Light, fun Regency romance from Mary Lancaster.
The Wicked Rebel - Blackhaven Brides, Book 3
At eight-and-twenty years old, Lady Arabella Niven is gentle, sickly and firmly on the shelf. Having disobliged her father by refusing her last chance of marriage, she has been sent in disgrace to Blackhaven with two domineering aunts. Her one wish is to be left alone in a quiet cottage to write books on history.
However, everything changes when she tries to rescue a naked man apparently drowning at sea. Thus begins an odd, fun friendship that very quickly grows passionate. For Captain Alban, the hero with a shady past, is rebellious and unconventional by nature. Marriage between such a man and a duke’s daughter is inconceivable, and yet Alban’s feelings for her drive him to face his past in order to make a new future that would be unendurable without her.
Oppressive family, neglected children, fortune-hunters, past loves and old crimes all contrive to keep the pair apart. But when danger threatens Alban, it is the gentle duke’s doctor who rides to his rescue.
Read an excerpt below
"a breathtakingly beautiful romance, with a generous helping of humor, lively banter, and exhilarating adventure thrown in for good measure!"
"A wonderful third installment to The Blackhaven Brides series! ...a richly descriptive story that engages the senses"
"it will be on my " keeper" shelf for a long time to come."
"kept me reading and laughing to the end"
"Mary Lancaster has once again amazed and delighted me with this beautiful, captivating story!"
"I just loved this book and can't wait until the next book comes out!" - Amazon reader reviews
Lady Arabella Niven backed toward the bedchamber door. Her breath came in short, shallow gasps and her throat seemed to be closing up. Her aunts’ furious argument had just about reached the stage where they wouldn’t notice her departure, even though it was Arabella they were quarrelling over.
Surreptitiously, she lifted her old travelling cloak and bonnet from the chair by the door and stepped out of the room. Her next gasped breath brought a rising cough with it, but somehow, she swallowed it down, whirled around, and sped across the sitting room. Jenson, her maid, entered the room from the passage, carrying a glass of warm milk which was supposed to help Bella sleep.
The woman paused, her eyes widening. Clearly, she meant to demand where her ladyship was going alone, but Bella pressed her finger to her lips in warning. Jenson closed her mouth, though worry was still etched into her stern face. Bella smiled at her to lessen the blow, and then fled past her into the hotel passage.
She fought the cough until she reached the empty stairs, from where no one was likely to hear her. But even when it erupted, harsh and wracking, she refused to let it slow her. She didn’t think Jenson would tell her aunts for a little, at least, but she couldn’t be sure.
She clapped the bonnet over her smooth brown locks, and flung the cloak around her shoulders as she ran. Good sense then forced her to walk calmly across the foyer, past the hotel reception desk to the front door, which had taken on the importance of the promised land to her. Her cough had quieted by then, so she could smile pleasantly at the doorman and even murmur a word of thanks as she passed into the street and blessed fresh air.
She inhaled the scent of sea which pervaded everything in Blackhaven. She was outside and alone. And she no longer wheezed.
As she hurried along the street, her shoulders relaxed a little in relief. She didn’t really care where she walked, but her whole body and mind seemed to scream for the release of exercise and the space to be alone.
Of course, Blackhaven was a busy, thriving little town, but since she’d only arrived here with her aunts yesterday, and been nowhere but the pump room to take the waters, she hadn’t yet been introduced to anyone. She doubted she would be recognized, or even stand out. Country customs pertained here, and she was not the only respectable young woman walking unaccompanied about her daily business.
She supposed she would feel guilty later for causing her aunts anxiety, but at this moment, her selfish priority was to extend her time alone as much as possible before they found her. Without solitude, she feared exploding into a million tiny pieces.
Following the lesser-used roads, she came at last to the harbor. It was quiet at this hour and picturesque, even to Arabella’s myopic gaze, with its colorful fishing boats bobbing on the water and bumping against the harbor wall.
A gnarled and weather-bronzed individual sat on a crate mending ropes. A couple of young fishermen were in earnest conversation about something important—the weather perhaps, or where the best fishing was to be had this season. Simple, uncomplicated concerns of vital consequence to their lives.
Since no one paid her any attention, she walked to the wall that ran part of the way around the harbor, and gazed out to sea. The Irish Sea, and beyond it, the vast Atlantic Ocean. A ship seemed to have anchored beyond the confines of the harbor, only half visible because of the jutting headland to the south of Blackhaven. It must have been a large vessel, since even her short-sighted eyes could pick it out.
