Catrin has heard the rumours about Sir Orion Wherlocke’s family and their otherworldly gifts. He’s the one person who can keep her son and his inheritance safe from her late husband’s ruthless brother. As for how to protect herself…it may be too late for that. Orion is facing the worst danger a man of his ilk can find: a woman he can’t walk away from. Catrin is an intoxicating blend of innocence and sensuality, and for the first time, seduction is far more than a game.
But her beauty and fortune have made her a target – one that will dare him to risk everything he’s known – in pursuit of everything he’s ever longed for…
Her heart pounding with fear, Catryn stared up at the first light of dawn streaking across her ceiling. Something bad was coming. She recognized all too well the chill in her blood, the heavy sense of foreboding, and the sour bite of fear in her mouth. In a way that she could never explain well, she always knew when danger approached. Not just danger to herself, either, but sometimes she could sense it approaching others.
Her father had called it instinct and had been rather fascinated by it. He had questioned her extensively and even researched it as much as he was able. Her mother had always found it unsettling, strongly advising her to keep very quiet about it, stressing many times that it was a secret she must hold on to very tightly. Good or bad, it was something she had suffered from for a long time, and she never ignored it.
Scrambling out of bed, she yanked off her nightdress and put on her clothes. Catryn was not sure how she could warn Sir Orion without sounding like a madwoman, but she knew she had to try. She could not hesitate. Whatever was coming, her strange instincts were telling her that it was more than she could deal with alone. It could also reach out and touch Sir Orion, even young Giles, and that was not something she could allow to happen just because she feared a little mockery. Sir Orion and his son were only with her because they wanted to help, and she could not remain quiet about the shadows coming their way.
Creeping across the hall, she opened the door to the room Sir Orion and his son shared, as quietly as she could. Instead of entering a room where two people slept peacefully, unaware of any danger, she found herself facing a man with a pistol. She fleetingly wondered if Sir Orion had the same instincts she did as he pulled her into the room and shut the door. He was certainly well prepared to face a threat. A moment later he lit a lamp and she got a good look at him. Her mind emptied of all rational thought.
Sir Orion stood before her wearing only his drawers and an undone fine linen shirt tossed over his broad shoulders. Catryn stared at his chest, a smooth expanse of taut muscle decorated with a modest triangle of black hair. She had seen a man’s naked chest before, as Gryffin Manor was a working farm, and she had even caught a glimpse of her husband’s once, but the sight had never left her so breathless and warm. Nor had she ever thought it a beautiful sight, but Sir Orion’s chest made her palms itch to touch that faintly golden skin stretched so taut over lean, well defined muscle. She had to clench her hands into tight fists to resist the urge to reach out and smooth them over all that warm skin.
Despite her efforts not to, she glanced down at his legs, his calves, and his bare feet. Even there the man could rouse any woman’s hearty approval. He would need no padding to enhance those well-shaped muscular calves. She nearly shook her head in amazement for his feet were also a pleasant sight, being long and narrow. It seemed ridiculous to her that she would admire a man’s feet, yet she could actually see herself enjoying the massaging of them after he was home from a long day. Perhaps even extending that tender administration to his strong calves, she mused, and then quickly banished such thoughts.
Pushing aside her fascination, she said, “Something bad is coming.” Silently she cursed
and decided the sight of him had certainly disordered her mind, for it was a ridiculous thing to say.
“Bad how?” he asked, hiding his amusement over the way she had nearly gaped at the sight of him and then looked annoyed at him for sparking the interest he had briefly glimpsed in her eyes. “Bad for us?”
It struck her as odd that he was so calmly accepting her statement, but forced her thoughts to remain fixed upon the warning she had come to give him and what they must do next. “It may sound mad, but I have always known when danger is close, and I woke suddenly with all of my alarms clanging. I do not have any idea what is coming, what the exact danger is, but it is coming and it is coming for us. I think we need to leave here now.”
“No more than that? No hint of a vision of armed men, or Morris?”
“You need not make jest of me. I am quite serious.” She was surprised at how deeply it hurt to have this man mock her.
“Oh, I do not jest. I but wished to be certain you were not holding secret any more information because you feared I would mock how you said you came by it. You did not get this sense of danger when your son was taken?”
It was a shock to discover that he was not teasing her but actually heeding what she said. “No. I do not understand why, except to think that perhaps he was not, at that time, in any real danger. What Morris was going to do would be wrong and mightily troublesome but not dangerous. True, he hurt my father, but not as seriously as I had feared, so even that might not have been enough to make me sense a true danger.”
