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The Pirate’s Desire
Seventeen-year-old Lady Lucinda wants her freedom back. But an orphaned young woman has no property rights in regency England; indeed, she has few rights at all. . .
After Lucinda’s father is killed in action, he leaves her under the guardianship of a former pirate, the devastatingly handsome Captain Riel Montclair. Riel is a barbaric rogue, however, as he demonstrates the very first evening he arrives. Montclair clearly has a will of iron, which frustrates Lucinda beyond measure.
Even more distressing, once Riel signs the legal papers with the solicitor, he will not only dictate her choice of a husband, but he’ll financially control her centuries old estate, Ravensbrook, too. Neither idea sits well with Lucinda, who has ruled her own life for the past two years.
Is Montclair planning to plunder Ravensbrook for his own personal gain? Additionally, Lucinda overhears him telling his disreputable-looking first mate that if the British Navy becomes suspicious of his past, he will lose his ship. What dastardly secret is he hiding?
How could her tender-hearted father have come to trust such a dangerous man? Lucinda must protect Ravensbrook, and her future, at all costs. But how far is she willing to go to get Riel out of her life, and ensure her freedom?
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Lucinda peeked into the hall. All clear. Good. No servants, and no Riel Montclair. Dashing on light, quick toes, she gained the door to the sumptuous guest quarters. The door handle felt smooth and cold beneath her clammy hand. Trepidation pounded in her heart. What if he was inside?
He isn’t. Stop being foolish.
Heart fluttering like a bird, Lucinda opened the door and slipped inside.
The letter. Where was it? She must find it, and quickly, for he could return at any moment.
Lucinda swiftly checked his sea bag. Nothing there. Feeling a little warm, she regained her feet and scanned the room. Where might he have put the letter? Provided it wasn’t tucked in his jacket this very moment.
The bed. She knelt and peered under it. Nothing there, either. Lucinda gripped the mattress with two hands and shoved it up with all of her strength. Her fingers fluttered, searching…searching… They brushed paper.
Spirit soaring with elation, she snatched out the folded parchment. Sure enough, Father’s flowing script read, “Mr. Chase.”
She’d found it. Lucinda sat back on her heels in triumph.
A red wax seal secured it, as Riel had said. Now that she’d found it, should she read it? Or quickly destroy it?
A small click sounded at the door. Lucinda’s pulse exploded in fright, and she whipped a glance over her shoulder. Riel! Sure enough, the door knob turned.
With horrified, shaking fingers she shoved the letter into her bodice, trying to work it down so he couldn’t see…
“Lucy.” Displeasure thundered in the deep voice.
She sprang to her feet, still turned away from him, struggling to fix her bodice.
A hard hand jerked her around to face him. “Why are you in my room?”
“I…I came to see that all is to your satisfaction…”
Alarmingly, his dark, pirate eyes fell to her bodice, still askew. Worse, a small corner of the parchment peeked out.
“FORGIVE ME IF I FIND it difficult to believe you.” In the soft twilight, Lucinda suspiciously eyed the man requesting entry into her centuries old home, Ravensbrook. He wore no uniform. In fact, he looked the worst sort of blackguard. And yet he professed to be a messenger from the Royal Navy…from her father.
The stranger stared implacably back at her. He was a big man, but this did not intimidate Lucinda. Neither did the fact he looked like a Barbary pirate, what with that faint, disreputable beard shadowing his jaw, and his unfashionably long black hair drawn back in a careless tail. All he lacked was a gold earring. In fact, was that an indentation where an earring used to be, there in his left ear? A shiver slid down her spine. The man exuded raw danger.
Lucinda told herself to stop being fanciful.
His clothes looked clean. And he didn’t smell. This was a dubious point in his favor. The black broadcloth covering his broad, obviously muscular shoulders was made of the finest quality. His boots, however, had seen better days. And his beige pants appeared of uncertain origin. Quickly, she averted her eyes from this involuntary, fleeting inspection.
A subtle, threatening sense of power emanated from him, like thunder in a gathering storm. It deeply disturbed, and even, if she were honest, frightened her a little. It further convinced her that he was dangerous.
Although he made her feel uneasy, Lucinda refused to let him see it. She met the stranger’s hard, dark brown eyes and lifted her chin a bit. He wore no cravat with his linen shirt, which left the deeply tanned column of his throat exposed. She surveyed his face again, which was composed of a blunt jaw, a straight nose and brow, as well as a firm, unsmiling mouth. If she didn’t know better, she’d think he didn’t want to be here.
Maybe she should grant his wish, and send him on his way. Unfortunately, he seemed determined to speak his piece. And, ruffian or no, if her mother were alive, she’d expect better manners from Lucinda than to escape up the stairs and slam the door in his face.
Too bad he had hailed her while she was out walking; otherwise the butler would have dispatched him.
Lucinda offered a polite smile. “If you have anything further to add, I am listening.”
After this effort to be courteous, she straightened her shoulders, and tried to make the most of every one of her five feet six inches. It helped she stood two steps above him. It also helped to know she looked passably pretty in her lemon and cream, finely tailored silk dress that was the height of fashion this past Season. It complemented her blond hair and blue eyes, and did its best to divert attention from her freckled nose and tanned skin.