Arabella allowed herself a moment’s fantasy of being alone on that ship for weeks, with just her books for company. But, of course, she could not sail a ship alone, and in any case, she would probably only worry about her family. To say nothing of her complete inability to manage the basic tasks necessary to survival—such as cooking.
“Beauty, isn’t she?” the old rope-mending fisherman observed, nodding toward the anchored ship.
“Yes,” Arabella agreed. Although she knew nothing about sailing vessels of that size, and it was in fact more than a little hazy to her, she could imagine its sleek lines, the fluttering of its sails, the notion of all the exotic places it might have been and would sail to next.
“That’s The Albatross, that is,” the old man informed her.
Arabella glanced at him. “The Albatross?” she repeated.
“Captain Alban’s ship.”
“Ah.” Captain Alban’s name was known to her as that of a somewhat shady character probably involved in illegal trade and even piracy.
In recent months, he’d become something of a national hero due to running French blockades and even helping out in the odd naval skirmish. “What would bring such a ship to Blackhaven?” she wondered.
Smuggling, no doubt.
“Brings in prisoners sometimes,” the man said, surprisingly. “Well, he did once a few weeks ago. Maybe he’s got some more. Prisoners-of-war, I mean. But I did hear he’s headed round to Whalen for repairs.”
Reluctantly, Arabella let go of her impossible fantasy of sailing alone in the large ship. Instead, her gaze drifted over the fishing vessels and rowing boats tied up in the harbor.
She turned her head, regarding the old man with speculation. “Do you have a boat, sir?”
He grinned at her and let the rope fall at his tattered boots. “Not like that, I don’t.”
“A rowing boat, perhaps?”
“I got one of them,” he said, clearly disparaging of the idea of someone who didn’t.
“Which one?” she asked with interest.
He pointed out the boat bobbing directly in front of him. It was well used, with space only for two people, maybe three at a pinch. But it was neatly painted and solid looking, and the idea wouldn’t go away. Even if her aunts saw her, it would take a while to row back. If she was quick enough now.
“Would you rent it to me for an hour or two?”
His gaze was steady. “I would, ma’am, but I haven’t got time to take you today. Tomorrow, I could, if I make the right arrangements.”
“I wouldn’t need you to take me. I can row myself, and the sea is beautifully calm.”
His gaze skimmed over her. “Begging your pardon, ma’am, but you don’t look fit to even lift the oars.”
She smiled. “That’s where you’re wrong. I am quite used to rowing on the loch at home.”
“Lakes are not the sea,” he said severely.
“I won’t lose your boat, I promise. Um, I’m afraid I have no money with me just now, but I will pay you. Or you may come to me at the hotel for it later on. My name is Arabella Niven.”
“I know who you are,” he said unexpectedly, and grinned when she blinked at him in consternation. “The arrival of a duke’s daughter is an important event in Blackhaven, even nowadays.” He stood up. “Very well, in you go.”
Arabella suspected he only gave in to watch her flounder and give up before the boat was even untied. But she hadn’t lied. Alone at Kelburn for so much of the year, she’d rowed quite frequently.
“Don’t go too far out,” he warned as she descended the steps and clambered into the rocking boat in her clumsy way. “It’ll be harder when the tide turns.”
All the same, as he cast off the rope, he was clearly dubious about her chances of getting anywhere at all, let alone far enough out to be in difficulty. She took a modest pleasure in proving him wrong, in setting the oars and pulling in slow, rhythmic strokes.
“Thank you,” she called. Pulling away from him, she prepared to enjoy her adventure. She even had hopes that no one would think to look for her at the harbor. And when she went back, she would be good. Or at least submissive. Up to a point.
Banishing all the nastiness of recent weeks from her mind, she listened only to the cries of the gulls, the creaking of the boat, and the light splash of the oars. Peace…
The sky was a fine, bright blue, with fluffy clouds drifting past the sun. It was a beautiful summer’s day, and she was delighted to enjoy it at last. In the town it had been a little too warm for comfort, but here she had all the benefits of the light sea breezes.
Drawing out of the harbor, she rowed away from the headland and The Albatross, not allowing herself to drift too far from the coast, but far enough that no one could see her. Only then did she rest the oars and rub her aching shoulders. Lying back, she sighed contentedly and allowed the boat to drift. It might have been pleasant to read out here—perhaps she’d bring a book the next time she escaped—but for now, she was happy just to enjoy the sea, the sky, and much desired peace.
