DUKE OF THORNS sneak peek!

Duke of Thorns coverI’m excited to announce that Duke of Thorns (Heiress Games #1) is coming in the next two weeks. This book features Gavin, the Duke of Thorington, who starred as the villain in The Earl Who Played With Fire. He meets his match in Miss Callista Briarley, one of the last heiresses of a scandalous family who is about to create an entirely new scandal of her own.

I’ll post buy links as soon as they are available, but to whet your appetite, you can read the first chapter below. Enjoy! And I can’t wait to share the rest of the story with you in the next couple of weeks!

Somewhere on the Atlantic Ocean – February 1813

She was going to die.

And when Callista Briarley found her watery grave, as her father had six years earlier, she would deserve it.

The rasp of blade against bone drew her attention as soon as she entered the officers’ dining room, new and horrifying enough to bring it to the fore over the firing of twenty-four pounders and hoarse, shouted orders from the deck above. Callie swallowed.

Briarleys always died pursuing something stupid. Callie should have known this voyage would kill her.

Captain Jacobs had assured her it would be an easy victory, a matter of minutes. The merchant ship they were trying to capture was outmanned and outgunned. But he hadn’t anticipated the appearance of a British warship. That’s when he had ordered her below, sending his cognac with her. As though she was cargo, and not the ship’s owner.

It was her fault the man was here. It was her fault they were all here. If she survived the battle, she would have to fix it.

She waited until the surgeon had finished, not wanting to distract him with her presence. Callie’s maid, Mrs. Jennings, and two cabin boys held the injured sailor down in case he awoke before the butchering ended. She swallowed again as the saw slid through the last bit of flesh. The surgeon grunted as he caught the arm, then handed it to the cook’s mate, casually, like it was a shank of lamb instead of a man’s limb.

She took a breath and joined her maid at the head of the table. “How can I help?” she asked.

“You shouldn’t see this, miss,” Mrs. Jennings said.

“No one should. But since I am here, I may as well do something.”

The surgeon ran a knife through the flame of the lamp, heating it until it was red hot. She forced herself to watch as he pressed it against the stump of the man’s arm. She didn’t bring a handkerchief to her nose as the smell of burning flesh overwhelmed her. The sailor stayed blessedly unconscious, but Callie watched it all, bearing witness.

She had agreed to let her men become privateers. Captain Jacobs’s persuasive nature, so like her father’s, had convinced her.

But this…

The sizzling stopped. The cannonfire continued.

The surgeon ordered one of the cabin boys to swab and sand the floor in preparation for more patients. The cook’s mate and the other cabin boy carried the sailor off to a berth. Callie waited until they were gone, then started to pace again.

“Don’t even think of going above, Callista Briarley,” Mrs. Jennings warned.

Her lady’s maid, who had been her nursemaid as a child, knew her too well. “I want to do something,” Callie said.

“You have to learn someday that you cannot fix everything,” Mrs. Jennings said. “This is something you cannot fix.”

Callie stared at her for a moment. Mrs. Jennings somehow looked serene, even with blood splattered over the apron she’d quite sensibly donned before assisting the surgeon. Her hair had greyed a bit since she’d left England with the Briarleys nearly twenty years earlier, and she’d added at least two stone of weight to her short, formerly slender frame. But she was just as imperturbable as always.

Callie, by contrast, was perturbed. Very perturbed. And she was sure she looked wild enough to give her emotions away.

“I will fix it,” Callie said. “I will fix all of it.”

“You can’t very well fix that poor man’s arm,” Mrs. Jennings said gently. “Nor can you decide whether we drown. You’d do much better for yourself if you had a bit of whisky and waited for this to be over.”

Sometimes Callie hated how well Mrs. Jennings knew her.

“Captain Jacobs gave me cognac,” she said, trying to lighten the mood. “I don’t think I have the stomach for cognac and whisky both.”

“I’m sure you would if you tried. You can stomach more than a lady should.”

“Are you encouraging my hoydenish ways now?” Callie asked. “If I’d known a sea battle was all it took, I would have done this years ago.”

“Hoydens are more useful in sea battles than ladies are,” Mrs. Jennings said frankly. “Drink your cognac, and we can discuss your manners in the morning.”