No need for this man to know she was only seventeen. For all purposes, she was the mistress of the house, since her father was a commissioned officer in the war. Never mind the housekeeper, who thought she ran things. Well, maybe she did, but this stranger didn’t need to know that, either.
He rumbled, “Perhaps you will invite me inside. Our discussion will best be made in private.” He spoke with a faint accent. French? Or somewhere more exotic?
Did he truly think she’d let him inside her home? Lucinda swallowed a small gasp of fear at the very idea. Who was he, to demand entry, with no calling card, nor letters of introduction? She would be an utter fool to let him into her house.
Soft flutters beat in her stomach, and she wondered how she could send him on his way. If only Wilson would come to the door!
A movement caught Lucinda’s eye, and the man’s sharp gaze followed hers. Abigail, the scullery maid, stared at the stranger with wide eyes, clutching a basket of groceries in her arms.
Quick relief flooded Lucinda. “Abigail! Please fetch Wilson.”
Although the butler was over seventy, between the two of them, surely they could send this stranger away. Abigail swiftly bobbed her head and scuttled inside.
Lucinda returned her attention to the man. “Whatever you must say can be said out here.” Ignoring the unease coiling within her, she pressed her lips into a firm line, as she had often seen the housekeeper do when displeased with Lucinda’s behavior.
Lucinda pinned the man with an unwavering stare. “If you please, be quick. I have duties awaiting me.” Such as arranging the flowers for the supper table, but this man need not know the details.
He placed a booted foot on the bottom step, which levered his massive frame disconcertingly closer. Her heart beat faster, like a frightened bird’s. “You will be more comfortable if we speak inside.”
Lucinda stiffened her spine. “I will be more comfortable when you leave,” she snapped. “You say my father has sent you in his stead, but I find this harder to believe by the moment. Present your credentials, or be on your way.”
The black brows drew together like a thundercloud. With a terse movement, he pulled two folded parchments from his pocket. “For you.”
“Letters? Why didn’t you say?” Lucinda’s quick pleasure at receiving any sort of missive—presumably from her father—quickly faded. Why would this man carry a letter from her father? Her unease deepened.
All the same, she plucked the letters from his fingertips, which were calloused, with a bit of dirt under the nails. She flipped the parchments over, wanting only to finish this unpleasant encounter and send the stranger on his way.
One was from her father. She recognized his flowing script. He had been a Captain in the Royal Navy before he’d retired ten years ago, and after that he had become a part-time professor of war history at Oxford. When his friends at Command Headquarters in Portsmouth had written him, telling of the great need for seasoned officers for the prolonged war with France, he had immediately rejoined the British Navy. That had been two years ago. It had been months since she had heard from him. From his last, cryptic letter, she suspected he’d been recruited to head up some secret mission.
Now, it was all she could do not to rip open the note this moment and eagerly devour the contents. And assure herself of his safety.
But of course she could not do that with this man watching her. The other letter… Her hand suddenly trembled when she saw the seal of the Royal Navy and her own name, Lady Lucinda Hastings, written across the front.
The Royal Navy. Why would they write to her unless…unless…
She swayed slightly, and a firm hand gripped her arm. “Would you like to go inside?” His tone was gentler.
With a small, choked gasp, she jerked free. It could not be true. “Tell me how you came to possess these letters.”
He did not answer.
This was some sort of a trick. It had to be. Who was this man? Surely he was an imposter, and not from the Royal Navy at all. Grief shut down her logical thoughts.
“They’re forgeries. I know they are.” Her voice wavered. Lucinda dropped both to the ground, suddenly blinded by tears. The horrified fear twisting her insides could not be true. It could not.
She mashed her delicate satin slipper onto the parchments, twisting them, splitting them.
“Go!” she gritted, and pointed to the drive. “Go, and never return!” Picking up her skirts, she fled up the stairs, for the entrance to Ravensbrook…for safety…and for its sheltering, comforting arms. Everything would be all right once she was inside, she thought incoherently. The man would go. And all would go back to normal.
“Lucy!” The deep voice reverberated down her spine and shivered to her toes.
Shaking, she stopped. No one ever called her Lucy. No one except for her father.
She cast a wide-eyed, horrified glance over her shoulder. The stranger remained where she had left him; only now compassion flickered in his dark eyes. “Lucy,” he said again. “Perhaps we should talk inside.”
He had retrieved the scuffed, torn letters.
She didn’t want to touch them again. A sensation like worms creeping over her skin assailed her, and Lucinda felt nauseous and faint. “No.” Her voice sounded thready and weak. Not like herself at all. “No!” she said, louder, and felt pleased by the authoritative ring in her voice. “Leave at once!”
She fled again, but grief swirled after her like a speeding shroud. With a tiny, keening wail she ran faster up the remaining stairs for the house, but it was no use. Tears blinded her, and she pressed her hands to her face to catch the raw sobs. Running blind, her toes caught in the hem of her gown and she tripped and fell hard on the steps. Pain exploded through her shin and her hip.
She sensed movement and then strong arms lifted her and cradled her against a broad chest.
“Put me down. Put me down at once!” She struggled against the hard muscles confined within the fine broadcloth.
No answer. Just dimness as they entered her home.
“Oh my heavens, what happened?” The housekeeper’s voice rose in fright.
“Lady Lucinda has received a shock, madame. Where may I take her?”
