Authors: Gaelen Foley
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical romance, #Regency
eys clanking, the brawny, kilted guard opened the iron door before her. Armed to the teeth, he stepped aside, beckoning her into the secret dungeon where the Order locked away its most valued prisoners. “This way, milady.”
She followed, sparing a brief glance up at the weathered stone arch above the doorway. She half expected to see Dante’s famous quote carved there, welcoming visitors to Hell:
Abandon hope all ye who enter here.
Inferno Club, indeed, she thought.
Then she left the bleak, midday gloom of November behind and crossed the threshold into the darkness that had swallowed up the man she had come to save.
A fallen hero. A lost cause, to some.
She dared to think that she knew better.
The burly guard lifted a torch off the wall and proceeded to escort her down the stone tunnel, descending ancient stairs carved into the limestone. She lifted the hem of her dark-hued gown a little, but her booted footfalls were firm and sure as she followed.
Ever deeper the guard led her into the bowels of the mountain beneath St. Michael’s Abbey and the Order’s ancient school, where wellborn boys were gradually turned into deadly warriors.
Like the man in the cell below.
Only he could help her now. If there were any other way, she would have gladly considered it.
But the situation was dire. There was no time to dither over less dangerous solutions.
Nevertheless, she shook her head to think that of one of her father’s top warriors, caged like a wild beast in this dungeon. “How long has he been down here?”
“Six months, ma’am. Came to us in May. Only a quarter of the way into his sentence, I believe.”
She gave a slight shudder.
Of course, two years in a cage was only a slap on the wrist for a man trained to endure enemy torture. But this punishment had been handed down to him by his own superiors—a private disciplinary action taken against him by the graybeards who ran the Order. And justly so, from what she understood.
Still, it was quite a sentence for a man who had recently taken a bullet for the Regent. Unfortunately, Nick, Baron Forrester, had committed the unpardonable sin.
He had tried to quit the Order, and that was not allowed. If the organization was a kind of family, bound by secrecy and blood, he was its black sheep.
“How’s his health?” she asked, noting the dank conditions.
“Sound, far as I know. Ach, he’s fairly indestructible, this one. In fact, milady . . .” The guard paused on the weathered limestone stairs and turned to her, the light from his torch flickering over the walls. “For your own safety, don’t stray too near the bars.”
She arched a brow. “I can handle myself, thank you,” she said in a prickly tone.
He lifted his bushy eyebrows at her cool, steady gaze. “No offense intended, ma’am. I’m just warnin’ ye, he hasn’t seen a woman in months. No tellin’ what he might do if you get too close. Half-mad, if you ask me.”
“I didn’t,” she clipped out.
Rotten bastard he might be, but he’s still worth twelve of you.
With a cold stare, she nodded toward the torchlit tunnel that led ever deeper into the mountain. “Shall we?”
He blinked in startled indignation but complied. Turning around again, he added under his breath with a measure of sarcasm, “Aye, she Virgil’s daughter, all right.”
She smirked at the back of his thick head as they continued on. In the next moment, they came to the bottom of the stairs and passed a few empty cells along the dungeon corridor. With walls of stone, each cell was only the size of a box stall.
But then she furrowed her brow, hearing the sound of loud, rhythmic panting coming from the last cell in the aisle.
Ahead of her, the guard stopped and banged his truncheon on the rusty bars. “On your feet, you scum!”
“I’m busy, arsehole, as you can see. What do you want?” a low voice growled, rasping with effort.
She sauntered closer, setting one foot warily after the other until the prisoner came into view.
Down on the cold stone floor, a large, shirtless man was doing one-armed push-ups. The torchlight played over his sinewy, naked back.
My, oh, my.
Gin watched, impressed in spite of herself, as he switched arms without missing a beat and continued his regimen with explosive vigor, rudely ignoring the guard.
“For God’s sake, put a shirt on, man,” the guard grumbled. “There’s a lady present.”
He froze mid push-up, peering up through the wild tangle of jet-black hair hanging in his face. His stare locked on her. “Well, I’ll be damned,” he uttered.
