Gentle Rogue Page 32

It was the last straw, as far as she was concerned. "You can all just stop it. So I made a mistake. I'm sure I'm not the first woman to do so, and I won't be the last. But at least I'm not foolishly blinded anymore. I know now that he set out to seduce me from the start, something the lot of you practice on a regular basis, so you'd be hypocrites to blame him for that. He was very subtle about it, so subtle I didn't know what he was doing. But then I was under the misconception that he thought I was a boy, which I now know to be false. I have reason to be furious, but you don't, since I can picture at least half of you doing exactly as James did if presented with similar circumstances. But regardless of the ways and means, I was a willing participant. I knew exactly what I was doing. My conscience can attest to that."

"Your what?"

"Well said, George," James remarked behind her, rather amazed at how she'd blamed and defended in the same breath. "But I'm sure they'd much rather have heard that you were raped, or in some other dastardly way taken advantage of."

She swung about, eyes narrowed on the cause of her woes. "You don't think I was taken advantage of?"

"Hardly, dear girl. I wasn't the one who confessed to being nauseous."

She flamed red, noticeably red, at that reminder. Oh, God, he wasn't going to tell them about that, was he?

"What's this?" Drew wanted to know, the only one to see her heightened color.

"Nothing ... a private joke," she choked out, while her eyes beseeched James to keep his mouth shut for once.

Of course he wouldn't. "A joke, George? Is that what you call—"

"I'm going to kill you, James Malory, I swear I am!"

"Not before you marry him, you're not."

"What?"she shrieked, and turned to stare incredulously at the brother who'd uttered those ridiculous words. "Clinton, you can't be serious! You don't want him in the family, do you?"

"That's beside the point. You chose him—"

"I did no such thing! And he won't marry me—" She paused to glance back at James, a long pause, full of sudden hesitancy. "Will you?"

"Certainly not," he replied testily, only to look a bit hesitant himself before asking, "Do you want me to?"

"Certainly not." Her pride forced the words out, well aware of his feelings on the subject. She turned back to her brothers. "I believe that settles it."

"It was already settled, Georgie, while both you and the captain were unconscious," Thomas told her.

"You'll be married tonight."

" You instigated this, didn't you?" she said accusingly, their conversation of this morning suddenly bright in her mind.

"We're only doing what's right for you."

"But this isn't right for me, Thomas. I won't marry a man who doesn't want me."

"There was never any question about wanting you, brat," James said, a distinct irritation in his tone now.

"You'd make a fine mistress."

Georgina just gasped. Her brothers were more vocal.

"You bastard!"

"You'll marry her or—"

"Yes, I know," James cut in before they got carried away again. "You'll shoot me."

"We'll do better than that, man," Warren growled. "We'll fire your ship!"

James sat up at that, only to hear from Clinton, "Someone has already been dispatched to discover her location, since it's obvious you didn't sail her into port or we would have heard about it."

James stood up at that, only to hear from Warren again, "They will also arrange for the detainment of your crew. Then the lot of you can be turned over to the governor for hanging."

Into the charged silence following that announcement, Boyd asked reasonably, "Do you think we ought to hang him if he's Georgie's husband? It doesn't seem right, hanging a brother-in-law."

"Hanging!" Georgina exclaimed, having been unconscious during the previous mention of this option.

"Have you all gone mad?"

"He confessed to piracy, Georgie, and I'm sure Skylark hasn't been his only victim. In good conscience,

that can't be overlooked."

"The devil it can't. He'll make restitution. Tell them you'll make restitution, James." But when she glanced at him for confirmation that might get him out of this, he was looking like hell warmed over, and four-fifths was pride, which kept his mouth firmly closed. "Thomas!" she wailed then, feeling very close to panic.

"This is getting out of hand! We're talking about crimes committed . . . years ago!"

"Seven or eight," he replied with a careless shrug. "My memory seems to be quite faulty, though Captain Malory's hostility does seem to jog it remarkably well."

James laughed at that point, but it wasn't a pleasant sound by any means. "Blackmail now, to go along with coercion? Threats of violence and mayhem? And you bloody colonials call me the pirate?"

"We only mean to turn you over for trial, but as Boyd and myself are the only witnesses against you ..."

The rest was left unsaid, but even Georgina grasped what Thomas was implying. If James would cooperate, nothing would come of his so-called trial, for lack of positive testimony. She even started to relax, until another brother was heard from.

" Your memory might get mucked up with sentiment, Thomas," Warren said. "But I very clearly heard the man's confession. And I'll damned well bear witness to it."

"Your strategy boggles the mind, Yanks. Which is it to be? Vindictiveness or vindication? Or are you under the misconception that the one complements the other?"

James's mordant humor threw sparks on Warren's frothing enmity. "There won't be any vindication if I have anything to say about it, and there's no need to dangle that carrot before you, Hawke . " The name was said with such contempt, it had the distinct sound of an epithet. "There's still your ship and your crew. And if you don't care about the one, what you decide right now will determine whether your crew should be brought up on charges alongside you."

It took a considerable lot to overset the smooth urbanity of James's personality these days. He'd long ago mastered the dangerous temper of his youth, and although he still got angry occasionally, it took

someone who'd known him for years to even notice. But you didn't threaten his family and hope to come away unscathed, and half of his crew was like family to him.

He started toward Warren slowly. Georgina, watching him, had a suspicion that her brother had prodded him too far, but not that the dangerous capabilities she and Mac had both sensed in the man at their first meeting had just been unleashed.

Even his voice was deceiving in its soft abrasion as he warned, "You go beyond your rights as pertainsto this business in bringing my ship and crew into it."

Warren snorted with disdain. "If she's a British vessel lurking in our waters? Furthermore, a ship suspected of piracy? We are clearly within our rights."