“Her room is just up these stairs…”
“No. Mrs. Beatty!” Lucinda struggled for freedom, and the man allowed her to regain her feet.
“Lucinda,” the short, plump housekeeper said sternly. “Who is this man?” Worry sharpened her tone. “What has happened, child?”
“That man claims Father sent him. He…he has a letter. Two of them.” Grief clogged her throat, and Lucinda swiped her eyes with her sleeve. Perhaps it wasn’t ladylike, but the unconscious gesture was a remnant from childhood, when she’d run wild and free on the grounds with her best friends Amelia and Tommy; the boy had been a scraggly ragamuffin her father had hired to help muck out the stables.
“Letters? What do the letters say, Miss?” the housekeeper asked.
“I do not know. I don’t wish to know!” Her voice broke.
Above her, the man’s voice sounded like the rumble of thunder from the bowels of a storm. “Please sit down, Lady Lucinda.”
“Yes, miss, do.” Mrs. Beatty took her arm and gently led her to a faded chintz couch in the parlor. “I’ll fetch some tea.”
When she left, Lucinda was alone with the man. Without invitation, he sat on the chair beside her. He sat forward, forearms on his knees. Lucinda felt him watching her, but could not look at him. Illogically, she felt if she did, it would make her worst fears become real. But they couldn’t be. This must be some sort of mistake.
“Would you like to read the letters?” he asked quietly.
Lucinda bit her lip and plucked at a stray bit of lace on her sleeve. Fear knotted in her stomach. She didn’t want to believe the horrible certainty filling her mind, but running would not change the facts. First, she had lost her mother to the dreaded pox twelve years ago. Now Father…?
A painful, growing ache in her throat made it difficult to speak. “Did Father truly give you those letters?”
“He gave me one. Command Headquarters gave me the other.”
Helpless tears welled. “Why you?” she whispered. “Why would he give a letter to you, a stranger?”
“Your father and I served together. We became friends, and he trusted me.”
Trusted. Past tense. Lucinda’s jaw ached from willfully clenching it. She refused to break down in front of this man. But tears swam in her eyes and she knew she could read no letter right now. “Tell me the truth. Is Father…is he dead?”
A second ticked by and the man expelled a short breath. “Yes. Your father fought valiantly and died among friends. His last words were for you.”
“No.” Lucinda felt unable to breathe. Her chest felt tight—unbearably, painfully so. Her beloved father, noble, honorable, and gentle for a military man—a man scholarly and full of high ideals—was dead. She would never see him again. He would never come home again.
“No!” She gasped out a high, keening wail, and hot tears wrenched out, boiling her soul in torment. Grief, long forgotten but bitterly familiar, ached through her. Grief for the hole in her life that would never be filled again.
“I am sorry.” The stranger’s words sounded rough, as if he did not know how to deal with a storm of emotional weeping.
“La, miss.” Mrs. Beatty had returned, and the tea tray clattered onto the coffee table. A comforting, motherly arm went about her. “Now, then. Let’s get you up to bed. Effie!” she called for Lucinda’s maid. “Come help, if you please.”
“I will carry her.” Through her incoherent sobs, Lucinda heard the faint rumble of the stranger’s voice.
Mrs. Beatty released her without protest, and the man scooped Lucinda into his arms again. When she was deposited in her bed, Effie and Mrs. Beatty fussed over her, drawing the sweet smelling sheets to her chin, leaving her a glass of water, and closing the curtains. Then, blessedly, she was left alone. Lucinda sobbed in broken, unbearable misery. Her father was dead. Dead.
Nothing would ever be the same again.
Nothing would ever be all right again. Forever, she would be alone now. She was an only child…no parents…only a few distant relations scattered far and wide across the world globe.
Then fright filled her. What would happen to her now? She had not yet come of age, and she was a woman, with no property rights. Would she be thrown from her childhood home while it was given to another…some distant relation she had never met? Fear mixed with the agony in her soul. Whatever would she do now?
Gabriel Montclair had been unprepared for the girl’s anguished, almost violent sobs. He had also been unprepared for her beauty, with her blond hair springing free from her rolled coif, and bright blue eyes the color of a summer day—a stormy summer day. A spitfire. She had distrusted him on sight.
Riel ran a palm over the rough whiskers on his jaw. He’d been in such a hurry to arrive before the shocking delivery of her father’s coffin tomorrow that he hadn’t taken the care with his appearance that he should have.
Not that it would have made a difference. Lucy appeared to have disliked him on sight. Perhaps she’d guessed the reason for his appearance on her doorstep. Perhaps she would not take kindly to anyone bearing the news of her father’s death.
He hoped that was all it was. After speaking with the housekeeper, he’d clean up and finish speaking his piece to Lucy at supper.
Lucy. He should call her Lady Lucinda, but Commodore Hastings, the Earl of Ravensbrook, had always referred to his daughter as Lucy, and so Riel had come to think of her that way, too.
Peter Hastings had warned him that she was a handful; headstrong as they came, and with a will of iron. He’d said, “Lucy will either be the making of a man or the breaking of one. Lord only knows if there’s a soul strong enough to handle her.”
Grief tightened in Riel’s chest for the man who had treated him like a father and a friend, even though Commodore Hastings, more than anyone, knew the worst about him. Peter had looked down on no one. It remained to be seen what sort of character his daughter possessed. Would she be able to handle the remaining news he must give her?
