Jennifer Ashley

Excerpt: The Pirate Next Door

Book 1: Regency Pirates

London, June, 1810

Alexandra Alastair lay in her slim-posted bed beneath green silk hangings, her hands flat on the coverlet, and debated whether she dared add the viscount next door to her list of eligible suitors.

Grayson Finley, Viscount Stoke.

She knew very little about him, save that he’d disappeared from England as a lad and had turned up again a week ago to take the title of Viscount Stoke, left to him by his second cousin.

Alexandra’s friend Lady Featherstone had discovered that the new viscount was thirty-five years of age, unmarried, and quite rich. Very possibly, Lady Featherstone had speculated, he’d opened up the house in Grosvenor Street because he intended to seek a wife.

He certainly was different from the other gentlemen on Alexandra’s list, who were all polite, respectable, and likely to make her a quiet and steadfast second husband. Her first husband had been anything but steadfast, dying by falling down the stairs in the house of one of his mistresses.

Alexandra’s head throbbed in the summer night’s humid air. Thoughts of her deceased husband always made her head ache. Which was why she and Lady Featherstone had so carefully pared down the list, learning about any shortcomings of each gentleman on it. The gentlemen who had succeeded in remaining on the list were dependable, trustworthy, respectable.

And dull. Hopelessly dull. Alexandra squeezed her eyes shut.

The viscount, on the other hand, was extremely interesting. His skin was sun-bronzed, a liquid color that spoke of lands far from foggy London, and he wore his gold-streaked hair unfashionably long and pulled into a queue. His gaze, which lingered on Alexandra more than was polite when they passed at their front doors, showed her that his eyes were dark blue like twilight in June.

Sometimes he went out with only a loose greatcoat shrugged on over a shirt and calfskin breeches, and leather boots that reached above his knees. His broad shoulders filled out his coat, and the small smile he sent her way made Alexandra’s heart race.

Yes, he was quite different. Alexandra refused to let herself use Lady Featherstone’s words — most splendidly and magnificently handsome.

The carriages and horses the viscount hired were fine, but Annie and Amy, her twin downstairs maids, had told her that he’d opened up only a few rooms in the house next door. Everything else remained dark, dusty, and unused.

The viscount kept a massive manservant with very dark skin and a bald head creased with scars. Alexandra’s footman, Jeffrey, a big lad, was terrified of the viscount’s manservant. Of course, it was difficult to imagine someone of whom Jeffrey was not terrified.

Other gentlemen who came and went included a young man of about her own age, who dressed as casually as the viscount, and a short man with a leathery face, a cheerful grin, and an Irish brogue.

None of them looked terribly steady and dependable. But, on the other hand, definitely not dull.

Alexandra opened her eyes and took a long breath, trying to still the pounding in her head. She wanted a steady and dependable gentleman, did she not? One who, above all, had a fondness for children. Because if she did not marry one of the steady and dependable gentlemen from the list, Alexandra Alastair would never have children.

Once, long ago, she’d borne a child. Her husband had looked almost relieved when the little lad had died, only hours old. Alexandra’s grief had taken her to a place of darkness, from which she’d never quite returned. Theophile had pretty much ignored her after that, and Alexandra had never conceived again.

A cooling breeze from the window touched the tears on her cheeks. Her bedchamber faced her garden, and the scent of new roses drifted to her from the vines at the windows. She loved her garden, which had been her retreat, her sanctuary, during her five years of marriage to Theophile Alastair.

From the garden now, she heard voices. Male voices.

They came to her quite clearly — sharp, angry, grim. Puzzled, Alexandra brushed the tears from her cheeks and sat up.

She realized that the voices came not from her garden but from the house next door. The window next to hers must be open, and sounds were floating from one house to the next.

Alexandra flipped back the covers and slid from the bed, her feet finding the warmth of her slippers. She snatched up the peignoir that lay on the armchair and slid it on, tying the ribbons down the front. She approached the window and pulled back the drape.

A man’s voice, drawling and unfamiliar, was saying, “So tell me, Finley, why a man from the Admiralty visited you today. If I like your answer, I might just let you live.”

* * *

Grayson Finley struggled for breath. The coarse rope cut his throat as his feet scrabbled for purchase, and more rope burned his wrists behind his back.

