Isabelle’s head pounded and her stomach growled. For three days she’d stayed trapped in a room with no light, lying on a cot layered in dust. At least she assumed three days had lapsed. Time was near impossible to gauge. Particles from the air tickled her nose, and she sneezed. Groaning, she held her throbbing head and opened her eyes. A small glow peeked from under the door and gave her minimal light.

Slowly, she pulled herself up to sit on the edge of the small cot. She rubbed the bruise on her jaw, the spot where the barbarian had struck her before she passed out that first night. Why hadn’t they come to take her away yet? Why were they prolonging her death?

Voices in the hallway grew loud. So did the rush of footsteps.

Moaning, she lifted her hands to cover her face before realizing they were still covered in dry blood. Hawk’s blood.

Why hadn’t things worked out the way she’d wanted? She wasn’t supposed to kill him. Merely protect herself. In her mind, she had everything mapped out and she found no problems. But there were problems.

Everything that night was a blur, except when he’d kiss her. She blamed him for confusing her. He’d numbed her mind, making her think of his tender kiss. If only she’d been thinking straight, she wouldn’t have stabbed him in the chest.

Her stomach grumbled and she glared at the door. The rotten highwaymen had given her little food, barely enough to stay alive. Birds ate better than this. Was this her punishment for killing Captain Hawk? Starving her to death? It was working.

On unsteady legs, she walked to the door and tested the knob. Locked, just as it had been for three days. This would be the last room she slept in before they killed her. The dinner she shared with Hawk would be her last decent meal. She’d never get to see her aunt and uncle or Mrs. Winters again.

Killing Hawk had not been worth it.

She sulked back to the cot and flopped on the thin mattress as tears filled her eyes in remorse. She dropped her head in her hands, breathing deeply. Perhaps she’d acted too hastily. After all, she’d gotten to know Captain Hawk a little. He tried to show her a giving heart by telling her he would release the prisoners. He’d even promised to find her a solicitor to help her with her father’s estates.

Even with all those good qualities, she didn’t think the captain could have been trusted. Everything she’d heard about highwaymen led her to believe they weren’t honest in their dealings. How could they be when they were branded thieves?

The rattle of keys made her jump. The door opened as the man named Simon brought in a tray of food, just as he’d done since she was held prisoner in here. But this time it was a platter of a variety of meats, cheese, and bread.

She looked at him and scowled. “What’s this? Did you poison the food and expect me to be so hungry I’d have no other choice but to eat it?”

“No. I was given instructions to make you stronger.” He set the tray on the top of the small trunk. “If it was left up to me, I wouldn’t feed you anything. Even poison is too good to waste on you.”

“I don’t understand. Why do I need to gain my strength? Who instructed you to do this?”

Simon folded his arms over his bulging tummy. “Captain Hawk wants you strong, but for what, I don’t know.”

Gasping, she rose to her feet. “Captain Hawk? He’s not dead?”

“He lives.” He marched to her and yanked her by the shoulders, shaking her once. “Your plan didn’t work, wench. The captain is alive, and you’ll get your punishment soon. I, for one, cannot wait to see you suffer.”

He pushed her back on the bed where she landed with a thud, and then he turned and left, shutting and locking the door behind him. She stared at the piece of wood as if she’d dreamed this whole conversation, but sitting beside her was the tray of delicious smelling food. And if the food were real that meant Hawk was alive.

How could that man have lived even after she stabbed him? Happiness rushed through her, making her breathe easier. She hadn’t murdered him after all.

She grabbed a piece of meat and bread and wolfed them down. As she shoved the food in her mouth, her thoughts turned back to Hawk. What were his plans for her? He wouldn’t be nice, that was certain.

Another knock came on the door and a masked man with curly auburn hair brought in a hip tub. Behind him three other men carried in buckets of water. None of them looked at her.

“What’s this?” she asked, not caring that her mouth was full of food.

“Captain Hawk ordered your bath,” the auburn hair man grumbled.