Riel’s gut told him the upcoming scene would be unpleasant. Best to set a battle plan in mind now, for he would not leave until Peter Hastings’ last wishes were carried out—no matter how long that might take.
Lucinda awoke slowly. A lamp spilled light across her bed, and the smell of roast pork drifted upstairs. Her stomach gurgled.
She felt wretchedly tired. Her head hurt and her mouth felt like cotton.
Slowly, she sat up. Although her mind felt numb and dull-witted, she managed to summon the energy to move to the wash basin and splash water on her face. Her hands trembled. Father was dead, but life must go on. More tears welled, but she blinked them back. She must face the servants and pretend all would be well. Now—at least for a little while—she truly was the mistress of Ravensbrook.
At least the stranger would be gone by now. His dark presence had deeply disturbed and even frightened her, although logically she could not say why. Because he looked like a barbaric pirate? Because he’d come bearing awful news?
Yes. But it went well beyond that. He wore power effortlessly, as if it were as raw and natural to him as breathing. Lucinda was honest enough to admit she did not react well to authority of any sort. Father had been mild-mannered, which had helped to defuse the worst of her early adolescent rebellion, but she hadn’t seen him in two years. Perhaps her behavior was not as meek and mild as a lady’s should be these days; even though she’d tried hard to change into the mature young lady she should be. It was so difficult. Tears slipped out again, and she dashed them away.
If only she could be more like her beloved father. He would never have considered sending a stranger away from Ravensbrook, like she had itched to do. Instead, he would have immediately welcomed him. Logically, she should have done the same.
Emotionally, however, something had warned her to be wary of the stranger. For she’d sensed, from the first split second those dark brown eyes met hers, that an ineffable darkness lurked inside him. Certainly, not a man she could comfortably trust.
Thank heavens he was gone now.
Lucinda stared at herself in the mirror. Red circles underscored her dull, sad eyes. She bit her lip as more tears welled. Time enough for crying later, she told herself. Now she must gather strength for the servants’ sake. Otherwise, they would worry about their livelihoods. She would do her best to reassure them. But soon she would need to speak to her father’s solicitor and learn what was to become of them all; and exactly what would become of her.
Lucinda swallowed another lump of grief and rang for Effie to help her dress for dinner. All must go on as normal. It did not matter if her world had shattered and she was alone now. She must make everything right, if she could. No one would help her, or comfort her and tell her that everything would be all right. It was up to her to think of a plan to save them all. Otherwise, Ravensbrook would fall into the hands of another, and life as she knew it would soon end.
After dressing in a lime green, satin gown with ivory flounces, and after her hair had been carefully swept up into coils and curls atop her head, with tendrils kissing her cheeks, Lucinda slowly descended the stairs to the dining room, keeping her chin level. She tried to find a smile for each servant she passed. All is fine, she silently tried to comfort them. Do not worry.
If only she could believe it herself.
The footman hurriedly swept open the dining hall door before her.
Lucinda stopped dead in her tracks. Sitting at the head of the table, in her father’s chair, was the stranger.
The man unhurriedly rose to his feet as she entered. Again she felt, like a fist punch to her stomach, the sheer shock of his physical size. He must be well over six feet, and she’d felt the muscles that encased those thick, broad shoulders. More hard musculature defined his trim hips and long legs.
He gave a small bow. “Lucy.”
Her fists clenched in horrified dismay. “Pray, what are you doing here? Why hasn’t Mrs. Beatty shown you out?” Perhaps her words were inhospitable, but this was a most unpleasant surprise.
“She invited me to stay for supper.”
Lucinda swung her gaze around the room, looking for the housekeeper, but the two of them were alone. Unease pinched her. “Why? I was not notified, and I am the mistress of this house.”
“We were unable to finish our conversation. Perhaps we can do so now.” Again, she noticed the man’s faint French accent. He had also shaved off his scruff of a beard. He looked more civilized…but only just.
“Sit,” he invited, resuming his chair.
Presumptuous, arrogant man. How dare he invite her to sit, as if this were his dining room and she, the guest? With a tense arm, she pulled out her chair and sat. “You forget your place, Mr…”
He smiled, surprising her. Laugh lines crinkled from the corners of his eyes. “I apologize. We have not been properly introduced. I am Gabriel Montclair, Baron of Iveny.”
The uncomfortable sense of wariness, which she’d felt from the first, inexplicably returned with full force. Although Gabriel Montclair’s body language appeared relaxed, the innate, dangerous power that exuded from him indicated he would not leave until he was good and ready. Regrettably, this affected her much the same way a red flag did a bull.
If it wouldn’t be unconscionably rude, she would ask Wilson to escort him immediately from her home. But clearly the man would not leave until after he had spoken his piece. It rankled, like burrs in a stocking, that he’d taken over her dining room and set down his own parameters upon which he’d leave. Lucinda did not like it. She frowned, and unfortunately spoke barbed words as a consequence. “I have never heard of Iveny. What country are you from, Lord Iveny?”
“France. And you may call me Riel. Or Montclair—whichever you prefer.” He pronounced his given name as Ree el’, with the accent on the second syllable; a name she had never heard before. “Titles were abolished in France in 1790, as perhaps you’ve heard. Although, of course Napoleon has reinstituted many titles at his discretion. Not the title of my family, however.”
