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Determined to win back her ancestral home, Mary O’Malley embarks on a journey across the sea disguised as a cabin boy. But her ruse brings her under the control of the sexy Captain Richard Grant, who demands from her obedience and soon commands her passion
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“I was hooked, and I could not stop turning the pages until the end."- Stacy Reid, author of Accidentally Compromising the Duke
Land. Power. Influence. Mary O’Malley knows these are the only things that matter in her war-torn country. Determined to win back her ancestral home, she must embark on a journey across the Atlantic disguised as a cabin boy. But her ruse brings her under the control of a dangerous sea captain who demands from her the one thing she will never give—complete and total submission.
Captain Richard Grant runs a tight ship, and he didn’t claw his way up through the ranks of the Royal Navy to be undone by a headstrong Irish girl hell-bent on jeopardizing his mission and his crew. If she insists on dressing like a man, then she can take his punishments. He demands obedience, but his insatiable need for her leads to a complex game of sex, desire, and dominance not even he can control.
Awakened by the passion Grant stirs in her, Mary finds herself falling for the stern captain. But when her false identity leads to rumors of her spying for the French, she must choose between her love for Ireland and the man who commands her body—and her heart.
The large trout wiggled in my hands, its glassy eye staring unblinking to the sky. My knuckles strained as I clutched its glittering scales, and I laughed as I held it up to Johnny, the sunlight blinding as I turned to him.
“Look what I found,” I cried out with a grin. “I believe that makes one for me, and none for you, Johnny Brighton.”
He trudged through the rushing stream, water splashing far above his rolled up trousers. Blond hair swept away from his wide forehead, a smile spreading across his boyish features. “Ah, we will have to see about that.”
His nearness sent my heart beating, and the trout jerked in my hand. Its sharp fin cut deep, slashing a wide gash of red along my thumb. Pain shot up through my arm, and I stumbled against the pull of the stream.
“Get off, you dirty fecker.” I squeezed hard to hold it still, but the fish slipped through my fingers and back into the water with so much force, I went tumbling into the current. The shock of the freezing stream stopped my heart for a moment, and I grasped at the pebbled riverbed for purchase. So much for dinner.
“Watch yourself, Mary!” Johnny cried, his strong hands lifting me up.
I gasped for air, river water spluttering from my mouth. I had taken off my dress on the riverbank and stood there shivering in my shift, the spring air turning the thin fabric to a sheet of ice.
Johnny’s eyes grazed over my chest, and he caught my hand, his touch sending a nervous flutter deep into my belly. We had fished in this river since we were children, and I had never thought anything of prancing around in my skivvies in front of the little lordling.
But Johnny wasn’t so little anymore.
My gaze wandered over to my dress draped over a fallen log, and I resisted the urge to cover myself with my bleeding hand. He had grown so used to seeing me as a girl. Tiny Mary O’Malley, the steward’s daughter. But now I needed him to see me as a woman, as slight as I was. I would never have the full bosoms and hips of the ladies sketched out on the fashion plates from Paris, but I had a decent enough face, and sure what does it matter in the dark?
I twisted my long hair over my shoulder, wringing it dry. Johnny watched my every move, his gaze hot and piercing. I turned away, smothering a satisfied smile. For the past few months, I had one goal in mind. Seduction. There was no other word for what I intended, but it wasn’t carnal pleasure I wanted from the good lad. I knew such things possessed their own delights, but what I desired was a much greater prize.
“You’re bleeding.” He drew my thumb to his mouth and kissed it, his lips lingering on my skin. His eyes narrowed in a smoldering gaze, a mischievous grin tugging at his mouth.
Extricating a strand of slimy algae from my hair, I quirked an eyebrow at him and stifled a laugh. If I could stand there covered in pond scum, shivering like a wet dog with my hands smelling like fish, and Johnny Brighton still flashed me a look like that, perhaps I had very much over-thought this whole seduction business.
His tongue flickered against my wrist, and I opened my mouth to protest as a decent maiden should, but he clutched my palm with a firm grip, drawing me closer. The movement sent a shiver down my spine, and I glanced up at him through my eyelashes.
