Jennifer Ashley

Excerpt: The Care and Feeding of Pirates

Book 3: Regency Pirates

June 1813

Honoria Ardmore looked across the dark London street and straight into the face of the pirate Christopher Raine.

Mists swirled between her and the apparition, obscuring the pale smudge of his hair, the bulk of his tall, raw-boned body, and his tanned and handsome face.

As Honoria stood, frozen, lips parted, three ladies in opera finery and enormous, waving headdresses nearly ran her down. One sniffed to her companions, “Well, really.”

Honoria craned to see around them, searching the mists, but by the time they’d moved out of her way, the apparition had gone.

He’d never been there, of course. Christopher was dead. He’d been hanged by the neck in Charleston four years ago, captured by Honoria’s brother James, tried and condemned to death for the crime of being a pirate and liking it.

Sailors afterward spoke of seeing Christopher’s ghost in a haunted ship on the seas with a demon crew, the notorious Captain Raine scouring the world to seek his vengeance.

None of the tales mentioned him turning up after a deplorable production of Love’s Labor’s Lost at Covent Garden Theatre at the end of the London Season.

As the crowd parted and Honoria could again see the place she’d spied him, the black bulk of her sister-in-law’s hired carriage rolled in front of her, blocking the view. The footman hopped down from his perch and opened the door, looking disappointed when Honoria simply climbed in past him, too distracted to give him a tip.

She plopped to the seat, limbs weak, and peered anxiously through the window to the shadows of the street. There was nothing to see, of course.

There never had been. Her imagination alone had conjured Christopher out of the rather thick air.

Honoria’s sister-in-law Diana climbed more gracefully into the carriage, settled herself beside Honoria, passed the footman a coin, and gave him a nod to close the door. The carriage jerked forward. The fog grew dense, swallowing the crowds, the street, and ghosts of pirates.

“Are you all right, Honoria?” Diana asked. “I know it’s been a rotten day.”

Honoria dragged her attention from the window. “Yes, perfectly fine, thank you.” She kept her tones moderated, aware of Diana’s scrutiny.

Diana was right, this day had been awful. First, a maid had let Honoria’s best pair of gloves fall into the fire, where they’d burned merrily in a stench of roasting leather. When Honoria and Diana had gone to a glovemaker in Oxford Street to replace them, they’d encountered three ladies who’d amused themselves making fun of Honoria’s Charleston accent.

Diana had grown coldly angry at them, but Honoria had only held her head high. She would never dream of responding to anyone ill-mannered enough to taunt a stranger.

Then Diana’s deaf daughter Isabeau had cut the ribbons from all Honoria’s slippers, saying they were the perfect length to finish the rope she’d been weaving. She wanted to swing across the landing in the townhouse, like her step-papa did on his ship.

The predictable disaster had ensued. Isabeau’s bruises had been kissed before she’d been put to bed, and Honoria’s slippers hastily repaired. Then the carriage had been late, a dirty rain poured down, the play had been dreadful, and the crowd in the theatre unruly and rude.

All this paled next to the stunned shock of Honoria looking into the fog and seeing Christopher.

Do remain calm, she told herself silently. You cannot possibly have seen him.

And Honoria would not, absolutely would not, let herself remember the weight of Christopher’s body on hers, the cold floor of his cell against her back, and his wicked smile when he whispered, “That’s my Honoria.”

No one knew, and no one would ever know, she added firmly. Honoria would keep her secret forever. She had to.

Diana leaned back into the seat and let out a sigh. “I had forgotten how wearying an evening at the theatre could be. Everyone peering at us as though we were fascinating insects. No wonder I ran away from London.”

“Then why did we come out?” Honoria stared into the fog as they rolled into James Street and made their way to Long Acre. She saw no sign of a blond, gray-eyed, sinfully handsome pirate anywhere.

“I thought it would be a treat for you.” Diana gave a soft laugh. “No, I’m lying. I wanted you to myself tonight. After you marry Mr. Templeton, I shan’t have the time with you that I’ve had this past year. It’s been a joy to have such a friend.”