“True. Get your things and bring them in here. I will await whatever is coming in your bedchamber. I suspect you are the one they are after.”
She was entering her room before she really thought about what he had just said. The man had believed her warning with no hesitation, no doubt, and that still shocked yet warmed her. Even stranger, he had inquired whether or not she had also had some kind of vision. No one had ever done that before, aside from her father, and even he had ceased doing so when he saw how it upset her mother. Her warnings had only ever invoked doubt and fear in everyone else. That was why she had found it so easy to follow her mother’s advice to remain silent about them.
That had not always been easy advice to follow, either. The greater the danger, the stronger that un-settling sense of doom. At times she had withheld her words of caution, resulting in harm to a person she could have warned, and she had always been left feeling intensely guilty. Her mother’s assurances that the person would never have heeded her warnings anyway had done little to ease that guilt.
Catryn intended to ask Sir Orion why he had accepted her warning so blithely when she returned to his room after gathering all her things, but he was already dressed and checking his pistols. “You mean to face whatever is coming all on your own?”
“No,” he replied. “While we waited for you in the private parlor last evening, I had a quick word with the innkeeper. I believed it might be wise to know if there was someone close at hand whom we could call on if we needed assistance. He said he had a man or two ready to help if needed, for a small fee. Giles has already gone down and said we have need of them, paid the fee, and come back.”
“I should be paying for such things.”
“I will make certain to keep a tally.”
She ignored the sarcasm that dripped from his every word. “How will you explain how it is you know you have need of those men?”
“Simple,” he said as he started out the door. “I will tell them you are a witch.”
The door shut behind him on the last word of that outrageous statement. Catryn was tempted to run after him and hit him over the head with something heavy. These forebodings she suffered from were not something to make jests about. It was wonderful that he actually listened to her, but she would not tolerate him teasing her about it. When he returned she would also tell him how important it was to keep silent about her odd gift, just as she had done for most of her life. She had to make him understand how dangerous it could be for her if people became aware of how different she was.
Then she thought on how he was walking into danger, and nearly ran out to drag him back. She looked at Giles, who was sprawled on the bed calmly eating an apple. The boy did not seem very concerned about his father. She did not think it was because Giles had no understanding of what danger his father could be facing, because the boy had had a hard enough life to understand such things better than she might. Yet, he could also be suffering from a boy’s absolute confidence in his father, even if it was not warranted. Sir Orion certainly looked fit, but he was a gentleman born and raised, not a man who lived a very hard life fighting for every scrap of food or a few coins to pay for his lodging. Having recalled a little of the gossip she had heard about the Wherlockes, she knew he did not live in some hovel near the stench of the river but in a fine town house in an area that was rapidly becoming fashionable, even though it was rumored to be inhabited mostly by Wherlockes and Vaughns.
“He does not even know what he might be facing,” she said as she sat down on the edge of the bed.
“He is a king’s man, m’lady. He knows what he is about.”
“What do you mean by a king’s man? What does he do for the king?”
Giles frowned. “I am not sure, but it is something important. Men come to visit and there is a lot of talking softly behind closed doors. That is always a sure sign that something important and secretive is about. At times he is gone for a few days and not because he found himself a woman, either. Though he does like the women and they like him. Cody said I was not to speak of it for it was important, secret things done for king and country. I think he finds things or people for the king or hunts bad people who need a quick hanging.”
“And that is why he is so very certain he can find Morris and my son?”
“Aye.” Giles threw his apple core into the fireplace. “That is what he does. That is his gift.”
“I am not certain Morris is leaving us very much of a trail to follow.”
“He is driving a fine blue carriage pulled by four speckled gray mares.”
“Ah, true enough. That is certainly something people notice. I am so accustomed to the sight of it that I sometimes forget how it stands out even in the crowded streets of London.” She nodded. “I discovered all anew how it catches the eye when I was chasing him. Everyone he passed noticed it and not always in a flattering way.”
“And do not forget that my father found us easily enough.”
That was a truth she could not argue with. Catryn sighed and settled her pistol on her lap. Since she was facing the door to the room, she would not have to worry about being caught by surprise. A glance over her shoulder at Giles revealed that the boy was keeping a close eye on the window even though it was rather small for any man to get through. Although it made her sad to think on why Giles would know how to be on guard for any danger, at the moment she was heartily glad of his skills, for it meant she did not have to worry about constantly watching out for him. Giles might be only eight, but he had survived all of those eight years living on the harsh streets of an unforgiving city. He had told her himself that he was very good at running and hiding. Now all she had to do was guard the door and hope that Sir Orion did not suffer any severe injuries during his kind attempt to help her.
