Authors: Alix Rickloff
“What do you worry about?” Her voice wavered. Broke.
“Starting something I can’t stop—can’t control.” He grazed her side with his hand, the pressure of his touch catching her breath in her throat.
The bugles blew. Retreat. Retreat. But by then, she’d stopped listening.
She took the final step that brought them together. Reached up to skim a hand over the planes of his torso. Caressed with gentle fingers the line of his latest scar. This time, he didn’t stop her. “I’ve had a lifetime of looking after myself. I’ve gotten quite good at it.”
Out of character, the corner of his mouth quirked in a little-boy smile as he stripped her with his molten-honey gaze. “Until I came along, anyway.”
Had she come here wanting this? Knowing what would happen? Her mind screamed at her to get out. Run while she had the chance.
“Conor. Please,” she whispered, not knowing whether it was a plea for him to stop or continue.
Kensington Publishing Corp.
For Maggie & Maureen,
who were always there with advice and laughs
when I needed them most.
who urged me to dream bigger,
and to get my stories out of the drawer
and onto an editor’s desk.
And my apologies to the Cornish language,
which I’ve butchered mercilessly,
but whose beauty seemed made for magic.
“I wonder what it’s like to face creditors without worrying where the money’s to come from,” Ellery pondered to no one in particular as she gnawed on the end of her pen. She sighed and stretched. It had been a month since Cousin Molly had died and even though the two had never got on well, at least she’d been company.
She smelled rain in the damp wind twisting the curtains at the open window. The promise of another spring downpour and the quiet of the empty cottage made her long for Spain and the laughter and camaraderie of her father and his friends as they talked late into the night outside their billet. Then she remembered those same friends scattered dead among the hills and heights around Vittoria and her father’s belly ripped open as if a huge claw had scythed him from chest to thigh, his staring eyes almost angry in his bloodless face. She shuddered. No, she was better off here. She may not quite know how to pay for everything, but there would be food and drink and heat and clothing. A roof over her head that didn’t leak. A home that didn’t move upon the whim of England’s army. All things she’d never counted on before. This was security. This was what she had always wanted.
The rain came, soft at first and then louder and harder, drumming on the roof, rattling in the gutter. So loud, she almost missed the sound of movement outside her window. She went still, listening to hear it again, but the yard was quiet. Nothing stirred but the wind and the rain and the distant wash of the ocean.
As she relaxed back into her seat, laughing off her fancies, a howling cry split the air. It seemed to come from down in the village. It was followed by an answering call farther away, and soon the hills around Carnebwen echoed with the eerie baying of hounds giving chase.
She remembered her father’s campfire stories of the faery court’s Wild Hunt sweeping across the lands searching for villains to capture or kill. Her blood ran cold, and her heart pounded as she crossed to the parlor window to push aside the curtains. She dismissed the notion almost as soon as she thought it. Magic and all things
were no more. Only the most superstitious still clung to their old beliefs. The howling calls of the hounds faded back into the night, leaving the empty silence even more palpable.
She’d always been embarrassed by her father’s obsession with the
realm, and refused to believe in his nonsense. More than likely this was Lord Pearne’s gamekeeper in pursuit of a poacher. Her heart went out to the offender, whoever he was. She only hoped the gamekeeper was there to call off his dogs before they tore the poor man to bits.
The clock struck ten, and Ellery realized she’d been wool-gathering when she should have been working her accounts. A strong cup of coffee would perk her up for the long task ahead. Throwing her shawl across her shoulders, she followed the passage from the parlor to the small kitchen at the back of the cottage. The candle’s guttering flame threw wicked shadows over the walls, and she paused, thinking she’d heard another noise—this time in the kitchen yard.
A cold wind sliced the air, snuffing out her candle and throwing the room into darkness. The latch jiggled on the back door, there was the sound of hoarse, raspy breathing, and a low growling moan prickled the hair at her neck. Her mouth went dry, and a lump formed in her throat. The moan came again, but this time it ended in a curse she hadn’t heard since she’d left the Peninsula.
So far the lock held. Then she felt a slide like silk across her skin as the lock clicked, turned, and the door swung open. She froze, unable to scream or run. A figure loomed in the doorway, one hand braced against the frame, the other hanging heavy at his side. The smell of battle clung to him, the combined scents of sweat and blood and fear and rage all too familiar to someone who’d grown up with them.
He took two limping steps across the threshold, and Ellery’s breath caught in her throat. This couldn’t be Lord Pearne’s harried poacher. This man seemed to suck the very air from the room as he entered, and even draggle-tailed and soaked with rain, his presence commanded respect. He watched her, and she knew the shadows that kept his features obscured did nothing to hide her from his hot golden stare.
“You’re Ellery Reskeen.” Not a question, but a statement of fact.
She swallowed and nodded.
His gaze flicked around the dark kitchen before returning to her, and he gave a long shaky breath. “I’ve come for the reliquary.”