The panicked words Who is Mr. Templeton? rolled through Honoria’s mind before her senses returned. “I should think you’d like me settling down with Mr. Templeton. I’m sure I’ve been no less than a clinging limpet to you.”

“Well, of course you haven’t,” Diana said. “If James has said so, I shall speak to him.”

“No, no,” Honoria said quickly.

Diana peered at her in concern. Honoria had never confided in Diana about Christopher, preferring to leave the past in the past. The only one who’d known of her frightful infatuation with Christopher Raine had been her brother Paul, and Paul had died long ago.

Honoria had never, of course, breathed a word of it to James. Her older brother was not a man to whom one bared one’s soul.

“James simply wants you to himself,” Honoria said, striving to keep up the conversation. “He’ll be pleased that Mr. Templeton will take me off his hands.”

Diana gave Honoria a look that was all too shrewd. “Yes, but will you be pleased?”

Honoria stopped herself plucking her skirt or swallowing or in any way betraying her nervousness. “Why would I not be pleased? Mr. Templeton is a respectable Englishman with fine business prospects in America. And I’ve been on the shelf far too long. It’s time I got out from underfoot.”

“You are mixing your metaphors.”

“I am sorry. It’s been a trying day.”

Diana’s expression softened into a smile. “It has at that. I will be happy when we return to my father’s island.”

Honoria felt suddenly contrite. She’d looked forward to residing in London with Diana and her daughter in Diana’s father’s townhouse. Diana had gallantly taken Honoria to see the sights and buy a new wardrobe, and had introduced her to people like Lady Stoke and Lady Featherstone, who had in turn introduced Honoria to Rupert Templeton.

Honoria ought to have known that Diana’s heart was not in it. Scandals in Diana’s past, not to mention her marriage to James, made London uncomfortable for her. Only the influence of Lord Stoke and Diana’s father with the Admiralty let the two ladies live in relative peace.

“I know you miss James,” Honoria said, squeezing Diana’s hand. Honoria’s relationship with her brother was problematic at best, and she always breathed a sigh of relief when he ran off to chase pirates. But Diana needed James the same way a body needed air.

“The inconvenience of being married to a villain,” Diana said.

“Nonsense. You like him being a villain.”

“I do, that.” Diana’s smile turned playful. “Who knows? Perhaps Mr. Templeton will prove to be one too.”

“Of course not,” Honoria said, though her heart was not in the banter. “Mr. Templeton is far too respectable to be a villain.”

“But you wish he would be. You have the same craving for excitement that I have, Honoria.”

“Don’t be silly. Excitement only leads to trouble.” And I should know.

Diana gave Honoria a long, assessing look, as only Diana Ardmore could. Her sister-in-law was far too perceptive and often saw through Honoria’s facade, especially on the occasions when Honoria did not want her to.

“I beg your pardon,” Diana said. “I know I go on too much about James. I’m certain it becomes cloying.”

“Not at all.” Honoria made her voice light. “I think it mighty fine that you won James’s heart. I was never aware that he had one.”

* * *

Honoria’s pen hovered over the blank page of her journal. A droplet of ink trembled on the nib, waiting for her to change it into words.

Her fingers were cold, despite the fire that had been built high. She and Diana had refreshed themselves with coffee and a late supper in the drawing room, chatting about the pleasant island of Haven on which they would spend much of the summer, before James rendezvoused with them there to take them back to Charleston.

At least, Diana had chatted. Honoria’s mind had only whirled with thoughts of Christopher, despite her attempts to curb them.

His name had never been recorded in the book that lay flat on her bedroom table, waiting for her to write in it. Nor had it been in any journal she’d kept since she’d met him the first time.

James had brought Christopher to the Charleston house long, long ago, along with Grayson Finley, who was now lording it over London as Viscount Stoke. The three rogues had been young, arrogant, and breathtakingly handsome. Grayson and Christopher were both blond—Grayson with mischief-filled blue eyes, Christopher’s eyes cool gray. Her brother James was black-haired, green-eyed, and the most arrogant of the three.

