"Aye, wiv yer pistol."
Sebastian pinched the bridge of his nose in a vain attempt to ward off a headache. Damned vixen, he thought, but a reluctant smile curled his mouth nevertheless. Olivia had fire and spirit-qualities he admired in his bed partners.
Good God! Horrified, he shook the thought right out of his head. No. He was not going to even think about bedding her. Bedding her meant keeping her, and he sure as hell wasn't keeping her. She deserved better than a pirate.
"I shall see to her," he grumbled. "Have the men begin repairs to her ship. I want to return Lady Merrick to her father posthaste."
He was briefly surprised at how easily he used his title to refer to her, and then hastily shoved the thought away.
"Aye, Captain." Will's laughter followed him below deck.
Sebastian rapped on his cabin door. "My lady? 'Tis I. I'm coming in." He entered cautiously, peeking his head around the door and searching out her shapely form. He found Olivia sitting at his desk, drowning in his shirt, leveling a pistol at his chest. The mere sight of her made him ache. Golden and determined, she was a tigress.
"Do you know what you're doing with that?" he asked.
"Yes, of course."
He kicked the door shut behind him and headed toward the sideboard for a much-needed libation. Her gaze burned into his back, causing him to smile. "Care for a brandy, sweet wife?"
"Is there any proof you are my husband?" she asked curtly.
"Is there any proof you're my wife?" he retorted, pouring her a glass of the deep red liquid with the hope that it would soothe her ill humor.
"The ring . . ."
Sebastian held his hand over his shoulder and waggled his ringed finger at her.
"Who taught you the use of a pistol?" he queried as he warmed the liquor over a candle.
"The foreman on my father's plantation."
When he turned to face her, he found his gun resting on the desk and Olivia staring pensively out the window. "Your father approved?"
"My father doesn't know. I wanted to learn. There was no cause to distress him."
Withholding a smile, Sebastian moved toward her, admiring her elegant profile, with its pert nose and obstinate chin. Her bottom lip was caught between her teeth, and the thought of claiming that lush mouth with various parts of his body nearly made him hard. He set her brandy atop his nautical charts and propped his hip against the desk.
"What are you thinking, love?" he prodded gently.
She reached for the snifter without looking, and he pushed it into her hand. "That you should put on a shirt."
"I'm quite comfortable, but I'm touched by your wifely concern."
In the midst of a large swallow, Olivia choked. He thumped her back until she waved him off. "I'm fine!" she gasped. Wiping the tears from her lashes, she glared at him. "What are your intentions, Phoenix?"
Sebastian reached over slowly, giving her time to draw away. She didn't. The pulse at the base of her throat fluttered wildly as he rubbed the cuff of his shirt, brushing the edge of his finger deliberately along her bared wrist. He felt her shiver and hid his satisfaction. The attraction, it appeared, was mutual.
"The men have begun the necessary repairs to your ship. It should be seaworthy again within a sennight, at which time we'll head to the nearest port. I will leave my ship and travel with you to England. We shall arrive on British soil, seek out our parents, and unravel this debacle. Then we can obtain an annulment and part ways."
"Oh . . . I see." Olivia looked out the window again.
Sebastian sat tensely at her silence.
"What if I don't wish to have the marriage annulled?" she queried finally.
His eyebrows shot up. "You wish to be married to a wanted criminal?"
Her brief side-glance was intriguing and arousing, showing a surprising lack of fear. By all rights she should be terrified, yet she appeared completely at ease. She swirled the rest of the brandy in the snifter, watching the play of light with undue attention. "Lord Merrick is not a wanted man."
"Do you believe I am Merrick?"
Olivia shrugged. "I'm reserving judgment at the moment."
He downed his brandy and then moved to the hammock that hung across the corner. Hopping in, Sebastian settled his hands behind his head. "You appear quite comfortable for a woman in the bedchamber of a pirate."