"Then so am I."

It happened so fast, everyone in the room was held momentarily in shock, in particular Warren, who felt the incredibly strong hands tightening inexorably around his throat. He was no weakling himself, but his fingers couldn't break the hold. Clinton and Drew, each jumping forward to grab one of James's arms, couldn't manage to pull him off, either. And James's fingers were slowly, relentlessly squeezing.

Warren's face was purpling vividly before Thomas found something heavy enough to knock James unconscious with. But he didn't have to use it. Georgina, with her heart in her throat, had leaped on James's back and was screaming in his ear, "James, please, he's my brother!" and the man simply let go.

Clinton and Drew did likewise, to catch Warren as he started sinking to the floor. They helped him to the nearest chair, examined his neck, and decided nothing was crushed. He was coughing now as he labored to fill his starved lungs.

Georgina slid off James's back, still shaken by what he'd almost done. Her anger hadn't set in yet, but as he turned to face her, she saw that his was still in full bloom.

"I could have snapped his bloody neck in two seconds! Do you know that?"

She cringed under the blast of his rage. "Yes, I—I think we do."

For a moment he just glared at her. She had the feeling that he hadn't released nearly enough of his anger on Warren, that he had a good store of it in reserve for her. It blazed from his eyes, showed in the tension in his big body.

But after the intense moment passed, he surprised her and everyone else in the room by growling, "Then bring on your parson before I'm tempted again."

* * *

It took less than five minutes to locate the good Reverend Teal, who was a guest at the party still going on in the rest of the house. So in short order, Georgina was married to James Malory, viscount of Ryding, retired pirate and God only knew what else. It was not exactly how she had imagined her wedding would be, all those years she had thought about it as she waited patiently for Malcolm to return to her. Patiently? No, she realized now it had been merely indifference. But there was nothing of indifference in any of the occupants gathered in the study.

James had given in, but with complete ill grace. Resentment and ire were just a few of the inappropriate emotions he was displaying at his wedding. And Georgina's brothers were no better, absolutely determined to see her married, but hating every minute of it, and showing every bit of it. For herself, she'd realized she couldn't play stubborn and let her pride prevent this farce as she wanted, not with a baby to think about who would benefit from its father's name.

She'd wondered briefly if anyone's attitude would change if they knew about the baby, but she doubted it. James was being forced to marry either way, and there was no getting around that humiliating fact.

Maybe afterward it might make a difference to him, lighten the blow, as it were. She'd have to tell him sometime, she supposed ... or maybe she wouldn't, if Warren had his way.

And he had his way the moment the good reverend pronounced them man and wife. "Lock him up. He's already had all the wedding nights he's going to get."

Chapter Thirty-five

"You don't really think that will work again, do you, Georgie?"

Georgina poked her head over Clinton's desk where she'd been trying to break into the locked drawer.

Drew was standing there, shaking his dark golden head at her. Boyd stood next to him, looking baffled over Drew's question.

Georgina stood up slowly, furious that she'd been caught. Double-damn, she'd been so sure they'd all gone to bed. And Drew was too discerning by half, having guessed what she was up to. She brazened it out anyway.

"I don't know what you mean."

"Aye, you do, sweetheart." Drew grinned at her. "Even if you got your hands on it, that vase becomes insignificant next to what that Englishman did to you. Warren would sacrifice the vase rather than let Captain Hawke go."

"I wish you wouldn't call him that," she said, wearily dropping into the chair behind the desk.

"Am I hearing this right?" Boyd demanded. "You want to let that blackguard go free, Georgie?"

Her chin rose a notch. "What if I do? All of you have overlooked the fact that James came here because of me. If he hadn't, he wouldn't have been recognized by you and Thomas, wouldn't be locked in the cellar right now. Do you think my conscience could bear it if he goes to trial and gets sentenced to hang?"

"He could also be cleared in a trial if Thomas has anything to do about it," Boyd pointed out.

"I'm not taking that chance."

Drew's brows narrowed speculatively. "Do you love him, Georgie?"

"What nonsense," she scoffed.

"Thank God." His sigh was quite loud. "I'd truly thought you'd lost your senses."

"Well, if I did," she retorted stiffly, "I've thankfully regained them. But I'm still not going to let Warren and Clinton have their way."

"Clinton couldn't care less that he's the infamous Hawke," Drew said. "He just wants him never to darken our door again. He's still smarting that he couldn't get the better of him."

"Neither could you two, but I haven't heard you calling for the rope."

Boyd chuckled. "You've got to be kidding, Georgie. Weren't you watching the man? We were so outclassed, it was a joke even trying to take him on. There's no shame in losing to someone that skilled with his fists."

Drew just smiled. "Boyd's right. There's a lot to admire in the man, if he weren't so—so—"

"Antagonizing? Insulting? Disparaging in his every remark?" Georgina almost laughed. "I hate to be the one to tell you, but that happens to be the way he is all the time, even to his close friends."

"But that would drive me crazy," Boyd exclaimed. "Didn't it you?"

Georgina shrugged. "Once you get used to it, it's kind of amusing. But as habits go, it's a dangerous one, since he simply doesn't care if he rubs someone the wrong way . . . like tonight. But regardless of his

habits, or his past crimes, or anything else, I don't think he's been dealt with fairly by us."

"Fair enough," Boyd insisted, "considering what he did to you."

"Let's not bring me into this. You don't hang a man for seducing a woman, or you'd both be in trouble yourselves, wouldn't you?" Boyd had the grace to blush, but Drew just grinned maddeningly. "I'll put it another way," Georgina continued, giving Drew a disgusted look. "I don't care if he was a pirate, I don't want him to hang. And his crew should never have been brought into it, either. He was right about that."

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