So that explained the accent. “You are our enemy?” Apprehension flared higher.
“I am half English.”
So he was a disenfranchised French noble. His drop in social status did not seem to bother him overly much, which seemed unnatural. Suspicious, even.
“Hmm.” Was he truly a noble? She found it impossible to drop her guard, for truly, she knew nothing about him. As a result, she did not know how far she could trust him.
“Since you insist upon staying to supper, we might as well eat.” She signaled for the servants, and the first course, which consisted of piping hot rolls, served with steamed vegetables, arrived. She chewed the delicious food rapidly, wishing she could speed the meal along, and thus thrust her disturbing guest out the door as quickly as possible.
“Do you not say grace before you eat?”
Lucinda stopped chewing. Truth be told, she used to pray before meals, but had forgotten to continue the tradition after her father left home. It troubled her that it took this rough man to remind her of this basic propriety.
“Of course,” she murmured, and bowed her head. “Thank you, Lord, for this delicious food.” A thought entered her head. Her father was in heaven with God now. Of this, she had no doubt, for he had been a man of strong faith. On impulse, she whispered, “God, please tell Father I love him.” A sob clogged her throat, and tears welled.
Stop it. Lucinda swallowed hard. She would not break down in front of this stranger. Not again. She would not.
“Would you like a handkerchief?”
“No,” she said fiercely. “Leave me be.”
He fell silent, and slowly her knot of grief dissolved into manageable portions. Guilt then assailed her conscience. Would her father be pleased by her treatment of his ambassador? He was her father’s friend, or so Riel—Mr. Montclair—alleged.
She slid a glance at him out of the corner of her eye. “You say you were my father’s friend.” She placed the slightest emphasis upon the word “say.”
His lips tightened and his dark brows edged together. Mildly, he said, “Yes. Perhaps now you are ready to read his letter?”
Why not? The sooner she read the letter, the more swiftly she could dispatch him from Ravensbrook. “Very well.”
He pulled the folded parchment from his coat pocket and placed it into her waiting hand. It felt warm from his body heat. An unexpected flush crept up her neck, and she turned away from his dark eyes.
She opened the ripped, dirtied parchment.
Lucinda now deeply regretted the way she had mashed her father’s letter into the ground. What had she been thinking?
She had not, that was the problem. Sometimes she acted before she thought through matters. It always got her into trouble. Always, she regretted her impulsive actions, and now, more than ever before.
Lucinda smoothed the letter open upon the table, and lovingly ran her fingers over the words her father had penned. His last letter to her. The script looked strong, letters perfectly formed; not shaky, as a dying man might write. Further suspicion flared.
“When did he write this letter?”
“A few months ago. It was only to be delivered in case of his death.”
Lucinda turned her attention back to the paper, but tears blurred her eyes. She blinked several times, and read.
My dearest Lucy,
If you are reading this, I have passed on. I do not regret serving my country, but I regret that I will not see you again in this life. I love you, my daughter. Please never forget this. I also want you to rest assured that I have set safeguards in place so you will never need to worry about being evicted from your home. Ravensbrook will be yours when you marry.
With a small, choked sound, Lucinda pressed a hand to her mouth.
Most of the paperwork has already been filed with my solicitor. Besides the management of Ravensbrook, only one problem remains. You are still young, and unmarried. Since I cannot be there to watch over you, and make certain you make the right choices—including approving the man you will marry—I have asked a friend of mine to fill my shoes in this regard. He has been good enough to agree, and will begin his duties as soon as he can decommission his ship. He has also agreed to take my place and manage Ravensbrook until your marriage. My solicitor will be informed of my final wishes. Your guardian will be
Lucinda turned the page. She gasped.
Gabriel Montclair. Riel saved my life three months ago, and he is the most honorable man I have ever met. I trust him completely, and you may do so, as well. Lucy, listen to him. Choose wisely, too. Promise me you will not marry until you are at least twenty. You have a good head on your shoulders, and I trust you to find a man worthy of you.
Now and for always, I remain your loving Father.
Grief combined with a sick feeling of horror. Surely, this must be a mistake. This stranger was to become her guardian? He would take up residence in her home and act as if he were lord of her house? She drew an unsteady breath.
Until she could marry. And speedily she would do that! But still two years and four months to wait. It was unconscionable. This could not be happening. How could Father do this to her? How could he entrust her very life to a complete stranger? And one whom, if the truth were told, unnerved and intimidated her, as well.
But it was here, in Father’s own handwriting.
Lucinda struggled to logically understand the reasons behind her father’s decision, but the exercise did not help. Her heart could not accept it. Her world, which had already shattered into pieces upon news of his death, now seemed to crumble to powder and run unchecked through her fingers. She retained no control over anything any longer. With a few strokes of her father’s pen, she had lost control of her life, her home—her entire existence—to this man.
How could she endure it? How could she live under this complete stranger’s thumb for two whole years? She could not. Everything within her revolted at the thought.
Trembling, Lucinda slapped her hands on the table and stood. “Father’s wishes will be done,” she stated. “But understand one thing right now, Mr. Montclair. You will not rule over me. I am a grown woman, and I know my own mind. I will make my own choices. You may stay, since that is what Father wants, but your role here will be insignificant.