She blew a loose lock of hair off her face. When it fell right back into its previous annoying place, she reached up and freed the entire glorious mass. His body hardened instantly. Olivia Merrick was stunning, a siren.
"I don't appear to have much choice in the matter, and so far you have deported yourself much better than the men under your charge."
"I apologize for your mistreatment," he said, watching her plait her waist-length hair. He'd never observed the act before and was startled to realize he enjoyed the intimacy of it. "It will never happen again."
Tossing the finished braid over her shoulder, Olivia downed the rest of her brandy in one gulp. Her eyes watered, and she waved at them with her hands.
Sebastian couldn't contain the obvious question. "Why would you wish to maintain the marriage?"
A moment passed before she found her voice, and when she spoke, it was husky from the fiery abrasion of the potent liquor. The thrill elicited by the throaty sound made his cock strain against his breeches.
He imagined for a moment that she was hoarse from passionate cries of his name, pleasured sounds he'd call forth with deep, drugging thrusts of his cock into her lush body. Sebastian knew already she'd be hot and wet. Olivia was a passionate woman in ordinary matters. In the bedroom, she would most likely burn a man alive.
"For all the reasons I agreed to the marriage in the first place," she murmured. "To please my father, to run my own household, to have children and the security of a man's name." She ran a fingertip over a delicately arched brow before locking gazes with him again. "No one knows your secret, and I certainly won't enlighten anyone. I will have the protection and status of your name, with none of the inconveniences of a husband. In fact," she said, obviously warming up to the topic, "if you are indeed Sebastian Blake, the situation pleases me in a way it didn't before."
He stroked his hand down the center of his chest, noting the way her eyes followed the movement with ravenous attention. "You would maintain my house, bear my name and my children?"
"Of course," she replied, blushing as her gaze returned to his. "I am aware of my responsibilities as your . . . er . . . Lord Merrick's wife."
"You would have to welcome me to your bed." He paused for emphasis. "Often."
Her eyebrow lifted. "If you are who you claim to be, I would welcome you eagerly."
Sebastian stilled at that. In fact, he couldn't move. The image her words brought to mind had him throbbing painfully. "My title would elicit eagerness in you?"
"I am not that shallow," she said, with a lift of her chin.
"Then my form is what you find so attractive?"
Olivia snorted. "Attractive? You are a heathen."
He shot up, setting the hammock swaying perilously. "A heathen?"
"Yes, look at you." She waved in his direction. "Your hair is unfashionably long. Damn near as long as mine."
"It is nowhere near that long!" he argued, put out. "And don't swear!"
"And your muscles," she continued, as if he hadn't spoken at all.
"What about my muscles?" he growled.
"They're huge. You look like a savage." She rose from the chair and moved to stand in front of the window.
"A savage?" he sputtered, his feet hitting the floor with a thud.
"Most definitely." She coughed, her shoulders shaking.
Sebastian stalked toward her. "I'll have you know, most women find me irresistible."
"Really?" she drawled, sounding unimpressed.
"Yes, really. I was quite the rake when I resided in London," he bragged, unaccountably upset by her dislike of his appearance.
"I'm certain you thought you were," she choked out. "Or perhaps you were more civilized at that time."
His eyes narrowed with suspicion. He spun Olivia around to face him, only to discover she was laughing, her lovely eyes sparkling with wicked amusement.
"You're mocking me." He smiled against his will.
"Just a little," she gasped, clutching her stomach.
She was either mad from the stress of the day's events or . . . enchanting. Sebastian became engrossed in the intimacy of their shared amusement, the rest of their problems fading into obscurity. His hand came up and drew a line down the bridge of her pert nose, which she wrinkled when he tapped the tip.
Olivia stared at him with admiration in her dark eyes, a look that salved the sting his ego had felt mere moments ago. "A savage with a delightful dimple," she murmured under her breath, brushing her fingertip along his cheek.
"Why are you out here?" she asked almost breathlessly. "You, a nobleman of vast wealth and prestige. Why turn to piracy?"
