
His sarcasm brought her up short. Why, he wasn’t afraid of Jordan, not one jot. No doubt her revelation had made him assume that Jordan was no longer a threat to him. “The fact that Jordan is my stepbrother rather than my brother doesn’t change a thing, Captain Horn. He still won’t forget about me. I assure you he’ll be after you just as soon as he learns what happened. There’ll be warships hunting you everywhere. You won’t be able to sail for fear of my stepbrother.”
Her words didn’t have the effect she’d intended. A smile spread across his handsome face. “Then it’s just as well we’re not sailing anywhere else once we reach our destination.”
“What do you mean?”
He shrugged. “We’re retiring from piracy, my men and I. That’s why we need wives.”
That stunned her into temporary silence. She glanced around the cabin at the gold fittings and extravagant comforts. “Retiring?”
“Yes. Retiring. Piracy’s a dangerous profession, and my men and I have enough spoils to make us comfortable. We don’t wish to end our illustrious career by kicking the clouds, if you know what I mean.”
She nodded mechanically. She’d done enough reform work at Newgate to recognize the cant for hanging. But retiring? Pirates retiring?
Settling back in his chair, he laced his fingers together over his stomach and surveyed her with his disconcerting gaze. It seemed to touch her mouth, her cheeks, even her well-covered bosom. If another man had looked at her like that, she would have been appalled. So why did her pulse quicken when he did it?
“Fortunately,” he went on, his tone lower, huskier, “my men and I have found an island inhabited only by wild pigs. It has a fresh water stream and lush vegetation, and it’s large enough to support a substantial population. So we’ve decided to settle there, to build our own country.”
His gaze grew dark, almost mesmerizing. “There’s only one problem, you see. We have no women. And a colony without women . . . well, you can understand our dilemma.”
The smile he gave her then was so unexpectedly charming, she had to force herself not to respond to it. She didn’t want to be charmed by this…this wicked scoundrel. She didn’t want that at all. “But why these women? Why not pick wives in the Cape Verdes or—”
“Why do you think we were in Santiago?” He glanced away. “Unfortunately, few women wish to travel to an unknown island where they’ll be cut off forever from their families and expected to do their part in making it livable. Even the…er…ladybirds find that a less than tempting proposition.”
Ladybirds indeed. A blush rose to her cheeks despite her attempts to stop it. She shifted uncomfortably in her seat. “Can you blame them?”
His gaze was on her again, and he smiled as if he took great delight in her embarrassment. “I suppose not. They have reasons to stay on Santiago. But the situation is entirely different for the women of the Chastity. They’re doomed to a life of near slavery in a foreign land. We chose them precisely because we thought they’d prefer freedom with us to enforced servitude with cruel former convicts in New South Wales.”
“I’m not sure I understand the distinction between former convicts and pirates,” she snapped. “They’re both criminals, aren’t they?”
A muscle ticked in his jaw, making him look even more forbidding. “Believe me, there’s a profound difference between my men and those cutthroats.”
“You expect me to take your word for it?”
“You don’t have any choice, now, do you?” At her disgruntled expression, he seemed to rein in his temper. “Besides, our island has more to offer than New South Wales, where the weather is pitiless and the government more so. We have perfect weather, easy living, plenty of food, and no government but our own. There are no jailers, no magistrates oppressing the poor and catering to rich nobility… ‘Tis a paradise. Or it will be when your ladies join us.”
His eyes fixed on her, a burning zeal in their depths. He’d painted a pretty picture of his island, but Sara wasn’t fooled. New South Wales might have proven unsavory in the long run, but at least the women would have had some choice there. They wouldn’t have had to marry against their will. Though the inhabitants of the country might have regarded the convict women as prostitutes, there would always have been opportunities for the women to work hard and attain respectability. Some transported convicts even managed to make their way back to England and their families, though only a very few.