“Furthermore, I will continue to run Ravensbrook. Father was unaware that your help would be unnecessary. You may choose your pursuits, but let me make this clear: the less we see each other, the better you will like it. For peace, Mr. Montclair, I am sure you will be happy to accept these terms.”
An unknown expression flickered through his dark, pirate eyes. No matter his claims of a title or the fact that her father had trusted him so implicitly; Lucinda just could not. After all, her father’s kind heart had been wrongly led to trust more than a few times in the past.
One particularly frightening incident sprang to mind. When she was twelve, during a horrific rainstorm, a frantic knock had sounded at the door of Ravensbrook. Lucinda stood behind her father as he spoke to the beggar outside. Wind and rain lashed down, and the low growl of thunder electrified the air. The man had begged for shelter, and her father told him to take cover in the barn. Lucinda, however, had noticed that the man’s hard, shifty eyes looked younger than his gray beard suggested. And a plump belly bulged beneath his tattered cloak. What hungry vagrant possessed a fat belly?
She’d warned her father of her observations, but he’d said it didn’t matter. “Kindness counts, Lucy. We are to help those in need.” While she agreed with her father’s sentiments, even at that tender age perhaps her heart was too cynical to harbor the kindness that had exemplified her father’s life. She’d wanted, both then and now, to be more like her father. She’d tried to believe that Father was right about the homeless man. Unfortunately, the next morning their best horse had vanished, along with the vagrant. Later, they’d learned a murderer from two towns over had escaped from jail the previous night. It was the same man. Luckily, he had harmed no one at Ravensbrook.
Her father’s heart had always been in the right place, but he’d been duped before. It could have happened again.
Lucinda knew next to nothing about Montclair, except for what her father had penned, and what Montclair himself had told her. It wasn’t enough. At all costs, she must protect Ravensbrook. The future and security of the estate and its servants lay in her hands. With her father gone, making the right choices now was not only her responsibility, but her imperative duty.
Frankly, she felt she was being generous, allowing Montclair to stay in her home. Of course, once the solicitor received this letter, she would not legally be able to turn him out. Briefly, she considered burning it. Then horror bumped through her. How could she destroy her father’s last words to her? She could not, no matter the misery it might inflict upon her later.
Montclair’s cool, shrewd gaze regarded her. “You misjudge me, Lady Lucinda, if you think I will break my word to your father.”
“Ravensbrook needs no manager, Mr. Montclair. And I need no guardian. I have lived without one for the last two years. I will survive for another two, as well.”
“It is my understanding you stayed with a friend during the Season in London.”
“And a satisfactory solution that was, too.”
“Except your friend is to be married, and her mother no longer plans to return to London.”
How did he know that? She frowned. “Other arrangements can be made for next Season.”
“Other arrangements have already been made. I have a townhouse in London. You will live with me.”
Lucinda gasped. “That would be most inappropriate. Unless you have a wife…” Somehow, she sorely doubted this. His next words confirmed it.
“No. My great aunt, however, will serve as chaperone both here and in London. She will arrive on Wednesday morning.”
The presumption of the man! He clearly had made these arrangements the moment her father had drawn his last breath. And, from his disheveled appearance earlier, he had made haste to gallop to Ravensbrook, as well. Why? Was it because he wished to get his hooks into an estate as grand and profitable as Ravensbrook as speedily as possible?
Fear prompted her next, sarcastic words. “Only your aunt? Have you no other relations who lack a roof over their heads?”
The bridge of his nose pinched white. Uncharitably, she was glad. In some warped way, it only seemed fair that he be as miserable with this arrangement as she. Perhaps he would decide to leave. Her spirits lifted at this happy thought.
His dark eyes bored into hers. “I understand that you have received a shock, Lucy. But being rude to me will accomplish none of your goals.”
“Do not call me Lucy.” Anger surged at his impertinence, and at the walls closing in around her. The man clearly possessed a will of iron. “Only Father called me Lucy. You do not have that privilege.”
“I understand that you are unhappy. You are grieving your father…”
“Don’t patronize me!” Lucinda trembled where she stood. “I am Lady Lucinda, and I will thank you to leave my house this instant. I cannot countenance your presence!”
Now he did stand. “Lucy—”
“Do not call me Lucy!” Fury flared higher, and anguish, too. She did not want to accept any of this. Her father’s death. This…this disturbing man moving into her home, telling her what to do…none of it. Without coherent thought, she grabbed the roll from her plate. “I want you gone!” She flung it at him. “I want you gone now!”
The roll glanced off of his forehead, and for a split second Riel stared at her in shock. Pleased, Lucinda grabbed for another one, which lay beside her knife, but before she could throw it, something sharp and feral flashed in his eyes.
Lightening fast, he seized her wrist, twisted it, and forced her to drop the bun. She found her arms wrenched up behind her and felt a knee in her back, forcing her to the floor. She gasped in shock and pain. Her arms hurt, twisted up as they were.
“What…what are you doing?”
Just as swiftly, his grip on her arms loosened. He put a hand under her elbow to help her up. “Pardon. I am sorry,” he murmured roughly. “I did not intend…”
She twisted free of his touch, breathing hard now with shock and indignation. “How dare you? I want you gone this instant! You are a barbarian, just as I thought from the beginning. Mrs. Beatty!”
