The Bastard's Passionate Prize [The Stanhope Challenge]
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by Cerise Deland
Category: Erotica/Erotic Romance/Historical Fiction
Description: When American merchantman Mark Stanhope, the bastard of the Stanhope clan, falls for stunning noblewoman Sirena Maxwell, she is already promised to another man. Mark's only hope to ease his wounded heart is the familiar comfort of the open ocean. That comfort is short-lived, for he finds her stowed away aboard his ship, and the high seas are no place for lady. Engaged to the vile Colin de Ros, Sirena fears for her life and runs to the only man who can keep her safe-- Mark Stanhope. She will sacrifice everything to make him her husband: her title, her family...her good name. When they are blown off course and taken hostage, she must surrender her body, her virtue and her desire to set them both free from the seraglio of a ruthless Barbary pirate. If Mark cannot find a way to save Sirena's gorgeous body only for himself, then he must put her on display for these salacious brutes. Can their love survive the depravities of the Barbary pirate's court? Or will their passions enslave them both forever?
eBook Publisher: Resplendence Publishing, LLC, 2011 March
eBookwise Release Date: October 2011
3 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [147 KB]
Reading time: 92-129 min.
October 1811, London, England
* * * *
Mark strode toward the flower girl's stand in front of the seaside church in Dover, and the aroma of her wares hit him in the guts. Again.
Today, he had vowed he would not buy any posies from the child. The memories they brought of Sirena Maxwell were too roiling. Besides, his crewmen joked that he was getting soft, needing the frilly smell of flowers to rock him to sleep. Flowers. Ha! As if that's all I need to recall her laugh, her sigh, the tilt of her nose and the fullness of her lips.
Cursing that the fragrance of a woman forbidden to him by outworn social codes did not leave his reverie, he smiled down at the charming little blonde-haired girl. She held two blooms toward him, but he refused to take them, pressing two pence into her hand anyway. Then he made his way toward the dock. The sight of his ship inspired him as he rounded the corner. His Baltimore clipper, his Water Witch, newly restored to him by his overly generous English father, rode high in the water. He swelled with pride at the contrast of the intricate chalk white rigging and the coal dark hull against the crisp azure sky.
But the Witch does not compare to your flesh and blood siren, Stanhope. Nor can it. The memory of the loveliest woman he'd ever known filled him with regret. Regret for what English society forbade him. Her. As wife. Regret for what he dare not ask her to give up. Her home. Her status as a duke's daughter. Her friends and society. For he had been told--yes, warned, by his father, the earl of Stanhope, to stay far away from the luscious Lady Maxwell.
"She will soon be engaged formally, Mark," his father had told him. "Do not pursue a relationship that will bring you only pain. Sirena is meant for another." An Englishman. A nobleman. Rich and refined. A fop with more nerve than brains. A man who boasted when cloistered with men of his exploits with women. A braggart who had seen Mark's interest in Sirena, had challenged him to a duel, but did not show on that fated morning.
No wonder Sirena did not care for Colin de Ros. How could the raven-haired beauty with such charm and vivacity find joy in the arms of a blow-hard and nitwit?
Mark paused at the foot of the ramp to the Water Witch's deck. He turned to stare back at the flower girl and her sad, wilted little red roses. But how could Sirena possibly care for an American? A man who makes his way in the world--and whose freedom has been purchased by his father? The father whom he had never known. The father who had left his mother and made him a bastard.
Mark raked his hair. What good does this do, to go over what you lost? To remind yourself of all you cannot claim. Including the one woman, the only woman you have ever cared for? Once you are at sea, Stanhope, you will forget Sirena. Roses do not grow on the Atlantic!
He hurried up the gangplank. "Simpson?" he called to his steward. "What word on the dried beef supplies?"
The roly-poly man who had served with Mark since he'd purchased the Witch two years ago came bounding down the steps from the forward deck to peer up at him. "This afternoon, Captain."
"And the barrel of whiskey?" He asked in hushed tone about the item he always carried for each man to have a tot if a storm came and tossed them all about.
"A few minutes ago. Tucked away, sir. Nice and tight."
"Tonight's tide then, we leave. Spread the word."
"Three of the men are still not up to their old selves, sir." Mark's men, like he, had been impressed into British Navy service months ago. Boarded illegally on the high seas, his Water Witch had been towed to Portsmouth, impounded. His men had at first been forced to man British ships. But once he had arrived in an English jail, Mark had petitioned the man whom he had once vowed never to seek, never to meet. The man who had left his mother, pregnant and alone. The man who was his father in name only. The eighth earl of Stanhope. A man of great wealth, influence and many wives. A man with little regard for the numerous children he sired by numerous women, most of whom, it seems, he'd made his wife. Unlike his own mother.
