About the Book
Ariana of Clairmont would risk anything to save her kidnapped brother, a quest she knows is fraught with peril. Her only ally is Braedon le Chasseur, a formidable knight with a mysterious past, whose scarred face and brooding nature mask a soul filled with pain. Ariana fears this dangerous man and the secrets he strives to conceal—but Braedon's touch is pure seduction, his kiss a potent lure that tempts her into a passion she is powerless to resist.
Once known as The Hunter, now haunted by a dark legacy he struggles to deny, Braedon lives in a world of shadow and isolation—until he is thrust together with an innocent beauty in need of his protection. Embarking on a journey that will lead them to a legendary treasure, Braedon will be forced to confront old enemies and the stunning secret of his true nature—or risk losing Ariana and the only happiness he has ever known...
Winner of the Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Award for Best Historical Romantic Adventure of the Year
RWA Rita Finalist for Best Paranormal Romance of the Year
Excerpted from Heart of the Hunter
by Lara Adrian
Published by: Lara Adrian, LLC (March 2012)
Copyright © 2004-2017 by Lara Adrian LLC. All rights reserved.
(Note: Excerpt may contain explicit language and sexual situations).
In a time long ago, before man knew what it was to keep time, there existed a place where light, faith, peace, and prosperity reigned. That place was called Anavrin, a kingdom of mist and magic. A secret world that thrived for untold centuries, it remained hidden away from the mortal plane that surrounded it like so much shifting sand. Anavrin's people knew nothing of what lay on the other side of the veil that separated their secret kingdom from the world Outside. They lived in perpetual summer, knowing no pain or fear or vice. They knew nothing of human frailty or wickedness…that is, until an Anavrin princess made the tragic mistake of falling in love with a mortal man.
Her brother was King, and his Queen and lady wife had just given birth to their first child, beginning a strong new branch of Anavrin royalty. As was tradition, the babe's arrival would be sanctified with a drink from the sacred cup of Anavrin: the Dragon Chalice, wrought of gold and bejeweled with four enchanted stones. The princess was honored to be the maiden chosen to fill the cup from the virgin well, a holy spring that flowed from a woodland waterfall marking the space between Anavrin and the Outside like a curtain of dark glass.
Alone at the well, the princess heard a strange sound carrying over the rush of the falls. It was the sound of a man—a mortal man, wounded and moaning on the other side of the water. The princess knew no fright or anguish, but she knew compassion, and she wanted to help ease this man's suffering. She called to him, and was surprised to find that he heard her. Indeed, he could hear her, but the sheltering wall of the waterfall concealed her from his sight, as it had concealed all of Anavrin through the ages. He beseeched her to come out of hiding and help him, assuring her that he meant her no harm. The princess knew it was forbidden to interact with folk from the Outside; unthinkable to pass the barrier of the falls. But the man's pain caused a peculiar ache in her breast that was too great to ignore.
Setting the sacred Chalice beside the well, she approached the rushing waterfall and stepped to the Outside. To her dismay, the man's injury was worse than she could have imagined. He was dying; she could see it in his fierce, but dulling, blue gaze. She wiped a shock of sweat-soaked golden hair from his brow, unveiling a face of breathtaking appeal. He was beautiful, and she fell in love with him at once. She had to help him, but she knew not what to do. He begged her for water, but the scant handfuls she drew from the falls' pool did little to quench his thirst.
The princess recalled the Dragon Chalice, filled with water from the sacred well and now sitting some half-dozen paces past Anavrin's threshold. There was power in that jewel-encrusted cup, power enough, perhaps, to help the man who lay bleeding in her arms. She could not bring the Chalice to him, for well was it known that a terrible ill would befall Anavrin if ever the cup was lost. Indeed, it was said that a black and dangerous dragon would be unleashed upon the kingdom should they ever lose the cup and its protective powers. In order to save the man as she so desperately wanted to do, the princess would have to bring him to the Chalice. She would have to bring him into Anavrin itself.
Certain it was the right thing to do—the only thing to do—the princess urged the man to his feet and helped him toward the falls. He was too weak to question her purpose, too weak to understand the extraordinary gift she meant to give him. The princess fed him from the Chalice and the man drank as if he had gone a lifetime without water. He drank until the color returned to his face, until the wound that tore him open ceased to bleed, then, at last, began to heal. His strength returned, the man started to draw himself to his feet. It was then that the King and half of Anavrin came thundering into the glade.