“No.” His hand shot out for her wrist, but he checked the movement before making contact. It was a wise decision, for Lucinda just might have kicked him. Although, when she remembered the look in his eyes moments before, she may not have, after all. The man was dangerous, as she’d sensed from the very first.
She heaved a breath, fighting for calm. Perhaps she had been hasty, throwing rolls at his head. But now she knew for certain with whom she was dealing. A dangerous, brutal rogue. One she must evict from Ravensbrook immediately, at all costs.
“Let me explain,” he said in a low voice. His dark gaze now looked troubled.
Mrs. Beatty appeared in the doorway. “You called, miss?” She frowned when she saw them both standing. “Is there a problem with the food?” Her gaze fell to the roll on the rug, and her gaze unerringly went to Lucinda. “Is something amiss?”
Gabriel Montclair spoke first. “A misunderstanding.”
“No,” Lucinda hissed. “I understand you perfectly now.”
“I apologize. I acted without thinking.”
Mrs. Beatty entered the room with a frown. “What happened?”
Lucinda cried out, “What happened is he attacked me…”
“After you threw a roll at my head and reached for another,” Riel put in. “As I tried to explain, I reacted without thinking. In battle, it can mean the difference between life and death.”
“But this is not a battle!” Lucinda fluttered her hand at the washed silk walls of the dining room. “You are in a civilized home, with…”
“Apparently, an uncivilized young lady.” Mrs. Beatty said. With two fingers, she plucked the roll from the floor.
Lucinda gasped. “You can’t take his side, Mrs. Beatty. He manhandled me. He twisted my wrist most painfully!”
Mrs. Beatty frowned. “Why were you throwing rolls at your guest, Miss Lucinda?”
“He is not my guest.”
“No. He is your father’s,” the housekeeper replied. “Mr. Hastings left a letter for me, as well. I am sure he would be shocked to see you treating his guest so discourteously, Miss Lucinda.”
Why was Mrs. Beatty taking Montclair’s side? Couldn’t she see that he was not to be trusted? That he was a dark, primitive heathen? Lucinda glared at Gabriel Montclair, who now regarded her with a steady, implacable look. Impotent frustration welled in her. What could she do? With the housekeeper siding against her, how could she ever get this man to leave her home?
Mrs. Beatty withdrew to the door, her lips pressed tight. “Are you ready for your next course?”
With a frown, Lucinda sat. “Yes, Mrs. Beatty.” Perhaps she was going about this the wrong way. Losing her temper had not been smart.
More reasonable thoughts finally entered her head. Her behavior had been childish, too, which chagrinned her. Over the past year, she’d endeavored so hard to grow into the sort of young woman of whom her father would be proud. She’d wanted to surprise him with her newfound maturity when he returned home.
Now he never would.
Tears stung her eyes. Lucinda still wanted to make her father proud. Regardless of this goal, however, somehow she must convince Montclair to leave Ravensbrook. At once.
A tomb of silence ensued until the next course of pork chops and scalloped potatoes arrived. Riel picked up his knife and sliced into his meat. “Clearly you do not like me, Lady Lucinda.”
At least he had stopped calling her Lucy. A small victory. She gave him a thin-lipped smile. “How clever you are, Mr. Montclair.” In fact, he possessed only one redeeming quality; his unwelcome presence prevented the agony of her father’s death from completely taking over her mind.
“I am a lady, and will not be rude. However, know this: Ravensbrook is my heritage. I will not entrust it into the care of a stranger. Furthermore, I will allow no one to rule over me, either. Least of all you, a complete stranger. Regardless of what you told my father, I have never heard of a Baron of Iveny.”
Riel took a bite. “I assure you, I own land in France and a townhouse in London, as well as a ship. Facts beyond that are no business of yours.”
“So you are hiding something.”
“Do you wish to know my entire past history?”
“Tell it all,” Lucinda agreed. “I would like to know the complete truth of your background…if, indeed you will tell me.”
The black brows met again like a thundercloud. He did not like his honor questioned. Perhaps he would tell her the full truth, after all.
She waited, tapping her fingers on the table, pretending impatience. Never could he sense, even for a moment, that she truly wanted to discover every bit of information about him. This realization disturbed her, until she told herself it made prudent sense. After all, the more she knew, the better she could discern his weaknesses and assess the threat he posed to both Ravensbrook and herself.
And he was a significant threat, as she already knew quite well. His brutish behavior when he’d manhandled her had proven it. She must gather ammunition to boot him out of Ravensbrook before it was too late—no matter what her father had wished. Montclair must have duped her kind-hearted parent. Why else would Father put such a dangerous man as lord over her? The barbarian had hurt her! Her wrists still stung, and one thumb mark still reddened her skin.
If he could do so much damage in an instant, she shuddered to consider the damage he could cause to Ravensbrook—and to herself—during the next two years.
Riel spoke in a low voice. “I was born in Roué, France, twenty-eight years ago. My mother was English, my father French. My father squandered the family fortune in games of chance, and he lost our house in a poker match. When I was fourteen, I went to sea on a merchant ship.”
