Lucy had known she was in trouble the moment this man entered the cabin. She had recognized in the space of a skipping heartbeat that he was not the same man who had abducted her, the man whose hands had been almost gentle as he apologized for frightening her, his voice melodious and soothing. There was nothing soothing about this man. The very air around him crackled with threat. Lucy feared she was in the presence of Captain Doom himself, no phantom but flesh and blood--solid, disturbing, and only inches from her face.
Being deprived of vision had heightened her other senses. Her ears were tuned to the harsh whisper of air from his lungs. Her nostrils flared at the scent of him--an alluring brew of salt spray, brandy, and the pure spice of male musk. He smelled like the predator he was and she knew instinctively that if she allowed him to scent her fear, she was done for.
She was thankful her initial panic had been swallowed by outrage at being trussed up like a Christmas goose. When he had first entered the cabin, she had refrained from speaking for fear she would gibber in terror. Now she was simply too obstinate to be the first to break the taut silence.
Back straight, Lucinda, the Admiral snapped from memory. Feet together like a little lady.
But Lucy could not bring her feet together. They were bound to opposite chair legs, making her feel exposed, vulnerable, and in the wake of her father's imaginary rebuke, deeply ashamed.
The stranger's gaze seared her cheeks, but she refused to avert her face from his scrutiny. Her jaw was beginning to ache from being clamped so hard. She could almost envision him standing arrogantly before her, his legs braced against the faint swell and dip of the cabin floor.
Lucy flinched as if he had struck her. His husky words were a demand, not a request. Had he claimed her soul with such merciless authority, she would have been equally as powerless to resist him.
"Lucinda Snow," she replied, her only defense the shards of ice dripping from her voice. "My friends call me Lucy, but I think under the circumstances, you'd do well to address me as Miss Snow."
Her captor was silent for several heartbeats, but his excitement was palpable. Gone was the barely repressed violence, replaced by a ferocious satisfaction she sensed might be even more dangerous to her.
"Miss Snow?" he finally said. "May I assume there's no Mr. Snow fretting over your untimely disappearance?"
His voice was both rough and smooth, like well-aged whiskey steeped in smoke. She suspected its raspy timbre was designed for disguise, but it still sent a shiver of raw reaction down her spine. She prayed he did not see it.
"Admiral Sir Snow is my father and I can assure you that when he finds out I've been abducted by brigands, he'll be a man given to action, not fretting."
"Ah, a worthy opponent." The contempt in his words chilled her.
His boot heels clicked in muted rhythm as he began to pace in a maddening circle around her chair. Not knowing exactly where he stood was even more disconcerting than having him glare at her. She couldn't shake the sensation that he was only biding his time, seeking her most vulnerable spot before he pounced for the kill.
Fear made her reckless. "I've heard enough about your cowardly tactics, Captain Doom, to know your favored opponents are innocent children afraid of ghosts and helpless women."
A loose plank creaked behind her, startling her. If he had touched her then, she feared she would have burst into tears.
But it was only the mocking whisper of his breath that stirred her hair. "And which are you, Miss Snow? Innocent? Helpless? Or both?" When his provocative question met with stony silence, he resumed his pacing. "'Tis customary to scream and weep when one is abducted by brigands, yet you've done neither. Why is that?"
Lucy didn't care to admit that she was afraid he'd embroider a skull and crossbones on her lips. "If I might have gained anything by screaming, you'd have left me gagged, wouldn't you? It's obvious by the motion of the deck that the ship is at full sail, precluding immediate rescue. And I've never found tears to be of any practical use."
"How rare." The note in his voice might have been one of mockery or genuine admiration. "Logic and intelligence wrapped up in such a pretty package. Tell me, is your father in the habit of allowing you to journey alone on a navy frigate? Young ladies of quality do not travel such a distance unchaperoned. Does he care so little for your reputation?"
Lucy almost blurted out that her father cared for nothing but her reputation, but to reveal such a painful truth to this probing stranger would have been like laying an old wound bare.