"Captain?" his steward brought him back to the issue at hand. "What shall I tell the crew master?"
Mark took pity on his men weakened by months at sea with the merciless British and weeks more in filthy English jails. "Cut their shifts by half again. When they are better nourished by Cook's soups, they can repay the men who doubled up."
"Aye, sir. You must know before you go below, Captain, that your father is here."
Mark stilled. John Stanhope had gone to his Cotswold estate the day Mark had left London for Dover. That the ailing earl should appear here now astonished him. Not only had they parted at his half-brother's house in London, but they had parted knowing the older Stanhope might not survive the winter. Was his father's condition worse? If so, how could he summon the stamina to come here? "I'll receive him, Simpson. Bring us a pitcher from that whiskey barrel, will you?"
"Aye, Captain, I will."
Hurrying below, Mark thrust open the door to his captain's cabin and gazed upon the man whom he knew he resembled so accurately, only the slight stoop and the snow-white hair of the elder differentiating the two.
"Hello, sir," Mark greeted John Stanhope with more cheer than he had ever shown his father. He was going home to the sea, to America, his own country, and this man had done him the service to free him to do so. Fatherly love or guilt might have driven the earl of Stanhope, but Mark had decided that last night in London to let bygones be bygones, and he'd vowed to try to honor the resolution more each passing day. "What a surprise you have come. I truly thought we had parted well in London two weeks ago."
"We had, Mark," his father acknowledged as he struggled to his feet. Gout afflicted the older man and according to Mark's oldest half-brother, Jack, dropsy too. "I came because I had to wish you farewell alone."
"That is kind of you, sir." Still, this visit is odd.
"The ship is restored to its standard before the Navy captured her?"
"It is, sir. Thanks to your generosity." Mark indicated the chair. "Please do sit. I have my steward bringing us a bit of refreshment."
"Ha!" the old earl barked. "I do not know if my poor stomach can tolerate spirits, but I welcome it."
"If you wish something other? Sarsaparilla, perhaps? Or lemon water?"
"Whiskey, my boy, will be fine." The man's dark blue gaze examined Mark's with severity. "I came to have my full say to you."
"Sir, you need say nothing more to me. Your actions speak in eloquent ways."
"Thank you." The elder man took a handkerchief from his sleeve and wiped his mouth. "But I have more to say now that we know each other better. I waited until you were restored in health and to your three brothers, your sister and their families. So too, I delayed until your ship and men were under your feet to reveal my true thoughts about you, your mother and your birth."
"Sir, please. We need not speak of this." And in fact, I wish we would not open a wound so recently beginning to heal.
"I must. I do not wish you to go without it. In fact, I planned this as I must impress upon you how deeply I regret my actions." His father put up a hand to ward off any more objections. "Permit me, son, to say these things. I am only learning how to be a man of emotions here in my dotage. I wish to tell you more. Much more than we had time for in London."
Mark nodded. "So be it. Do, go on."
The old man sucked in air and rallied to his purpose. "First, you must know that I was a hellion as a young man. Position and money do that to a man here. I took advantage of both in business and pleasure. I won at cards, at dice and with women. Good for me, not terribly wonderful for the ladies of my acquaintance, but I loved many women and far too often. But those I loved, I loved well. Your mother included."
Mark shifted at the mention of the woman he valued above all others. She had endured much sorrow and pain to rear him, educate him and place him as apprentice to a China clipper merchant out of Baltimore Harbor.
"She was a charming lass, a merchant's daughter whom I met on a voyage to Baltimore. Suffice it to say, I loved her well, but indeed I treated her poorly, leaving without much thought to consequences. When I did return to Baltimore the year after she and I were together, I could not find her. The house where she lived with your grandparents was empty, and no one would tell me where they had gone. I suspected she was with child and I wanted to make amends, make things right. I had money. But your American war for independence from us was newly won, and no one in Baltimore could bear to look at an Englishman, much less help one."
A rap came at the door and Mark called out to have Simpson enter. When the steward laid the flagon and glasses before them and left, Mark poured a draft for both. "Sir, thank you for that explanation. It goes far to helping me see the past in a different light."
"I wish us to be more than friends, Mark. I will work to make that so."
"You have already, sir."