His laughing eyes filled with warmth, his irises almost translucent in the sun. All the sound escaped in the intensity of his gaze—the rushing river, the singing birds, the soaring wind through the leaves. I glanced around, making sure no one was watching us. For this to work, I couldn’t have Johnny’s father Lord Brighton hearing one ill word about me or anything we might do. And Lord help me if Da discovered us. He would lock me in a convent and throw away the key. I needed time. And I was patient.
“What are you doing, Johnny?” I whispered.
His fingers caressed the delicate skin inside my palm, his other hand resting on my hip. “Just playing.”
He bent his head down and placed a gentle kiss behind my ear. His tongue traced a soft line against the edge of my scalp, and I exposed my neck in response. Poor Johnny was never clever, but if I couldn’t have a smart husband, lord save us, at least he could be kind.
Everyone knew Johnny’s father was a miser, making a fortune from the backs of the Irish men and women working the surrounding fields, racking their rents and forcing them into abject poverty. Those poor souls scraped out a subsistence living on the outskirts of the property, huddled in filthy huts. Children with their stomachs distended, their faces little more than skeletons.
But none of that crossed Johnny’s mind as he pulled me closer, his lips brushing against my bare shoulder. As Lady of Dunraven I knew I could seize hold of the Brighton’s wealth to bring it back to the people, ensure prosperity to all who lived on those craggy moors. It was what my mother always spoke of before she died. Before the uprising of 1798. “The year of the French,” we called it, but the French aid never quite manifested. We thought the uprising would change everything. But since that terrible year, conditions had only grown worse, and I knew I needed to do something. It was what she would have wanted. I believed that.
His hand dipped lower on my waist, and I gasped, my hips jerking toward him. I had studied libertines in novels, skimming over the swooning ladies cursing themselves for their fall into temptation. Such flights of fancy didn’t seem so terrible in that moment, what with his shoulder muscles wide and rippling beneath his soaked shirt, his abdomen tensing as I stepped nearer to him. I thought I might actually enjoy playing the part of the scoundrel, at least until I got what I wanted. Sure, I’d never heard of a lady scoundrel, but these were revolutionary times.
“’Tis a new game, Mary.”
“Is it?” I whispered, tilting my head in confusion.
Oh, but you know I understood the game perfectly well. Better than he did, I would fancy. I may have been a young woman of twenty, but when you grow up in the hills of rural Ireland and see enough sheep humping each other, you pretty much know the lay of it. But it wouldn’t do to appear too eager. I had to make Johnny believe this was all his idea.
“I don’t understand,” I teased, batting my eyelashes.
For a moment, I contemplated holding my breath until I passed out, but I had to maintain some modicum of control in order for my plan to work. I was in it for the long haul, you know.
Johnny pressed me against his body, and his chest flexed beneath my hand as I clutched the damp fabric of his linen shirt. His heart raced, and something hard pressed against my belly. With a firm hand, he brought me closer, our bodies rubbing against one another. The sunlight glinted on his hair, and he ran his hand up and down my waist, making me shiver from the whisper-thin caress of his fingers.
“Maybe we shouldn’t,” I whispered into his shoulder.
But I knew we should.
And we would.
His hands cupped my bottom and brought me to my tiptoes, his hardness pushing against my inner thigh. He arched his hips into mine and I emitted a low sound from the back of my throat, my body pressing against something that made my insides ache. Clutching his wet shirt, I met his rolling thrusts, throwing my head back to gaze up at him.
“Johnny …” I let out a small whimper, and it excited him, his breath emitting in thick pants. He bent down to kiss me, and his lips pressed firm against mine, his tongue darting between my teeth. My shoulders tensed at the strange sensation, the storm of desire deep in my belly retreating in a rush of barely disguised confusion.
Something wasn’t right.
I had always thought my first kiss would be a dramatic affair, with the earth moving beneath my feet and all that. But Johnny’s tongue was a fleshy, foreign weight in my mouth, and it took all my willpower not to push him away. The heat and desire coiling in my abdomen had turned to a block of frigid ice, and I swallowed the wave of nausea bubbling up in my throat.
He broke off the kiss and flashed me a wide smile. “I’ve wanted to do that for as long as I could remember, Mary.”
“Me, too,” I breathed, the lie tumbling out easy as anything.