"The Captain's mother was traveling with us." Fat lot of good that had done her, Lucy thought. The senile old woman had probably slept through the attack. "The Captain of the Tiberius is a dear friend of my father's. He's known me since I was a child. I can promise you that should any of the men under his command so much as smile at me in what might be deemed an improper manner, he'd have them flogged."
"Purely for your entertainment, I'm sure."
Lucy winced at the unfair cut. "I fear my tastes in amusement don't run to torture as yours are rumored to," she replied sweetly.
"Touche, Miss Snow. Perhaps you're not so helpless after all. If we could only ascertain your innocence with such flair..."
He let the unspoken threat dangle and Lucy swallowed a retort. She couldn't seem to stop her tart tongue from running rampant. She'd do well to remember that this man held both her life and her virtue captive in his fickle hands.
His brisk footsteps circled her, weaving a dizzying spell as she struggled to follow his voice. "Perhaps you'd care to explain why your noble papa deprived himself of your charming wit for the duration of your voyage."
"Father took ill before we could leave Cornwall. A stomach grippe. He saw no logic in my forfeiting my passage, but feared travel by sea would only worsen his condition."
"How perceptive of him. It might have even proved fatal." He circled her again. "What provoked this timely bout of indigestion? Too much tea? A bad bit of kipper?"
Lucy shook her head. "I couldn't say. He was reading the Times over breakfast as he always does when he suddenly went white and excused himself. He told me later that he'd decided to travel by carriage."
Doom's clipped tones softened. His footsteps ceased just behind her. "So he sent you in his stead. Poor, sweet Lucy."
Lucy wasn't sure what jarred her most--the rueful note of empathy in his voice or hearing her Christian name caressed by his devilish tongue. "If you're going to murder me, do get on with it," she snapped. "You can eulogize me after I'm gone."
The chair vibrated as he closed his hands over its back. Lucy started as if he'd curled them around her bare throat. "Is that what they say about me, Miss Snow? That I'm a murderer?"
She pressed her eyes shut beneath the blindfold, beset by a curious mix of dread and anticipation. "Among other things."
"A ghost," she whispered.
He leaned over her shoulder from behind and pressed his cheek to hers. The prickly softness of his beard chafed her tender skin. His masculine scent permeated her senses. "What say you, Lucy Snow? Am I spirit or man?"
There was nothing spectral about his touch. Its blatant virility set Lucy's raw nerves humming. She'd never been touched with such matter-of-fact intimacy by anyone. Smythe prided himself on maintaining the reserve of a servant and the Admiral found physical displays of fondness distasteful.
The odd little catch in her breath ruined her prim reply. "I sense very little of the spiritual about you, sir."
"And much of the carnal, no doubt."
His hand threaded through the fragile shield of her hair to find her neck. His warm fingers gently rubbed her nape as if to soothe away all of her fears and melt her defenses, leaving her totally vulnerable to him. Lucy shuddered, shaken by his tenderness, intrigued by his boldness, intoxicated by his brandy-heated breath against her ear.
"Tell me more of the nefarious doings of Captain Doom," he coaxed.
She drew in a shaky breath, fighting for any semblance of the steely poise she had always prided herself on. "They say you can skewer your enemies with a single glance."
"Quite flattering, but I fear I have to use more conventional means." His probing fingertips cut a tingling swath through the sensitive skin behind her ears. "Do go on."
Lucy's honesty betrayed her. "They say you've been known to ravish ten virgins in one night." As soon as the words were out, she cringed, wondering what had possessed her to confess such a shocking thing.
Instead of laughing as she expected, he framed her delicate jaw in his splayed fingers and tilted her head back.
His voice was both tender and solemn, mocking them both. "Ah, but then one scrawny virgin such as yourself would only whet my appetite."
"They also swear you won't abide babbling," Lucy blurted out, knowing she was doing just that. "That you'll sew up the lips of anyone who dares to defy you."
His breath grazed her lips. "What a waste that would be in your case. Especially when I can think of far more pleasurable ways to silence them."
Thief of Hearts