Pirate BrideGretna Green, Scotland 1811
Nicholas Richard Martingale, second son of the late Marquess of Blackthorne, was sorry. He was sorry he'd followed his brother to Gretna Green. He was sorry he'd bowed to the bastard's wishes and agreed to marry Lady Madeleine. And he was especially sorry the goddamn anvil priest had been so drunk that he'd made a muddle of the ceremony.
Nick bent over the priest's unconscious form. He pried the marriage certificate out of his hand and read his death sentence.
This is to certify to all it may concern that Nicholas Martingale...
Nick grit his teeth and skimmed down.
...and Ashley Brittany...
Nick closed his eyes momentarily.
...being now both here and present, and having declared to me that they are single persons, have now been married after the manner of the Laws of Scotland...
"Is it still true?" Ashley asked, coming up behind him. The light from the low fire in the hearth made her wheat blond hair look like spun gold falling in waves down her back. Her sea green eyes were gazing at him, and, as always, he felt his chest tighten. She was so beautiful. So beautiful that it hurt to look at her.
He looked away. "Congratulations, sweetheart, you're still married to me."
She scowled at him and ripped the certificate from his hand, perusing it for herself. "How did this happen?" she moaned.
"Well, you stood there, and I stood here, and my brother and your friend stood there, and the priest said your name when he should have said Lady Madeleine's and my name when he should have said Jack's and then"
"Oh, shut up." She balled the marriage certificate and threw it at his chest. "Stop talking for once and do something. Fix this." She gestured toward the priest, snoring loudly on the floor of the blacksmith's shop.
Nick crossed his arms. "What exactly do you want me to do?"
"Wake him up. Make him do the ceremony over."
Nick peered closely at the unconscious priest. "This one's not going to wake up for some time." He pried the jug of brandy from the man's plump hand and put it to his mouth. Only a trickle of the sweet liquor flowed over Nick's tongue. "He's out for the night."
Ashley frowned, his pronouncement quite obviously not what she wanted to hear. He didn't particularly give a damn right now. He didn't want to be married to her any more than she wanted him. In fact, he'd done everything in his power to avoid this fate.
And here he was anyway.
Nick didn't care for Lady Madeleine one way or the other, but he would have much preferred being leg-shackled to her than Ashley Brittanya woman who made his head spin every time he looked at her.
"Well, at least try to wake him up," Ashley demanded.
Nick stepped back and opened his arms wide. "You want to try, you're welcome to it, sweetheart. I'm going to see if my brother and Lady Madeleine have come up with anything better."
"Fine. And stop calling me sweetheart."
"You prefer another moniker? Because I can think of a few that fit you far better than sweetheart."
"And I can think of several choice names for you. Starting with"
He put a finger over her lips silencing her. "Save them for later." He winked. "When we're alone."
He turned and strolled out the back door, leaving her to call a sampling of her favorite epithets after him.
He smiled and closed the door.
She was still feisty as hell. At least that hadn't changed.
He surveyed the dark alley where he'd left his brother and Ashley's friend. "Well," he announced, "our noble priest is half-seas over. I don't think" Nick paused.
The alley was empty.
Jack and Lady Madeleine were gone.
Nick leaned back against the wall of the blacksmith's shop and wished he had a cheroot. Better yet, he wished he had a strong glass of gin. Maybe if he got as drunk as the priest he'd understand how this had all happened.
It was his fault, of course. He loved a challenge, always had. Well, he had one now. But Ashley Brittany was more than a challenge. She was a trial by fire, a test of his patience and his sanity.
If they made it through even one day without killing each other, he would count their marriage a success.
Jesus Christ. How could he be married? What the hell was he going to do with a wife?
No, not just any wife. What the bloody hell was he going to do with Ashley Brittany? She'd cared for him once, but he'd made damn sure he'd annihilated that feeling.
Regret slammed into him like a hammer. His insides wanted to shatter, but he fought the feeling. He didn't have the luxury of regret. He'd done what he had to do, done what was best for Ashley.
Nick stared at the dark sky and shook his head. Sometimes he wondered if somebody up there didn't have it in for him. Whoever was in charge of the universe had one cruel sense of humor.
A piercing shriek rent the quiet night, and Nick jumped. His hand went to his belt, but his cutlass was still absent.
Damn it! He heard the scream again, and this time he placed it. Inside the blacksmith's shop.
He tore the door open and flew into the room with the only weapon he hadhis fists. Immediately, he knew that wouldn't be enough. Four large men stood in the center of the shop facing Ashley, who waved a poker at them. All four were smiling, and all four were dressed alike: colorful bandanas or plumed hats on their heads, hoop earrings glinting in their ears, and fearsome pistols and cutlasses gleaming at their waists.
Nick shook his head. He should have known.