May 3, 1780
Casa de Covarrubias
She wept into Rafael’s bare chest that night, and the years fell away.
I swear to God I don’t know what to do with you, Lass. Ach, don’t look at me like that. I’m not going to eat you. He didn’t mean it, you ken.
He— He— He—didn’t?
Nay. Honorable men don’t generally go about killing wee lassies.
There, there. Calm yourself. Take a deep breath, there’s a good lass. You don’t know who I am, do you?
My name is James Dunham, and I am the captain of the ship we’re on. The Iron Maiden.
How—how long will I be here?
Ah . . . well . . . Ah, that is to say . . . Here, let’s clean your face a bit. Doesn’t that cold water make you feel better?
Ye—yes. Why—why were you doing that to my mother?
Don’t tell me you’ve never seen a man and a woman kiss before?
Not like that.
You have now. Are you hungry? Aye, of course you are. Come, let me show you to the galley and Cookie can fill your belly.
How long will I be here?
Well, Lass. You are my responsibility now, so . . . You’re here to stay. I’ll do the best I can, but this turn of events is as shocking to me as it is to you. I ken we didn’t get off to a good start, but do you think you could trust me just a wee bit?
She was still hiccuping even once the worst of her sobs had passed.
“Play wi—with m—my hair,” she whispered, expecting nothing, so she was surprised when Rafael complied. He didn’t usually care to indulge her in that manner.
She was almost asleep when he said, “We must discuss the figurehead.”
His heart thudded soft and slow under her cheek, but hers began to race.
“It has inside it the deeds to my unentailed lands in Andalusia, as well as some properties here in London, including this house, a plantation in Sint Eustatius, and a townhouse in Paris.”
Celia lay stunned, so shocked she could not speak.
“I returned to Spain some years ago to find that my brothers had found one deed to a property in Catalonia, then successfully had the courts transfer ownership to them. Naturally, the judge who decided that suddenly acquired half the property, but never mind that. I gathered up the rest from their hiding places, along with a few other valuables, jewels and the like, and had the sculptor hollow out the left foot for their secretion.”
Her mouth opened and closed. “Why in God’s name would you put such things in a ship, a vessel used for war, no less?”
“At that very moment, I had nowhere else to put them and I was pressed for time. I had thought to retrieve them on our voyage, but our . . . dealings . . . with each other were such that I simply forgot—and then you shackled me in the hold before putting me ashore without so much as an adios.”
“I hope you learned your lesson,” she grumbled.
“Sí, I did,” he sneered.
They were silent for a moment before Celia murmured, “You’re not poor?”
He laughed caustically. “Oh, my love, I am most certainly poor. My family ensures that, with the way they steal everything I provide my villeins. Those lands are investments I made while I awaited the day I wed you and left you in command of my estate.”
Celia blinked, stunned, attempting to parse what he had said. “You . . . All those years— You wanted me to . . . ”
“I needed a partner I could trust to take care of my people,” he said matter-of-factly, “who could control my mother and brothers as well or better than I could, until I could marry and produce an heir to prevent my brothers from inheriting. I was not expecting this person to be my condesa, but then you landed in my lap like a gift from God. Who better to rule my lands than the daughter of King George’s pet corsair?”
“You’re the conde,” she murmured, confused. “’Tis your responsibility to rule your lands.”
“I am the conde of barren lands whose villeins can barely scrape enough out of the ground to eat, much less pay their forfeit. What livestock they manage, my family takes. I am obligated to care for them, and the only way I have been able to do so is by my university wages and whatever I earn on my voyages as I cannot be in two places at once.”
“Oh,” she breathed. “But all those years, you spent so much money to give me whatever I wanted—”
“An investment, just like the properties.” Celia gulped and balled her hand up between her chest. “No, none of that.” He gently took her fist and attempted to open her fingers, but soon gave up. “My plan began to change,” he murmured, leaning forward to kiss her softly, “when I fell in love with you.”
She pulled in a soft breath. “When?” she squeaked.
“Your sixteenth birthday.” Her breath hitched. “When you went to the coast with the rector’s wife and her retinue. I slept alone that night for the first time since we had become lovers, and I was so lonely I could not bear it.”
That week, spent in the care of the only woman she could trust to help her and keep her secrets, had been one of the most miserable she had ever spent.
She banished those memories immediately.
“Rafael,” she said, raising her hand to massage the bridge of her nose, “find another way to deal with your serfs and your family. I am not going to marry you. I thought I made that clear.”
“The court has decided. You have no choice.”
She sighed. “I’m a pirate. I don’t honor contracts I have no wish to honor, and certainly not ones made for me, without my signature and against my will.”
“Why not?” he demanded. “You begged me to marry you for years.”
“Why did you refuse if you needed me so badly?” she countered.
“You weren’t ready to face my family.”