On Captain Horn’s island, however, there’d be no such possibility. They’d be at the mercy of him and his pirates. “A paradise?” She rose from her chair in a sweep of dimity skirts. “You mean, a paradise for you and your men. You’ve said naught that makes it a paradise for the women. They’re to be forced to be your wives and forced to labor for a ‘country’ they didn’t choose.”
He rose, too, rounding the desk to stand scant inches from her, his brow lowered in a frown. “Do you think they’d have any choices on New South Wales? I’ve been there. I’ve seen how convict women are treated. They’re parceled out to colonists as servant labor, though every man there intends that the only labor they’ll do is on their backs.”
At his crudeness, a hot flush again stained her cheeks. He lowered his voice to a harsh murmur. “Those who aren’t chosen as servants are confined in crowded factories where conditions are worse than in England’s gaols. That’s the fate you wish for your charges, Lady Sara? I offer them freedom and you offer them that.”
His unfair accusations stung. “Freedom? That’s what you call forced marriage? You’re going to parcel those women out to your men just as the Australian authorities do. You’re offering them marriage, but it’s still enforced servitude, isn’t it?”
He stood as rigid as his ship’s figurehead with eyes narrowed. “Suppose they were allowed a chance to choose.” His words were clipped, as if he already regretted them.
“No, no,” she protested, “I must speak to you now. It’s urgent.”
Surprise and then hope rose in her. “To choose what? Whether or not to go with you to your island?”
He scowled. “No. I mean, to choose their husbands. They can spend a week getting to know the men and seeing what’s in store for them on our island. After that, however, they must accept the proposal of the man they most prefer.”
“Oh.” She considered that. It was better than his earlier heartless offer, but certainly not as good as giving the women a choice between returning to the Chastity or going with the pirates. Though she wasn’t sure they’d want to go back. A tiny part of her knew that he might be right about their future in New South Wales.
If only she could be sure that his men truly did intend to retire. If only she had some inkling of their characters. She sighed. They were pirates. What more was there to know?
Still, he was offering something the women might not have gotten in New South Wales–the chance to choose the one who would enslave them.
She sought some way to make the choice easier. “One week is a short time,” she began. “Why, we might not even reach your island until—”
“We’ll reach Atlantis in two days,” he interrupted.
“‘Atlantis?’” she echoed. “Like the Greeks’ Atlantis?”
For a moment, he lost his stern look. “Some say Atlantis was utopia, Lady Sara. And that’s what we hope to create. Utopia.”
“A utopia where men have all the choices and women have none.”
“I’m offering them a choice.”
“Could we have two weeks, perhaps?”
His expression hardened. “One week. Take it or leave it. Either way, your women will take husbands. I’m giving up a great deal by letting the women make the choice instead of the men. The men will grumble.”
“What if a woman chooses not to marry?”
“She can’t.” He tucked his thumbs under his wide leather belt. “At the end of one week, if a woman hasn’t chosen a husband, one will be chosen for her.”
“Thank goodness we’re not bargaining over anything important,” she snapped. “I’ll have to speak to the women first, of course. I can’t make such a decision for them.”
“Of course.” Moving to the desk, he settled his hips against it. “I hope this means an end to your trouble-making in the hold.”
The words were a command. She shrugged. “If they agree to your terms, I suppose it does.” Smoothing her skirts down with a clammy hand, she said, “May I go now, Captain Horn, and present your offer to them?”
“Certainly. I’ll give you an hour. Then I’ll send Barnaby for your answer.”
She turned to the door, relieved to finally escape his disturbing presence.
But as she opened it, he said, “One more thing, Lady Sara.”
She twisted her head to look at him. “Yes?”
“In case you thought otherwise, this offer refers to all the women on this ship. That includes you. You have one week to choose a husband from among my men.” He paused, a wicked grin crossing his face as he swept his gaze down over her lips, her throat…her waist and hips. “Or I’ll take great delight in choosing one for you.
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