Then something he had said blazed across her mind. He had said he wanted to be sure she was not keeping secret any more information just because she feared he would mock her. There was only one thing she had not told him, and for that very reason. Somehow she had given herself away and he knew she had not told him about how Morris might be lusting after her.
She inwardly cursed. That was not a conversation she wanted to have yet knew it was coming. If he had figured it out then he would demand some answers. A part of her wanted to tell him it was none of his business, but she knew that was wrong. It was his business. He was helping her find her son and deal with the idiot who had kidnapped him. He had a right to know everything about Morris, even if it was something that would embarrass her.
Sighing, she shook all concern about that out of her head. There was trouble headed their way and now was not the time to fret over what she had or had not told Orion or what he would ask her when he returned. And he would return, she thought, her body tensing with resolve. Catryn would not have it any other way. Nor would she allow anyone to come in and threaten Giles. That was all she had to keep her mind on now. Everything else could wait until the threat to them all was gone.
Orion nodded to the two men with him and they each moved to the sides of the door while he went and sat on the bed. The sound of men coming up the stairway was easy to hear. If he had not caught sight through the window of the two ruffians slipping inside the inn, he would have thought they were guests. The men Morris had hired had absolutely no gift of stealth. Obviously, Sir Morris was not paying well enough to get truly skilled thugs.
He hoped the innkeeper had not suffered any harm. Orion had told the man to give the men the information they requested, reluctantly but not too reluctantly. Since he was prepared for these men there was no reason for the innkeeper to guard a guest too avidly and suffer a hard beating for it.
For a moment he wondered if he was wrong to think Morris was behind this, but he inwardly shook his head. If this was an attack by enemies he had made, those people would never have hired such incompetent men. Orion knew, despite a lack of any proof, that this was an attempt by Morris to get his hands on Lady Catryn. She may have neglected to tell him about the man’s interest in her, but he had planned with it in mind, so this attack came as no real surprise.
The footsteps stopped just outside the door and, to Orion’s disgust, one of the men spoke with no attempt to keep his voice low. “Are ye sure it be this room?” he asked his companion.
A quick glance at his compatriots showed both men shaking their heads in disbelief at the idiocy of the men they were about to take down. He reminded himself that without Lady Catryn’s warning, even these fools could have been a threat. He would have been back in his bed after relieving himself and possibly half-asleep, a state that slowed down any man’s reactions. Lady Catryn would have been asleep in her own bed and helpless. His anger at
Morris grew sharper as he thought on that.
“This is the one that fool downstairs told us to go to,” answered the other.
“Hope she be no screamer. I hate screaming.”
That the man would even mention such a thing told Orion that he had knowledge of how a terrified woman might act. He was sorry he would probably not have a chance to beat the fool. The man would not get his hands on Lady Catryn, but he deserved a beating for whatever he had done to know that he hated a woman’s screams. A man using his greater strength and bulk against a woman was something he had never been able to tolerate. It had happened occasionally while working for the king, as spies and criminals came in all sizes, shapes, and were of both sexes, but those women were usually trying to kill someone.
The door slowly opened, creaking loudly with every careful inch, bringing Orion’s attention fully back to the men. By now a smart man would realize all attempts at stealth were useless and rush the bed where their victim was supposed to be peacefully sleeping. Orion was almost embarrassed by having the two men, Thomas and John, waiting on each side of the door with him. Anyone with just a little skill and wit could defeat these two idiots and he did not think it too vain to acknowledge that he had both. Now the only advantage to not being alone was that the whole capture-and-interrogate plan he had devised would proceed with much more ease and little bruising.
The moment the men stepped inside and started toward the bed, Orion’s companions shut the door behind them and stood with their pistols aimed at the men’s backs. Orion lit the lamp by the bed before the men could think of the possibility of there being a hostage they could use and then aimed his pistol at them.
“Might we assist you, sirs?” he asked and was pleased to see both men pale. “Disarm them,” Orion ordered his two men, and then he shook his head when both of the intruders fumbled with their coat pockets a heartbeat before Thomas and John relieved them of their weapons. “Slow. Too slow. Too loud. Too stupid.”
“Hey!” the bigger of the two cried, looking outraged despite standing there in the bedchamber of a woman he intended to kidnap, unarmed, and with three pistols pointed at him.
