Stolen PleasuresSebastian Blake, Earl of Merrick, long ago fled the responsibilities of his title to become the infamous pirate, Captain Phoenix. But the booty he’s just captured on a merchant ship is a fierce tempered minx who claims to be a bride…his bride, married to him by proxy on behest of their fathers. He could shame his hated family and return his beautiful wife untouched, but no treasure has ever proved more tempting to Sebastian, and making their marriage a true one–in every sense–is his one urgent desire … Lucien Remington’s reputation as a debauched libertine who plays by no one’s rules–in business or the bedroom–is well deserved. He gets what he wants, social repudiation be damned. But society can keep from him the one thing he truly desires, the untouchable Lady Julienne La Coeur. Until she sneaks into his club dressed as a man and searching for her irresponsible brother. Suddenly she’s in Lucien’s grasp, his to take, and his mind is filled with the most wickedly sinful thoughts. A gentleman would walk away from the temptation she presents. But then, Lucien has never claimed to be a gentleman…
Her Mad GraceHugh La Coeur never wanted to be the Earl of Montrose. Wine, women, and a hefty wager are preferable to responsibility of any kind. It’s certainly preferable to spending the night in an eerie, neglected mansion owned by a legendary madwoman. The duchess’s companion, the fiercely independent Charlotte, is another matter altogether. Hugh would be happy to spend as many nights in her bed as possible. He knows she’s hiding terrible secrets, but for once in his life, Hugh has the desire to take on someone else’s burden as his own, no matter what the danger… They’re mad, bad, and totally irresistible…
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 blond 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 Sebastian’s 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 callused 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 people 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.
“What the devil are you doing in my club?”
Julienne looked across the massive mahogany desk into blue eyes the color of which she’d never seen before. Somewhere between deep blue and purple, they were fringed with thick black lashes that were shamefully wasted on a man. “I need to find my brother, ” she said, lifting her chin in defiance.
One black brow arched. “A message left with the doorman would have been simpler, Miss…”
“Lady. Julienne. And I attempted to leave messages. I have yet to receive a response.” She shifted in her chair as the broadcloth trousers chafed the delicate skin of her derriere. The wig itched, too, but she refused to embarrass herself further by scratching.
“Dressing as a man was an original touch.”
She heard the laughter in the velvety voice and scowled. “How else was I to gain admission to a gentleman’s club?”
Julienne resisted the urge to flee as Lucien Remington rose from behind the desk and rounded it. She licked suddenly dry lips as she took in his height and the breadth of his shoulders. He was even more devastating up close than he had been across crowded ballrooms. Black hair and tanned skin displayed his extraordinary eyes to perfection. A strong jaw and generous mouth bespoke of his sensual nature, which was lauded far and wide by well-pleasured ladies of his acquaintance.
“Exactly, Lady Julienne. A gentleman’s club. Those garments do not disguise the fact that you are all woman. Ridgely’s foxed, or insane, not to have noticed.” His perusal paused briefly on her breasts before rising to meet her gaze.
“No one noticed,” she muttered.
And so he had. Almost immediately. She’d been in the club only five minutes at most before he’d grabbed her by the elbow and pulled her in his office. But then, it had only taken her five minutes to make a mess of the whole affair.
His voice softened. “What is so urgent that you would take such drastic measures to speak with your brother?”
As he leaned against his desk directly in front of her, the material of his trousers stretched over firmly muscled thighs. He was so close she could feel the heat emanating from his body. She smelled a hint of tobacco and starched linen, and another delicious scent that could only be the man himself.
Remington cleared his throat, drawing her attention. Julienne flushed at the knowing smile that curved his lips.
She straightened her spine, refusing to be cowed despite how beautiful he was or how flustered he made her. “My reasons are my own.”
Remington bent, bringing his mouth inches away from hers. “When your reasons include my club, I reserve the right to know what they are.”
Julienne’s gaze was riveted to his lips. If she leaned forward just a tiny bit, she could touch them with her own.
Would they feel as soft as they looked?
He pulled away, then lowered to his haunches and placed his large hands on her knees. She jumped at the heat that burned through the broadcloth. “Who is your brother?” he asked.
Julienne’s mouth parched the instant he touched her, making speech difficult. Lucien Remington was simply gorgeous. She’d always thought so, always compared her suitors to him and found them lacking in all respects. No one was as handsome, or as interesting, or as…wicked.
Her tongue flicked out to wet her bottom lip, and his eyes followed the movement. An ache came to the place between her legs. Julienne attempted to push his hands away, but when she touched his skin, her palms burned. She pulled away quickly. “A gentleman does not put his hands on a lady,” she scolded.
His hands slid higher, squeezing gently, his mouth gifting her with a roguish smile. “I never claimed to be a gentleman.”
And he wasn’t, she knew. His determination and ruthless business acumen were the stuff of legend. If it wasn’t precisely prohibited in writing, Lucien Remington would do it. He showed no leniency when it came to expanding his empire. He was widely disparaged for his “vulgar pursuit of money”, but Julienne found it rather thrilling. He cared nothing for the regard of others, a nonchalance she wished she could affect herself.