Honoria had been a giddy girl of eighteen when she’d first met Christopher, and already madly in love with him. She’d saved every penny pamphlet, every newspaper story, every exaggerated picture book about the notorious pirate, Christopher Raine. Christopher had a French father and an English mother, captained a crew of mixed nationality, and was loyal to no one.

At the time, Christopher had been twenty-two, hard-bodied, strong, and tall. He’d worn his wheat-blond hair in a plait down his back and dressed in a dark blue coat and breeches.

Honoria had first met him in the garden room in the Charleston house on the Battery, a chamber of lovely coolness, colorful tile, and a whispering fountain. Christopher had regarded her with eyes as clear as ice and a smile that sent her thoughts rocketing to unimaginable places.

Not that James had introduced them. In fact, James had forbidden Honoria to leave her bedchamber while Grayson and Christopher lurked in the house. Why they’d been there at all, she didn’t remember—they’d probably come to discuss some nefarious scheme that James was good at hatching.

It had been Paul, Honoria’s younger brother and her other self, who’d noted Honoria’s excitement and offered to distract James so Honoria could slip downstairs and at least have a look at the famous Captain Raine.

Christopher had stood alone in the garden room, the quiet broken by the trickle of the fountain. Honoria had crept forward, her knees going weak, when Christopher had turned around and spied her.

The smile he’d sent her had made her blood tingle and intimate places tighten. Honoria should have turned and fled, but she’d gone to him, while Christopher had watched her come, interested.

When she reached him, she’d looked up at him and asked in her timid, well-bred voice if he’d autograph the pamphlet she held crumpled in her hand. Christopher had taken the pamphlet, his blunt fingers brushing her small ones, opened it, and read it.

The pamphlet had amused him. The corners of his eyes had crinkled as he’d leafed through it. He stopped and read out some of the more amazing bits in his faintly French-accented English and made her laugh.

Christopher had agreed to sign the book with ink and pen she’d brought for the purpose, then he’d requested a kiss for its return.

No, that was wrong. That memory was Honoria trying to place a romantic glow on what really happened.

What he’d done was hold the pamphlet over his head, grin impudently, and tell her he’d give it back if she kissed him. Honoria had grown annoyed at his presumption and told him so, but his smile had outdone her. She’d risen on tiptoe, trembling all over, and pursed her lips. He’d bent to her, eyes closing, and kissed her.

In an instant, every bit of playfulness between them had vanished. Christopher had kissed her again, and again, dragging her closer. The pamphlet had fallen, unheeded, to the floor.

Her heart pumping wildly, Honoria had twined her arms around his neck and frantically kissed him back.

She’d let him lower her to the cool tiles, let him twist his hand through her hair, let him do so many things.

She thought he’d want her virtue, but he had not asked for it. He’d touched her in every other way, but they’d not joined. Not then.

Afterward, he’d returned her pamphlet, said good-bye, and walked away. He’d glanced back at her once, his gray eyes unreadable, studying her as though trying to understand something. Then he’d turned, and was gone.

Honoria had not seen him again for nine years.

In 1809, Captain Raine captured a fabulous prize, a ship called the Rosa Bonita, which was filled to the brim with gold from Mexico and bound for Napoleon. Newspapers printed story after lurid story about the ship’s capture and the devastating loss for the French, who were struggling to fund their ongoing war. The legend of Captain Raine grew.

By then James had turned pirate hunter. He’d gone after his old friend Christopher, and caught him.

Christopher was brought in, tried, and condemned to death. Of the Mexican gold there had been no sign. Christopher refused to tell what had become of it, and typically, James had not cared. Let the world speculate on the missing gold—James wanted only one fewer pirate on the seas.

During the week that Christopher was imprisoned, Charleston went mad for pirates. The newspapers printed stories about legendary pirates of old, a pirate fair was held near the docks, ladies hosted masked balls with pirate themes.

Women of dubious repute flocked to the fortress where Christopher was being held. They begged to see him, begged for a lock of his hair or a scrap of his clothing. Ladies in fine carriages pretended they needed to pass the fort on their way somewhere else, and sent footmen to make these same requests.