He looked down and rubbed his nail—clean now, she noticed—into the design on the fork. “Conditions were bad,” he finally said in a rough voice. “We sailed to the Barbary coast. I did not realize…” After a moment, he went on. “I escaped when I could. At seventeen, I jumped an English ship bound for the Mediterranean. It wasn’t much better. I will spare you the details. One thing led to another, and I now own my own ship. In addition, I have been working closely with the Royal Navy for the past two years.”
That wasn’t the whole story. Lucinda sensed he withheld information. But what? Was it that dark something she’d sensed from the beginning? She looked into his black eyes and found no answers.
Still, she did not know how to respond to his tale. It rang with truth. She could well imagine him living rough years on the high seas, and on the Barbary coast, too. The area was known for slave trading and pirates.
So, she’d been right from the first. He was a pirate…at least, he’d likely served upon a pirate ship at one point, or perhaps for several years. That would account for the rough edge she’d sensed in him, tempered, however, by the thinnest veneer of civility. Also, it would account for his brute strength and quickness to react when threatened. As she’d suspected, he’d learned none of his savage behavior from his association with the Royal Navy. Instead, likely on a cutthroat ship.
She cleared her throat. “You said your father lost all of your family land. How can you own land in France, then?”
“A relative passed away. It is not a large estate, but it pays for itself, with a little extra to keep up my house in London.”
Lucinda thought through all she had learned, and tried to figure out how to best lever each bit of knowledge to her advantage. “You must love the high seas, then. You’ve been sailing for what, fourteen years? And you help the Navy.”
“I am happy to use my knowledge of ships for good, rather than evil, if that is what you mean.”
It wasn’t, but Lucinda grasped this new information and plunged on, determined to wiggle her foot into this door of opportunity. “Don’t you want to keep working with the Navy, then? And save the world from evil-doers?”
He frowned faintly.
“I mean,” she said more clearly, “I see no reason for you to leave your ship just to be a guardian to me.” A flash of inspiration arrived. “You say your great-aunt is coming. She can do the job just as well.”
“My aunt is in frail health. Besides, your father asked me to watch over you and protect you. That is what I will do.”
“But why?” she said in a reasonable tone. “If it is a promise to my father that is holding you back, I release you.”
“My word was to him, not to you. I will fulfill my promise.”
“But why? Why on earth would you agree to be my guardian in the first place?”
A long pause elapsed. “I owe your father,” he said quietly.
“Why? What did you do?”
“More like what he did for me. The fact remains, Lucy, I will stay here. I will be your guardian, and take care of Ravensbrook. I must return to my ship at the end of this week, however. It will take two weeks to make repairs and put her in dry dock. Then I will return here for good, and I’ll stay until you are safely married.”
He had called her Lucy again. Lucinda crossed her arms, not caring that she might look like a belligerent child. “I require no guardian, Mr. Montclair. You will quickly discover this is a complete waste of your time.”
A smile glimmered. “I hope that is true. Then my next two years will prove agreeably pleasant.”
Lucinda frowned. His next two years would prove entirely unpleasant if she had anything to say about it. In fact, the next week would be so disagreeable that he would sail away, never to return!
A faint smile crept to her lips. By hook or by crook, Gabriel Montclair would flee from Ravensbrook before the week was out. Painful though it might be, she already knew the first step to eradicate him from her life.
Her plan was almost laughably simple. The solicitor would receive no letters from her father. She would make sure of it, and then Riel would possess no legal grounds to stay. He would have no choice but to depart from Ravensbrook for good.
An end to this current, unfortunate episode could not come quickly enough for Lucinda. And if somewhere in her conscience doubt niggled, she ignored it. She was doing the right thing. Definitely. Lucinda did not trust Montclair one inch, and already she itched most fervently for his dangerous, disturbing presence to vanish from her life.
But first, she must discover more information. “Mrs. Beatty said Father wrote her a letter, as well. Did he send any other letters with you?”
He regarded her shrewdly. “Another for his solicitor. I will pay him a call tomorrow. Mrs. Beatty has been kind enough to tell me how to find him.”
When the solicitor received that letter, there would be no turning back. She would need to act quickly.
Riel said, “One matter remains to discuss.”
“Hmmm?” Lucinda pulled her mind away from the delicious, exciting plot roiling in her head. It had been some years since she’d attempted anything so daring. Her heart pumped faster, just thinking about it.
“Your father. His body will arrive tomorrow afternoon. I assume you will wish to make arrangements for his burial?”
Lucinda’s thoughts fell to earth with a thud. “Yes… Yes of course. I will need to speak to Pastor Bilford in the village.”
“You can ride to town with me tomorrow when I see the solicitor.”
Lucinda did not relish the thought of traveling anywhere in Gabriel Montclair’s close, disturbing presence. But she did need to see Pastor Bilford. Better yet, if all went according to plan, Riel would never visit the solicitor at all. Instead, he would immediately return to his ship.
However, her former optimism failed to return. Her heart felt like a lead weight in her chest. Lucinda had never planned a funeral before. She had been five when her mother had died. Perhaps Mrs. Beatty could give her advice. That was a good plan, for she needed to speak to the housekeeper on another subject, as well. If handled delicately enough, the conversation might prove quite fruitful indeed.
Lucinda signaled for the next course she did not want to eat. Riel Montclair did, however. He ate all of his food—a great deal of it—with obvious appreciation and enjoyment.
Enjoy it while you can, she thought. Ravensbrook will not feed you for much longer.
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