Callie smiled. But she didn’t take her maid’s advice. She paced instead, waiting.

It felt like an eternity, but it must have been only another five or ten minutes before she heard a most welcome sound. The shouting above turned, in an instant, from battle cries to celebration. And Callie realized the guns had stopped.

She rushed out of the cabin and scrambled up the ladder-like stairs before Mrs. Jennings could remind her to behave herself. The deck teemed with men — most of whom appeared to be whole — and was partially shrouded with fallen sails. She looked instinctively to the mast. Her colors still flew.

She whooped — a scream of vicious, victorious joy that a woman wasn’t supposed to feel, let alone give voice to. If she were gentler, more ladylike, she would have immediately thought of the loss of life and limb, of the brutality of men and their warlike ways. She probably should have fainted, or at least pretended to.

But despite all her misgivings, she still liked to win. And the fact that her men had won — and against the British in the bargain — gave her swift, sharp delight. If she’d remembered her hat, she would have tossed it in the air.

She would put a stop to their privateering. But she understood the appeal of victory.

Captain Jacobs was too observant to miss the moment when her voice joined the din. “Ahoy, Miss Briarley,” he shouted from his post near the wheel. “I give you His Majesty’s Adamant.”

He gestured grandly toward the ship next to them. It had suffered more than her own Nero, which was a rather stunning fact. Nero was a sloop, designed more for speed than direct assault, and had been refitted for battle only a few months earlier. Adamant had been purpose-built for combat, but had somehow been outgunned despite its superior strength.

Some of her men had boarded Adamant and were herding the British sailors below decks. She watched the proceedings for a few moments, her pleasure slowly cooling. By taking a British frigate in his first engagement of the cruise, Captain Jacobs would be more convinced than ever that privateering was their destiny.

She picked her way over the ropes and rigging to join him near the wheel. “You must be pleased with yourself, Captain Jacobs,” she said as soon as she could talk without shouting.

The captain laughed. “Cognac settled your nerves, did it? Always knew you’d come around. I told you this would be over within minutes. Nero can prevail against all but the worst enemies.”

Even though he had just won a great victory, Callie privately doubted that Nero was as good as he boasted. Nero had started as a merchantman, part of the fleet her father, Lord Tiberius Briarley, had won at a card table in Jamaica in ’05. The man he’d won it from had shot himself as soon as he’d sobered up and realized what he’d lost. Lord Tiberius had relocated with alacrity to Baltimore, taking Callie but leaving her mother’s grave behind.

She’d never quite forgiven him for that. Not that it mattered. Tiberius did what Tiberius wished to do.

And when he had wished to seek out a new fortune in the Orient in ’07, Callie had stayed behind in Baltimore. She’d left enough homes behind. At seventeen, she was more interested in refurnishing the Baltimore house than she was in smuggling opium.

At eighteen, when she got word that he’d gone down with his ship, her desire for a home only grew.

But homes required money. And the only money she had was tied up in Tiberius Shipping. In the last five years, Callie had grown it into a thriving business, with Captain Jacobs ostensibly at its head. His wife had chaperoned her, rather ineffectually, and they had both let her have her way with the enterprise. Between Callie’s business sense and the captain’s knowledge of the ships under their command, Tiberius Shipping had become a significant part of Baltimore’s maritime economy.

The war, though, had changed everything. And with the embargoes against American commerce in Europe and the British blockade descending around Baltimore, there was more money to be made from privateering than from commerce.

Provided, of course, that one didn’t think too closely about the danger of such endeavors.

She wished Jacobs would have confined himself to their agreement, looking only for easy targets. “It’s a shame you had to shift your efforts to the frigate instead of taking the merchant prize,” Callie said.

Captain Jacobs grinned. He was in his early forties and had spent nearly his whole life at sea, adding deep grooves to the corners of his eyes and a dark tan that Callie might match if she kept forgetting her hat. But for all the discipline and difficulty of life on the water, the captain still had a sense of humor.

“I didn’t say I failed to take it,” Jacobs said. “I merely forgot to present it to you.”

He gestured starboard. At a distance of nearly half a league, the merchantman should have been able to escape them while they dealt with Adamant. But she had been completely unmasted and now floated, helpless, waiting for capture.