"Ah . . ." He ached to pull her closer. His throat tight, his hand dropped to her shoulder. "You believe me."
She snorted again, a thoroughly unladylike sound that he found charming. "I'm just foxed is all, and willing to indulge you for the moment."
"My lady, you should pay greater attention to your choice of wording. You have no notion of the indulgences I require." At her confused frown, Sebastian clarified, "I am no gentleman."
"You are an earl, my lord."
"It's a title, Lady Merrick, and it has nothing to do with my character."
"You have been trained and bred for your-"
"I have been cursed," he said hotly. "My older brother, Edmund, was to bear the title, but he was killed in a duel five years ago."
"A duel?" she repeated, her eyes widening. "How dreadful! I am sorry."
"Yes, well . . . so am I, I assure you. Especially since he was defending my honor." He gave a harsh laugh. "As if I had any to quibble over."
"He must have loved you very much."
"Edmund loved the title," Sebastian scoffed.
Olivia met his intense gaze without flinching. "What happened?"
He longed to make some flip, roguish, or snide comment to deflect her prying. He wanted to sneer at her and cut her, scare her, and push her away. But his next words would do the deed just as well. "I foolishly compromised a young lady. When her older brother came to me and demanded that I marry the chit, I refused. She was no innocent, as I knew firsthand. And the way we were caught left no doubt in my mind that I'd been snared in a trap."
Her hand flew to her mouth, and his own mouth curved derisively. "Instead of demanding satisfaction from me, her brother approached Edmund, whose damned sense of honor prevented him from refusing. I learned of the duel only after it was over. My father woke me from my bed with the news." He didn't even attempt to hide the bitter edge that crept into his voice. "I was foxed and debauched when he shouted the congratulations at me, as if I'd planned Edmund's demise." He closed his eyes. "Edmund was groomed for his place. I, on the other hand . . ." His voice trailed off.
Why was he telling her these things? The words falling from his mouth had never left his lips before.
"You, on the other hand, are too wild and untamed for such a station," Olivia finished.
Sebastian opened his eyes to find her facing the window, allowing him a modicum of privacy to collect himself. He moved to stand behind her, close enough so that his breath stirred the strands of hair at her crown and her evocative scent fired his blood. His hands clenched into fists.
"I'd wager you were a wild child," she continued, her honeyed voice pouring down his spine, hardening his cock. "You most likely could not bear to sit through your lessons, got dirty regularly, kissed girls you had no business kissing, and defied your father at every turn just to spite him for having such a perfect firstborn-a sibling you could never hope to measure up to."
Stunned at her perceptiveness, Sebastian stared sightlessly out the window.
"Am I close?" she asked.
"Too close," he admitted gruffly. "How did this conversation progress so rapidly to the deeply personal?"
"Your remarkable eyes betray the ruthlessness of your nature and your restlessness. I've been pondering what circumstance could possibly have driven you to this life you live." She turned to face him. "Did your father tell you how sorry he was that it was not you who had died instead of Edmund?"
His breath hissed out through clenched teeth. Olivia looked through him, into him, seeing things she had no right to see. Her eyes filled with a sympathy he didn't want, damn her. Lust, yes. Passion, admiration-he wanted all of those from her. But pity . . .
His teeth ground together until his jaw ached.
"So you are determined," she continued, flaying him with her words, "to prove to him and anyone else paying attention that he was indeed correct and you are a worthless 'spare' for his heir. Being the man you are, you can do nothing half-measure. No, you had to rebel in the worst possible manner. Perhaps you've even hoped to be caught in the midst of your misdeeds. Then your father's humiliation would be complete. Why else would you wear the signet ring that betrays you?"
He longed to smash something, to tear something apart. Furious, torn open by her censure, Sebastian grabbed her shoulders and yanked her to him. His voice came low and full of scorn. "Your words reveal the astonishing depths of your naïveté."