"To purchase your freedom from jail?"
"My men and my ship, too. No small price."
"Small recompense, I say, my boy, for deserting you."
"That was long ago, sir. For what you have done for me today, I am extremely grateful."
"You are very welcome," John said with satisfaction and a raised glass. "To your health, my boy. And your welfare."
The two men drank.
Avoiding Mark's gaze, the elder played with the hem of his frock coat for a moment, his expression tense . "I cannot leave before I share some final news with you. Sad news. Very sad."
Mark, fearing to hear that his father foresaw his own demise soon, balked. "Sir, I do hope that you will take good care of yourself and--"
"This is not about me, my boy, but Sirena Maxwell."
Mark froze. "What about her?"
"I know you cared for her. This is difficult for me to say."
"I enjoyed talking with her when she came for dinners and readings at Adam's and Felice's. After I met her at their ball, I could not stop--" wanting her. "What has happened? If de Ros has hurt her--"
"No. Not that. Much different. You see, a week ago, she packed a reticule and left a note to say she was leaving home."
"What?" Mark heard his own voice crack with shock. "Where did she go?"
"We do not know where she headed. But we do know why. She refused to marry de Ros."
"Thank God." She should be mine. In my arms, my bed, bearing my name. "He's a prig. An idiot. Not worthy to kiss her slippers."
"Yes." John examined Mark's expression as though he were carefully dissecting a butterfly. "I agree. So does most of Society. Your siblings included."
At his father's pregnant pause, Mark scowled. "What else are you telling me?"
The old man stared at Mark with sad eves. "No one can find her. Or could. Until...."
Mark laid a hand on his father's arm. "Until what?"
"Two days ago, a young woman fitting her description was discovered floating along the Thames near Saint Katherine's Wharf. She was young, delicately boned with dark brown hair. She had drowned."
"No!" Mark rose to his feet, his mind a whirl of horror. "This is a mistake. That woman is someone else."
John gazed up at him through distressed eyes. "She was in the river for days, they say, and yet she still bears a resemblance to Sirena. The height. The build. A doctor for the Bow Street Runners dissected the body and he found water in her lungs. She either fell into the river accidentally or she took her own life."
"No, Father! That is not possible! Sirena would never--"
"Mark, please. The Duke recognized her coat and dress as Sirena's."
Mark stumbled backward, sinking to his chair. His mind awhirl of loss and outrage. "I cannot believe she would do such a thing! She was so full of life and-- Are you certain it was Sirena?"
John had tears in his rheumy eyes. "She could not bear to marry de Ros. Everyone knew it. Just to look at her conversing with you these past few weeks told the tale. De Ros, of course, challenged you to pistols because he saw how she cared for you."
"The man's an idiot! A bully and a coward." Mark put his head in his hand, incredulous still at the news Sirena was dead. "You must press Bow Street to make certain de Ros is innocent."
"There is no possibility that de Ros assaulted her?" Mark questioned his father, a fog of grief falling over him, darkening the room and the sky and his world. Sirena had seemed so alive, so competent, and confident. A survivor. How could she have even considered running away and he not know? Not recognize any telltale signs? There had to be another explanation. "I saw him try to manhandle her more than once. "De Ros is not suspected of hurting her. For the past week, De Ros was at his estate in Norfolk."
"He might have hired a ruffian. He is as unprincipled as they come. You know it's possible."
John nodded. "Possible, but with de Ros, do you really think it probable? De Ros is too simple-minded to engineer a murder of his betrothed and get away with it. Besides, he wanted the enter to her father's social circle and her money. He has not the nerve to kill her."
Mark swallowed back tears at her loss. "She did care for me."
"No one else could miss it, Mark. Would that you came to us under different circumstances. I can claim you, dear man, but I cannot undo the fact that I introduced you to Society as my bastard. Most accepted you as you were, without censure, thank God. And if I could have helped you woo her and win her, I would have. But that was beyond me. The ton would not permit such a breach. I mourn that deeply. Another loss I cannot repay, I despair to say." He stood, swaying on his feet. "I can only affirm once more I did remove what barriers I could."
"You did wonders, Father." Mark jumped up to catch his father's arm, attempting to comfort the man who had tried to make amends for past mistakes before his demise.
"I leave with the hope you will return to us at any time for any reason. If only to come enjoy our company." John smiled with a quivering chin.
Mark knew it was their last moment to erase the past from both their hearts and he opened his arms to embrace his father. "Come, I will help you out. Simpson will hail a carriage for you back to London."