She swallowed hard and choked. “You cannot be serious.”

“I am very serious,” he snapped.

Before the men left, he threw a towel and block of soap her way. Once the door slammed and locked again, she rushed through undressing while stuffing food in her mouth. Even as she sank into the hot water, she munched on a piece of meat.

What could Hawk’s punishment be? Why was he so generous to give her a bath? Right now her mind wouldn’t think, probably due to lack of food, but she washed her hair and relaxed in the tub. When the water turned cold, she climbed out. She toweled herself dry and pulled the shift over her head as she wiggled into it. Next came her drawers. She struggled to lace the stays behind her, but it didn’t tighten as well as she wished. She rolled on her stockings, tying them above each knee. As she picked up her wrinkled and very dirty petticoat and gown, someone knocked on the door. She pulled the garments against her chest, hoping to hide herself.

The door opened and the man with auburn hair filled the doorway again with his large frame. Glaring at her, the man threw in a gown and matching petticoats. “Forgot to mention, Hawk wants you to wear these.”

Once he closed the door, she moved to the garment and lifted it off the floor. Red silk caressed her palm. Lace and bows decorated the bodice, and full sleeves would make her look like a genteel woman. Excited, she dropped her old gown and yanked on Hawk’s gift.

Warning bells clanged in her head, but she ignored them. Did it matter why the captain chose to let her dress so fancy? Yet as soon as the gown was in place and she glanced down the front of it, she groaned. It didn’t exactly fit her very well. Whoever had worn this before had a very generous bosom, whereas she did not.

Sitting on the edge of her bed, she threaded her fingers through her hair, pulling at the knots and snarls that came with not brushing on a daily basis. She grimaced as she finished the task, knowing she would look a fright once her hair dried. Because of the natural waves, if she couldn’t brush it correctly while wet, it was impossible to manage. And of course, how could she style it? She would certainly look like a heathen.

While she waited for someone to come get her, she finished eating. As the minutes passed, her eyelids grew heavy, and her full stomach made her tired. But she couldn’t sleep. She was certain Hawk would send for her soon.

Finally, heavy boots stepped in front of her door and had her jerking to attention. The door opened and the man with auburn hair stepped inside. His glare through the slits on the mask could cripple a young child, she was certain.

“The captain wants to see you now,” he barked.

She stood and smoothed her hands down her gown. She had to admit, the gown looked quite lovely on her. Red had always been a good color for her complexion.

Isabelle followed the man into Hawk’s room. Sunlight streamed through the window, highlighting the captain as he lay in bed. Gone was the mask she first saw him wear, and now a black scarf-like material covered the top part of his face, open holes for his eyes. She liked this one better because it showed a little more of his nose. Next, his bare chest captured her attention, especially the white bandage wrapped around his middle. Thick stubble covered his cheeks and chin, soon to be a full beard.

The man with auburn hair stood against the door, muscular arms folded smartly across his wide chest as he glared at her. Taking a hard swallow, she stepped closer to the bed. Captain Hawk’s eyes were more alert than she’d seen them before. No shadows this time.

“I want to commend you for wearing the gown,” he said.

She nodded. “Thank you for the gift. It’s a fine dress, indeed, but I fear—” she placed her hand over her bosom, “—the gown is too large for me.”

The corner of his mouth lifted. “How fortunate.”

She ground her teeth, suppressing a scowl. Of course he’d think that with the evil mind he had. The scoundrel!

He motioned with his hand. “Come closer.”

She did as instructed until she stood beside the bed. If he reached out his hand, he’d be able to grasp hers. She prayed he didn’t.

“I’ve had a while to think about your punishment.” He cocked his head. “Are you curious as to what it will be?”

“I am, I must say. My stomach is tied into knots wondering what you have planned.”

He scrubbed his chin. “First, tell me something. Are you disappointed I’m alive?”

