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'Ye're late!' the voice on the other side of the door grumbled to the sound of a grating metal bolt being withdrawn from its socket.
There's gratitude, Logan thought, glancing back down the line of ponies filling the dank and dark alley behind him. 'Aye, well, let us in quick, man, or your whisky'll be filling the revenue man's cellar come morning. Either that or McKenzie will have it off ye.' Above him, the darkness in the narrow slit between the tenement buildings gave way to the grey of morning. At any moment they could be seen. 'Hurry, man. McKenzie's men are up and down the Royal Mile from Holyrood to the gates of the castle.' He wouldn't help the man out again in a hurry if this was his welcome.
Finally, the door swung back.
A hugely fat man, with a day's growth of beard on his heavy jowls and a sagging belly covered in a stained white apron, peered out. 'Good heavens. Is Gilvry so desperate for men he must needs take them from their mother's teat?'
Logan ground his teeth. All right, so he was younger than most in the trade, but at twenty-two, he'd been at it for years and he was tired of people commenting on his youth. 'You are Archie, right? Do you want the whisky or no?'
'Aye, bring it in.' The man stood back.
At a quick gesture, Logan's men leapt into familiar action, pulling barrels from their racks on the ponies, passing them down the line with one or two of them running them down the cellar steps. The innkeeper, his eyes as shrewd as a stoat, counted each barrel as it passed. 'Twenty?' he said as the last of the wooden casks passed him. 'Is that all you can spare me?'
Logan signalled to his men to depart for the stabling he'd arranged at the edge of the city. He grinned at Archie. 'It is lucky you are to get that. We've been dodging McKenzie's men half the night and the excise officers the other. Not that we had to worry about them.'
Archie grimaced. 'McKenzie's men no' saw you, I hope. He'll be round breaking staves if he gets even a hint I bought elsewhere.'
Logan chuckled. 'He couldna' catch a pig in a passage.'
Archie grunted, closed the cellar door in the floor and covered it with wooden boards. 'Aye, weel, I was beginning to think you were no comin' an' me with a house full of cursed Sassenachs all demanding uisge beatha.'
Englishmen all wanting what the Scots called the water of life for some reason. Scottish whisky. And the Gilvrys made the best there was. Logan doubted the
Sassenachs appreciated the finer points seeing as they also drank Geneva by the bucket full. Still, the imminent arrival of fat auld King Georgie was a gift from the gods, with McKenzie making it nigh impossible to sell their whisky in Edinburgh under usual circumstances. What they really needed was a buyer in London. Another reason he was here.
Noise battered at the door leading into the lower level of the tavern. Archie was also making hay from the Royal visit. Like everyone else in the city, Dunross included. 'Aye. Well, here I am the now. And I'll be having my due.'
Archie bolted the door to the street. 'You'll have a drink on the house while I get your gold, I hope.'
'Aye. But I'll be having ale, if you dinna mind. Tonight has been thirsty work. And you'll not be giving me any of that swill you keep for yon visiting Sassenachs.'
The innkeeper grinned and went to the other door, pausing to look back. 'Ye'll excuse the company, I am thinkin'. I heared as how these London gentlemen,7 his voice held a sneer as he said that last word, 'like to gamble away their fortunes. So I thought I would give them the chance.'
Logan arched an admiring brow. 'You've opened a hell?'
'Why the hell not?' He chuckled at his own joke. 'Wi' King George bringing all and sundry from London, and all the Scots comin' in too, there's a good few with a wee bitty extra gold burning a hole in their pockets.'
'Ye're a right cunning auld bugger,' Logan said, and followed the waddling innkeeper into one of the upper cellars filled with tables instead of barrels. The noisemen and dice and raucous laughterfilled his ears.
Smoke from pipes and cigars set his eyes to water and his throat stinging. He set his elbow on the bar and took the foaming mug the innkeeper drew off for him. He raised the tankard in a salute and downed half of it in what felt like one swallow.
'Wait here,' Archie said and lumbered off to fetch Logan his purse.
Logan turned and leaned back, both elbows on the bar. A mass of men of all shapes and sizes and walks of life, rich and poor, filled the place. One old gentleman, with a nose like a cherry and too drunk to stand upright, leaned on his lanky friend. They stood like two books leaning inwards for support. One tap of an elbow and they'd fall to the floor. A young man wiped beads of sweat from his brow as he glowered at his cards. Another, laughing, shook the dice box as if his life depended on a good throw. The place reeked of sweat, liquor and smoke.