The dim, dry part of his mind reflected that he’d survived James Ardmore’s near-hanging trick before. That time, Ardmore had relented and cut him down, but only after he’d extracted a terrible promise. This time . . . who the hell knew what Ardmore had in mind this time?

Grayson’s toes would not quite take his weight, only enough to keep the noose from completely cutting off his breath. Ardmore had looped the rope through a heavy ring in the ceiling, and he held the other end, able to pull the rope tight or loosen it as he chose. Ardmore wanted Grayson to struggle, to almost succeed in saving himself, until Grayson grew too tired of fighting and dropped, crushing his own throat.

The dark-haired, grim-faced Ardmore had once been Grayson’s closest friend. Grayson had rescued Ardmore from a cage on a pirate ship, and later, the two had joined the mutiny that had launched the adventures of Ardmore and Finley, co-captains of the Majesty and the terror of the seas. They’d been all of eighteen years old.

Ardmore had burst in not an hour before with his band of pirate hunters. Jacobs, Grayson’s second-in-command, had held them off while Grayson got Maggie to safety. Jacobs was lying downstairs now, holding his wounded side, five of Ardmore’s men pointing pistols at him. They’d trussed up Grayson and hauled him upstairs so Ardmore could string him up and try to learn his secrets.

He jerked on the rope, and Grayson’s feet left the ground. Black danced before his eyes. Ardmore drawled in his Charleston accent, “Tell me. Or Jacobs dies.”

Grayson drew stinging air into his throat. He didn’t really give a damn whether Ardmore found out English secrets, and throwing Ardmore a bone might make the man leave him alone for a while. “The French king.”

Ardmore’s eyes narrowed. “The last French king was beheaded twenty years ago.”

“King in exile. Gone missing.”

The rope slackened. Grayson’s feet hit the floor. He gulped air, fire flickering the edges of his vision.

“Louis Bourbon?” Ardmore asked in genuine surprise. “The English have lost track of their pet monarch? Interesting. What do they expect you to do about it?”

“They think pirates in pay of French agents took him,” Grayson said the best he could. “They think I’ll know who’s capable of smuggling him back to France. Besides you, I mean.”

“So they have you hopping to find out where he is? Or, what, they’ll arrest you for past crimes?”

“Something like that.”

Ardmore seemed to think this amusing, then he gave Grayson a long, cold look. He tied the rope fast to the bedpost, the line taut enough so that Grayson’s toes just touched the floor if he stretched them. Ardmore had been tying lines for seventeen years, and Grayson knew the knot would not be weak.

“I’ll leave you now,” Ardmore said. “Maybe Oliver will return in time to save you. Maybe he won’t. In the meantime, you can hang there and wonder how long it will take for you to die.”

Grayson tried to swallow air, tried to lean his head back to open his throat. Ardmore came close to Grayson and looked up into his face. “It took my brother a long time to die,” he said. “Think on that while you dance.”

His light green eyes were like ice. The trouble between Captains Ardmore and Finley had started on a long-ago day when Grayson had married the Tahitian woman, Sara, whom Ardmore had loved. That event had led, across years and through the waterways of the world, to James Ardmore staring up at Grayson in this London bedchamber and wishing him dead.

Ardmore gave Grayson a final look of cold fury and left the room, his heavy footsteps ringing in the hall. Grayson heard him descend the staircase then give curt orders to his men below. The front door opened, and, after a moment, closed. Then, silence.

The rope creaked from the ring in the ceiling. The ring also supported the chandelier, an iron thing from centuries past. If Grayson jerked hard enough, he might dislodge the circle of iron, which could sever the rope. Or, the chandelier might fall and crush the life out of him.

The bed was too far across the room to be of any use, but the straight-backed chair might help. Now to discover if Ardmore had left it just out of reach or near enough.

As Grayson walked his toes toward the chair, he damned himself for lowering his guard. Ardmore and his men had overwhelmed him and Jacobs while they’d supped alone together, trying to figure out how they were going to find Louis Bourbon for the Admiralty and gain pardon for Grayson’s acts of piracy. He’d wondered why Ian O’Malley, Ardmore’s man sent to watch Grayson, had gone out and not returned. Grayson should have been more suspicious.

