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Book Heat Level: 4
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Lainie MacPherson let the crumpled wanted poster drop to the ground. Her stomach knotted and fear snaked down her spine. Beneath the shadows of the hooded cape she wore, Lainie searched the room for her enemies.
Every man here fit that description.
Forced into a trap of her own making, out of courage, friendless, and terrified Lainie did the only thing she could think of to bring the pig Bertram to his knees.
She would steal the temptingly displayed secret papers that were on the table in front of her. Papers she hoped showed troop movements--papers stamped with the King's seal--papers she could hand over to her brother, Hawke.
First Lainie made sure the shadows in the tavern hid her from view, shrinking into the dark interior, hiding her face with the hood of her cape. She tried not to stare at the dark-haired stranger who had absent-mindedly set his jacket and satchel on a table with the documents she sought poking out almost as if they challenged her with a secret invitation. The man’s dangerous, dark looks sent a strange sensation of heat coursing down her spine.
English soldiers like Jericho Manning and Rory Slater were more dangerous and more terrifying than any highland lass should have to deal with. To make the situation worse, she didn’t need a dark-haired stranger to make her fingers shake and her insides quake.
Lainie inhaled a deep steadying breath. Easy, she told herself. Go nice and slow. The stranger looks half-drunk and the tavern maid sitting on his lap has all his attention.
"What’s in it for me?" Rory asked Jericho, his haggard features lighting up with anticipation and snagging Lainie’s attention.
"Only what Bertram wants to give you himself." The dark stranger looked at the
English officer. The fingers on one hand tapping the oaken table top impatiently.
Rory’s toothless grin sent a shiver of fear down Lainie’s spine.
"Jericho always gives me his left-overs," Rory said. “You going to give me this one?”
Rory’s diabolical laughter sealed the darkness in her heart.
Jericho nodded then leaned forward. "I want the lass. And I’ll have her before I give her over to Bertram. She’s only a whore."
Lainie nearly gasped but stopped herself. Courage, Lainie, you’ve been in tighter spots than this. It was not her plan to give herself away to these men.
She inhaled a long, deep breath once more and reached for the satchel beneath the soldier's jacket. A few more seconds and all would be hers. A few more seconds and she would hand the papers over to a friend. Someone who would carry them to the Scottish King.
She committed no treason here.
She was Scottish to the core.
This was for the good of her country--not England. Besides she’d already been labeled a traitor by the crown of England. She had nothing to lose.
If Bertram suffered a set back, his lack of attention caused the problem.
Aaron Slade let his hands slide up and down the arms of the lass sitting on his lap while his steely gaze seemed to be riveted on Lainie MacPherson.
He knew what the young woman was up to before she’d committed herself to stealing. He had read the determination in the girl's posture when she backed into the shadow-filled corner of the tavern, pulling her dark cloak around her slender frame and letting her hood shadow her face. The combination of steady eyes and slightly trembling fingers had given her away.
He would make sure neither Jericho nor Bertram could get their sweaty hands on the girl. He’d heard stories. He believed them--every word.
Jericho didn’t even realize the girl he sought stood in the corner. Moreover, Slade didn't mean to tell Jericho. Slade had his orders. He was to find her and bring her to Edinburgh where she would be tried for high treason. The charges were lame. Now that he watched her stealing the phony papers he’d planted in the pocket of his jacket, he wasn’t quite so sure.
The rumors had it that a lot of men had wanted the lass, but none had gotten her. He’d thought all along Bertram had been one of those men. A cynical smile shifted the line of Aaron’s black mustache. There was nothing new in that particular game. Teasing and promising men something they wouldn’t give was a primal game played by every woman ever born.
But there was something very different about this woman.
An air of sadness and vulnerability emanated from her. Aaron methodically lowered his lids when he glanced from the girl who sat in his lap to the woman whose fingers were closing over the sealed documents. He couldn't help but stare at her. The woman's eyes were a clear, uncanny blue that matched the color of the sky on a bright summer day. The few strands of hair escaping her hood were so blond they were nearly white. The cloak she wore was plain, but did nothing to hide the lush fullness of her figure beneath the cloth. The vision he imagined set him to thinking about what it would be like to unfasten the cloak, strip away all the other fabric covering her and touch the luminous skin that lay beneath the tattered cloak.
Aaron was irritated at the direction his thoughts went. He was certainly experienced and old enough to keep sexual need away from his mission. He had been taught and teased by the most expert females on this earth. He’d learned more than one lesson at their hands.
Looking at Aaron, Jericho swirled the contents of his tankard.
"I don’t figure I can trust any man. Who’s to say that if you find the girl, you won’t want to keep her for yourself," he said to Aaron. "She might be worth a damn sight more than what old Bertie is paying you to bring her to him."
The devil you say," Rory retorted with a smug grin. "I have it on good authority and knowing old Bertie for years, he likes nothing better than to share soiled goods. We both know he’s the only one who can save the girl from a conviction of treason."
Jericho looked coldly at Aaron but didn’t refute Rory’s statement.
Aaron urged the tavern wench from his lap and kept his eye lids lowered slightly. He watched the girl, and if he was right, she was about to dip her hand into the pocket of another man. She had moved from her spot near his table, using the shadows in the tavern to hide herself. She brought up a fat purse and slipped it inside a different sack than the one she’d put the papers she’d stolen from his satchel.
