Jennifer Ashley

Excerpt: The Pirate Hunter

Book 2: Regency Pirates

July 1811

The house party at Admiral Burgess’s on the south coast of Kent was so tedious and awful that Diana Worthing’s abduction by a notorious pirate hunter in the middle of it came as something of a relief.

All week, Diana had pasted a smile on her face and pretended to enjoy playing whist with aristocrats’ sons who cheated, conversed with gentlemen who openly looked down her bodice, and danced with elderly admirals who tried to grope her on the ballroom floor.

It was her duty, as the wife of the famous Sir Edward Worthing, hero of the seas and battles against Bonaparte, to ingratiate herself with the admiral to help Edward gain a promotion.

“Do attempt to be congenial, Diana,” Edward had told her on their way to the admiral’s. “I am trying to be made commodore, and having a pleasant wife will assist me. It will also help if you do not flirt as usual with all and sundry. Pretend that you are virtuous for this se’ennight, at least.”

Diana did not bother arguing that she had never betrayed him and never would, because she knew Edward would not listen. Gentlemen did like to pursue Diana, hoping to win anything from a stolen kiss to a fortnight in her bed, and Edward had decided to believe the worst. But Diana put off her would-be suitors, determined to honor her wedding vows even if the marriage itself had turned sour.

Edward’s barbs didn’t bother Diana as much as the fact that she’d had to leave Isabeau behind. Though she’d pleaded until she was hoarse, Edward had firmly refused to bring their daughter. No one, Edward had said, wanted to be near a deaf child who talked by squealing and fluttering her hands. It was bloody embarrassing. She would stay with Diana’s father, and that would be that.

Diana had become furious, but Sir Edward’s eyes had glittered with the beginnings of one of his violent rages, and she’d known it would be wiser to drop the subject.

The admiral’s house was a decadent concoction of gilded rooms painted with satyrs chasing naked nymphs, gods and goddesses cavorting, and wild beasts pursuing nude maidens across the ceilings. The admiral’s male guests enjoyed lewd jokes and double entendre, which the ladies either pretended not to understand or responded to with coquettishness. Admiral Burgess pinched Diana’s bottom when he thought no one was looking, and the ladies whispered about her behind fans.

Diana slept alone every night and missed Isabeau.

One of the guests at the house party, an American named Ronald Kinnaird, was the only person Diana could tolerate. He was polite and affable, never whispered indecent suggestions when they danced the cotillion, never tried to fondle her under the whist table. Kinnaird was well-spoken, intelligent, and a good conversationalist.

So of course, it turned out that he was a spy.

Diana hated every minute of it, but she had no idea how much the house party would change her life until she turned the corner of a walk in the admiral’s garden one afternoon and found a man there. He was sun-browned and of small of stature, with wiry black hair, black eyes, and a wide smile, and was pointing a pistol straight at her heart.

“Don’t be making a sound,” he said in a broad Irish brogue. “I hate to shoot a lady. Especially one as pretty as you.”

This walk was screened by a line of large trees on one side, a high hedge on the other. No one would see Diana, or the intruder, from the house.

“There are too many military men here for you to prevail,” she said, surprised at her own calmness. “Leave now and I will say nothing.”

The impudent grin widened. “I believe you misunderstand the situation, my lady.”

Before Diana could open her mouth to ask him who he was and what he meant by it, another man loomed up behind her and a very strong hand closed over her mouth. Diana struggled, but found herself pinned back against a tall, hard, male body.

The man had a strong face tanned from the sun and sea air and eyes so light green they might have been made of ice. His black hair was loose and thick, and his grip on her mouth was so tight Diana feared he’d break her jaw.

A voice holding the slow heat of a Southern night trickled into her ear. “Not a sound, Lady Worthing. Not a move.”

“She nearly walked into me, she did,” the Irishman said, apologetic. “Five minutes either way, she’d never have seen me.”

