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Authors: Prideand Prudence

Malia Martin

BOOK: Malia Martin
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THE MOST DELECTABLE
MAN IN ENGLAND

“I should get a room at Harker’s Inn,” he said suddenly.

“Of course you should not. Whyever would you need to do such a thing?”

He said nothing, just stared at her, his eyes dark, nearly black, really. Pru glanced nervously at her lap, smoothing away a nonexistent wrinkle.

And then his hand was at the back of her head, pulling her toward him. Knocked off balance, Pru fell against the hard planes of James’s chest. He locked his arms about her and kissed her.

Captain James tasted of darkly steeped tea, and his mouth was incredibly soft against her own. “Mmm,” she heard herself moan. She felt him grip her shoulders and knew that he was going to push her away.

Oh, she did not want to be pushed away.

She sighed as their mouths parted and looked ruefully into James’s beautiful eyes. “That was so very nice,” she said.

James just groaned. “No it was not, Lady Farnsworth. That was carnal and wrong. And that is why I must go stay at Harker’s Inn.”

Dedication

This book is lovingly dedicated to myself
.

You’re a whole lot stronger

than I ever imagined, babe
.

Contents

Dedication

Prologue

Part I

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Part II

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Epilogue

Acknowledgments

Other Works

Copyright

About the Publisher

Prologue

1815

T
here was nothing like being stuck in a dead calm on a moonless night somewhere in the English Channel to screw up a perfectly-timed homecoming. Captain James Ashley stood on the deck of his ship, legs wide to counter the gentle sway, and peered through his looking glass. It was like staring into the wrong end of a musket, darker than death. But James pretended like he could see everything and knew even more, including where the hell they were.

Nothing like a lost captain to provoke a mutiny.

And then he spotted a prick of light, no bigger than his little finger. He thought for a moment that he had certainly imagined the sight, conjured it into being with hope. But then it shone again, stronger this time. Light.

They had reached England’s coast. Or at least he had to pray they had.

They’d lost their navigating ability in a freak storm that hit about two hours after they had set sail from Calais. The whole of the day had been spent fighting to stay afloat while winds tore at their sails and waves the size of elephants had washed three of his men overboard. Fortunately, they had been able to save all three, but now the ship limped along in the dark, like a poor ragged street urchin praying for a safe place to sleep.

And there was light.

James shouted to his men, pointing out toward the pinprick of yellow in the blackness. He could see it with his bare eye now.

The men yelled, and movement roused those who had hunkered down to try to sleep. They tightened the rigging, trying desperately to catch any bit of breeze so that the big ship would turn toward the light. Because, of course, now that he needed it desperately, there was not even the slightest breath of wind.

They moved, though, toward the light, and James was finally able to make out a rocky coastline. But then the light went out completely. He squinted into the darkness.

Something was wrong; he could feel it in the air. James had learned many lessons in his years of being in the military, and number one among them was listening and reacting to his instincts.

“Drop anchor,” he said just loud enough to be heard by his first mate.

“Aye, Captain.”

Metal clashed against metal as the chain was released, then a splash echoed in the stillness. James put the spyglass to his eye once more. Now he could make out the shoreline, not well, but he could see the jutting blackness of trees against the slightly lighter sky.

He sensed movement, rather than saw it, and trained the glass at a spot just off their starboard bow. “Smugglers,” he whispered. James could just make out the light boat skimming across the water toward shore. He swept the expanse of sea about them looking for a larger cargo ship, saw nothing.

The smugglers were probably out culling the water for cargo that had been dropped earlier—casks of whiskey most likely. A shivery thrill tingled at the base of James’s skull, and the hairs on the back of his neck rose. “Drop the lifeboats,” he said, closing his spyglass with a snap. They could only hope to catch the thieves in the smaller lifeboats. And catch them they would.

He would be going back to London with a double victory, one against the French and one against crime. Damn, it felt good. He actually grinned as he scrabbled down the netting that hung against the side of his ship and into the small lifeboat below.

Grabbing an oar, James helped his men row the boat quickly toward shore.

“What the hell?”

James looked up and saw what one of the men had seen. About two hundred yards ahead of them, the smugglers sat, as if waiting for them. And at the bow of their small skiff stood a man. James could see just the dark outline of the thin figure.

“Do they want to be caught?” asked another of James’s men. And then James heard a noise he had heard so many times before; he knew exactly what it was within seconds.

“Holy Mother of God,” his first mate whispered.

A flash of light, a thud, and an explosion. James could only stare as his ship caught fire immediately. A huge gaping hole blackened the side of the dark shape of his ship.

And then the telltale gurgle.

“It’s going down!” Amazement wreathed with incredulity laced the words that James’s second mate cried.

He was right. The
Defender
was going down, and going down quickly.

All they could do was sit and watch. The great ship creaked, then slowly tipped, its bow jutting from the sea. James blinked a few times, closed his eyes tightly once, and then opened them, hoping against hope that he was having a bad dream.

“Where’d the cannon come from?” he heard someone ask quietly.

There was complete silence, and then from the back a youngish voice said, “It was the Wolf.”

“What?”

“The Wolf; ’e’s magic, ’e is.”

“What are you talking about, boy?”

Staring at the slowly shrinking bow of his ship, James listened to this conversation between his men like he was hearing it from underwater. And running through his own mind was the shocked reality that there would be no triumphant return to London.

“See the point over there, jutting into the bay? That’s Raven’s Head, sure as I live. We’re in Gravesly Bay. We’re in the Wolf’s territory.”

“I’ve heard of him, all right, rumor is ’e could run the king’s silver from the royal kitchens!”

Instead of being lauded for his bravery and cunning in battle, James would be the laughingstock of society. Instead of making his name one to be revered, he’d probably be earning more monikers like the dreaded one society had pinned on him last season.

James closed his eyes, clenching his fists in the material of his breeches and breathing shallowly. He wanted so desperately to rise above his birth. He wanted so desperately for his father, whoever the man was, to look in the papers and know that even without him, his son had become a figure of prominence and esteem. There were more desires, of course, some so keen he had never even allowed himself to give them complete substance. Always needs, wants, desires, his life had been built on them.

And now those papers would surely write bitingly of this horrific night. They would probably forget entirely his military successes. It had only taken one terrible rumor to shadow his triumphs last season. One untrue and horrible rumor, and the twittering women of the
ton
had attached that awful title to him.

And now they would have this lovely incident to stick their claws into. What god-awful name would they give him now?

PART I

BOOK: Malia Martin
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