Callie held out her hand for Jacobs’ eyeglass. She brought the ship into focus and saw men standing, rather glumly, along the rails, watching Nero for their next maneuver.

“How did you take them both?” she asked.

“That ship, Crescendo, must have the worst luck. She could have escaped when Adamant arrived — we’d only exchanged two or three volleys, suffering no injuries ourselves, but we had to turn all our efforts to Adamant. But the fools didn’t take their opportunity. And then Adamant, in one of the worst displays of gunnery I’ve ever had the privilege to witness, overshot us completely with their first round and took Crescendo’s mast clean off. If the captain isn’t courtmartialed for it, the British have gone soft.”

“And where is the captain of Adamant?” Callie asked.

“Surrendering his sword to my first mate, if he knows what’s good for him,” Jacobs said. “My first mate will take Adamant to Havana for the prize court to distribute, if it’s not too damaged to sail. And we’ll continue there as well, either towing Crescendo or sinking it if we need to set a faster pace. Once we’re all safely arrived there, you can buy passage on to England as you planned.”

They were still a week out from Havana, with any number of hostile British ships between them and their destination. Callie looked across to Adamant again, using Jacobs’ eyeglass this time. As he’d said, the British captain was surrendering his sword, looking deeply chagrined. He had a smudge of soot across his cheek that looked utterly out of place with his crisp officer’s coat and sharp, patrician features. Whatever he was saying to the first mate looked like it was meant to be a threat, but the first mate just laughed it off and tucked the sword under his arm before gesturing the captain toward the hold.

Adamant’s captain looked over at Nero. She dropped the eyeglass. Seeing the man’s face in such close relief didn’t bring her pleasure. But at thirty yards, the set of his shoulders made his anger obvious. He shaded his eyes to look at Captain Jacobs, as though memorizing whatever he could of the man who had beat him. Then his gaze swept over her, contemptuous. He’d already dismissed her.

She handed the eyeglass back to Captain Jacobs. “You’ve made yourself an enemy there,” she said as the British captain went down into the hold of the ship he’d lost. “I’m sure he expected to be given his sword back after the surrender ritual.”

“Cowards don’t deserve their swords,” Jacobs said. There was no humor in his voice as he said it. “He disabled Crescendo and struck his own colors well before they were at the point of going under. He won’t be on the seas enough to trouble me if that’s the best he can offer.”

“I’m beginning to reconsider our arrangement,” she said. “I didn’t expect you to court such dangers.”

Jacobs laughed. “That ship has sailed, if you’ll pardon the joke. If you want to tell the crew they’re to stop earning prizes when they’ve just succeeded, you’ll need more than me at your back. And I won’t be there — I’ll be leading the mutiny against you.”

He still sounded jovial. Nothing would prick his mood that day. But there was steel in his voice.

And she couldn’t do anything about it. Not when the men would listen to their captain instead of their owner.

He continued as though he hadn’t threatened her. “You should go below again, Miss Briarley. You’ll grow cold up here once the excitement wears away. No need for your services until we assess the value of Crescendo’s cargo, and that will have to wait until we set ourselves to rights. We’ll find you a pretty bauble in their hold. You’ll feel better about all of this when you see your share of the prize.”

She didn’t obey immediately. But he didn’t expect her to. He just left her standing where she was, rooted to the deck.

The unfairness of it all held her pinned. She nibbled on her thumbnail, a habit she returned to when she forgot her gloves. Capturing merchant ships and striking her own blow against the British had seemed like a decent enough plan. The American government was willing to grant privateering licenses to supplement its inadequate navy, and it felt like half the ship owners in Baltimore had become privateers since the war had begun. Jacobs was happier than she’d ever seen him, putting his old battle skills from the British Navy into better use. He’d never been much for business. He’d been content enough letting her manage the sales and manifests while he sailed his own ship and acted as a figurehead.

But when she’d agreed to his plan to turn her ships into privateers — naïvely, she could now admit — she had thought they would only take commercial vessels. She hadn’t expected to go up against the very British Navy that her captain and half her crew had deserted from over the years. Not that she had any pity for the Navy — if they insisted on mistreating their sailors so dramatically, they deserved to lose them.