Until something moving in the water caught her eye and she sat up, peering shortsightedly toward it. She wished she’d brought her spectacles—Aunt Sarah had confiscated them—for it looked like someone struggling and splashing. In sudden fear for whoever it was, she picked up the oars and rowed toward it as fast as she could. The breeze gave her a little help, as did the tide, which seemed to be turning. She should go back, just as soon as she’d made sure this person was not in trouble.
However, even as she drew nearer, the figure suddenly vanished beneath the water and she rowed all the harder, searching desperately.
Dear God, someone is drowning before my eyes, and there is no one to help! I can’t see him!
Even as the thought entered her head, the boat rocked mightily, causing her to drop one of the oars and hang on, as a figure rose out of the water right next to the boat, gasping for air and shaking its head like a dog.
Arabella lunged to the side of the boat and leaned out to grasp his wrists. “Hold on!” she cried, pulling as hard as she could. “Get into the boat.”
The man, emerging from a spray of seawater, gazed at her in astonishment. It struck her that there was no pull against her supporting hands. He didn’t appear to be going under again. On the contrary, everything about him seemed suddenly still and steady, including his eyes which locked on hers.
He didn’t look like a drowning man. Or even a frightened man. On the contrary, there was a hint of arrogance in the fearless tilt of his head and the firm lines of his mouth and chin. He hadn’t been drowning at all. Like a dolphin, he’d merely dived under the water. Her stupid, useless eyes…
Since he grasped the side of the boat, she hastily released his wrists. His gaze dropped to the region of her mouth and lower.
“Well, I will,” he said. “But you might want to pass me that blanket.”
She couldn’t at first think what he meant, and turned stupidly to look at the blanket on the bench. Of course, she’d told him to get in the boat.
The vessel rocked wildly as the man hauled himself aboard in a fresh spray of water. She turned back to him in alarm and realized her mistake—and why he’d suggested the blanket.
He was stark naked.
Anyone else would have landed in an embarrassed and undignified heap inside the boat. This man simply pulled himself up out of the sea, threw one powerful leg over the side and stepped in.
Heat rushed up from her toes to the roots of her hair, mostly fr;om embarrassment, but also because she had never realized before how beautiful men’s bodies could be. Lean and muscled, tapering from broad shoulders to narrow hips, his was bronzed by the sun, though less so on his lower half. Coarse, black hair was scattered down his big forearms and chest, running in a thin line down his stomach to…to the place she should not be looking.
Apparently quite unabashed, he reached over and lifted the blanket, and at last she could look away, her face burning.
“Sorry,” he said mildly. “I suppose you weren’t expecting that. Are you in trouble?”
“Of course not,” she said indignantly. “I thought you were!”
She risked glancing back at him. He sat on the boat’s other seat, the blanket wrapped loosely about his hips and legs. His eyes—a strangely turbulent blue-grey, like the sea on a stormy day—remained on her face. He didn’t laugh at her or even smile, and yet she had the impression she did amuse him.
“Thank you for rescuing me,” he said gravely.
“I’d take your gratitude more to heart if I thought you’d actually been in need of rescue.”
“It’s the thought that counts.”
“But… where are your clothes?” she demanded.
He pointed in the vague direction of the headland, where The Albatross stood at anchor. “In the boat.”
When she screwed up her eyes she could just make out a rowing boat about half way to the ship. She thought it was empty, though she couldn’t be sure.
“You wanted peace, too,” she guessed.
His eyebrows twitched, as though she’d surprised him. “Perhaps. Is that what brings you out here alone?”
She waited for him to ask if she didn’t have family or servants to row for her, but he didn’t. Instead, he said, “I thought you were a mermaid, come to tempt a desperate sailor.”
“No, you didn’t,” she said dryly.
“Well, maybe I wished it. You’re certainly beautiful enough to knock a man’s senses out of him.”
She blinked. “Are you short-sighted, too?”
His breath hissed out. It might have been laughter but it was hard to tell from his expression. “Not in the least. It wouldn’t be good in my profession.”
“Ah. Are you one of the sailors from The Albatross?”
“I am. Which explains my need for solitude. What is yours?”
He was a disreputable sailor from a disreputable ship. He had no idea who she was, and she would never meet him again, socially or otherwise. “I’m in disgrace,” she blurted. “Scolded, defended, and smothered with disappointment, anger, expectation and even kindness. I thought my head would explode, so I escaped.”
She gave a quick, apologetic shrug. Such reasons would be laughable to a man like him.