He jumped to his feet with fluid grace, tall and sculpted, sweat glistening on his bare chest.
She watched it heaving with unabashed admiration.
A man could be a lovely thing sometimes.
“And who might you be?” he panted, wiping the sweat off his face with a rough pass of a thickly muscled arm.
He flashed the same crooked smile that had made her quiver as a seventeen-year-old.
Not that he’d remember that.
Seeing him half-naked, his skin flushed with the virile glow of exercise, his muscles warmed and hard, it took her half a heartbeat longer to collect her thoughts and remind herself, namely, that she was not a young girl anymore; that he was a disgraced agent who’d gone rogue, not to mention a trained assassin with a higher-than-average kill rate.
Standing there smiling at her, his midnight eyes full of reckless charm, distrust, and angry secrets, he was as dangerous as they came.
She should know; her own father had trained him.
And although she cowered from no man, when the panting Lord Forrester sauntered closer, prevented from touching her only by the bars of his cage, she had to stop herself from taking an instinctive step backwards.
That would not do. Not if she was to take custody of him.
It was vital to show him from the start who was in charge. With the candle burning behind him on a little battered table covered in books and maps and papers, he was a dark silhouette, wide-shouldered, menacing, and powerful.
Hers to claim, with full permission of the graybeards. Hers to use for her own purposes.
If she could control him.
And if not, if the rogue agent gave her any trouble, she had full permission to put a bullet in his handsome head. But as her gaze traveled over his exquisitely honed physique, she had to admit that that would be a very great shame, indeed.
man’s mind started playing tricks on him after a few months of solitary confinement, and so Nick was not yet fully convinced this wasn’t a dream.
One could never be too sure.
Moments ago, he had thought he smelled a whiff of some enticing perfume wafting toward him on the dank dungeon air; that he heard a faint rustle of satin skirts and a light, whispering prowl of some softer stride echoing behind the guard’s heavy, clomping footfalls.
But he had ignored these tantalizing hints of beauty, tired of his own delusions and hating the shameful loneliness that spawned them.
Then, to his astonishment, it turned out he was right.
A gorgeous, pale-skinned mystery woman had stepped into view, and maybe he
dreaming because she looked like a fantasy.
On second thought, he did not have
good an imagination. It was the first time in ages he’d seen a female of any kind, and this one was . . . spectacular.
He could not tear his gaze away.
She seemed real enough. The only way to be sure, of course, would be to reach through the bars and touch her, but he didn’t dare, for fear of offending her, scaring her away, and being left alone again for God-knew how long.
He strove to focus on the obvious question instead. What was she doing here?
The woman glanced around at his cavelike quarters—grim accommodations, indeed, for a nobleman, however empty his coffers.
To say nothing of his soul.
“Cozy place you’ve got here,” she remarked.
“Isn’t it, though?” he countered. “I’d offer you a drink, but the service here is terrible.”
She looked askance at Nick from the corner of her blue, blue eyes, offering a slow, wary curve of her lips; her canny little smile got him slightly drunk.
Ross, the ever-charming Scottish guard, did not approve of his cautious flirtation. He whacked the bars again and made the metal thrum like Nick’s awareness of her. “Put your shirt on, man! I’m not going to tell you again! You’re in the presence of a lady!”
“Oh, I don’t mind,” the lady drawled in a worldly murmur. She studied Nick’s abdomen in unmasked appreciation.
He grinned, glad he’d used his time in prison well to hone his body. There was little else to do. That, and rue his life’s choices, make friends with the mouse who lived in the corner, and, of course, read. God bless his friend and Order teammate, Lord Trevor Montgomery, who had saved his sanity by sending him books.
Nick supposed his eyesight would be ruined by the time he got out of here, a sad state of affairs for an expert sniper. One candle could hardly stand up to the all-consuming gloom of this place. But he had needed something, anything, to carry his mind beyond these dungeon walls.
So he had begrudgingly resorted to reading spectacles. Depressing, really. Just another symbol of his squandered youth.
Five times over, he had read the book from Trevor until he had nearly memorized it: the first published account of the journey of Messieurs Lewis and Clark into the American wilderness.