Grayson’s foot reached the chair. He managed to hook his straining toes around its leg and jerk it toward him. His foot slipped, and he lost hold of the chair and swung heavily against the rope. His vision went black.

He heard voices from the stairs, ones he didn’t know, and a feminine cry. Pattering footsteps filled the room, accompanied by the rustling of silk and a brush of scent. Slim arms wrapped his legs and tried to lift him.

“Help me,” the female voice said. “Jeffrey, quickly, cut him down.”

Another pair of arms, heavier and stronger, caught Grayson’s hips and hoisted him upward. The rope went slack around Grayson’s throat, and he dragged in gulps of air, fire dancing behind his eyes.

“I don’t have a knife, madam,” a boyish voice said.

A gruff woman answered him. “Take this one.”

Grayson’s vision began to clear. He heard the chair skitter on the floor, then the frame creak as a large lad clambered upon it. The young man lifted his arms, bathing Grayson in the smell of unwashed body. The lad sawed through the rope with the knife, his sinewy hands working quickly.

The rope broke, and Grayson fell. His legs buckled, and he landed flat on his face on the carpet.

A scent as sweet as summer sunshine washed over him, and a light hand touched his shoulder. “Jeffrey, run after them. Fetch a watchman.”

“But they’re murderers, madam,” the lad bleated. “I’m afraid of murderers.”

Grayson stifled a laugh and dragged in breath after breath, inhaling the stale smell of the carpet mixed with her heady perfume.

A cool blade touched his wrist, and the ropes loosened. Free, his hands landed at his sides, burning as the blood flowed back to them. He lay still, enjoying his pain, because pain meant life.

His next-door neighbor knelt over him, her pretty eyes anxious as she touched his shoulder. He’d spied the woman a few times in passing since he’d moved in and had found her worth a second glance. And worth deliberately inventing a reason to be leaving his house whenever he saw her carriage depositing her at her front door.

He’d ordered Jacobs to find out who she was. His lieutenant had reported that she was a widow called Mrs. Alastair, and before that, Miss Alexandra Simmington, daughter of Lord Alexis Simmington, the second son of a duke.

Blue blooded and well bred. And his rescuer.

Grayson was in love. Red-brown hair fell in a riot of curls over her shoulders, and her eyes were brown, flecked with green, like the waters of a woodland pond. She wore a feminine and frilly garment of green silk that clung to nicely rounded curves. If he slid open the bows on the front of the gown, it would part and show him the glories of her inside.

She rubbed his wrists without compunction, pushing the blood back through them. His hands stung, hot needles in his flesh.

Grayson wanted to thank her, but words would not come from his nearly crushed throat. He rolled himself onto his back, drawing in the air that Ardmore’s rope had denied him.

She was speaking. “We found another man downstairs, hurt. I think he’ll be all right, but he needs attending.”

He heard her without understanding, the words flowing over his tired body and giving him strength. More strength would come if he touched her. He slid his aching hands to her waist, and her warm, slippery gown welcomed him, her curves supple beneath it.

Wordless desire welled up in him, spun by the nearness of death and the nearness of her. Grayson pulled her closer. Her eyes flickered in nervousness, her long lashes sweeping to hide them.

Her face was finely curved, flesh sculpted to bone, a small scattering of freckles dusting her nose. Her chin was a tiny bit plump, and her lips were shell pink, not reddened by artifice.

Without a conscious decision to do so, Grayson lifted his head and brushed a kiss to her mouth.

She pulled back, but not in anger, a modest young woman. Her red-brown brows drew together as she studied him, as though he were a specimen for a scientific paper.

Grayson slid his hand to the nape of her neck, kneading softly, gentling his touch. She relaxed, just a little, and Grayson kissed her again, this time more firmly. After a moment, pretty Mrs. Alastair gave a little sigh, and he felt a small, answering push of lips.

Excitement, uncontrolled and uncaring, washed through him. He suddenly wanted her, this lovely, sweet-smelling woman who’d lifted him from death. His kiss became more forceful. She made a soft noise of surprise, but Grayson’s body took over.

He opened her mouth with his tongue, and satisfyingly, she did not fight him. She fitted her mouth to his, but clumsily, as though she were unused to opening for a man, unused to accepting such a deep kiss. Her lips warmed as she let herself learn.