The green-eyed man was too strong to fight — too strong, period. His fingers bruised her mouth, and his arm bound her like the strongest chains. She was so tight against him that she felt the slow beat of his heart, the rise and fall of his chest, the rigid thickness of his thighs against her backside. His breath was hot on her cheek and smelled of coffee.

“It doesn’t matter,” the man drawled. “We got him.”

Got who? Admiral Burgess? Diana’s husband? The slimy Lord Percy, cheater at whist, who was making it his goal to drag every lady at the house party to his bed?

Footsteps approached, men walking rapidly, assuredly. “Good lord,” a very English voice said.

Two gentlemen came around the corner of the shrubbery. The Englishman who had spoken had blond hair and wore a dark, very well-tailored suit and gold-rimmed spectacles. He looked much like the puerile dandies at the admiral’s party, except that his astute gray eyes showed he might possess an intelligent thought or two. Diana had never seen him before.

The second gentleman was the American, Ronald Kinnaird.

“Who the devil is she?” the bespectacled gentleman asked.

“She’s Lady Worthing,” Mr. Kinnaird answered, sounding unworried. “Wife of Sir Edward Worthing, English sea hero extraordinaire.”

Kinnaird walked away with them willingly, proving he was no captive, and he made no objection to Diana being brought along.

The Irishman peered up at Diana as they went. “Lucky catch. She might fetch a good ransom.”

“No ransom,” the man holding Diana said. He propelled Diana along, his body hard against her side. She had no choice but to move her feet or be dragged. She was fully aware of the man’s chest bare and warm beneath his coat, his fingers digging into her arm, his strong leg moving alongside her own.

They walked her all the way to the end of the huge garden and an opening in the hedge, the Irishman ready with his pistol as they ducked through. A closed carriage waited on the other side, the driver holding nervous horses.

The green-eyed man paused long enough to bind Diana’s hands with the bespectacled man’s borrowed cravat and to use his own handkerchief, folded into a straight band, as a gag, before he shoved Diana into the carriage.

Diana sat between the Irishman and her captor, the Irishman poking his pistol into her side. The bespectacled gentleman and Mr. Kinnaird seemed anxious that her bonds were not too tight, but it was equally clear that they weren’t going to help her escape.

The carriage, a rather sumptuous one, jerked for a long while down a rutted road. It let them out nowhere near a dock or pier, but rather at a series of cliffs that led to the water. They picked their way down a precarious path, while seabirds circled above and threatened them with smelly artillery.

Would her captors untie Diana’s hands so she could better balance on the narrow path? No. She had to stumble along with the green-eyed man, who held her steady as she walked in front of him.

The bespectacled man led the way, followed by Kinnaird, then Diana and her captor, the Irishman bringing up the rear. The green-eyed man’s grip was firm, his torso hard at her back every step of the way.

At the bottom of the path was a little shingle beach, and here, a dinghy waited, a sailor aboard it. The bespectacled man and Kinnaird halted until the rest of them reached the beach, the little group gathering.

“You can take off the gag now, Ardmore,” Kinnaird said, some sympathy in his voice. “There’s no one to hear her.”

The one called Ardmore didn’t answer, but Diana felt his blunt fingers on the knot of the gag — surprisingly gentle as he loosened the bond. Ardmore pulled the fold of the gag from her mouth, his face close to hers, gaze so intense that Diana wasn’t certain where to look.

She settled for meeting his eyes, as though she didn’t fear him. She saw something flicker in the green depths, a new assessment, then it was gone.

Ardmore pulled a flask from the pocket of his dark blue coat. He wore no shirt, and when the coat blew back, his broad, tanned chest, dusted with wiry black hair was bared for all to see.

“Drink.” He lifted the flask to Diana’s mouth, tipping brandy inside before she could speak. The liquid made her cough but also calmed the roiling in her stomach.

“I do apologize, Lady Worthing,” Mr. Kinnaird said. “But I need to leave England quickly, and I’m afraid we can’t risk you telling your husband not only that I went but how I went. Once I’m well away, it won’t matter.”