They saw the Outsider standing there, embracing the princess in his tattered, bloodstained clothes, and knew at once what she had done. The man was brought back to the royal castle and made to feel a guest in the lavish royal chambers, but behind closed doors, the King searched for a means to be rid of him. Anavrin's wise old mage brought an answer. The Outsider would be given a second drink from the Chalice, this time containing a potion that would erase all memory of the day's events. He would recall nothing of Anavrin, nothing of the princess or how she had spared his life. While the man dozed, he could be returned to the Outside none the wiser.
Upon hearing of the King's intention, the princess pleaded with him to allow the man to stay at Anavrin. She begged him as her brother to bind the man to her, pleading that he allow her to wed the Outsider. But the King would not hear of it. He warned her that she knew nothing of this man, that to permit him to stay was to put all of Anavrin in jeopardy. As planned, the King arranged to have the Dragon Chalice waiting for the man that evening at table.
What he did not expect was that his obedient sister would defy him.
Unable to bear the thought that she would lose her beloved, the princess had warned the man not to drink from the Chalice that night. She told him that she would wait for him in secret, and together they would flee Anavrin to be together on the Outside. Her beloved did not keep her waiting for long. With a mad ruckus of shouts and boot falls following on his heels, the man burst from the castle's great hall and swept her along as they ran out to the yard and on, into the darkening woods. The princess knew the way to the well, and, within a few breathless moments, they stood hand in hand in the mist of the falls. With scarcely a backward glance, the princess leapt with the man through the waterfall, leaving behind all that she knew of Anavrin.
Nay, not all, she realized but a heartbeat later.
For bundled neatly under the man's arm was the sacred Dragon Chalice. The bejeweled vessel that had been forged for the first King of Anavrin an eon before, its four vibrant stones said to ensure the very life of Anavrin itself. Now those stones glowed with unholy fire beneath the rag that concealed the cup. The princess knew a jolt of unfamiliar alarm as she watched the Outsider unwrap the Chalice. For the first time in all of her interminable existence, she knew fear. She tasted regret, but alas, too late.
The cup seemed to hum with a peculiar pulsing power, causing the man's hand to tremble as he fought to keep hold of his stolen prize. Violently, the cup shook and tumbled out of his grasp to hang suspended before him. The four stones glowed more fiercely. A shot of light seemed to grow out of the center of the Chalice, so strong it fractured the treasure apart at its core. No longer a single cup, but four—each bearing one of the glowing stones—now twined together in a halo of blinding light, twisting and climbing high above the heads of the princess and the Outsider. The man tried to grab them back, but their light was too pure, too fiery. In a sudden flash, the treasure burst into vapor and simply vanished.
For the rest of his days, the Outsider lamented the loss of the Chalice. He blamed the princess for the trick that stole it away from him, but she knew nothing of the magic that had occurred. A brigand and a scoundrel, the Outsider did not believe her. Nor did he wed her, but he bred his mortal whelps on her and drove himself to madness with tales told over too much wine of a kingdom spun of gold and a jeweled cup that gave him life renewed when he was as good as dead.
Over time, his drunken ramblings grew legs of their own, feeding rumors that the Dragon Chalice and its four mystical stones did, in fact, exist—if scattered to opposite corners of the realm. It was suggested that the man who reunited the Chalice, bringing the four parts to the whole, would be granted immortality. Indeed, legend stated that he would have wealth and happiness beyond imagining, for to claim the Dragon Chalice was to win the key to Anavrin itself.
For some, the legend was nothing more than a fairy story, the fantastic delusion of a penniless sot who was not worth his own spittle. Others believed the Chalice to be the possible salvation of mankind, a gift to be recovered and cherished as the holiest of relics. For still others, the Dragon Chalice and its secrets were very real…and there were those among that number who would stop at nothing to have it for their own.
Winter bore down on London like a great winged beast. Howling and angry, it darkened the midday sky as it swooped in off the sea, clawing at the town with ice-sharp talons of frigid cold, and spitting a heavy, wet rain. Lady Ariana of Clairmont clutched the edge of her hooded fur mantle and drew it close to her face as she and her riding companion urged their mounts toward one of several snow-drifted dockside taverns. Clouds of gray woodsmoke belched out of a stone chimney that braced the side of the squat establishment, indicating the warmth to be had inside, but there was little else to recommend the place from what Ariana could see.