Orion ignored them as Thomas and John set two chairs behind the men. “Sit down,” he ordered Morris’s men and nodded at his own men when the two fools obeyed.
As Thomas and John tied the two failed kidnappers to the chairs, something Orion decided was probably unnecessary, he thought on what he wanted to know. It was possible that these two thugs knew no more than where to find Lady Catryn and where to take her, but there was a slim chance they had been with Sir Morris long enough to have some useful information.
Before he dragged the men to the magistrate to be dealt with, he intended to get them to tell him everything they knew.
“Who are you?” asked the big one.
“That really isn’t your concern,” said Orion. “Who are you and who sent you?”
“I be Jed and this fellow is Robbie. We got sent here by some fancy fellow named de Warrenne to get his woman back. Suspect you be the one who took her.”
“She is not Sir de Warrenne’s woman.”
“But he has her brat.”
“He kidnapped her son and now obviously wishes to add the mother to his collection.”
Robbie frowned. “But the brat and the woman be named de Warrenne, too.”
This was going to be very slow work, Orion thought and sighed. “It is a common enough name in France. Rather like Jones in Wales.” He ignored the sound of choked-back laughter from his men. “So de Warrenne wanted Lady Catryn and sent you to get her. Where were you supposed to take her?”
“We were to take her to the Downs to a sheep shed and wait for him to come and collect her,” replied Jed.
“Nay,” said Robbie. “We would find word on where else to go first. Remember, Jed? Weren’t seeing him then but at the next place, and do not know where that is.”
Jed nodded. “Robbie has it right. De Warrenne said there we get word where to go next and to be careful dragging the woman around with us. He told us she was his and so not to bruise her much. You sure she—”
“Very sure,” Orion replied through tightly gritted teeth as he fought the urge to pistol-whip both men for the ease with which they spoke of not bruising Lady Catryn too much.
“Huh. Ne’er thought the man would be lying. Women run a lot.” Jed shrugged his big shoulders.
“Thought that was what she did. Saw she was following him, too, and was thinking she done changed her mind.”
“She wants her son back.”
“Not his son then. Thought so. Said that, aye, Robbie?”
“You did that, Jed. Brat calls him uncle, too. Should have thought on that more.”
Orion suspected it would have been a painful process if they had tried. “How long have you been with de Warrenne?”
“Just long enough for him to give us some money and tell us what he wanted us to do. Found us in the pub, he did,” answered Jed. “Came in with a couple of big fellows and sat down and said he had a job for us to do. We needed some coin. Ain’t worked in a while. So, here we be.”
“The Hanging Tree in the next village.”
“How apt,” Orion murmured, pleased with the way both men paled as they abruptly realized the possible consequences of their actions. “Did de Warrenne say anything about what he planned to do with Lady Catryn when he had her in his grasp?”
Jed shrugged again. “Said he had to take her home that she needed to be with her family and all. The little lad was with him. One of those men had a good hold on the boy. Boy said his mother would never be family with de Warrenne and she was going to come and get him and leave de Warrenne coughing up her dust or maybe just shoot him in his big, fat head. Thought that a fine threat, I did, but he got a good slapping for it.”
Robbie nodded. “Got another for telling the man he would pay for that first slap because someone was going to tear out his innards and tie them around his neck in a bow. That was a fine, fine threat, that was. Better than the first. Got the lad knocked to the ground though.”
That was not something he would tell Lady Catryn, Orion decided, even as he wondered how a five-yearold child could think of such a gruesome threat, one that sounded oddly familiar to him. She was worried enough and, wrong though it was for de Warrenne to touch the boy, a slap would not kill Alwyn. Orion would make the man pay for it though.
He looked at his men. “Get them on their feet. We will take them to the magistrate.”
Jed and Robbie protested, but Orion ignored them as they all left the inn. The magistrate’s home was not a long walk away and he was impressed by the speed with which the man answered their early morning rap at his door. He also appreciated how the man had neither protested nor admonished him when Orion had punched both men, something he could no longer resist doing as the two had babbled on about how they had not intended to hurt the lady too much. The magistrate had summoned two men to come and drag both unconscious fools off to a cell.
Orion told the man all that had happened and was given a date to return to tell his tale to a judge, since an attempted kidnapping was a crime beyond the magistrate’s powers to judge and sentence. That was an inconvenience he was not looking forward to, but Jed and Robbie needed to be dealt with. Any man who saw nothing wrong with kidnapping women needed to be transported or hanged. There was no doubt in his mind that both men had a long history of petty and brutal crimes for which they had somehow escaped punishment.