Under the circumstances, Nick had a new appreciation for the total freedom of that untamed place. As soon as he got the devil out of here, that was where he had made up his mind to go.
He had already planned his journey up to the edge of the map. From there, he could hardly wait to push out past the charted territory into the unknown, nothing but a rifle across his back and a haversack of supplies.
To hell with civilization. He was obviously not cut out for it. He had sampled all its charms and walked away bankrupt in more ways than one, jaded to the core.
Bears, Indians, poisonous snakes.
These didn’t concern him after the enemies he’d already faced. God’s truth, he’d enjoy it. On the far side of the ocean, pristine virgin territory waited to be explored by a man who knew what he was doing . . .
In the meanwhile, the lush mountains and mysterious valleys of the woman standing out of reach on the other side of the bars both lured and taunted his animal instincts.
He looked her up and down, perhaps a little rudely, but he deemed this only fair since she was openly doing the same to him.
Nick didn’t mind a’tall. He leaned against the bars, happy to let her look all she pleased, while he did likewise, hoping, nay, praying—probably in vain—that she was a high-end harlot, generously sent to him by his more scoundrelly brother-in-arms, Sebastian, Viscount Beauchamp.
Trevor, newly married to the pastor’s daughter, would send him books and food and useful things not to tempt his sinful nature.
Beau, however, the former ladies’ man before he, too, had been snared in the vicar’s mousetrap, was sure to have a jollier understanding of what Nick needed most after six months in jail.
When his stare drifted down to the creamy silken V of the woman’s chest displayed in a tailored white shirt, layered beneath her dark-hued gown, and opened low enough to show off exquisite cleavage, he cursed the iron bars and gripped them rather desperately, offering her a hungry smile. “Pray, would you like to come in and sit for a while, my dear?” he drawled with a wicked smile.
His beautiful, delicious-smelling visitor merely arched a cynical brow at him, amusement her answer to his leer.
Alas, the air of command in the jut of her chin and the even hold of her piercing blue eyes made him doubt this queenly female had ever been for sale.
Do I know her from somewhere?
he wondered vaguely. She seemed somehow familiar. He was sure he’d have remembered meeting such a fascinating female. But the thread of recognition danced away.
He was distracted, too busy savoring the way the torchlight danced in gold and ruby spangles on her dark auburn hair. She had long, velvety lashes. Plump, sensuous lips—
“Whenever you’re ready to put your eyes back in your head, Lord Forrester, we can get down to business.”
He snapped out of his lustful daze and shot back at her, “Likewise, madam.”
Ross banged his truncheon on the rusty bars once more. “Mind your manners, you scoundrel!”
Nick glared at him. “You make a charming chaperone, old boy, but I daresay the lady and I are old enough to be left alone.”
“You wish,” he shot back.
“It’s all right, Sergeant. Leave us,” she ordered.
“But, ma’am! ’Tisna safe to leave ye alone with this brrrrute!” he said, rolling his Scottish r’s grandly.
“Never you mind, I know how to handle a rudesby,” she said in amusement. When the guard hesitated, she sharpened her tone. “Thank you, that will be all.”
Ross didn’t like that, but it seemed he had been ordered to obey her.
Well, well, thought Nick, still amused himself, Her Highness must be somebody, indeed.
Ross grumbled his compliance, bowed, and withdrew, and Nick studied the mystery woman in reluctant awe.
She chose not to flaunt her miracle-working power. After Ross had gone, she merely turned to him with a rueful smile and a hint of compassion in her eyes. “I don’t think he likes you.”
“Strange, isn’t it? Amiable as I am,” Nick said. “So, where were we? Ah, yes. You were about to tell me who you are and what you want with me,” he challenged her.
Not that he was in any position to be making demands.
Her watchful gaze assessed him as if he were either a horse for sale or some unfortunate animal to be used in a scientific experiment.
Neither possibility boded well.
But maybe, just maybe, she wanted something else. After the way she had been staring at his body, he could not help thinking of ancient Roman gladiators being visited by married noblewomen, in search of either a night of rough pleasure or to have their bellies filled with new life born of strong, warrior seed.