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Authors: Alexandra Benedict

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BOOK: Too Great a Temptation
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He had to go back inside the captain’s cabin to study the tables and charts, to obtain the chronometer, to plot a course back to England, but he wouldn’t head back just yet. He would wait awhile longer, to make absolutely sure Mirabelle was gone from the room. He couldn’t risk another sensual encounter with her. His resolve would snap.

“Something the matter?”

You,
he thought. “Nothing’s wrong, Belle.”

“Good, because you have no right to be in a dander.”

Her finger went to her well-endowed chest, attracting his attention. Even under the loose-fitting fabric, the full swell of her breasts was acutely evident.

Damian groaned quietly.

“You invaded
my
privacy, remember?” She poked her slender finger into her bosom. “I’ve had the miserable morning, not you.”

Damian couldn’t disagree more. He would bet his dukedom she wasn’t suffering the same lustful urges he was struggling to tamp down.

“How dare you barge into the captain’s cabin like that?”

“You should have locked the door,” he accused, his tone biting.


You
should have knocked.”

True, but he was still thinking like a captain, was wont to doing as he pleased, and the rules of an ordinary tar had yet to set in. And he was going to pay dearly for his misstep.

Damian looked away from her, his mind in turmoil, and growled, “I didn’t know you were staying in the captain’s cabin.”

“Well, now you do. So keep your distance, Damian.”

“I intend to.”

“Good.” A short pause, then: “And thank you.”

“For
what
?”

“For saving Quincy’s life.”

He stared at her, taken aback. He couldn’t remember the last time he had heard those words. And hearing them from Belle felt strangely good. It was pleasant, even, knowing he wasn’t a complete failure.

Gruffly he bit back, “You’re welcome.”

She wrinkled her brow then. “Isn’t that William’s shirt?”

Damian glanced down at his apparel. “Aye. Your brother offered me the garbs, seeing as I was left penniless and all but naked on America’s shore.”

Was that color tinting her cheeks? And at the mention of him being naked? But before he could be sure, she turned to leave.

“Wait, Belle.”

She looked back at him, her fiery gaze cutting up his soul. “What is it?”

He searched his brain for a reason to talk to her. That it was wholly senseless to keep her around did not cross his mind right then. He just didn’t want the moment to end. There was something about Belle that aroused him. Both his body and his…well, he wasn’t quite sure. His heart? Damian didn’t think he had one anymore. Or if he did, it was as dark as cinder. Yet an emotion was buried deep within him. Too deep to be clear. But it clung to his breast with a fierce hold and he could not shake the sensation. It felt strangely warm. Even tranquil. And it had been a while since he’d felt something other than misery inside him. He wanted to hold on to the sentiment a bit longer.

His eye caught a speck on the horizon. “Is that a ship?”

She cast her golden gaze over the water. “Aye.”

“I think it’s sailing this way.”

“So what?”

He studied her again, enthralled by the silky strands of her tawny blond hair shifting in the breeze. A stray lock whipped across her sun-kissed features and trapped between the soft curve of her coral pink lips.

Gripped by a yearning to wipe away the lock, his fingers twitched, preparing to move, but she brushed the wisp of hair behind her ear before he had a chance to do it. A good thing, too, for he wasn’t overly fond of making a complete ass of himself.

Curling his restless fingers into his palms, he said, “Don’t you ever worry about your safety out here?”

She shrugged. “No. Why?”

“What about a sea squall?”

“This is a sound ship.” Her arms crossed under her breasts. “She can weather any storm.”

“What about being lost at sea?”

She narrowed her amber eyes on him. “Do you plan on getting us lost, Damian?”

Indignant, he returned, “Of course not.”

“Then I’m not worried.”

He paused. “What about pirates?”

This time she snorted. “I’m not worried about pirates.”

“Why not? That ship”—he nodded up ahead—“could very well be a pirate ship, tailing us.”

“It’s not,” she said confidently. “Trust me.”

Her smug assurance annoyed him. She was a bountiful prize for any pirate, who wouldn’t hesitate to plunder her if at all given the chance. She could even be killed! Didn’t she realize that?

“You should have more respect for the sea,” he chided. “Instead you scoff at danger like your brother Quincy.”

Her nostrils flared. “That ship”—she pointed to the horizon—“is just sailing by. It’s
not
a pirate ship.”

“It
could
be.”

“Even so, we’re armed, so I’m still not worried.”

At her flippant response, he grabbed her by the wrist and squeezed.