The tavern's sole window had been shuttered and nailed tight in an effort to combat the cold; the wet, weather-beaten boards rattled in weak protest as another blustery gale blew down to assail them. The winter storm had driven everyone of sense to seek shelter until the worst of it passed. Now the street and its surrounding shops and buildings seemed all but deserted, save a few ragged souls who looked to have nowhere else to go. Ariana wished to be out of the cold, too, but her appointment here was of the utmost importance and she could not let a little wind and sleet keep her from her meeting.
Her brother's life depended on it.
She pivoted in her saddle to address the knight who rode beside her, speaking at nearly a shout to be heard over the swirling winds and stinging rain. "Are you certain this is the place, James?"
"Aye, my lady. The Cock and Cup, above Queenhithe, just like he said." The Clairmont guard lifted his leather-gauntleted hand and pointed to a snow-spattered, icicle-fringed sign that banged and creaked over the tavern door. "Our Monsieur Ferrand seemed a merchant of some means. Would that he'd chosen a more suitable location for this final meeting. This place looks more a stew than public house."
"Never mind what it looks like," Ariana replied, despite that she shared James's misgiving. "We won't be long delayed here, after all. Just time enough to deliver our passage fee and accompany the Monsieur to his ship at the docks below."
James grunted, then led her toward a small stable adjacent to the tavern. They would leave their horses there while they met with the Paris merchantman who had agreed, for a not insignificant price, to transport them across the Channel to France on the morrow. As they left the covered shelter and dashed for the tavern, James issued a fatherly warning. "Stay well near me once we're inside, my lady. I don't know what that beady-eyed Frenchman is scheming, but methinks 'tis beginning to smack of treachery."
Her gloved hands under her cloak for warmth, Ariana felt for the small purse affixed to her girdle. Their passage fee to France—indeed, all of the coin she could scrape together for this sudden, clandestine trip—jingled in the bottom of that modest pouch as she followed close behind James, her booted feet sloshing through the snow and mud. Slung over her shoulder on a thick leather strap and knocking against her hip as she ran was a different purse, this one larger, heavier, the contents far more valuable. For this second satchel contained the sole purpose for her risky, unseasonable travel. The reason she left Clairmont to brave the arduous ride to London and now found herself willing to put her fate in the hands of a man like Monsieur Ferrand de Paris.
Simply put, she had no choice.
Her brother, Kenrick, had not returned from an autumn trip to the Continent, but it was not until a ransom demand arrived at Clairmont just a sennight ago that Ariana understood the reason for his delay. He was being held captive by enemies she knew nothing about, powerful enemies who had taken an interest in something Kenrick had been studying. Ariana had but a mere month's time to assemble and deliver his ransom in secret, or her beloved brother would be killed. Meeting these considerable demands would be a difficult task enough in fair weather, next to impossible when winter was full upon the realm.
But she would not fail him. Kenrick had always been there for her, from the time she was a child. Her best ally, dearest friend. She would not fail him now. God help her, she could not.
Ariana silently intoned the vow as James paused at the tavern door. "Stay close," he repeated, then clutched the iron latch in his gloved fist and pushed the thick panel open with his shoulder to let her past.
A gust of wind all but blew Ariana into the lamplit gloom of the tavern. The whistling gale seized the hem of her mantle as she crossed the threshold, whipping it about like an unlashed sail. Slick, wet snow swirled in at her feet, adding to a muddy puddle of water that had collected on the tread-worn dip in the floor just beyond the door—a puddle she did not see until she stood in it, her sodden boots taking on even more water in the long moment it took for her toes to feel the added cold. She dared not cry out as she stepped aside of the chilly puddle, perhaps because she was too tired. Perhaps because she was loath to call more attention to her arrival in the smoky, surprisingly crowded tavern.
As it was, a good number of heads were already raised from their cups, too many pairs of eyes rooting on the young noblewoman in the fox-lined cloak who no doubt looked as though she ought to know better than to wander this far down into the docklands of the city. Ariana removed her hood and swallowed her sudden trepidation. She squared her shoulders in a pose she hoped conveyed confidence, but she was very grateful for James's solid bulk at her back as he pulled the door closed behind him, then came to stand protectively beside her. From the corner of her eye, she saw him hook his mantle around the hilt of his sheathed sword, a clear statement that anyone with designs on her would have to first get through him.
James nodded a curt greeting to the tavern keeper. "Ferrand de Paris?"
"Aye. Over there, sir," came the reply, accompanied by a jerk of the old man's grizzled chin.