I told myself I would learn to like it, learn to indulge his messy, fumbling kisses as bland as day-old porridge. Women had tolerated empty-headed, incompetent men for centuries. It could have been worse. When we were married and settled in Dunraven Castle and the heat of first romance cooled, he could seek out warmer beds and more willing women. That was how the gentry did things, so they said. I would fulfill my wifely duties, sure, but I didn’t fear a loveless marriage. I would be too busy running the estate and making improvements. Lord knew Johnny had no head for such things. Even his own father said so.
He let out a whooping laugh, the same one he used when his horse Firebrand took a leap over the hedge. And flashing a dazzling grin, he dove into the stream, bubbles swirling to the surface. For a moment I thought he had drowned, and a shot of panic bolted down my spine. With an explosive splash, he broke through the current, a wriggling trout dangling over his head.
“Score one against you, Mary,” he called to me.
So that was the start of it, and I knew what the villagers would say if they found out. Slut. Whore. But it didn’t matter to me a wit. I had my sights set on the greatest treasure of all—Castle Dunraven, the ancestral home of the O’Malleys, torn from our family by foreign invaders hundreds of years ago. To Johnny and his skinflint father, it was no more than a pile of rocks. But to me, it was the greatest mansion of heaven, and I knew if I ruled over it, I could make a difference to the lives of my people.
My father was steward to Lord Brighton, but all the locals knew the truth of it: that he and my Ma—God, rest her soul—ran guns during the uprising a few years back. Oh, of course, Da was the picture of obedience to Lord Brighton’s face, but one failed rebellion wouldn’t quell the flames of liberty in my heart. Not after what they took from us. Not after what they did to my mother.
But like I said, I could have done a lot worse than that sweet, sunny, Adonis of a man, Johnny Brighton. While the fire of passion eluded me when I lingered in his arms, I did like running my hands through his hair, laughing with him as we said good night beside the garden gate. We never spoke of it, the kiss in the stream, but after that day, his hands took liberties anytime he could get me alone.
One evening, Lord Brighton invited us to dine with a collection of local lords and dignitaries. They argued about politics and what the English were doing about Napoleon. Old Bonny and his tricks. Johnny nodded vigorously at his father’s words while his hand wandered up my skirts and across my thigh. I remained perfectly still, my heart thundering against my rib cage. A small bead of sweat crept down my neck, and my hands itched to wipe it away with the cloth napkin I wrung in my lap, twisting it tighter and tighter with every inch Johnny conquered across my exposed flesh. I contemplated swatting his hand away, but something about the secret game thrilled me, the sheer naughtiness of it making the inner walls of my sex clench.
“Now, my daughter has quite a few good plans for opening up a school for the peasants of Dunraven. Haven’t you, Mary?”
Blast. With my eyes hazy, my mind blurry from wine and whatever Johnny was doing under the tablecloth, I had neglected to notice the conversation had turned. Da’s eyes peered at me guilelessly from across the table, and I prayed no one would notice my flushed face in the dim candlelight. Johnny’s hand paused on my thigh, his fingers digging into my naked flesh. I flashed my best lady-like smile, feeling their masculine gazes on the warmth of my cheek, the swell of my breasts.
“Just a few ideas, nothing serious yet.” I added a small tittering giggle to hide a gasp as Johnny’s hand wandered closer to my core.
A few ideas, indeed. I had blueprints, curriculum, plans for a library, and a vocational annex for developing skills in trade.
“There’s danger in educating the Irish,” one man said. Lord Kellingsworth, I believe, his bulbous nose red and veiny. “You’ll have another rebellion on your hands.”
“But it’s precisely the lack of education and resources that caused such rebellions in the first place,” I argued, batting my eyelashes. Beneath the table, I spread my legs wider in a subtle invitation, and Johnny cupped my mound with a firm hand, as if he was excited by my scandalous talk. He never minded a revolutionary as long as it came with tits.
“That’s circuitous logic, my dear,” said some other pompous ass from the corner. Lord Shiteforbrainsville or something ridiculous.
“The Irish rise up because of their fiery natures,” he continued. “They need the English to quell their mercurial tendencies, give them civilization. Reason.”