The Navy wouldn’t see it that way, though. If they captured her British-born sailors, they would immediately press them back into service. They needed warm bodies to fight Napoleon, and their brutal discipline would force obedience. They would imprison the Americans, letting them languish in horrid conditions while waiting for a prisoner exchange.

And, she supposed, there was a possibility she could be imprisoned as well. Even more unlikely, since no one in the Navy would believe a woman capable of running a privateering enterprise. And she was technically British, not American. But that wouldn’t make it easier for her to sleep at night.

Callie sighed. She went below, reluctantly. It felt cruelly unfair to leave the victory to the men while she hid in the shadows, pursuing a more clandestine strategy. But she would follow through with her plan.

When she reached her cabin, Mrs. Jennings was there. “Did you fix everything?” her maid asked.

“You are not setting a good example for my tongue,” Callie said. “Don’t you always say sarcasm is unbecoming?”

Mrs. Jennings smiled. “You may pretend it wasn’t sarcasm if you’d like to answer the question.”

“Then, as a matter of fact, I did fix everything. Not the poor man’s arm, of course. But Captain Jacobs took two ships. We aren’t in danger of drowning. And I’ve decided to wear my hat and gloves for the rest of the voyage.”

Her maid looked more shocked by the last statement than the first. “Have you taken ill, Miss Briarley?”

“No,” Callie said. She smoothed a finger over her ragged thumbnail. “But I have the Briarley name to think of.”

“You have never cared for the Briarley name.”

“Of course I haven’t. But if I’m to become the Briarley heiress, I must maintain appearances.”

Mrs. Jennings’s mouth dropped open. “I thought you weren’t going to accept. You said we were going to England to wait out the war.”

Callie had refused every offer to return to England after her father had drowned on his final, quixotic voyage. Lord Tiberius Briarley had been a conniving charlatan — but he had also been the youngest son of the Earl of Maidenstone. Her grandfather had insisted, repeatedly, that she move to England, but she had declined. Her father often lied, but his hatred of his father had seemed genuine.

She should have refused the most recent invitation as well. The old man was dead now, leaving terms that seemed purpose-built to make her and her only remaining female cousins fight over Maidenstone Abbey and the rest of the estate. The man her grandfather had left in charge of settling this farce — Ferguson, the Duke of Rothwell and her closest male relation on her grandmother’s side — had invited her to a summer house party at Maidenstone.

It wasn’t a party, though. It was a matchmaking opportunity, with a single goal in mind — whichever girl made the best match, according to Ferguson’s judgment, would inherit the estate.

It was ludicrous.

She had very nearly turned it down. She didn’t want a husband. From what she’d seen, husbands were only good for kissing and making babies. If she married, the man would want her to keep his house and follow his lead until he buried her.

She’d far rather run a shipping company and sacrifice the kissing, if it meant she could follow her own lead.

But with the war escalating, she’d felt she had no other choice. She wasn’t wanted in Baltimore, either. Her father had never bothered to become an American, and some factions in the republic’s government wanted to see British citizens like her removed from major ports like Baltimore, no matter her allegiances.

Callie saw the writing on the wall. Captain Jacobs wouldn’t bow to her command, not when he had bloodlust and prizes dancing through his dreams. The American government could order her removed from the coast at any moment, costing her the comfortable, if lonely, life she’d built in Baltimore. She thought she could bribe the authorities to let her stay, but if she could not, the alternative was untenable.

She had nowhere to go.

Callie didn’t give a fig for the Briarley legacy, or for Maidenstone Abbey. But the idea of winning it, of having something permanent…

She liked the sound of that. Even if it meant marrying someone she didn’t particularly care for. This business with Captain Jacobs had reminded her, cruelly, of her place. She couldn’t rely on a friendly business agreement to control her company, or her life. She needed a husband, preferably one who could be trained — one who would let her use his name for her own ends. If she became a widow, even better.

She was already a privateer. She may as well become a mercenary. It was a good plan, if she ignored the morality of it — and what marriage to an unloved stranger might mean.

Callie pulled on her gloves like they were gauntlets. “Find me a hat, Mrs. Jennings. I must find the most easily managed husband in England. And I must look the part of a lady if I’m to do it.”

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