Ariana followed the gesture with her gaze, toward a table in the corner of the room. The rotund, greasy-faced French merchant was engaged in conversation with another man who was seated on a bench across from him, a broad shouldered giant with wind-tousled, overlong hair that gleamed as dark and glossy as the richest sable against the pale gray wool of his tunic.
His back was to her, but even without seeing his face, Ariana could plainly tell that his proud carriage and demeanor marked him as a man of some consequence. He was no mere knight, for there were no spurs riding at the heels of his tall leather boots, and although he wore a sword at his hip, the center of the pommel glowed with the milky iridescence of mother-of-pearl. A nobleman, she guessed, perhaps bargaining over one of the merchant's fine treasures from abroad—or, rather, arguing, she amended, as she and James drew near enough to hear the stranger's deep growling voice.
"Don't insult me, Ferrand. This is a simple matter. You hired me to deliver the silks and I did it. Over a month ago. Now, I want what you owe me, or I'll take it out of your vermin hide."
The man spoke the Norman French of England's noble classes, his cultured accent as smooth as a polished stone even if his threat bore the harsh and naked edge of a jagged blade. Monsieur Ferrand evidently understood the danger he provoked, for his nose twitched, and the cup he raised to his lips wobbled in his shaky hand. He set it down without drinking.
"Come now, let us settle this like gentlemen," he said, a suggestion that earned a snorted oath from across the table. "Meet me at the dock on the morrow and I will gladly pay you your fair share of the trade."
The man in the gray tunic shoved himself up off the bench, his large hands braced on the table's edge. He gave a forcible push as he rose, pinioning the merchant into the corner with the weight of the table across his torso. "You'll pay me tonight, Ferrand. I'm through with your stalling."
Ariana had supposed the man was tall when she first spied him from across the room, but she had not been prepared for the sheer enormity of his person until she found herself a scant two paces from him at the table. He grabbed his mantle from the bench and whirled away from Monsieur Ferrand with a snarl, a move that brought him face-to-face with Ariana and James, who stood at her side, now pointedly clearing his throat as if to prompt an apology from the man. No such courtesy was offered.
The dark-haired rogue drew up just short of trampling them and paused there, towering over Ariana in rude silence, a menacing expanse of muscle and scarcely contained fury. But if his considerable size and surly mood unsettled her, it was nothing compared to the jolt of horror she felt when she tipped her head back and looked up at his face. Too harsh to be handsome, he radiated an unforgiving, ruthless power that was made all the more chilling by the presence of a terrible scar that ran the diagonal length of his left cheek. The long silvery welt of skin marked an old wound that must have sliced him open from temple to jaw. It had been a savage cut, perhaps meant to kill him, had the blade continued its downward path to his throat.
Ariana was vaguely aware of her hand, which had risen to hover protectively at her neck as she stared up at the stranger's angry scowl. She must have gasped upon seeing him, understandably so, but the man seemed unfazed by her reaction. Indeed, the wry twist of his lips, the narrowing of his smoke-gray eyes beneath the heavy slash of his dark brows, suggested he took a measure of amusement at her fright. He stared back a moment longer than a gentleman should, taking her in, from the top of her smart little traveling hat and crispenette, to the fashionably pointed tips of her sodden, calf-leather boots. She distinctly heard him chortle under his breath before he tilted his head slightly, a subtle move that made a hank of his shaggy black hair fall forward to cover part of the scar, although nothing could obliterate the savagery of his face completely.
With a lingering glance at Ariana, then a belated acknowledgment of James, the man stepped around them without a word to stalk out of the tavern and into the wintry bluster outside.
"Monsieur Ferrand, are you all right?" Ariana asked, once the stranger was gone. "Who was that awful man?"
"Oh, him?" The Frenchman had extricated himself from his trapped position in the corner and now rose to greet them. "Pay him no mind, he is no one. Just one of my business associates." He wagged his hand in casual dismissal. "Sit, sit, please. Let us get on with our own business, eh?"
When Ariana moved to accept his invitation to join him at the small table, James's firming grasp on her elbow held her back. "Do all of your business associates have to threaten you before you make good on your bargains, Ferrand?"
"That man is a thief and a scoundrel, monsieur le chevalier. Now he seeks to add extortion to his bag of tricks. You saw him, after all, the insolent beast. Did he look like a man you would trust at his word?"
"Not especially." The Clairmont guard grunted. "But then I'm not sure you do, either."