He didn’t laugh, merely regarded her with a thoughtful expression. “I didn’t realize young ladies of quality led such exciting lives these days.”
“Well, I’m hardly young, being turned eight and twenty—which is part of my family’s disappointment, since I am not yet married.”
“I was more interested in the disgrace.”
“Ah. Well, I refused an offer of marriage from a man my father particularly wanted me to accept.”
“Because you are on the shelf?” the sailor asked brutally.
“Yes. And because he’s a political ally. But I don’t want to get into that,” she added hastily.
“Why would you?” the sailor agreed cordially. “They would be stupid reasons to marry anyone.”
“Well, I didn’t like him either,” Arabella admitted. “He is nearly sixty years old and portly. Which I wouldn’t mind except he has eyes like a fish. But, I fully understand I am no catch. I am quite old and inclined to ill health, and I’ve had several London seasons where I did not take, and watched my younger sisters snatch up very eligible husbands before me. It is quite humiliating for my father.”
The sailor blinked. “Why?”
“Having an old maid on his hands,” Bella explained without heat. “And I expect he promised me to S…his friend and then I made him look bad. But truly, I have no desire to marry. I have a small independence inherited from my mother and I would be much happier in a cottage on my own, somewhere quiet, with my books.” She glanced at The Albatross. “Or perhaps on a yacht, only I would need servants for that, wouldn’t I? I couldn’t sail it with just myself and a maid and a manservant, could I?”
He shrugged. “It’s my belief you can do whatever you like if you find the right way.”
“Really?” she said, brightening.
His gaze remained on her face, unsmiling but steady. “Of course. What is wrong with your health?”
“I am just sickly,” she said dismissively. She didn’t want to think about it. The knowledge that however many years were left to her, she would never grow old was constant, but she preferred it in the background. On the other hand, she had brought the subject up. She kept her voice light. “I have a cough. My aunt Maria is convinced I have consumption and has brought me to Blackhaven to drink the waters.”
The sailor blinked. “Water does not cure consumption.”
“Apparently Blackhaven water does,” Arabella said humorously. “Also, barrenness, tumors, headaches, indigestion, gout, joint-pain, and bad temper.”
“In that case, drink on. And when you are better, you will buy your cottage or your yacht and tell everyone else to go to the devil.”
She sighed. “No, I don’t suppose I will. They mean it for the best. What of you, sir? Do you not lead a carefree life at sea? Although I have heard it is a difficult one.”
“I shall keep living it, if I can avoid the other responsibilities people keep trying to thrust upon my shoulders.”
“You don’t like responsibility?” she asked curiously.
“Only what I choose.”
“Have you sailed all over the world?” she asked enviously.
“I would love to do that, visit around the Mediterranean, Africa, the Ottoman lands, the east, China, the Americas…have you visited these places?”
“Yes, at one time or another, some more than others.” His gaze seemed to have rivetted on her face. Surreptitiously, she brushed her hand over it to remove whatever blemish attracted his attention. Again, came the faint hiss that might have betokened amusement. He leaned forward, and she tried not to look at the thick muscle in his shoulders or the tempting hair on his chest. She wanted to touch them suddenly, and flushed at the unmaidenly urge.
He stirred. “Then I have a different proposition for you. Join me on The Albatross and I’ll show you all those places and more.”
She laughed. “I couldn’t possibly do that. For one thing, your captain might well object.”
“Oh, trust me, he’ll make no objections at all. Don’t you want to come?”
“Only if I don’t consider reality. And I know you are not serious.”
“Nonsense. I’ll row you across now, fetch your things from wherever you’re staying, and we’ll sail with the next tide. No more scolding or smothering or fish-eyed suitors.”
She knew he was joking and that she would never do it anyway, but just for a moment, something leapt in her, an urge to escape the humdrum and see the wonders of the world with this peculiar stranger. Even to know him, for he intrigued her. And it was nothing to do with the way his naked body had made her feel. Well, not much to do with that.
She smiled, letting her hand trail over the side of the boat and into the water. And when she refocused on his face, it was curiously intense, his stormy eyes heated and predatory and more than a little dangerous, though in what way she couldn’t quite work out. It just made her heart race uncomfortably fast. Which was silly. Despite his unashamed nakedness, he’d made no threat of any kind, only a jesting offer to take her away with him on his ship.
But she was being foolish.
She drew in a breath. “The tide is turning. I need to go back and I can’t possibly take you with me without your clothes.” He wouldn’t try and keep her here, would he?
