Love Only Once Page 20

“Ye could at least get your arse down ‘ere and open the bleedin’ door, ‘Onry. She might look like a light bit of fluff, but after that long trek she don’t feel light.” Henri, or ‘Onry, as his English friends were wont to call him, chuckled at Artie’s surliness, a sure sign that he was no longer worried about their mission. “Then no one is giving chase?”

“Not as I saw. Now give us a ‘and. Ye know the cap’s orders about treatin’ ‘er real gentle.” They laid Reggie on a thickly padded seat and quickly wrapped a rope around her knees to hold the sack in place. “This will sweeten his temper, yes? Never thought we would catch our fish this soon.”

“Give it up, Frenchy. Ye’ll never sound like an Englishman, so stop tryin‘. And I bet ye thought we’d be freezin out ’ere in these woods for weeks, eh?”

“Well, did you not?”

“Yeah, but I tol‘ ye it pays to be ready, and see if she didn’t come right out to us. A fine piece of luck! If this don’t please the cap’n, what will, I ask ye?”

“The little fish catching the bigger one.”

“Right ye are. Let’s just ‘ope that don’t take too long either.”

“You will ride back here with her to see she does not fall off the seat, or do you wish me—”

“Ye can ‘ave the pleasure. I don’t trust ye gettin’ this lumberin‘ land ship out o’ these woods in one piece. That’ll be my job.” He chuckled. “I take it ye fancy that arrangement?”

“As you please, Artie.” The young Frenchman flashed a grin at the Englishman.

“Just don’t get a mind to sample the goods, mate. Cap’n wouldn’t like that a’tall,” the man said seriously before climbing into the driver’s seat again. The coach rocked forward.

Reggie’s mind was racing. This had to be a simple kidnapping. A demand for money would be met, and then she would be returned home. Nothing to worry about.

She wished her body would see it that way. She was trembling violently. They were taking her to a captain who didn’t want her roughed up. Yes, a kidnapping. And he was a sea captain, she surmised, because there was a large harbor in Southampton. Why, Nicholas’ own shipping firm was located there.

She forced herself to recall every word they’d spoken. What was that about the little fish catching the bigger one? She strained all her senses, alert to every sound, every movement.

It wasn’t more than half an hour before their pace slowed and she knew they were in Southampton.

“A few more minutes, cherie , and we will have you inside and more comfortable,” her captor assured her.

“Inside?” Not “on board?” Well, he was French, after all, so maybe that had been a language problem.

Oh dear. The tight sack around her cloak was beginning to make her itch and sweat. And to think she’d

believed there would be no more adventures once she was grown!

The coach stopped and she was carefully lifted out, the Englishman carrying her this time. There were no sounds of a waterfront, no waves lapping against a ship, no creak of nearby timber at anchor. Where were they? There was no gangplank to maneuver across, either, but steps were mounted. Then a door was opened.

“Hell’s bells, Artie, you got her already?”

“Well, this ain’t ballast I’m totin‘, lad. Where do I put ’er?”

“There’s a room ready for her upstairs. Why don’t you let me carry her?”

“I can box yer ears and not drop ‘er, lad. Want to test me?” There was a deep chuckle. “You’re too touchy by half, Artie. Come on, I’ll show you where the room is.”

“Where’s the cap’n?”

“He’s not expected back until tonight. I guess that means I get to take care of her, don’t it?”

“Will ye listen to this young cockerel, ‘Onry?” Artie demanded. “Not on yer life, lado, will we be leavin’

ye alone with the likes o‘ ’er. Yer the only one round ‘ere who might think ’e can get away with a little hanky-panky ‘cause the cap’s yer old man. Don’t ye be thinkin’ about it while I’m around.”

“I said take care of her—not take care of her,” the boy shot back.

“Is the lad blushin‘, ’Onry? Is that a real blush I see?”

“Run along, mon ami ,” Henri said to the boy. “You questioned his strength, and he will not let up on you today.”