"James," Ariana sharply interjected, shooting an apologetic smile at their host. "We don't want to insult Monsieur Ferrand, now, do we? Certainly not when he has so kindly agreed to provide us transport to France. Do you forget how many inquiries we made upon our arrival in London? There was scarcely anyone willing to make the crossing as quickly as we needed. Monsieur Ferrand's assistance is greatly appreciated, and I'm sure he is a man of his word."
She could tell James remained skeptical despite her attempt to persuade him, but he said nothing more to indicate his mistrust. He knew what was at stake here. He understood the urgency—the near desperation—of Ariana's desire to get to France. James had served her family nearly all his life; he would not jeopardize Kenrick's safety any more than she would.
"Yes, well, then," said the Frenchman in the moment of silence that followed. "Shall we firm up the terms of our arrangement, my lady, or does your husband speak for you?"
"I am not married," Ariana replied, seating herself on the bench opposite Ferrand. "Sir James comes with me from Clairmont as my escort."
"The lady's bodyguard," added James, "should things take a misfortunate turn."
Monsieur Ferrand bared his teeth in a rather poorly effected smile. "A task you undertake with admirable zeal, I see. Who wouldn't, when the body one is guarding is as lovely as hers?"
Ariana did not like the implication in that statement, nor did she miss the tension creeping into James's features as he stared down at Monsieur Ferrand. "Your terms, merchant. Let's get to them without further delay and have done with this meeting."
"I believe we agreed upon seven sous sterling, did we not, Monsieur?"
Ferrand turned away from James to deal instead with Ariana. "Yes, my lady. That was the sum."
"Very well." Ariana reached for the coin pouch on her girdle and proceeded to count out the somewhat steep price of passage. "There you are, " she said, sliding the small pile of coins toward the merchant seaman. "Payment in full, upfront, as you required."
The Frenchman's stubby fingers curled around the silver, which disappeared quite neatly into his waiting purse of fine brocade. "A pleasure doing business with you, demoiselle." He grinned, then signaled to a serving wench to bring him another cup of ale. "Join me in refreshment, won't you? Then I will show you to my ship. I would advise you stay the evening below deck, so we might set sail for France with the next tide."
Ariana declined when the serving woman came to the table and offered her a cup of ale. "If 'tis all the same to you, monsieur, would you take us to your ship now? The past couple days have been rather long and taxing. I would very much like to rest awhile in preparation of our crossing."
Ferrand grunted into his full mug of ale. "As you wish," he said, setting the drink down with a shrug. Standing up, he donned a dark blue cloak that hung on a peg of a nearby beam. "I am docked just below Thames Street at Queenhithe. This way, s'il vous plait."
They followed the merchant toward the door. A rough-looking huddle of seamen slouched at a table at the center of the room—some of Ferrand's acquaintances, evidently, for he hailed them in French and cuffed one on the shoulder as he walked by. Five hairy faces looked up at the merchant's greeting, some of them openly leering at Ariana.
"Something is wrong. I don't like the looks of this, my lady," James whispered as they stepped out into the street with Ferrand. She could feel the knight tense beside her, knew his battle instincts were on alert even before she saw his hand come to rest on the pommel of his sword in anticipation of trouble.
It did not take long to arrive.
Ferrand pulled on a pair of leather gloves as he stood beneath the sheltering eaves of the tavern roof. It was still spitting drizzle and cold, still dark as dusk though it was not long past noontide. The merchant seemed not to mind the weather overmuch. He stood there, grinning expectantly.
"Which way to your vessel?" James asked. "We don't want to stand around in this freezing muck all day."
"I told you, serjant," Ferrand drawled, using the derogative term for a soldier of the lower class. "I am docked at the quay below. But you'll be staying here, I think."
Ariana's gasp underscored James's vivid oath. "What is the meaning of this, Monsieur Ferrand? We paid you for passage—"
"You paid me for your passage, demoiselle. Not his. He stays."
James took a step forward, ready to lunge for the little merchantman. "Why, you cheating bastard. I knew you carried the stench of a thief on you."
Before he could get near enough to grab him, the group of seamen from the tavern poured out into the street behind them. Two of the big men seized James's arms and wrenched them back until his face contorted in pain. As he struggled futilely, another man stole his weapon and brandished it before him, chuckling maliciously.