There were women too. Doxies, not ladies, hanging over their mark for the night. A barmaid fought off the clutching hand of the patron with a laugh and a slap as she passed by with her tray held high.
And then he saw her. On the other side of the room beside the hearth. At a table with four richly dressed fops. Everything else in the room receded. The noise. The smells. The men. It was as if she was sitting on an island surrounded by dark empty water.
An oval face, skin pale as milk, dark eyes, wide-set, long lashed, tilting slightly upwards at the corners. High arrogant cheekbones lightly rouged. Lips full and lush hinted at a pout. A proud face for all its stunning beauty, a head held high on a long neck, softly sloping shoulders and an expanse of creamy flesh where a necklace of gold and diamonds dipped into the valley between her bounteous breasts.
He swallowed hard, forced his gaze back up to her face. Their gazes met. Clashed like finely honed swords, giving off sparks as they met thrust for thrust in some deadly encounter.
A finely arched brow lifted slightly. The pout changed to a faint smile of derision and she looked down her small nose, taking in the rough home-spun of his coat and no doubt the streaks of sweat and dirt on his unshaven face.
A slight turn of her head brought her lips close to the ear of the man beside him, her lips moved slightly and, as if weighted by the words she was breathing, her eyelids lowered a fraction, the long dark lashes casting shadows on those magnificent cheekbones.
Logan felt the breath that carried her words in his own ear. Heard the darkness reflected in her expression as if he heard her low voice. His blood heated. To his disgust, his body hardened.
The man beside her turned his head to her, muttered something. His companions roared with laughter. Logan narrowed his eyes. Wealthy gentlemen from their dress. The woman helped the man to his feet with her shoulder beneath his arm. He staggered, grabbing her for support, his fingers digging into her delicate flesh.
Logan started forwards at the slight grimace that tightened those beautiful lips. She glanced up as if she sensed his movement and in those dark cold eyes he saw a warning. He hesitated.
The man leaned down and scooped a pile of winnings from the table. He handed the woman one of the coins and put the rest in a pocket. A faint wash of colour stained high on her cheeks, but the coldness in her expression, the hardness in her eyes, gave the blush the lie as she tucked the coin inside her glove.
Then they were turning away, the heavy-set man leaning heavily on her slender frame. Too heavily, even for a woman he could now see was almost as tall as her companion. Again he took a step towards her.
'Here,' Archie said, 'come awa', lad, out of sight of prying eyes.'
He could hardly leave without his pay. Ian would tear a strip off him. And his men would have no coin to pay for a bed for the night for themselves or their animals. And besides, from her glare, help was not something the woman wanted.
He turned and followed Archie into a dark corner beside the bar.
'Can ye give a little on the price?' Archie asked, his beady little eyes glimmering in the dark.
'You're an auld skinflint,' Logan said mechanically, flashing a smile, his mind still on the woman, at how beautiful he had thought her eyes until he saw the hardness in their depths. And the cold calculation on her face as she pocketed, or rather gloved, that golden coin.
Archie sighed. 'You can't blame a man for tryin' seein' as how your mind wasna' on business the noo.'
Logan dragged his mind back to the business at hand. 'Aye, well, that is where you are wrong.' Ian would flay him alive if he did not get the agreed-upon price.
'I'll need more next week, mind,' Archie said.
Logan's mind was fully focused now and he narrowed his eyes. 'Why? I thought McKenzie had only a temporary shortage. This was a favour, man. That was what you said.'
Archie shifted his feet. 'When McKenzie saw how well I was doing he wanted some of the profit.' 'Did he now?'
'Aye,' Archie said morosely. 'The man's a bully. Thinks he owns Old Town.' He grimaced. 'I ha' to be honest with you, Logan, lad. Ye got awa' wi' it the night, but McKenzie's bent on locking the town up tighter than ever. His whisky or no one's. It's no just cudgels any more. He's arming his bully boys with pistols.'
The restlessness that hummed in Logan's veins rose to a clanging of bells. There was nothing he liked better than a challenge and the damned excisement were so predictable he rarely broke a sweat. 'Next week, you say? I am sure something can be arranged. Leave it to me.' He patted Archie on the shoulder and pushed his way through the crowds and ran up the stairs to the front door.
Outside, in the grey of a smoky dawn, there was no sign of the woman and her escort in the street winding downhill.