Mirabelle’s breath trapped in her throat at the sudden attack. “Are you crazy?” Her eyes darted to the crew, presumably to check if anyone had yet to notice their little entanglement.

“Break away,” he bade.

She trembled in his embrace. He could feel it, the vibrations ripping through her. “If anyone catches us…”

“So fight,” he demanded.

She looked at him as though he’d lost his mind. She made a noise of frustration and, wriggling, twisted her wrist this way and that, attempting to break free.

“Try harder, Belle.”

Tight-lipped, she glowered at him, clawing at his clenched fingers, leaving glaring red marks all along his hand and forearm.

With a flick of the wrist, he jerked her closer to him, their noses bumping.

Delving deep into the pools of her honey gold eyes, now flashing mad, he whispered roughly, “Remember, Belle, there is always someone bigger and stronger out there, just waiting for a chance to hurt you.”

The salty musk of her hair swirled around him, and Damian suddenly realized just how close to her he really was, his eyes dropping to her full and rosy and damned kissable lips.

Sensing his poise was about to crack, he admonished, “Don’t you ever make light of that again,” and then let her go.

Mirabelle staggered back, massaging her wrist, her eyes burning orbs. She looked ready to hurl a slew of obscenities his way, but one look at the crew, casting her curious glances, and she seemed to reconsider.

In the end, she only warned, “Stay away from me.”

I intend to,
thought Damian, as he watched her sultry figure stalk away. Being close to Mirabelle was a guarantee of hardship, physical and otherwise, for the woman sparked within him emotions he could not tame—or fathom.

Chapter 4

“O
h, good. Someone to keep me company. I can’t stand counting the wood knots in the ceiling anymore.”

Damian stepped deeper into the cabin and closed the door. “Feeling better?”

“Aye,” said Quincy. “I should be up and about soon.”

“I’m glad to hear it. For a while there, I wasn’t sure you’d make it.”

“I’m tougher than I look,” was his cool reply, but then his eyes lighted with anxiety and his voice took on a pleading pitch. “Oh, and if anyone asks, you saved me from
two
Americans, not five.”

Damian quirked a brow.

“Just promise me you won’t tell my brothers the truth.”

With a shrug, Damian acquiesced.

The kid sighed, his demeanor blithe once more. “So tell me, how do you like life aboard the
Bonny Meg
?”

Collecting a nearby chair, Damian positioned it next to the bed and sat down. “It’s…interesting.”

“How?”

“The choice of crew.”

“Belle, you mean?” Quincy chuckled. “She’s a challenge, I know. The captain has trouble handling her himself.”

Damian could commiserate. “So why did he bring her on board?”

“Bring her?” Quincy snorted. “That’s not the way it happened. Belle stowed away.”

Now
that
made sense. It had so often plagued Damian, the reason for her being on ship. A stowaway certainly explained everything. It meant the odd family union wasn’t so odd after all—only Belle was odd.

“That must have been a surprise,” said Damian, “finding her here.”

“Was it ever! A fortnight into our journey, Eddie strolled into the galley—the lummox is always hungry—to ask Cook about dinner. And there she was, hunched over the piping cauldron, sampling the stew. Eddie couldn’t believe his eyes. He lunged for her, but she got away, and he almost ended up
in
the bubbling cauldron. It was a lot of shouting and tearing around deck before we finally captured her. James was furious, we all were, but we were too far at sea to turn around and bring her home. We needed more supplies.”

“And that’s how you found yourself in
New York
?”

Quincy nodded. “We had to get rid of our plund—our cargo, load up some new supplies, and then head home.”

“So you’re taking Belle back to England?”

“Hell, yes! Why wouldn’t we?”

Damian waved a dismissive hand. “Just the impression I got from her, that she was already a member of the crew.”

“Belle wishes to be a member,” grumbled Quincy. “That’s the trouble.”

Trouble indeed. Damian could still feel the heat twisting in his belly at the memory of his morning spar with Belle. To avoid her—and another sensual encounter—he had shut himself below deck, tending to navigational charts. But imagine having to endure voyage after voyage with Belle strutting around deck in her tight leather breeches, her arse swaying like the pendulum of a clock, mesmerizing all eyes. Nothing would ever get done.

“Why all the questions about my sister?” Quincy abruptly demanded.

Bemused, Damian glanced back at the kid. “No reason.”

That got him a skeptical look. “You’re to stay away from her, Damian.”

He stood up. “I know.”