"Wait, please!" Ariana cried, terrified for James and seeing her chances of reaching Kenrick in time begin to slip away. With shaking hands, she widened the drawstring of her coin purse and fumbled around for another seven sous. She thrust the handful of silver at Monsieur Ferrand. "Here. Take it. Now, please, let him go. We don't want any more trouble. You agreed to take us to France and we have paid you to do so. What more do you want?"
"This is not about the money," James said through gritted teeth as the Frenchman took Ariana's coin.
Although Ferrand did not deny it, he reached out and yanked Ariana's coin purse from her hands. There was not much left in the little pouch, but it was all she had and the loss of it sent her into a fit of rage. With a cry, she flew at Ferrand, scratching at him, kicking him, beating him with her fists.
"Pull this hissing cat off me!" he shouted to his men while he tried to fend off her assault.
She felt one final, satisfying rent of his skin where her fingernails raked his face, but then she was caught in a vise of sweat-soured wool and beefy resistance. The last two seamen each had ahold of her: one locked her arms at her sides, hoisting her off the ground while the other grabbed her flailing legs and clamped her feet tight in his fists. She pitched and roiled, but there was no escaping their grip on her. Even her screams proved of little use, all but devoured by the howling of the winter wind.
"Take her down to the ship and lock her in the hold," Ferrand ordered. "And mind you don't bruise her too badly. Skin that fair will fetch me a handsome price on the slave market, even after I take my use of her."
"Damn you, Ferrand!" James roared. "I'll send you straight to hell if you so much as breathe on her!"
Ariana struggled anew against her bonds, fighting her captors for all she was worth as they began to haul her away from the tavern and toward an alley leading to the docks. She caught one last glimpse of James, still held by Ferrand's men and bucking like a man gone mad. The third seaman drove his fist into James's stomach, doubling him over before slamming his knee into the knight's face.
Ariana called out for her old protector, the knight who came with her so willingly into this misfortune, who warned her of the risks in trusting a man like Ferrand yet stayed at her side despite his personal doubts. She cried for him to forgive her, but she doubted he would hear her. She was halfway down the alley now, icy rain stinging her face, the smell of fish and brine assailing her nostrils as she was carried nearer to the docks.
She prayed Ferrand's men would not hurt James too badly, that he would somehow overpower them and get away. He was a strong man, after all, and quite skilled as a knight. If there was a way, he would free himself. Dear Lord, he had to.
Just as she must find a way to escape her own bonds now.
She continued to scream and thrash, determined that she would not go easily into whatever fate awaited her on Ferrand's ship. At last, her struggles were given a modest reward. She jerked and kicked, and finally got one leg free. Her booted foot thumped onto the wooden plank of the dock and within a heartbeat the other followed. The relentless sleet had slackened the knave's grasp on her enough that with a renewed bout of twisting and bucking, she was standing up on her own, still held by the arms, but halfway to freedom.
Freedom, however, was a relative term, for all around her churned the foamy darkness of the Thames. In order to escape Ferrand and his men, she would either have to break past them and run back up the docks, or take a frigid leap into the river and hope she would be strong enough to swim to safety somewhere along the quays.
Neither option seemed overly promising, but she kept fighting, kept working toward escape.
"Hold her still, will you!" barked the man who was frantically trying to recapture her legs. "The bitch is going to break my fingers with her thrashing!"
The iron-like vise around her arms and breasts tightened to the point of pain, and the man holding her chuckled now, breathing hotly against her ear. "She's a fighter, this one. Full of fire, jes the way I like 'em."
"Animals!" she cried. "Let me go! Someone help me, please!"
Her plea went wholly ignored, as she knew it would, her near hysterical screaming drowned out by the men's amused laughter and the continuing storm. Ariana heard thunder rolling somewhere behind her, a rhythmic rumble that shook the wooden planks beneath her, reverberating in the soles of her sodden boots. She was dripping wet in the cold and tiring fast, her breath rasping out of her aching lungs in thin puffs of steam. She pulled against the bonds that held her, but in truth she did not know how much longer she could fight.
"What say you give us a little taste 'fore the captain comes down, eh, ma petite?"
Revulsion coiled in Ariana's belly at the ale-soured suggestion that fanned her neck like a hot, groping hand. With all the strength she had left, she bent her head forward then snapped it back, hard. With a brutal-sounding smack, the back of her skull connected with the cartilage and bone of her captor's face. He howled and lost his grasp on her to clutch at his nose. Ariana lunged forward to make her escape but only managed two steps, caught at once by the second brute.