“Now, about your brother…?”
“Lord Montrose,” she blurted.
A devilish smile teased the corners of Remington’s mouth. “That explains why he hasn’t answered your messages, sweetheart. The earl owes me a great deal of money. I suspect he’s avoiding me.”
She said nothing, but she clenched her fists. Their situation must be worse than she’d thought. It was common for Hugh to carouse and spend days on end with his scapegrace associates. From experience she knew he most likely wasn’t in danger. But that didn’t ease her worry. Or their predicament.
“Why don’t you tell me what you need?” Remington coaxed, his long fingers rhythmically kneading her lower thighs. “Perhaps I can help.”
The sensations he elicited spread up her legs and into her breasts, flushing her skin. Her nipples hardened. “Why would you want to do that?”
His powerful shoulders flexed as he shrugged. “You are a beautiful woman. I like beautiful women. Especially troubled ones who require my assistance.”
“So you can take advantage?” She stood, her thoughts and body in turmoil, and his hands fell away. “I should not have come in here.”
“No, you shouldn’t have,” he agreed, his voice soft. Remington rose at the same time, towering over her. The top of her head barely reached his shoulders and Julienne was forced to tilt her head back to look at him.
She turned to leave, but his grip on her elbow stayed her. Heat radiated from his fingers and spread through her body.
“Unhand me,” she ordered in an unsteady voice. “I wish to leave.”
She didn’t, not truly, but she must. Remington’s proximity was doing terrible things to her. Wonderful, terrible things. Things it most likely did to countless other women.
He shook his head and grinned. “Pity that, since you’re not going anywhere. Not until morning. You’ve created enough of a stir as it is, coughing brandy all over Lord Ridgely. Returning to the floor, however briefly, would stir up the whole mess again. You’ve wounded his pride and he’s a pompous ass.”
“What do you suggest I do then?”
The amusement in his eyes never wavered. “You’ll stay the night in one of the rooms upstairs. I’ll entertain Ridgely and his cronies until the whole debacle is forgotten.”
She gaped. “You’re mad! I cannot remain in this establishment overnight!”
Remington laughed. The deep, rich sound gathered around her like an embrace and made her shiver. But she wasn’t cold. To her dismay, she was growing hotter by the moment. She couldn’t help it with the way he looked at her… Julienne had seen that look before. But no man had ever dared to give it to her.
She found she rather liked it.
“You went to a hell of a lot of trouble to get in here,” he purred. “And now you’re anxious to leave?”
Julienne sidestepped, but he didn’t release her. “My need was especially dire. I apologize for any trouble I-”
“You don’t sound very sorry.”
“I’ll leave immediately,” she offered.
“You’ll leave in the morning. The hour is late. The streets aren’t safe.”
“My aunt will worry,” she argued.
“I’ll send Lady Whitfield a note. She’ll know you’re well.”
She stilled, her eyes narrowing. “How do you know about my aunt?”
“I know everything about every one of the members of my club. Especially those who enjoy lines of credit.” Remington’s thumb began an absentminded caress of the hollow of her elbow. Julienne felt the warmth of his touch all the way to her bones.
“I know your parents died when you were very young and your Aunt Eugenia’s been your guardian for years. You and Montrose are always running roughshod over her. Your brother is brash, hotheaded, and still too young for the responsibilities of his title. You’re always bailing him out of one mess or another. And now I know how seriously you take that responsibility.”
She looked away, flustered that he knew such intimate details. “Do you also know how sick to death I am of that chore?” she said finally, surprising herself with the admission.
His voice turned soft and sympathetic. “I’m certain you must be. But you’ve done an admirable job. There’s not been even a breath of scandal attached to the La Coeur name.”
Julienne looked up at him, overwhelmed by his nearness. She felt slightly tipsy, but she couldn’t blame it on the brandy. Lord Ridgely was presently wearing most of it.
Remington led her across the room and pulled the bell. “I’ll have one of the courtesans give you a night rail. You’ll be comfortable. My hospitality is legendary.”
She scowled. “That’s not all that’s legendary.”
Her Mad Grace
Derbyshire, December 1814
To Hugh La Coeur’s mind, that was the most apt description for the moldering mansion on the hill. Usually the bright white of newly fallen snow brought a peaceful serenity to the landscape. Not so with this property. Even the pristine beauty of winter could not hide the neglect apparent in everything about the place.
He hesitated a moment, taking in the view with a disgusted snort. Ominous clouds roiled above him, but the sky was darkening for another reason–the day was ending. Thoughts of returning the way he’d come, through the snow and without light, forced Hugh to proceed. If his need were less dire, he’d ride on in search of a more hospitable looking home. But he was desperate, and the curling smoke rising from the manor’s chimneys told him the place was inhabited. Help was at hand, and he couldn’t ignore it, no matter how much he desired to.
He tied his mount, one of his prized carriage bays, to the metal ring protruding from a nearby stone pillar. At one time the pillar had held up the park gate, but not any longer. One side of the gate remained upright, while the other leaned precariously atop the frozen ground.
“Atrocious,” Hugh muttered to his horse, as he edged his way through the opening and started the long walk up the drive to the main house.