“And until then?” Diana asked, her mouth still dry from the gag. “Am I to sit on this shingle in my afternoon dress until I see that your little boat is gone? Then walk alone back to the admiral’s?”

Ardmore tucked the flask away. “You’ll accompany us for a while. I decide when we let you go.”

Kinnaird looked surprised, but inclined his head. “It’s your ship, Captain.”

Captain?” Diana asked, trying to sound as though she disdained the title. “Should I have heard of you?”

The Irishman let out a whoop of laughter. “Better watch her, sir.”

Ardmore started for the dinghy, propelling Diana along with him. Her half boots, though stout enough for cultivated garden paths, were no barrier to the sharp and slippery rocks of the shingle. She slid and tripped, Ardmore’s too-strong grip the only thing keeping her upright.

She risked a look at the man as the sea wind whipped her skirts and the rocks cut through the soles of her boots. His face was set, mouth in a firm line, eyes on the water.

“Is that your ship?” Diana asked, jerking her chin at the dinghy. “It’s so . . . small.”

Behind them, the Irishman laughed again. “Ooo, I’m going to enjoy this.”

“My ship is waiting out of sight,” Ardmore said in a hard voice. “And if you’d heard of me, I wouldn’t be doing my job.”

“I wager your good husband would know the name,” the Irishman said. “Captain James Ardmore, gentleman of Atlanta, pirate hunter and thorn in the side of the bloody English, which is why I love the man.”

“O’Malley,” Ardmore said. “Enough.”

The words were quiet, but O’Malley lapsed into silence.

They reached the dinghy after a few more yards. Diana watched a wave rush toward her, but before it reached her skirts, Captain Ardmore had swept her into his arms, carried her the few feet to the boat and lifted her over the side.

The strength in him took her breath away. Diana’s husband was strong, but Edward had never known how to mitigate his strength, whether using it to strike his wife across the face or standing on the stern of his frigate, firing full force at an enemy ship. Captain Ardmore knew exactly what he was doing with his strength, how to guide it, how to make it of most use to him.

He had Diana in the boat without a drop of water touching her boots, setting her down so she didn’t fall. At the same time, she knew she’d never get away from him if she tried to fight him.

Ardmore climbed in behind Diana, followed by the Irishman, who was still grinning, then Kinnaird and the bespectacled man. The sailor who’d waited in the boat hopped out and pushed the boat into the waves, leaping back in again as they floated out. He and the Irishman raised the sail.

“Damnation!” the bespectacled man exclaimed.

Diana jerked her head up, expecting to see a company of English soldiers pouring onto the beach to fire on them and rescue her.

The bespectacled man was glaring down at his fine kid glove. He sat close enough to Diana that she could see a hole in the glove’s stitching between palm and thumb.

The gentleman poked at the hole. “I fetched these yesterday from my Bond Street man,” he said mournfully. “Now it’s to be months before I see London again. Damn and blast.”

“That’s why I love killing Englishmen,” O’Malley announced from the tiller. “Their so-fine grasp of essentials.”

They ran out into the waves, the dinghy picking up speed with a sickening heave. The boat flung itself up the side of a wave and dropped heavily into the next trough.

“I have an extra pair,” Kinnaird said over the wind. “You’re welcome to them if they fit.”

“Decent of you, old fellow. Don’t mind if I do.”

All very civilized and polite.

“If we capsize, I do hope one of you gentlemen will untie my hands,” Diana said to them, keeping to their light tone to stifle her shaking. “So that I might have a chance to swim to safety.”

“Of course,” the bespectacled man said. “And we’ll make sure you reach shore without mishap.”

“Good of you.” She looked down at her fine ivory muslin with its yellow sash, now torn and stained by sand and water. “This was one of Madame Mirabelle’s creations. Ah, well.”

The bespectacled man understood. “A work of art, then. A true tragedy.”