“And when I graduated?”
He said nothing for a second or two, caressing her forehead with his finger. “I wanted nothing more than to wed you. But you were yet young and torn between wanting to earn Dunham’s approval and wanting to be my wife. If I had asked, you would have defied your father only to grow restless with me and unhappy ere long.” He paused. “I loved you enough to let you go and hoped you would come back to me.”
Rage exploded in her mind and she jerked away from him. Sat up. Presented her back to him.
If she looked at him, she would strike him.
“When I left, you immediately took a woman to your bed,” she growled, “and then laughed at me when I lay with another man in retaliation. Explain that!”
There was a long silence before he muttered, “That was a . . . miscalculation.”
“A fatal one,” Celia snarled. “And now you expect me to resurrect the love I had for you ten years ago.”
“Given time, I can resurrect it myself.”
“Oh ho! The way you attempted to on our voyage? You cannot abide Captain Fury, much less love her the way you loved me then.”
“No, I cannot,” he snapped, “but she is who I need to assist me with my family.”
“GODDAMMIT!” she roared and twisted to look down at him. “If your father could do it, why can’t you?”
Rafael looked up at her stonily, then looked away again and rubbed his mouth. “My father was an honorable man,” he began, low, “but he was weak. What I have never known is if that was his nature or if he was being slowly poisoned.”
Celia’s jaw dropped and her eyes widened.
“Sí. My mother always hated him and, because he loved me and I him, she hated me, too. My brothers are hers, you see.”
A tiny moan of horror escaped from Celia’s mouth. No wonder he had never had any sympathy for her parental troubles.
“I have also wondered— Had I stayed in Spain instead of traveling the world, would he still be alive or would we both be dead?”
And he was burdened with guilt. It was a revelation of some consequence, as she had never thought of Rafael as a man who regretted anything. Celia felt lost and a bit dizzy. Why, he was no more the man she had loved than she was the girl he had loved.
“Kill your family,” Celia said finally.
“I would,” he gritted, “but I can’t do that alone. Celia! Are you not listening to me?”
Celia closed her eyes, utterly frustrated. Never, from her first moment in his astronomy class, had he been incomprehensible to her—until now. “I am listening,” she ground out, “but you are talking in circles. Tell me the whole of it, from the beginning and in a straight line this time, if you please.”
He heaved a great sigh. “My stewards,” he began, “whose loyalty I cannot rely upon, have sent word that my mother and brothers raided the village for everything I left them from my last voyage. Not even two months past. That is not unusual. What they have done this time is to post guards to keep my people from fleeing, and to keep them breaking their backs over ground that will not bear fruit. They have been enslaved.”
“Is it a trap,” he said airily, “or is it a declaration of war?”
“They would kill you?” she whispered.
“Without doubt. My brother would then be conde. The most pressing issue is to get my people to safety and get them fed, but I have no funds with which to do this.”
“Rafael,” she pleaded. “I can give you the money. I—my crew and I—we can help you free your villeins, kill your family, and rehabilitate your estate if you wish.”
His silence was tense, as if he were gathering what little patience he had left. “Gracias, but that will take too long, and they are starving now. You of all people should understand starvation.”
“In thirty-six hours, I will have your dowry. I will be able to catch a sloop to Lisbon immediately and ride to Antequera. I will be there in little more than a week to quietly lead them to safety under the cover of darkness and settle them upriver. Can you get your ship and crew to my estate that quickly?”
“No,” she whispered.
“And now you see my reasoning.”
“Bancroft will be enraged if you take his money and vanish.”
Rafael chuckled wickedly. “Oh, no, my dear. That is the beauty of my plan. I told him the truth of it and bid him verify it through his own sources, which he did. I also told him that in return for his trust, I will never seek your bed and, so long as you live, I will keep you safe and cared for handsomely. He was so taken with my dedication to my duty, he agreed eagerly.”
Celia sat stunned throughout this recitation when she realized . . . Whatever other sins Bancroft had committed, he was no fool and if Celia were, in truth, an imbecile, he could have chosen no better man. Tavendish certainly could not have promised as much: He would never have sworn to stay out of the madwoman’s bed in the case he could not pass off an illegitimate child as his heir.
“When I have finished settling my villeins, I will return and bid you take your crew and lay waste to my family.”
She dropped her head in her hands. “My point remains,” she muttered. “You do not need to wed me to accomplish these goals.”
“In this you are correct unless I die before I have done so.”
Celia sighed. “I would finish your work and avenge you regardless,” she said wearily.
“Sí, gracias. But you will have far more power to act in my stead if you are my wife. Celia,” he said, low bur urgently, “if nothing else, think on this: I love you. I always have. It’s the only reason Dunham allows me to live.”