He glanced around with morbid fascination. It was easy to imagine how beautiful the property must have been once, a source of pride for its noble occupants. But fate had dealt a cruel blow to the peer and family who owned the place. It had obviously gone without maintenance for many years. Vines, long dead, crawled over the brick exterior. Places where paint had once brightened the façade now peeled and warped from lack of care.
The wind picked up, and soft, powdery snow began to swirl around Hugh’s polished Hessians. His hair blew across his forehead, his hat long lost in a ditch. The storm would be upon them soon. His legs lengthened
their strides. He would have to hurry.
Reaching the door, Hugh banged the tarnished lion-head knocker. The sound echoed eerily, and he shook off the shivers. He was an earl, for Christ’s sake! The esteemed, if slightly scandalous, Earl of Montrose, an ancient title that carried a wealth of prestige. His station should place him above such childish fears. But frankly, the place looked haunted, and the forgotten air that surrounded the hall filled him with foreboding.
He almost fled, blizzard be damned, when the door creaked open with torturous slowness. A stooped butler, as decrepit as the manse in which he worked, stood in the doorway.
“Aye?” the old man queried in a gravelly voice.
Hugh handed over his card. “Is the lord of the manor at home?”
The butler squinted at the lettering. He lifted the card to an oddly protruding eye and then dropped his hand with a grunt. The servant gestured wildly behind him. “You’ll find ‘im in the cemetery out back.”
Before Hugh could blink, the door was swinging with lightning speed toward his face. Moving with a pugilist’s quick ease, he slipped into the hall before the door slammed shut. The butler turned, bumped into his chest, and shrieked in terror.
Rolling his eyes, Hugh steadied the frail man. “Listen, old chap. My desire to be here is far less than your desire to have me here. I require some assistance. If you provide it, I can be on my way.”
The butler studied him closely with his oversized blue eye. “Wot ye be needin’, gov’na?”
“You may address me as ‘my lord’,” Hugh corrected, with a pointed look at his calling card, presently being crushed in the butler’s hand. “What is your name?”
The servant sniffled. “Artemis.”
“Very well, Artemis. Are there any other men about the place?” Hugh glanced around. “Men preferably capable of physical exertion.”
Artemis studied him with blatant suspicion. “’enry. ‘e’s a strapping lad wot runs the stables. And Tom, ‘e ‘elps Cook wiv the vittles.”
“Excellent.” Hugh released a sigh of relief. “Would it be possible to find decent horseflesh around here?” Even as he asked, he knew it was asking too much, given the sight of the place.
“O’ course!” the old man cried, affronted. “’er Grace ‘as the finest ‘orses you’ll ever see!”
Hugh stilled, his mind rapidly disseminating the information he’d gathered so far. His Grace lay in the cemetery, which left Her Grace widowed. There weren’t many duchesses, hardly any that were widowed, and only one of whom he was aware who would claim ownership to a sorry place such as this—
“’Her Mad Grace’?” Of all the damnable luck!
“’ere now!” Artemis complained. “We don’t take kindly to that nonsense ‘round ‘ere!”
Hugh cleared his throat. He was leaving. Now. “Well, I’m certain Her Grace wouldn’t mind at all if I borrowed her-”
“You can’t just barge in ‘ere and run off wiv ‘er Grace’s ‘orses.” The old man straightened as best he could. “You’ll ‘ave to ask ‘er first!”
“Ask her? Good God, she’s in residence here?” The place wasn’t fit for man or beast, let alone for a duchess.
“O’ course. Where else would she be?” Artemis snorted.
Hugh arched a brow. “Where else indeed?”
“Come along, then, gov’na.” The servant shuffled away, stopping only to grasp the candelabra off the console. “You can wait in the parlor while I tell ‘er Grace yer ‘ere.” Shoving open a set of double doors on the right, Artemis gestured impatiently for him to go inside, shoving the candelabra at him as he passed.
Hugh moved into the room and then spun about as the door slammed shut behind him. “Abominable service,” he muttered, glancing around.
No other candles were lit, and the grate was cold. Every bit of furniture was draped and covered with thick dust. Even the portrait over the fireplace was hidden from view. Depositing his meager source of light on a cloth-covered table, he set to work building a fire.
Grumbling under his breath, Hugh inspected the coal bucket, surprised to discover it did indeed have coal inside it. Within moments he’d started a fire. He stood and used a nearby dusty sheet to wipe his hands.
Of all the confounded places for his wheel to break, why did it have to be here?
Bad Boys Ahoy! has been named the winner of the Aspen Gold Award, which is decided by readers and booksellers!
“Lucien’s Gamble” in Bad Boys Ahoy! is a finalist in the novella category of the More Than Magic contest.
“Her Mad Grace”, one of Sylvia’s three novellas in the Bad Boys Ahoy! anthology, has been named a nominee for the 2007 RITA® Award of Excellence — the romance-publishing industry’s highest award of distinction.
“Lucien’s Gamble” in Bad Boys Ahoy! is a finalist for the 2007 Gayle Wilson Award of Excellence contest (novella category), which is judged by avid readers of romance, booksellers, and librarians.