The stories about her were intriguing enough, but it was the rumors of Lainie MacPherson’s spying that held his interest. To him any one who could spy on his country was a traitor. But Lainie MacPherson, if she was anything like her brothers, was Scottish bone deep. To Lainie, what she did here would not be treasonous because she would be loyal only to the Scottish King James. In addition, the rumor--the ones of Lainie prostituting herself for information--didn’t bother him. Women did what they had to do to survive. And if the rumors were true, he would find a way to enjoy her charms while he took her to Edinburgh for trial. To him women’s flesh was sweet and soft, but women were as fickle as newborn kittens. They were far too easily corrupted, and so many times they turned out to be less than they seemed. He never let any woman touch his heart.
Silently, Aaron measured the distance between the door and the MacPherson wench and wondered at the innocence, or was it guilt, he saw flash in her eyes for one brief moment when she met his glance. From what he’d heard, the Scottish cause was everything to the MacPhersons. This would not be the first time they pitted their clan against the English crown.
But this time it was the most foolhardy.
The smile he gave Lainie made her look away. He watched as her shoulders quivered, and she shrank back into the shadows. He felt a wave of nausea sweep through him when he thought of Lainie being at the mercy of a man like Bertie for even a single night, much less until Bertie grew bored with her and gave her to Jericho and Rory.
Silently, he told himself he would never let her fall into Bertie’s hands, because he meant to bring her straight to the authorities in charge. If she were guilty of treason, she would be prosecuted. If she were not guilty, he would see she was set free and he would personally escort her home.
For the first time, he felt justified in his mission and the exorbitant pay he would receive for handing the girl over. If anything, there was a certain justice in cheating Bertie out of his spoils. He acknowledged that once he caught Lainie, he would have not only Rory and Jericho after him, most likely the MacPherson brothers would be on his tail as well.
A man bumped into Lainie near the door. Aaron thought he would see her pick this man’s pocket too. The movement was quick. Except for the slight of hand and Aaron’s vigilance, he would have never seen the exchange of the satchel from Lainie’s hand to the man's. The document Lainie just handed over was worthless, but the stolen goods were not. They would find out soon enough he had baited her, set the trap, and she’d fallen for it. Would he have Lainie in his possession when that was accomplished? Or would Jericho?
Aaron shifted slightly, not wanting to give Jericho and Rory any indication that he meant to leave. His hand was on the hilt of his sword. Silently, he measured the catlike elegance of the girl with the determined posture and long back. It would not be much longer when Jericho and Rory discovered their own missing goods.
He rose and walked toward the door, barring her way if she meant to flee yet he was not sure he would stop her. "You sure you wouldn’t want to stay a while and keep me company, Miss…what was the name again?" Aaron asked, though he knew very well.
"’Tis naught your business," she said softly, lowering her dark sooty lashes as if she meant to flirt. "A gentleman would not ask a lady he didn’t know."
Lainie MacPherson’s voice sounded calm and controlled. Nevertheless, he knew she’d been in this position often enough, that she knew how to handle herself and no longer hesitated, knowing full well the consequences if she did. In any case, her compliance was not a part of his plan for her abduction.
Aaron’s instincts kept whispering that this woman was somehow different from women like Sarah and Anna, unfeeling women who cared nothing about anyone save themselves and the fortune and titles that could be gained from marrying into the right families. At the same time, he had no doubt Lainie MacPherson could kill a man.
"You should take heed," Aaron said softly, ignoring the other man who had now slipped quietly out the door.
"Remove your hand. sir," she told him indignantly.
Aaron shrugged, outwardly indifferent, his fingers settling once more on the hilt of his sword, ever wary of the girl and her next move.
The tavern’s hush changed into a humming of male voices as people left their drinks and focused on the pair standing so close to the door where unbeknownst to them an unspoken challenge had just been issued by both parties.
The stakes revolved around a woman named Lainie MacPherson and release from the commission he’d bought so many years ago he couldn’t remember. As for the bounty, Aaron Slade didn’t care a damn about it.
Aaron was certain he would end up the winner in this cat-and-mouse game. Besides the obvious, he wondered how the woman with trembling mouth and steady blue eyes had ended up on a wanted list issued by King Henry himself and standing in one of Scotland’s most infamous taverns. So intrigued by her he would move heaven and earth to learn her story.
"I know what you handed over to your companion," Aaron said with a bit of impatience, trying not to give away his purpose before it was necessary.
"I don’t know what you mean," she said softly with a sardonic smile gracing her intriguing mouth.
"You stole something that was mine. I mean to get it back. You need to remember that England rules this land--all of it." He inhaled deeply the soft scent of her that seemed to be hers alone. It seemed to possess all his senses.
Her shoulders stiffened as her gaze raked over him. "I’m Scottish, and loyal to James," she said, her voice wavering. "Henry doesn’t rule me or my kin."
"Slade," Jericho said, stepping forward, "what’s--"
The wolfish smile Aaron gave Jericho stopped him cold in his tracks.
"Who’s the girl?" Jericho asked pointedly. "You the sharin’ kind, Slade?"
"No one of interest," Aaron said smoothly lying to Jericho.
Aaron moved in front of Lainie, blocking the men from seeing her face and her hair. He didn’t know if they’d recognize her but something Rory had said earlier made him think Rory at least had met her. Given a choice, he would have taken her by the arm and escorted her away from these two cutthroats. Now he didn’t have a choice. He would have to let her go and hope he could catch up to her.
Lainie could melt into the forest if given a chance. She knew these lands better than most. And her companions were sure to be waiting for her a safe distance from the tavern. If her friend wasn’t waiting for her, where would she go? A sudden and unmistakable sickening feeling swept through him. Fear for this slip of a woman clouded his judgment.