She nodded vaguely, for it was true, but she sat silent, lost in thought. Finally, she murmured, “I’m not twenty anymore, Rafael, and I am no cull for weak arguments and declarations of love made to a woman you don’t like. Your family situation is tragic, but easily solved. What is your real reason for insisting on my vows to the point you threaten to expose me?”
She knew the answer to that question, which was precisely why she had asked it. She looked over her shoulder at him, her eyebrow raised, to see if he would admit to it. He glared back at her, mouth tight. She returned that glare second for second until he turned his gaze on the ceiling.
“What about Judas?” she purred.
His Adam’s apple bobbed. Hard. “You’re in love with him.”
She scoffed. “That hardly signifies, as he is not the only man I love. I know you have been at the wharf sniffing out the gossip, most of which is likely true. So with that, follow the logic to its end, Rafael. I want to hear you say it.”
His fists clenched against the bed linens, but Celia had no fear of him. “He . . . is worthy of you.”
That was not what she had expected and she started. “Do you mean to say you think you are not?”
He rolled his eyes and looked at her with his most wry expression. “I seduced a fourteen-year-old girl to use for my own purposes. Of course I’m not.”
She blinked. Was that . . . guilt? “Ah . . . Rafael, you do realize that you made Captain Fury, do you not?”
He grunted. “I trained a mathematician. A master navigator and swordsman. I did not make Captain Fury. Skirrow did.”
She could not fault his reasoning.
He spoke suddenly. “Where is Judas, by the way?”
It was Celia’s turn to wriggle in discomfort. “Hither and yon,” she murmured, looking down at her hands, the fingers of which very much resembled a Gordian knot.
“I know you cannot have rendezvoused with him since you arrived, as you can barely escape to eat, much less carry on with two men at once.”
She declined to answer that.
“And so . . . ” he drawled, “is it possible he has cast you over?”
Tears stung her eyes.
“Can he wed you? Is he willing to wed you?”
She shut her eyes as tightly as she could and pinched the bridge of her nose to get rid of the sting. There was nothing she could do about the pain in her chest. Even balling up her fist and pressing her knuckles to her sternum as hard as she could do not help.
“Or has he a wife already?”
Aye, he had a wife, and her name was Duty. And Duty was a jealous bitch.
She sniffled, and did not care. “I did not refuse your . . . proposal,” she croaked, “in his favor. ’Twas ever for my own purposes.”
His voice was equally hoarse and without mockery when he said, “Do you mean to say you would refuse me in favor of being alone?”
“I have no faith you will ever come to love, or even like, Captain Fury,” she muttered.
“I will beg if I must,” he said briskly, sitting up in the bed behind her and wrapping his arms around her. He cupped her breast. Thumbed her nipple.
Which she could not feel.
She closed her eyes and felt tears roll down her cheeks.
“Marry me, Celia,” he whispered into her ear.
“You need not wed me to keep me from Judas’s arms.”
He scoffed. “I know when a man wants a woman badly enough to find a way to get her no matter the cost.”
Celia barked an unamused laugh. “You spent one evening at a card table with him.”
“And that is all I needed to know of him.”
“Your ability to assess men is not reliable.”
“Well then! I need your help.”
“That is not what a woman wants to hear from a man who professes to love her.”
He nuzzled at her throat. “I want you to be my wife.”
Celia heaved a great sigh. Here, now, Rafael was giving her—albeit for his own reasons—what she had wanted for so many years: a faithful husband and accomplished lover, a home, and not a word about requiring children.
It did not make her happy.
It did not salve her wounds.
It did not solve any of her problems.
Rafael pulled her gently to her back and swept his hand up her ribs until her jaw nestled in his big palm and he pulled her to him for a slow, deep kiss that, in spite of her best intentions, stirred her to arousal. Tavendish had the most wicked games, but Rafael knew her body in ways Tavendish hadn’t had time to learn and now never would.
I wanted a woman in whom to seek solace, but . . . I was desperate enough to take what I could get.
So would she.
“I will consider it,” she whispered once the kiss faded. “Since you will not take my funds or my assistance, make the contract. But be warned that I will likely not honor it. We are long past the time I was willing to allow you to manipulate me.”
He huffed, but ceased to argue, as he knew it was the best concession he would get.
“I,” he whispered as he kissed her, and wedged his hips between her thighs, “am not an honorable man, but I do not consider Judas my enemy. I owe him for assisting me through the blockade that, if I had not gotten through, my people would already be dead. Thus, I do not wish to engage in a duel over you. Besides, dueling over women is . . . gauche.”
“He will issue no challenge for me.”
“So you say, but I know what I saw and what I saw was a man intent on you. I want you to carry my name by the time he comes for you.”
He’d come for her quite a few times, and she wished he were here to do it again. But she said simply, “You’ve killed for lesser offenses.”
“So I have, my love. So I have.”