As they returned to the inn, they met up with three more men sent by Morris. Morris may have seen the limitations of the first two men and sent more in case they were needed to get the job done. Orion and his men quickly beat them unconscious although not without gaining a few bruises themselves. He stood staring down at the men sprawled on the ground.
“Jed and Robbie did not mention bringing others with them,” he murmured.
“Might be because these were sent to keep a watch on the two idjits,” said Thomas, the larger of his two men. “Might also be because they are so witless they think these fools will be out to save them.”
Orion nodded. “I thought the same. Their mistake.” When one of the men groaned and partly opened his eyes, Orion bent down, gripped him by his filthy hair and asked, “Who hired you?”
“Fellow named de Warrenne,” the man answered and then turned his head to spit out a tooth.
“To do what?”
“Watch those fools Jed and Robbie and finish the job if they mucked it up. If they did it right we was to make certain you could not come rushing to the lady’s rescue. Man was not happy when he discovered you had joined with her.”
Orion silently cursed, for that meant de Warrenne now knew for certain that Lady Catryn was not alone. “And where were you to meet to turn over the woman or collect your coin?”
“On the Downs in a wee sheep shed he would leave word telling us where to go next. So, nay having gone to the sheep shed, have no idea where that is.”
At least Jed and Robbie had told the truth, Orion thought. “Morris find you in a pub?”
“Aye. How’d you know that?”
Dropping the man’s head so abruptly it hit the ground hard and caused the man to curse, Orion watched as Thomas and his brother John tied up the three men. “Can you take them to the magistrate and tell the man what happened? I should not leave Lady Catryn and my son alone any longer. Who knows how many more of these twits de Warrenne has sent after us? Also, is it possible for you to go to this sheep shed on the Downs to see what message may have been left?”
Both men nodded and Orion paid them well before slowly making his way back to his bedchamber. One thing Jed had said had confirmed a growing suspicion in Orion’s mind. De Warrenne wanted Lady Catryn, and she knew it. His anger over her keeping such a secret grew a little with each step he took. He had asked her to tell him everything, and she had not done so. A part of him understood. There were a lot of good reasons for a woman to keep silent about a man other than her husband lusting after her. Yet this situation called for complete honesty. Knowing every fact, no matter how trivial it might seem, was how one achieved success in a mission, a lesson he had learned early in the dangerous game he played for king and country.
Still angry, Orion leaned against the wall outside his bedchamber and attempted to calm himself. It was easy enough to forget the two men he had just handed over to the magistrate. Just as easy to forget the three that had just been taken to the magistrate to join their friends. He had been expecting Morris to try and get him out of the way simply because he was helping Lady Catryn. That would have happened even if there were not a few facts she had neglected to tell him. It was a little harder to not consider all he would like to do to Morris for hiring thugs and thinking he could kidnap Lady Catryn and make her bend to his will.
Suddenly, he grinned. Morris would be in for a large comeuppance if he actually believed he could make that woman bend to his will. Lady Catryn had spirit, and she also had a temper when provoked. Her marriage had been a failure, judging from all she had said about it, which was not too much; but he suspected she was not a woman to silently accept her husband’s acting the bachelor after the marriage vows were said. No, Morris would never be able to get Lady Catryn under his thumb even if he somehow got her in his hands. He never had the ghost of a chance, and even if he had, stealing her son had ended that forever.
Orion had no intention of letting the man get his hands on her. He had guessed that Morris was motivated partly by lust for Catryn, but she should have told him. He should have been planning to protect her from that from the very beginning. The only reason he had men on hand to call to his side and help was because he and Giles had known she was hiding something.
What struck him as odd was that it was more than a need to protect a woman from a man she did not want that was brewing his anger at Morris, and at her for not telling him the truth. There was a thread of sharp possessiveness running through all the emotion he was having so much trouble subduing. That was something he had never felt for any woman. When his affairs ended, either by his choice or because the woman strayed, he always walked away without another thought and never felt a twinge of any emotion upon seeing that woman with another man. He knew he would feel more than a twinge if he saw Morris even try to put his hands on Lady Catryn. Orion was also concerned about how even the thought of walking away from her bothered him.
Shaking off such thoughts as they accomplished nothing, he decided it was time to confront Lady Catryn. He had not stilled all of his anger over what she had neglected to tell him, but now he could talk to her about it without a lot of yelling or sharp words. That would have to do. He opened the door, planning his first words, and found himself facing a pistol aimed straight and unwavering at his heart.
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