“I mean it.” Quincy eyed him intently. “I’m in your debt and all, but that doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want with Belle.”

Do whatever he wanted with Belle? Now there was a tempting thought.

“I don’t plan on doing anything with her,” Damian insisted, more to convince himself than Quincy. He backed away. “I was only curious about her.”

“She belongs on shore, Damian, married with a brood of children. Unless you want the job of hus—”

“I don’t,” he cut in, reaching for the doorknob. “I only want the job of navigator.”

Quickly Damian escaped from the cabin, Quincy hollering after him, “Are you sure?”

Up on deck, Damian paused to inhale the briny sea air.
Him
a husband? Clearly, the kid’s fever had yet to break. What a daft suggestion. It was no better than being tossed overboard, for the distraction of a wife would surely hamper his mission—especially if that wife happened to be a sultry siren. Besides, he could never take a wife. He was too much like his father. No woman would ever be safe with him.

The hammering overhead captured Damian’s attention. He glanced up at the darkening sky, sucking in a sharp breath at the sight he beheld.

Mirabelle was perched on the mainsail yard, pounding away, her thighs straddling the wood beam, her legs crossed at the ankles.

Was the woman mad? Dangling up in the air like that? She had no business—

Wait.
He
had no business giving a damn. Let her brothers worry.

Damian headed aft, determined to find something other than Mirabelle to occupy his attention.

Passing the ratlines, though, he took no more than two steps before he turned on his heels and began to climb up the crisscrossing ropes.

 

Mirabelle took the nail from between her teeth and positioned it over the splint. She envisioned Damian’s head and brought the mallet down with a resounding thwack.

Obnoxious devil. How dare he accuse her of being foolhardy? So she didn’t fret over every potential peril. That did
not
make her reckless. Why, the ship could be swallowed up by a sea serpent at any moment. What good would it do her to panic over the possibility?

Another hard thwack.

It wouldn’t do her any good, dreading unknown hazards. Damian knew it. He was just being an ass—like her brothers. Worse even, for he pestered her without benefit of kinship. But like her brethren, Damian had tried to frighten her into retreat. He had said it himself the other night; how “unusual” it was to have a woman aboard ship. He thought to disturb her with ghastly tales of sea misadventures. Unnerve her to the point where she demanded to go home—where she belonged.

Bah! What was it with the crew of the
Bonny Meg
? All seemed to think she lacked a healthy dose of feminine hysteria.

Mirabelle hammered away for a while, fixing some minor damage amassed during the last spring storm they had weathered.

She paused in her repairs, looking out to sea, trying to quiet her troubled spirit.

The glow of the setting sun warmed her skin. She inhaled the fresh tang of salty sea air, listened to the ballooning sails stretch under the pressure of the surging winds.

She loved being on board, feeling the breeze whipping through her hair. Even staring at the rhythmic swell of the water gave her pleasure. It soothed her soul.

Resuming repairs, Mirabelle glanced down and spotted a lone figure scaling the ratlines with obvious prowess.

A sudden giddy unease enveloped her. “What are you doing here, Damian?”

A head popped up to glare at her. “What are
you
doing here?”

“Fixing the yard.”

Damian straddled the wood beam opposite her. “You shouldn’t be up here. It isn’t safe.”

She snorted. Life on a pirate ship was never safe. Always being hunted and all. It was the very reason her brothers had set sail for the Americas. Plundering near the English coast had become a hazard. Ever since that incident with an English passenger vessel two years ago, too many scout ships prowled the waters in search of the
Bonny Meg
. It being time for a change of venue, her brothers had crossed the Atlantic waves to find it. Of course, Damian wasn’t privy to any of that.

“I told you to stay away from me, Damian.”

“And I told you to be careful.” Then tersely he said, “It seems neither of us listens to the other.”

She huffed. “I’m not in any danger.” Though perhaps that wasn’t entirely true. Hell’s fire, but the man had such stunning eyes. She was woozy just looking at him. “My father taught me how to sail—and hammer a nail.”

The autocratic brute was quiet for a moment. “Was this your father’s ship?”

She glanced down at the yard, pounding away. “Aye. He was captain for almost twenty years.”

“So who is Meg?”

Mirabelle paused, a welter of emotions swimming in her breast. “My mother, Megan. She died in childbirth to Quincy.”

Mirabelle wished she had known the woman better. She was often told how much she resembled her mother, with her golden hair and eyes, while her brothers distinctly mirrored their father. It was why she liked being aboard the
Bonny Meg
. She felt close to her mother here. And her father. As though both parents were watching over her, hugging her in their arms.