His eyelashes—incongruously long and dark—lowered, veiling his eyes. “Give me the oars,” he said. “We’ll catch my boat and my clothes and I’ll row you into the harbor.”
“There is no need,” she said quickly, but he was already moving to her bench, his half-naked form far too close for comfort. His hip, his blanket-covered thigh, brushed against her.
“Unless you throw caution to the wind and come with me to China,” he said flippantly, “there is every need.”
Hastily, she threw herself across the boat onto the other bench, blushing at the warmth he’d left behind.
“I am a strong rower,” she said indignantly.
“The currents are treacherous. You should really have rowed back instead of rescuing me.”
She regarded him. “I can’t tell when you’re jesting,” she observed. “You never smile.”
“I never jest.”
“I don’t think I believe that.”
Now that she was thinking properly once more, she was very aware of her danger, alone with a mostly-naked man, being rowed in a different direction to the one she needed to go in. Especially when that mostly-naked man was one of Captain Alban’s, and his ship was closer than the shore. She was the Duke of Kelburn’s daughter and could probably command a considerable ransom. Her father would pay, of course, but she would never hear the end of it.
However, the man showed no inclination to abduct her, despite his previous, not entirely serious suggestion about running away with him. In fact, as they drew closer to his rowing boat, he simply stood up, threw down the blanket and dived into the sea, giving her a glorious glimpse of his naked back as he jumped. Her stomach tightened with sensations much more pleasant than fear.
Perhaps I am a voluptuary at heart, she thought. More probably she was simply astonished by his open behavior, the like of which she had never encountered before.
She tried not to watch as he hauled himself into his own boat and hurriedly donned a shirt and pantaloons. That done, he threw a rope over to her and invited her to tie it to her own boat. When she had done so, he pulled on the rope, drawing her boat closer to his until he could step from one vessel into the other. Then he picked up the oars and rowed once more, quickly and efficiently in the direction of the harbor, while his own boat bobbed along behind them.
“Thank you,” she said ruefully, watching his muscles tense against the pull of the currents. “I would have struggled.”
“Then I’m doubly glad you rescued me.”
She smiled. “Now I know you’re joking. I hope Captain Alban does not object to your sortie ashore.”
“He would insist upon it.”
“Then he is a gentleman at heart?” she asked, curious but happy to believe the best of anyone.
“God, no. He’s an unscrupulous bas—swine,” he corrected himself at the last moment.
“You don’t like him?” For some reason she didn’t like to think of him at the mercy of such a person.
“No, I don’t.”
“Oh dear. No wonder you never smile.”
His gaze brushed hers before returning to the harbor and the quay she’d directed him to. “For whatever it’s worth to you, I’ve rarely come closer. Don’t waste your sympathy on me, my mermaid, I am quite content.” He rose, his balance perfect, and threw the rope to the old man who was reaching for it. Then, steadying the boat with one hand on the wall, he held out his hand to help her over to the steps.
Inevitably, she stumbled, but his grip tightened, steadying her, and for a moment, their eyes met. His were unreadable, but something in them, or in his touch, sent butterflies soaring in her stomach. Her throat felt suddenly dry.
He said, “I hope you find your escape. But I’ll still take you to China whenever you like.”
She laughed breathlessly, but suddenly she felt sorry, almost panicked, that she’d never see him again. The strength of it took her by surprise. She dragged her gaze free and stepped out onto the narrow stone stairs.
“Thank you,” she said again. “Goodbye, sir.”
But unexpectedly, he followed her, his large person all but crushing her into the wall in that cramped space. His head bent, blotted out the sun. “Goodbye,” he said huskily, and kissed her lips.
His mouth was warm, firm, parting her shocked lips. No one had ever kissed her like that before, which might have been why her stomach seemed to dive and tingle. But there was no time to debate the matter, because it was over almost at once. She gazed up at him, bemused.
“You’re too sweet for a mermaid,” he murmured, his breath caressing her stunned lips, “but just as tempting. Run.”
He stepped down on to the stair below, despite the lapping water. Confused, she opened her mouth to say something, only she’d no idea what it was. She had a vague idea she should be offended or frightened, though in fact she felt neither. She wanted to stand close to him again.
Instead, she turned almost blindly and walked up the steps. She thought he followed, as if making sure her clumsiness didn’t cause her to fall off into the water. But she didn’t look back. Her whole body trembled, and yet for some reason, she didn’t dislike the sensation at all.
The Wicked Rebel - Blackhaven Brides, Book 3
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