“Well, at least let me see what she looks like.”

“Oh, she’s a pretty one, lado.” Artie grinned. “In fact, when the cap sets eyes on ‘er, ’e’s likely to forget what ‘e wanted ’er brought ‘ere for. Might just keep ’er for ‘imself. Might just indeed.” They carried her to her upstairs room, and then she was set down on her feet. She swayed and nearly fell. The rope at her knees was removed, and the sack lifted off. But the little room was so dark, its windows boarded up, that she had trouble seeing for a moment.

A deep breath of air was her first order of business. Then she focused on the three men, her captors and the boy, moving toward the door. The younger one was looking at her over his shoulder, his mouth hanging open.

“Just a minute, if you please,” she called to the departing men. “I demand to know why I was brought here.”

“The cap’n will be tellin‘ ye that when ’e gets ‘ere, m’lady.”

“And who is the captain?”

“No need for names,” the brawnier of the two answered, offering a placating tone in response to her haughty one.

“Yet I know your name, Artie. And I know your name, Henri. I even—” She stopped before telling them she had sketched both of them. “I wish to know why I am here.”

“Ye’ll ‘ave to wait and talk to the cap’n. Now, there’s a lamp there on the table, and ye’ll be fed shortly.

Just settle down and make yourself comfy-like.”

She swung around, furious, her back to them. The door closed and a key was turned in the lock. She let out a sigh. Where had she gotten the nerve to act so hoity-toity? They were sinister-looking characters despite their bantering manner and placating voices. Well, at least she hadn’t shown them any fear. They wouldn’t see a Malory cringe. That was a huge satisfaction.

She sat down warily on a rickety chair, wondering forlornly if that might just be her last moment of satisfaction for a long while.

Chapter 24

THE food was delicious, even in Reggie’s nervous state. She ate her fill of squab pie, rice pudding, and saffron cakes. There was a delicate wine, too. But once the distraction of dining was over, she went back to worrying.

Henri had brought her the food. He had put on a very rakish ruffled silk shirt; black breeches with high, wide-topped boots; and a long, coatlike vest. Good Lord, all he lacked was an earring. He had even shaved everything except his tightly curled mustache. Why?

What had she gotten herself into this time? Feminine clothes were laid out on the bed, brand-new from the look of them, silk robe, a more discreet linen nightgown, furry bedroom slippers, and, embarrassingly, underthings. On a vanity were toilet articles, brush, comb, a very expensive perfume, all new.

The young man had come in to start a fire for her early in the afternoon, and Artie stood guard at the door. He smiled timidly at her. She glared back frostily. She ignored the boy entirely.

It was night now, but she refused to make use of the large bed. She would stay awake all night if she had to, but she wouldn’t relax until she had met the captain and given him a piece of her mind.

She fed the fire with wood the boy had left her, then drew a chair up to it, tucking her feet beneath her dark blue velvet skirt. The room was warm and she began feeling sleepy.

She almost didn’t hear the key turning in the door. The sound made her stiffen, but she didn’t turn around. Damned if she would deign to notice either Artie or Henri.

“My son tells me you’re a raving beauty,” said a deep voice. “Let me see what has him so smitten.

Present yourself, Lady Montieth.”

She stood and, very slowly, turned to look at him. Her eyes went wide in shock.

“Uncle James!”

“Regan?” they cried at once.

She recovered first. “Oh, uncle! You can’t mean to kidnap me for another three months of fun aboard the Maiden Anne ? Don’t you think I’m a bit old for that now?” Looking as confused as a man ever did, he held out his arms. “Come here, sweet, and give us a hug. My God, you really have turned into a raving beauty.”

She hugged him happily. “Well, it’s been three years, Uncle James, and I only saw you for an hour that time. It’s unfair, you know, having to sneak around to see my own uncle. Isn’t it time you made up with your brothers?”