Her heart dropped. Why did he ask that? She mustn’t let him know how she really felt. “I’ll admit I was relieved to find I hadn’t killed you.” It was the truth. She couldn’t live with the knowledge she’d taken a man’s life.

“Then why did you want me dead?” he asked.

She twisted her hands against her roiling middle. “I didn’t want you dead. I brought the dagger with me for protection only,” she said earnestly. “Rumors have it that highwaymen don’t treat ladies kindly.”

“Such a bad reputation we have come by, is it not?” Hawk tsked. “We’re just men you see, flesh and blood. Soldiers if you will.”

“Soldiers?” Isabelle raised a skeptical brow.

“Yes. Soldiers of a different cause. If I were a member of Prince Regent’s Military would you think me heroic?”

She clenched her jaw, refusing to answer.

A suggestive smirk touched his artful lips. “You would, and then you would have accepted my kiss. But come to think of it… Not once did I hear you protest while I kissed you that night.”

Her face heated, and she wished she didn’t have to confess such a thing. If he were a true gentleman, this wouldn’t be a subject brought up. Then again, Captain Hawk was far from being a gentleman. “Well, if you must know, that had never happened to me before.”

“What hadn’t happened? Being kept prisoner?”

“That of course, and the…” She swallowed hard. “Kiss,” she said softly.

One corner of his mouth lifted for a second, before his expression turned hard again. “I remember you were angry with me, also. You said I killed your father, Miss Stan—hope.”

She hitched a breath, her eyes widening in horror. “How do you know my real name?”

“I’ve known your identity this whole time.”

“But you said nothing or even hinted you knew about my lie.”

“I wanted to see why you were pretending to be someone else.” He rubbed his bandaged wound and grimaced. “I found my answer the hard way, I suppose.”

She lowered her gaze to the floor. What a fool she’d been. “What is my punishment?”

Silence stretched through the room until she raised her eyes to meet his gaze. His lips were pulled thin, his jaw hard. Her punishment could not be good at all.

“First, I’ll tell you what my men want to do with you.”

Holding her breath, she peeked over her shoulder at the other man in the room. His scowl darkened as his narrowed gaze speared her. She turned her head and met Hawk’s stare. “What is that?”

“It was suggested that I string you up by your toes and hang you from a tree for the bears and wolves to chew on.”

Her stomach lurched and dizziness consumed her. These men would indeed do things like that to their prisoners.

“However,” Hawk continued as his finger tapped his chin, “I have different plans that will save you from becoming an animal’s meal, and at the same time, it will be very entertaining for me.”

Did she really want to hear what he had to say? She didn’t dare—but she must. “Go on.” Her legs shook, threatening to sink beneath her until she fell to the floor. But she refused to sit on the edge of his bed and be that close to him.

“Since I’ll be laid up for the next little while due to my wound, I’ll need a cabin boy and a nurse to tend to me.” He lifted one of his eyebrows. “You, my dear Miss Stanhope, will do both jobs.”

She gasped. “What? Are you addled?”

“I might be, but I think it’s a fine idea, nonetheless.”

Heat scalded her cheeks as panic consumed her. “You cannot be serious.”

“I’m extremely serious.” His hand swept the length of her. “And this, my dear, will be your uniform.”

She hitched a breath, splaying her hands over her chest. “No! This gown barely fits.”

His grin widened. “Then I picked the perfect one for you.”

Adamantly shaking her head, she stepped away from the bed. “I’ll not do it. I refuse to lower myself to serving you in such a manner, wearing something so… so…. improper.”

“Then I suppose I’ll have to go with what my crew wants done to you.” He shrugged. “I didn’t want to be so cruel, but I must do what they wish so they don’t start a mutiny. One way or another, you must be punished.”

Blood drained from her face, leaving her weak. He would do that to her. “Is there no other way?” she whispered.

“None whatsoever. You either serve as my cabin boy or you’ll be a tasty treat for animals. The choice is yours, Miss Stanhope.”

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