Once a Scoundrel
Rogues Redeemed Book #3
An outcast on the high seas...
The son of a proud naval dynasty, Gabriel Hawkins was born to command the sea, until he leaves the Royal Navy in disgrace and is disowned by his family. As captain of his own ship, he's earned his living in ways both legal and illegal, and his experience makes him the best choice to ransom an aristocratic beauty captured by Barbary pirates.
Having avoided the traps of convention and marriage, Lady Aurora Lawrence is horrified by the prospect of spending her life as a harem slave. Her only hope of escape is a quiet, steely captain who has a history with her captor—and who will do anything to free Rory. Together they undertake a dangerous mission through troubled waters—and encounter another kind of danger as attraction burns hot within the close confines of his ship. But even if they endure the perils of the sea and enemy lands, can their love survive a return to England, where the distance between a disgraced captain and an earl's daughter is wider than the ocean?
Captain Gabriel Hawkins has been enlisted to sail to Algiers and negotiate the ransom of Lady Aurora Lawrence, the youngest daughter of an earl. His mission will be even more complicated than he realizes.
Gabriel could see that the corsair who'd captured Lady Aurora Lawrence had done well from his piracy; his home was not a mere house, but a sprawling palace. Did he demand an exorbitant ransom to maintain this splendor, or was he so wealthy he no longer understood what money meant to lesser folk? Gabriel could only pray that the fellow would be willing to negotiate the price for his captive's freedom.
Gabriel's command of the local dialect was still fluent enough to startle the servants, and perhaps that was why the major domo offered to take him to the master right away. They passed from house to gardens to the impressive menagerie. There was a musky distinct scent of lions on the right, and above the opposite wall of the walkway a giraffe could be seen peacefully grazing on a tree.
Thoughts of exotic beasts vanished when his escort brought him to an open-sided pavilion where half a dozen richly dressed Algerian men were gathered. The broad, powerful man in the middle turned to see who was coming, and the sight of his face stunned Gabriel to near paralysis. The name Malek wasn't uncommon, and he hadn't expected to see a man he knew, and had never expected to see again.
The moment of shock was swift and mutual. Using all his hard won discipline to controlling his expression, Gabriel gave a courteous nod. "Malek Reis. It is my honor to be received by you. I have come all the way from England to discuss the freedom of a lady in your custody."
Malek's expression was as guarded as his own. In Arabic, he said to his fellows, "The viewing is over, my friends. I thank you for coming today."
A man said with annoyance, "Does this mean the merchandise is not for sale?"
"That remains to be seen." Malek ushered his guests down the steps and onto the walkway that led out of the menagerie.
While the small knot of men left, talking intensely, Gabriel scanned the pavilion, and for the second time in a matter of minutes, he was lightning-shocked to his core, this time by the sight of a profoundly naked young woman.
Not quite naked, for layers of transparent silk veils floated around her flawless body. They had the paradoxical effect of emphasizing how very bare she was. The golden hair and delicate features confirmed this was Lady Aurora, but she wasn't laughing as she'd been in the miniature portrait inside her mother's locket. Her blue eyes were stark as hot, humiliated color rose in her face. She looked ready to faint. Even so, she was shatteringly beautiful.
A dark pile of fabric lay crumpled on the ground. He scooped the material up and handed it to her at arm's length, forcing himself to keep his gaze on her face. Keeping his voice low so as not to be overheard by Malek, he said, "Lady Aurora. I'm Gabriel Hawkins, captain of a ship from England. I've come to negotiate your freedom."
She grabbed the garment, a voluminous cloak. and wrapped it around herself so thoroughly she looked like a nun. That didn't diminish the powerful impact she had on him. She'd been stunning in her portrait, and was even more so now.
Lady Aurora's face reflected a tumult of emotions: shame, fury, and humiliation, but also courage and determination. The face of a woman who was as admirable as she was beautiful.
Having composed herself to apparent serenity, she spoke as if that shocking scene hadn't taken place. "I'm very glad to see you, Captain Hawkins. My father sent you?"
"Not your father. Your mother."
She bit her lip. "My father refused to pay Malek Reis's exorbitant demands, so my mother collected what she could and sent you here with hopes and prayers?"
"You know your parents well." After a moment's hesitation, he added, "Though I did not meet your father, I'm told he was deeply concerned for your welfare. But he couldn't meet the price."
She smiled ruefully. "I don't know how much money my mother could raise, but I'm sure it was much less than fifty thousand pounds. I hope you're a good negotiator."
"Reasonably so, but my principal qualification is having some knowledge of the Barbary Coast. How are you? Have you been treated well?"
"Apart from having to appear naked before men who would show more respect if I was a horse?" she said bitterly.
He winced. "Apart from that."
"There was a very unpleasant examination to certify my 'purity' since that affects my price, but otherwise I've been treated well. Comfortable quarters, good food, and a language tutor to help us learn the Turkish and the local version of Arabic." She smiled a little. "A dance instructor to learn shameless exotic dances. Those are rather fun. Some women would consider it a wonderful life, I imagine."
"Some songbirds might not mind their cages," he said quietly. "But others beat against the bars till their hearts burst for a chance to be free."