"You shouldn't have done that," he snarled. "My friend, Rene, he is very vain about his looks."
But a broken nose was the least of the other man's present worries. From out of the gloom behind him came a dark figure, large and imposing. Ariana strained to see a face within the hooded cowl of the man's mantle, but the sleet and snow was driving down at a blinding slant now, concealing all but the massive bulk of his body and the huge broadsword that was a slash of silver in the charcoal gray of the wintry afternoon.
James! Ariana thought in a flood of panic and sudden, profound relief. It had been his approaching boot falls she heard, not thunder. By God's grace, he had found her after all. But how had he managed to get away from Ferrand's men?
The old knight had never looked so formidable, nor so capable of doing harm as he did when he stalked toward Rene. One moment the miscreant was coughing and wheezing bloody curses at Ariana, the next, he was dead at the end of her rescuer's unforgiving blade, his slack body tumbling off the edge of the dock and splashing into the icy river below.
"What the devil—"
Rene's friend swore an oath and scrambled to draw his own weapon, thrusting Ariana aside with force enough to send her skidding to her knees on the dock. She crashed into a bunch of barrels that were lashed to one side the gangway, the rough oak containers and a surrounding web of cargo nets being all that spared her from a plunge into the frigid black water of the Thames.
Ahead of her some dozen paces, the two men had since engaged in deadly battle. Their swords rang out above the lolling creak of the docks, and the steady pelting of the storm. Ariana watched in terrified fascination as James expertly dodged each blow that came from Ferrand's man, only to deliver a barrage of punishing thrusts and swipes that left his opponent huffing and scraping onto one knee.
The seaman was well beaten. He dropped his weapon and clutched at the edge of James's cloak, begging quarter. Ariana relaxed somewhat, glad it was over. She let out a small sigh of relief, waiting for James to accept the surrender as honor would compel him to do. For a long moment, he did not move, merely stood there, his breath rolling between his lips in a frothy plume of pale steam while Ferrand's man continued to beg for his life.
Ariana brought herself to her feet as though in a daze, curious, and not a little shaken. She took a hesitant step forward, in time to see that Ferrand's man would receive no mercy whatsoever. In time to see that the face concealed from her until now—the face that pivoted toward her in fury as she approached—did not belong to James at all.
It was him.
The rude stranger from the tavern—the roguish man with the hideous scar.
He hardly seemed to notice her astonishment. Indeed, he hardly seemed to have a care for her at all. His piercing gaze flicked back to the blubbering huddle at his feet. His massive sword arm came up from under his cloak, then with an ease that said he had done it a thousand times before, he flipped his weapon in a downward arc and embedded the length of steel in the other man's chest, killing him with swift efficiency and an utter lack of remorse. He retrieved his blade, wiped it clean on the dead man's bulk and sheathed it before kicking the lifeless body over the edge of the dock. Then he turned once more to Ariana.
"Come with me," he instructed her, his large gloved hand outstretched.
"N-no." Ariana took a step backward, half stumbling over the cargo net at her heels. She shook her head, numbed by what she had just witnessed, terrified that this man was her unlikely rescuer—perhaps her only hope. "Stay away from me. I have to find James—"
"Your man is dead. They killed him, left his body in the alley up there. I saw it."
"No," Ariana whispered, her heart breaking at the thought. "No, it can't be."
"Give me your hand, demoiselle." He scowled at her, impatience tight around his mouth and in his tone of voice. "Your hand, lady. I mean you no harm."
Ariana stared at that extended offer of help, at the strong, steady arm reaching out to her through the misting rain and snow. Her options were few and fleeting the longer she remained on the docks. She had lost all of her coin and her means of transport to France. Heaven help her, but she had even lost James, a thought that nearly sapped what little strength remained in her shaking legs.
She stared at this scarred and deadly stranger, sensing it could be dangerous to trust him, yet knowing he was likely her only hope of surviving the night. And she had to survive. She had to figure out another way to get to France before her brother's captors acted on their threat of harm.
He moved toward her, his boot heels thudding hollowly on the planks of the dock. His black hair was dripping and spiked where it lay against his sharp cheekbones and brow; the sinister scar on the left side of his face gleamed silver-white as he spoke. "Now, my lady. Unless you'd rather take your chances with that whoremonger, Ferrand."
Tamping down the fear that rose to choke the very breath from her lungs, Ariana held out her hand to her unlikely savior, and went to him.