Oh God, the heat from my rage and Johnny’s wandering hand almost sent me over the edge. I took a deep breath, steadying my body as I pulsed with an angry pleasure. “The Irish had civilization long before the English came. We were transcribing Plato while the English were still running around willy-nilly from the fall of the Roman Empire.” I swallowed a moan as Johnny’s hand rubbed against the small button on my mound, rolling it over and over until I thought I would scream. I flashed the table a wide-eyed innocent look and flung my shiny black curls over my shoulder. “Or maybe my recollection of history fails me?”
“I’m sure it’s more complicated than that, my dear.” Oh, so much laughter from the big fat English barrister on his tour of the Irish countryside. All the men joining in and me throwing back my head in fake giggles to mask my body arching into Johnny’s fingers. I covered my mouth with my napkin to hide the twist of my lips and my shaking exhalations as his hand retreated from my core and traced lazy, maddening circles against my knee.
This was always the way with Johnny. He brought me to the edge of ecstasy, but I knew something else existed beyond that surge of desire, like a ship sailing on the horizon. Whatever games we played, it never felt like enough.
When the laughter died down, and my breathing returned to normal, I took a sip of wine. “Still,” I said over the rim of my glass, “a bit of education might do this country some good.”
With a single swift movement, Johnny removed his hand from beneath my skirts. Nodding vigorously, he rapped his knuckles, the same knuckles that had pressed into my private flesh, against the table. “Here, here,” he said.
“Oh, my dear,” Lord Kellingsworth said. “If it had been you instead of Wolfe Tone who had led the revolution of 1798, I daresay you may have enchanted us all into reform!”
I took another sip of wine, catching my father’s stare from across the table. He met my gaze and glanced down at his hands, no doubt thinking of Ma, of how she had spied for the Irish during the uprising. How she had inspired so many of our kin to take up arms and fight. He may have moved on, but I could not. I was little more than a child then, but as a woman now, I could find a way to keep the flame of rebellion burning.
And besides…seduction, sabotage, and usurping weren’t such bad business when it came to spending time with Johnny. He wasn’t one for rich conversation, but he made me laugh and I liked the feel of his arms around me as we lay in the high grass, watching big white clouds roll over us. I wanted that to be my future. Something soft and dimmed, like fading afternoon light. There was an order to it, a dull contentment that I could throw over my shoulders like a favorite shawl. And when his hand wandered beneath my skirts, seeking out my private spaces, I could almost pretend it was enough—those brief flashes of bliss. It was satisfying. Perfunctory. It would do, in other words. With Johnny by my side and Dunraven within my grasp, I thought that this was what peace must feel like, days and days as predictable as perfectly-lined blocks on a patchwork quilt.
Perhaps my moony eyes had betrayed me, though. Because while Da may not have known the long and short of it, the man was no fool.
“I see the way Johnny Brighton stares at ye,” he said the next day as we went to check on one of the sick villagers. “Sick” was merely another word for starving, and even though Da had complained multiple times to Lord Brighton about the living conditions of the cottagers, we would no doubt see another fever outbreak before the year was done, to be sure.
“Ye be careful with that one now,” he grumbled. “Don’t think for a minute the likes of him would condescend to marry the likes of ye. He’ll be having himself an heiress from America more likes than a poor steward’s daughter from Dunraven.”
But Da was wrong, and I knew Johnny would be mine. I was sure of it. It was all about slow seduction, like that book Pamela. She didn’t give it all at once, you know. It took work. Patience. But by the end of that summer, I had Johnny exactly where I wanted him.
I sat curled in his lap, letting him kiss me as his hand wandered up my skirt again. The leaves of the large oak tree shivering above us cast Johnny’s face in dappling shadows, his cheeks flushed and his eyes glassy. His other hand traveled down across my bodice, his thumb circling my nipple like a bird of prey, drawing closer and closer in tightening concentric circles. A part of me wanted to give in to the fire rising in my body, but I still had to fight not to turn away from Johnny’s mouth as he peppered my neck with kisses, that prevailing feeling of utter wrongness always haunting me in our most heated moments. My mind wandered to the architectural plans for new cottages on the edge of the property. We had to move those families out of those decrepit huts and that swampy, sandy land. Then if we drained that area, we could use it for wheat or perhaps even grazing lands. Wool was in high demand now with the new factories in Belfast, and we would be fools not to utilize some of the acreage for livestock.