Before Ellery could answer, he took another step into the kitchen and pitched forward onto the flagstones to lie, still as death, at her feet.
Conor came awake to darkness and the sound of rain. Pain knifed through him, the physical agony of blade and claw almost bearable compared to the poisonous mage energy coursing through his body. He shifted, hissing as sizzling heat lanced across his shoulders and down his arms, but he couldn’t wait for the worst to pass. Even as rapidly as his body renewed itself, there wasn’t time. The
could be back any moment. He’d done his best to lay a blind trail for them to follow, but in his condition, it hadn’t been his best effort. If they caught even a hint of his blood, no amount of wizardry would keep them from tracking him—or the Reskeen woman.
Clenching his teeth, he ignored the effects of his battle with the
hunters and sat up. He lay on the kitchen floor in front of a warm stove, cocooned within a nest of blankets. But this was his hostess’s only accommodation. He remained dressed in his damp and bloody clothes, not even his boots removed. So much for Cornish hospitality. Dropping his hand to his scabbard brought him up short. His blade was gone.
He caught her scent just before he heard her voice. “Who are you?”
He spun around, biting back an oath as his knitting skin tore and bled fresh.
She sat in a chair at the far side of the room, gripping a pistol aimed unerringly at his heart. Her hands shook, and Conor prayed she wasn’t as jumpy as she was accurate.
He brought up his hands in surrender. “Do you always greet guests with a loaded weapon?”
She eyed him over the top of the barrel. “Guests? No. Intruders? Yes. And you haven’t answered my question. Who are you?”
Despite the situation, Conor found himself impressed with the girl’s bravery. She might be frightened, but she wasn’t backing down. That was good. She’d need that courage before long. Sooner if the
returned. “My name’s Conor Bligh. I’ve been searching for you, Miss Reskeen, for almost two years. You’re a hard woman to track,” his lips curled, “even for one of my kind.”
He sensed her surprise. She lowered the pistol, just slightly, but enough that should it go off it would hit the brick hearth to his right, and not the center of his chest. “And what is one of your kind? A poacher? I warn you Lord Pearne is relentless when it comes to catching anyone hunting illegally—”
“Do I look like a poacher?” He leveled his gaze upon her and felt her tension increase. The beast in him smelled it on her skin, sensed it in her rapid, shallow breathing. “What have you done with my sword?”
“I hid it. You’ll get it back if you answer my questions.” Conor felt as if his insides had been pulled apart and jammed back together. Arguing with this girl wasn’t helping. His temper flared. “Well, unhide it. I’ll need it.”
She didn’t seem to notice the dangerous light in his eyes. “I don’t trust you.”
“If I wanted to hurt you,” he snarled, “I wouldn’t hack you apart with a heavy blade. My fingers could be around your throat before you had time to scream.”
She cocked a brow. “And a statement like that is supposed to make me trust you? If you’re not a poacher, why were the hounds I heard after you? You’re wounded. I saw the blood.”
Conor flexed his muscles while reaching out with his mind. In both instances, he felt the prickle of healing. “Not as bad as it looked. The
were sloppy. Next time they’ll wait to be sure of a clean kill. Asher doesn’t tolerate failure twice.”
The pistol steadied, and Conor knew she was close to using it. “I’ll ask you one more time. Who are you? What are you? And what do want with me? If these
want a clean kill, I can give it to them.”
Trying to hide his growing annoyance, he began again, taking the time to explain what he could, lying when he couldn’t. “I’ve given you my name. I’m a friend of your father’s. He was holding something for me—keeping it safe. I was injured in the same ambush that killed him. By the time I recovered, you were long gone and so was the reliquary.”
Her brows drew into a puzzled frown. “You knew my father?”
Keeping his gaze locked with hers, Conor edged his way out of the blankets. “I’m sorry he died.” The worst of his wounds burned at the movement, but he kept talking to distract her. “I tried finding you through his army records, but there’s no mention of a daughter.”
Her lips twisted in a cynical smile. “The army doesn’t keep records of the bastards it leaves in its wake.”
Her gaze shifted, and he froze. Calling on the power of the
, he drew her attention back to his words and off his steady approach. A few more feet and he’d be close enough to spring. “Your father must have loved you very much.” He felt the power rise within him, felt it focus on the girl.
“As much as any officer cares for the servant who darns his socks and cooks his meals.”
“He left you well provided for. Made you his heir.”
“Heir? You make him sound like some kind of gentleman. He stole the French loot like the lot of them did when King Joseph’s army crumbled. And when he died, who was to say he didn’t leave it to me? Even so, I’m not quibbling. It got me away from there.” She took a quick, sharp breath, and shook her head.
Her reaction startled Conor into breaking off the link between them. How could she have felt his touch upon her mind unless—
He never finished the thought. With the connection severed, she saw his approach and understood it for what it was. She raised her pistol. “I gave you fair warning.”
Conor’s shout was drowned out by the gunshot. Feeling the rip of the bullet’s path across his ribs, he put out a hand as he hurled himself at her.