“I might be willing,” he said quietly. “But I doubt they are, Regan.” He had always liked being different, even to having his own special name for her. Her uncle, the pirate, had stolen her from under his brothers’ noses when they refused to allow him to see her. He’d taken her for a fabulous adventure aboard his ship, determined to have his rightful time with her. She had been twelve, and those incredible three months still lived vividly in her mind.

Of course, they both paid a price for it. James was already in disgrace for being a pirate. When he returned Reggie, all three brothers had thrashed him soundly for putting her in danger. He was disowned by all of them, even Tony, whom he’d always been so close to. James suffered over the rift, and Reggie suffered for being the cause of it. He never blamed her, but that only made her feel worse.

She pushed away from James and looked him over. He hadn’t changed very much in three years. He was still big and blond, as handsome as ever—and as outrageous. Look what he had done by bringing her there.

“I shouldn’t even speak to you,” she said sternly. “You gave me a terrible fright. You might at least have told your men to inform me it was the notorious Captain Hawke who was having me abducted.” James exploded. “I’ll have their bloody hides, depend upon it! Damnation!” He threw open the door and bellowed, “Artie!… Henri!”

“Uncle, no,” Reggie protested.

James’ rages weren’t like Tony’s. Tony could be talked around. Even Jason, a stubborn bull when he was angry, could be talked to. But James Malory was frightening. Though his anger had never been directed at her, she feared it.

“Uncle James,” she said, “the men were really very gentle with me, and they saw diligently to my comfort. I wasn’t frightened,” she lied.

“A mistake has been made, Regan, and I’ll accept no excuses for it.” A black brow rose sharply. “You mean I wasn’t supposed to be brought here?”

“Of course not. I would have come to see you before I left England again. I wouldn’t have brought you

to me—certainly not in this fashion.”

The two miscreants appeared in the doorway just then, uneasy under James’ cold stare. “You wanted us, Cap’n?”

“Do you know who you have brought me?” James asked softly. It was his unpredictable tone.

Henri divined the trouble first. “The wrong lady?”

“May I present gentlemen”—James extended an arm toward Reggie, exploded—“my niece !”


“Yeah,” Artie breathed.

Another man appeared in the doorway. “What the devil are you shouting about, Hawke?”

“Connie!” Reggie cried in delight, and rushed into his arms.

This was the man who had taught her to fence, to climb to the crow’s nest, even to sail the ship when her uncle wasn’t looking. Conrad Sharpe, James’ closest friend in childhood, was now first mate on the Maiden Anne . A more roguish, though lovable pirate had never lived.

“Is that you, little squirt?” Conrad bellowed. “Damn me, if it isn’t!” He hugged her close.

“It’s been years and years!”

“Hasn’t it though?” Conrad chuckled. Finally he caught sight of James’ scowling face and cleared his throat. “I, ah—I don’t think you’re supposed to be here, Regan.”

“So I gather.” She turned back to James. “Well, uncle, here are the scoundrels. Will you have them flogged for this dastardly mistake? If so, I want to watch.”


“You’re not going to?” She glanced at her abductors. “Well, gentlemen, you are indeed fortunate my uncle is in such a charitable mood. He’s letting you off light. I would have taken the skin from your backs, to be sure.”

“All right, Regan, you win,” James relented, nodding curtly for Artie and Henri to leave.

“She hasn’t changed at all, has she, Hawke?” Conrad chuckled when the door closed behind the two kidnappers.

“Cunning little baggage,” James grumbled.

Reggie grinned at them both. “But aren’t you glad to see me?”

“Let me think about it.”

“Uncle James!”

“Of course, sweet.” James gave her his open smile, the one reserved for those he loved. “But you really have stirred up a problem here. I was expecting someone else, and now I suppose the watch will be up at Silverley.”

“Do you want to tell me what that is all about?” she asked him.

“Nothing that concerns you, Regan.”

“Don’t put me off, uncle. I’m not a child anymore, you know.”

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