Grayson broke the kiss, but only to roll her over, to take her to the floor beneath him. The lacy garment was no barrier between himself and her warm curves, and her breasts pressed unashamedly against his chest. He slanted his mouth across hers again, kissing her swollen lips, scooping up the goodness of her onto his tongue.

She made another small noise — of surrender or protest, he couldn’t tell. He was stiff with longing, harder than he’d been in a long time. Grayson pressed her thighs apart, molding the thin garment to her, feeling the heat of her through the silk. His fingers fumbled at the little bows, wanting to part the garment and have at her.

A strong hand landed on his shoulder. “That will be enough of that, my lord,” a woman said.

Darkness receded, and Grayson jerked back to the present. He’d forgotten the coarse-voiced woman and the beefy, terrified youth who’d accompanied his rescuer. Grayson raised his head to find the two of them staring down at him while he lay on top of their mistress, the large woman scowling, the lad openmouthed in fascination.

Grayson rolled away from Mrs. Alastair’s ripe, sweet body and curled his arms over his stomach. He drew in a breath of sweet air, and with it came laughter. He laughed for the joy of life and the joy of the beautiful woman on the carpet beside him.

She sat up and stared at him in bewilderment. He lifted his hand and touched the curve of her face.

“Thank you,” he whispered. “My rescuer.”

* * *

Grayson Finley, Viscount Stoke, seemed a very resilient man. Alexandra watched the animation flow back into his body, like water returning to a dry pool, when only a moment ago he’d lain still, content to simply be alive.

After only a few more minutes flat on his back, he climbed to his feet, looking as energetic as a man who’d just risen from a refreshing sleep. His throat was dark with bruises, but other than that, he seemed little worse for wear.

Blue eyes sparkling, he ordered the quaking Jeffrey and Cook downstairs to find the man called Mr. Jacobs. To Alexandra, he said, “Come with me.”

No explanation, no waiting, not even dressing himself, for heaven’s sake. He wore leather breeches, a linen shirt opened to his waist, and tall boots. No collar, no waistcoat, no coat. A white scar ran from the hollow of his throat to disappear into the shadow of muscle under the shirt. Alexandra found herself wanting to tilt her head to trace the path of the scar to its end.

His nose was crooked, as if it had been broken, and another scar pulled his lower lip downward at the left corner. Not necessarily a perfect face, but an arresting one all the same.

The candlelight in the hall glinted on his sun-streaked hair and shone faintly on gold bristles of new beard. Alexandra’s late husband had never allowed his beard to appear. The moment Theophile spotted a whisker, he’d shout for his valet to, for God’s sake, come and remove it. He’d wanted his face perpetually smooth and clean. Alexandra had heard rumors that he liked his women just as bare in certain places, but she’d never been brave enough to find out if this were true.

The viscount took her hand to pull her up the next flight of stairs. His palm was callused and hard, very unlike the soft, manicured hands of the cultured gentlemen on her list. The leather of his scarred boots bent and flowed around his joints with the ease of long use.

Despite the candles, the house was dark, the paneling that lined the walls nearly black. The stairs held the patina of age and creaked under the viscount’s tread. Alexandra glimpsed rooms through open doors where dust sheets had been removed from the furniture, but in others, chairs and tables were still draped in cloth. Crates stood about, some opened, some tightly shut.

They entered a bedchamber on the top floor, which, Alexandra calculated, lay just on the other side of the third floor rooms in her house. This room had not been opened — the dust sheets remained on what little furniture filled it, and the fireplace was long cold.

The viscount strode unerringly to a panel that looked like any other panel in the dark wall and touched a piece of raised molding. The paneling swung away to reveal a small, square compartment.

From this niche, to Alexandra’s amazement, sprang a girl.

She was about twelve years old and dressed in a soiled pink silk gown with many ruffles and bows, most of them torn. In her right hand, the girl held a long and wicked-looking knife. She swept her midnight black hair from her face, revealing sparkling dark eyes under black slanted brows.

“Papa!” she cried. She flung her arms about the viscount’s waist, dagger and all. “I was so frightened Captain Ardmore would kill you. Are you all right?”

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