She took another nail from the satchel tied at her waist, and positioned it over the splint. “So you see, Damian”—bang!—“I belong here.”

“Not
way
up here.”

“I’ll have you know, Father was a wonderful teacher.” Bang! Bang! “He had faith in me.”

Memories squeezed at her heart. Memories of her father. It had been a year since the death of Drake Hawkins. The worst year of her life, for with all her brothers at sea, she had been left home alone for the first time in her life. The silence had been agonizing. The ache in her lonely heart consuming. But out here she was close to her brothers—and her parents. Out here she belonged to a crew, a family. She didn’t need anyone else. She certainly didn’t need a husband and children, as James had suggested. Such a family would only bring her grief…as it had her mother so many years ago.

Oh, the Hawkins clan had been happy for a time, blissfully so. And then tragedy had struck, a great upheaval that had devastated many lives, her mother’s most of all. It’d been more than twenty years since the awful event, but still Mirabelle feared the kind of heartache that had plagued her mother. She would much prefer the life of a seafarer. And there was nothing in the world that could make her give up her dream. Not a stubborn troop of brothers or a pigheaded navigator.

“You should appreciate that more, Damian, the lessons of a father. Mine made sure to teach me everything about sailing.” While the ship was moored, of course. Drake had never taken her out to sea. This was her first voyage, in fact. “Didn’t your father teach you how to be a tar?”

“My father wasn’t a sailor…and he never taught me anything of value.”

She looked into his azure blue eyes, so gloomy for an instant. She recognized that doleful expression, having often felt the same way herself. But the intensity in Damian’s gaze was unique. A depth of sorrow even she couldn’t fathom.

Suddenly curious, she decided it was time to learn more about the mysterious navigator and put her suspicions to rest. “If not a sailor, who was your father?”

Damian appeared to dislike the question. A pulse ticked in his neck. “He was no one special.”

Well, that wasn’t very informative. “Yes, but
who
was he—”

“Enough of this, Belle,” he said roughly. “Get down.”

Her flicker of curiosity smothered, she returned his poignant glare with a tart, “I will not.”

“Get down or I’ll haul you down myself.”

He wouldn’t dare, the blackguard! “I have to fix the ship, Damian. Captain’s order.”

“I’ll fix it.”

“It’s my ship.
I’ll
fix it.”

A black brow cocked in disbelief.

“Well, it is—sort of. It belongs to my brothers and I, so I have as much right to be here as any of them.”

“So why did you stow away?”

She took in a sharp breath. The conniving bounder! “You had no right to pry like that, Damian.”


You
have no right to be here.”

She snorted and whacked the nail head hard. “My brothers are just being stubborn.”

“More like wise.”

Affronted, she demanded, “And what does that mean?”

“You shouldn’t be on the ship, Belle—at all.”

Oh, men were such a tenacious brood! “That’s not your choice to make, Damian.”

He glowered at her. “Get off the yard, Belle.”

“Why?”

“Because you have neither the strength nor the proper balance to be up here.”

“I’m hammering a piece of wood, not towing the ship.” She glared at the iron nail and imagined Damian’s head. Thwack! “How much strength do you think I need?” Thwack! Thwack! “And my balance is perfectly fine.”

Of course, the ship chose that very moment to dip and roll, tipping her sideways.

Damian reached for her, her muscles aching under the pressure of his grip.

He yanked her forward.

She gasped at the feel of his nose bumping hers. Dark eyes, burning hot, scorched her soul. He was so close. The heady scent of him swarmed her senses, making her heart tick hard and fast. She could almost taste him. She almost wanted to…

“Get down, Belle. Now!”

It was a cold command. Cutting and to the point. She didn’t argue. She could see it in his gaze, the tenacious resolve. If she so much as parted her lips for a breath, he’d take it as a sign of willfulness and toss her over his shoulder.

And what would James think with Damian dragging her down the ratlines? That she was stirring up trouble, that’s what. It was always
her
fault.

Snapped from her reverie, she gnashed her teeth and resisted the urge to clock Damian over the head with her mallet.

After a quick scan of the deck below, to ensure no one was watching, Mirabelle swung her leg over the yard and began to climb down the ratlines, Damian in tow.

She hit the deck.

Offering Damian one last scowl, she flounced off, fuming.

BOOK: Too Great a Temptation
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