“Oh, me achin’ back,” the Irishman said over the wind. “Captain, if I have to shoot someone, can it be Henderson?”

Kinnaird laughed, and Henderson looked pained behind his spectacles. Ardmore ignored them all.

Diana watched Captain Ardmore. As much as Henderson and Kinnaird spoke like gentlemen at a boating party, Ardmore was in command. He’d decide what to do with Diana — ransom her, kill her, make her the ship’s whore and kill her later.

She didn’t so much worry for herself — a life with Sir Edward Worthing had made her no longer fear hell. But she might not see Isabeau again, and that she couldn’t bear. Or her father, or the tiny island called Haven where she spent her summers.

Haven — her refuge, her sanctuary, the place she rested and licked her wounds. The only place on earth she could be herself with her beloved family.

This captain might ravish her, stick swords into her, and throw her overboard, but she knew that as long as she could reach Haven, with Isabeau, she’d be all right.

The shore receded astonishingly quickly. The dinghy rounded a headland, and there, hidden from shore by chalk-white cliffs characteristic of this part of England, a ship rocked.

As the daughter of an admiral and the wife of a naval captain, Diana knew ships. This one was sleek and light, narrow-bodied and two-masted, with a triangular jib sail. It was a frigate, a small, fast fighting ship. Diana eyed the gun ports in the ship’s side, plenty with which to fire on any naval vessel that pursued it. As the dinghy neared the ship, she saw its name boldly on the bow — the Argonaut.

A rope ladder came down for them over the ship’s side. Henderson climbed it easily, showing that, though he might act like a London dandy, he knew his way around vessels. Kinnaird was a little slower but as surefooted.

A knife blade touched Diana’s wrists. Ardmore crowded behind her while he cut away the cloth tying her hands. “Up,” he said, shoving her at the ladder.

Diana put a hesitant foot on the first rung. She’d climbed this way onto ships before, but on those occasions she’s first donned leather breeches and boots under her loose skirt. This creation by her London dressmaker was of lightweight muslin, perfect for ladies who wanted a stroll about a garden in little more than a light breeze. Not at all conducive to climbing rope ladders in a stiff wind.

She heard a growl of impatience behind her, then a large hand on her backside pushing her upward. Diana started scrambling up the ladder, the rough rope making short work of her gloves. Any time she faltered or stumbled, Ardmore’s hand steadied her — on her waist, her hip, her backside again.

Never had the side of a ship seemed so steep or long. At the top, a large man with an ugly face pulled her up and onto the deck.

Ardmore followed her. As soon as the captain set foot on his own ship . . . Nothing happened. No piping him aboard, no standing to attention. The sailors, instead of dropping everything and snapping bodies ramrod straight, went on winding lines, raising sails, and making the ship ready to leave. Either Americans were much more lax at discipline, or Ardmore’s ship was not a typical naval vessel.

But shore loomed tantalizingly close. Though the cliffs were sheer, the Argonaut had anchored somewhat close to them, so as to be hidden from above. The ship’s draw must not be great, or else they’d found a nice deep part of the channel.

Diana was a strong swimmer. To the left, the cliffs began to soften, and she knew that little beaches lay among them where fishermen worked and highborn ladies and gentlemen came down to take the waters.

Ardmore paused to say something to the Irishman, and Diana stepped to the rail, gazing at the shore as though taking one last look at England.

All she had to do was dive into the waiting depths and swim away. Ardmore had come for Kinnaird — they wouldn’t bother to chase a woman who might drown anyway. It would take a long time for Diana to reach shore and make her way back to the admiral’s, but no matter. She would take it in stages, and the Argonaut could be long gone.

Diana set her hands on the rail, drew a long, practiced breath . . . And found her waist locked in Ardmore’s steely grip.

Ardmore jerked Diana from her feet and half carried, half dragged, her to the stern, through the door under the quarterdeck to the cabins.

He took her through a fine captain’s room lit with windows across the stern before he opened a second door, shoved her through, and slammed it behind her, locking her inside.

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