And glad of it he was. While he thoroughly enjoyed the sight of a beautiful woman, that was as far as it ever went for him. No female would lead him around by his nose or that other part of his anatomy that was painfully hopeful.
Then why the hell had he been so eager to catch another glimpse?
The sovereign burned in Charity's palm. A hot chestnut drawn from the embers and tossed to the unwary. A cruel flash of scalding pain inside her glove. Impossible, of course. She let her body rock to the motion of the carriage, let the grind of the wheels over rough cobbles drown out the sounds of the city around her and the drunken snores of her companion. Soon they would be back at their hotel and he would awaken, but until then she was alone with her thoughts.
With tentative fingers, she touched the hard round shape beneath the York tan leather of her glove. A sovereign. More than her usual take. Jack could be generous when the cards went his way. The coin was the same heat as her hand, of course, and nestled like a bird in the curve of her palm. A treasure to be guarded. Along with her thoughts.
No, the heat was not about the coin.
She'd noticed him the moment he had walked in from somewhere in the back. A swagger to his long stride. A cocky set to his handsome head. A quirk of humour to his mouth. A blond Adonis. A green-eyed panther, so sure of his world. There wasn't a woman in the tavern not looking at him. Some openly. Some from beneath their lashes. Like her.
Not that he'd seemed to notice them as he glanced around the room, a spark of devilment in eyes the clear green of spring grass.
Then the fool had actually dared to catch her gaze. To stare at her boldly. With admiration. And speculation. He was lucky Jack hadn't noticed and called him out. No. She shook her head at the thought. Jack wouldn't call out a man so clearly below him. He'd set Growler and his bully boys on to teach him a lesson.
She sighed. Idiot indeed, if he could not see she was taken.
Why she had noticed him, she could not imagine. He had neither wealth nor style, the only attributes she looked for in a man. The first thought into her mind had been charming rogue. The worst kind of man for a woman like her. And so young. Far younger than she, if not in years, then in experience.
Was it the sheer male beauty of him, then, that had held her attention a fraction too long? The long lean frame, the shoulders wide but not brutally so, the narrow waist tapering to hard firm flanks in tight buckskins that had seen better days. While his form was lovely, she'd seen others equally fine.
She closed her eyes briefly to break the spell of a gaze that seemed to see all the way through her with a blinding purity.
Unsettling thought. Horrifying, when she inspected her own darkly stained soul. A dark twisted creature from a Gothic novel, drawn to his light like the proverbial moth to a flame and the inevitable burning of wings.
One more such singeing and she'd float away as ashes.
Purity? Even as she mulled over the word, she dismissed it out of hand. No male of the species deserved the adjective. No matter how handsome. For all their talk of honour, beneath their coats of superfine and bright white linen, their hearts were black as night.
The coach halted at the front door of their hotel and she shook Jack awake. His eyes were shadowed, but his lips curved cruelly as he focused. She cursed her cowardice. If she'd not made him leave so early, he would not be nearly so wide awake.
'Let us have champagne, shall we?' she murmured in sultry tones. 'To celebrate your winnings.'
His gaze dropped to her breasts. 'Aye. Champagne first.' He grabbed her and hauled her towards him so she landed hard on his chest, his hand pressing her fingers against his arousal. Winded, she stared up into his square face with its cruel thin lips, hawkish nose and cold blue eyes. 'And then you can play me a tune with that pretty mouth of yours.'
A shudder rippled down her spine. It was a jest, but like all Jack's jibes it carried the edge of a threat. Something he couldn't help. A habit. Swallowing the bile of revulsion, she retreated behind her wall of ice, presenting a false smile that masked her inner turmoil. A drunk Jack was a dangerous man. And if she couldn't avoid him she'd do what she had to do. This was business. And the path to freedom to live life the way she wanted.
Only a fool let a pair of pretty green eyes and a jaunty open face melt a hole in hard-won defences. To remind herself where she stood, she gazed up at the man who held her future in his hands and smiled. 'Not before I offer you a toast.'
She freed herself from his grip with a light laugh and descended the steps to the path.
Arm in arm they walked inside, his grip possessive as if he sensed her fear. It would not be wise for Jack to sense fear. It always brought out the worst and winning had stirred his appetites, something she usually managed to avoid. Their relationship was all about business. Nothing else. But it did not mean she could relax her guard. A couple more drinks beside the fire and he would fall asleep. If she was lucky.
She closed her eyes and once again saw those clear green eyes gazing at her with awe. It was as if he somehow saw her how she had been, not how she was.