My attention snapped back to focus as Johnny’s palm cupped my shoulder and shifted my body back against the cold grass. My eyes widened as I took in the sight of him fumbling with the buttons of his trousers, and I let out a high-pitched squeal and scrambled away, pushing down my skirts.
“What are you doing?”
Johnny pounded the ground, his fist clenched. “You know what I’m doing.”
I stood up, smoothing back my hair. I had anticipated this moment for months, but a flicker of terror suddenly shuddered through me. Was this the man I wanted for life? To have and to hold? In sickness and in health? A roar began in my head like a stampede of horses charging toward a cliff. For a brief second, the impulse to run tugged at my limbs. I didn’t fear lying with Johnny. Most women seemed to survive carnal relations well enough. I feared the day after. And the day after that. Once I gave myself to him, I could never return to the way things were.
“We’re just playing, Johnny. You know that.” My voice was so quiet against the sound of my heart thundering against my rib cage.
“That’s not playing, Mary!” Bolting to standing, he grabbed my arm and pulled me in for a kiss, his teeth nipping my bottom lip. His need stabbed at my hip, and I knew I had reached a crossroads. Either walk away, or continue this game. Winning the prize meant Dunraven and the chance to set things right again, with an O’Malley at the helm and a new life for the people living in these lonely, barren hills. Losing him meant…what? Marrying a cottager and pushing out babies one by one until I was too tired to fight, too exhausted to make a difference to anyone. No, it was Johnny or nothing. I could find a way to love him, make him happy. I knew I could.
I broke away from him and turned around, clutching my elbows. “I want to save myself.” I swallowed hard, looking back over my shoulder. “For my husband.”
Johnny took a deep breath and stared into the rolling hills beyond the glen. Dark clouds billowed overhead, heavy with rain. We would have to go in soon.
“Mary, you know it’s impossible for me to—”
“I know. I never expected you to—”
“But if I could, you know I—”
His eyes widened in alarm, and I placed a shuddering kiss against his lips.
“Let’s not speak any more of it. I know of your duties to your father, to Dunraven.”
He frowned, his crystal blue eyes clouding over. “That’s just it. The old bat won’t be around forever, and then I could be free to do what I want.”
I paused. “Are you asking me to wait for you?”
He began to pace the length of the stream, a slight bulge still evident in his pants. The die had been cast, and I let out a long exhale, giving myself fully to the next phase in my plan. And it was a good plan. Thrilling, even. But I also knew what happened to girls who gave it away to any tomcat with a stiff one. I had one asset to my name. You could judge all you wanted if you believe in fairy tales and true love and all that. Johnny was young, handsome, kind, and rich. He was Earl of Dunraven and far from letting his wrinkled old father diddle me, I would do anything to have my family lands back. There was something greater at stake here. Hundreds of years of tyranny and oppression, and all I had to do was bide my time. Such a little thing, really.
“I’m not asking you to wait, but…” He shook his head. He was so close now, his back to me, muscles rippling with tension through his shirt.
“What are you saying?”
He whirled around and cupped my face, pushing me back against the oak tree. He buried his hips into mine and kissed me hard. “Marry me.”
“But you just said—”
His eyes shone with fever and he hardened again against my belly. “Marry me. In secret.”
My skin tingled, and I had to strain to suppress the giddy laughter bubbling up my throat. Even if we couldn’t tell the world, Johnny would be legally obligated to fulfill his promises to me. I would be Lady of Dunraven and the land would be mine.
Forcing my shoulders to slump and pasting a somber look on my face, I stared down at the ground, studying the carpet of autumn leaves beneath my feet. “Johnny, that’s ridiculous. It will never work.”
“My father has a year. Two at most. I’ve heard what the doctors have said.” He brushed his thumbs against my cheekbones, pleading. “Please, Mary. I want you as my wife. No other woman will ever do for me.” His eyes darted to the ground and then back up to meet my gaze. “I love you.”
I smiled and threw my arms around his neck, relief and victory flooding through my veins. “I love you, too,” I whispered.
And I love Dunraven. More than you could ever imagine.