But the only lady admitted, shrouded and veiled from curious eyes, was Honoria. To her surprise, the turnkey had let her in, taken her to the filthy cell in which Christopher received visitors, and locked her in with him. She’d unshrouded herself and faced him with nothing to say.

Christopher was no longer an arrogant youth. Sandpaper bristles covered his jaw, and his eyes and mouth bore lines at the corners. He wore an old shirt, breeches, and scarred boots that had seen better days. But his hair was just as wheat-blond, his eyes as clear gray, his smile as sinful.

They’d studied each other for a time in silence. Then he’d said he was glad she’d come. Honoria had touched his cheek and asked him to kiss her.

No, no, that memory was another glossing over of the past. In truth, Honoria had wordlessly clasped his arms, and Christopher had gathered her to him and kissed her. She remembered the rasp of his unshaved whiskers on her lips, the strength of his arms on her back.

They were on the floor before they’d spoken more than two sentences. Proper, sweet, genteel Honoria had let Christopher take her to the floor of the cell and make love to her. The memory brought heat to her face, a flush to her body. He’d asked her permission . . .

No. Again, her treacherous memories were trying to make the encounter sweetly romantic.

It had not been romantic at all, but hot and panicky, rough and aching. He’d said in a low voice, “I’m going to die, Honoria. I want something to think about when they take me to the gallows.”

She’d touched his face, so rough and hard and unlike those of the proper Charleston gentlemen who courted her. Honoria thought about the throng of women outside, each of whom would gladly give to Christopher what he wanted. “Why?” she asked. “Why do you want me?”

“Because you came to me,” he’d answered. “And I love you.”

He lied about the last part. She knew that. It was what a gentleman said to a lady to seduce her. Women longed to be cherished, not just wanted, and gentlemen used that fact to their advantage.

Honoria had quietly said he could have her if he liked.

No, if she made herself face the truth, she’d begged, “Please, Christopher,” and clung to him like a wanton. He’d laughed, kissed her, brought her to heated readiness, and thrust himself inside her.

When they were finished, Christopher had kissed her gently and helped her to dress. He’d made a last request of his jailors, and to her amazement, they’d granted it.

The next day, they’d dragged Christopher to the gallows. The newspapers had printed a flamboyant account of the hanging, which most of Charleston flocked to see. Honoria stayed firmly at home, shut herself in her room, and told everyone she was ill. She’d tied a black ribbon around her box of keepsakes and pushed it to the back of her drawer.

That day had been the worst of her life. Today was becoming a fast contender.

The droplet of ink fell from her pen and became an ugly blob on the paper. One transparent tear followed it.

Honoria quickly tore the paper from the book, crumpled it, and pushed it aside. Setting her lips, she touched the pen to the paper again and scribbled, Attended a performance of Love’s Labor’s Lost, which I’ve always thought a silly play. The actors, I don’t believe, had ever been in love before. The Labor part of the title was the only truth.

She paused. Her fingers shook, and she quieted them. I believed the actors fools. Or am I the fool? I thought I saw . . .

She stopped. She could not write his name, even now. I believe I am becoming senile. According to London’s very low opinion of spinsters, I should be off my head by now. Thank heavens for Mr. Templeton’s proposal or I should be quite unsavable.

Honoria lowered the pen, her fingers aching. Her head hurt, and she could no longer think of bright, amusing things to write.

She heard Diana’s muffled footsteps on the stairs as her sister-in-law ascended to the third floor. Just above Honoria’s room lay the nursery, where Isabeau and Diana’s baby son slept. James and Diana had named the baby Paul. Honoria thought this a little unfair to the child, because anyone called Paul Ardmore would have very big shoes to fill.

Honoria lifted the pen and wrote in the book, My entire life is a lie.

She underlined lie. She heard Diana crooning upstairs, “Who’s mama’s ickle lad, then?”

Honoria wiped her pen and placed it in the pen tray, then rose from her writing desk and turned toward the bed.

Christopher Raine was standing next to it.

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