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His for the Taking
By Sarah Parr
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2010 Sarah Parr
All right reserved.
Chapter One1794 London
"Jump and you'll break your neck." Warrick halted, one hand raised in a plea he prayed would work. To his relief, the figure paused, coiled on the marble window ledge, and cast a glance toward him. He wasn't wrong. Trousers, a coat, and a man's cap pulled low over the face were no mask for the soft silhouette beneath, or the delicately curved face. This was a woman, although of the particulars, he had no idea. He would find out. Beyond, the oak swayed in the breeze; its long branches clawing upward were too thin for any weight.
"That branch wouldn't hold a child. I swear no harm will come to you, just come down." He waited. The only sounds were that of the men one floor below, their meeting still in progress. Whether he held her or she him, he didn't know. "Tell me your name."
"I'm sorry." She spun and made to leap.
He never gave her the chance. He seized her shirt and hauled her into the safety of his arms, dislodging her cap. Her hair cascaded to her waist, thick as it was full. Against the back of his hand it was pure silk, candlelight playing in the deep brown. Surprised by the richness, he caught back the desire to caress it. She was exciting and something deeper than desire stirred in him.
"Easy, sweet, we need to talk," he said, forcing his voice to remain calm. His reward was a sudden, sound kick in his groin. Locking hold on his prize, he stumbled into the carved desk. Her foot twined about his ankle, and she wrenched, then yelped as they went down together. A twist and she was free.
Sucking in a breath, Warrick sat up and found a letter opener shaped like a sword directed at his throat, the tiny point perfectly still. Needles of pain continued to stab through his loins. He gritted his teeth against them, glowering at her. From below, hurried footsteps sounded in the hall, then on the stairs.
"My friends won't be long. You can't fight us all off," he said. She glanced toward the window, where the curtains billowed, the air scented with spring rain.
"Please ..." Her attention returned to him. She blinked. "I only wanted what's mine."
The desperation in her eyes chilled his soul, reminding him of a fox before the arrival of the hounds over a rise. "Tell me."
Her brow furled, and her lips parted as the door burst open to a man's shout. Light filled the room, then voices, as twenty men all rushed in. They were his assembly, and even though they included his father, the duke, they would follow his instructions.
"Do nothing," Warrick ordered over his shoulder and raised his hand, his eyes not leaving the woman's face. Beneath rubs of grime sparkled fire, and the echo of a memory. He had seen her before, but the details were missing. "What were you going to say?"
"It doesn't matter." With a sweep of her arm, she sent a flurry of papers off the desk and over him. Catlike, sensual, and effortless, she was more insinuation of form than flesh and blood. She was onto the branch before he could lunge a second time.
At the window he watched her cling, toss a leg over a thin branch, and attempt to pull herself upright. Slipping, she tried again with success, and began to scramble down. "Damnation," he swore against the remnants of his pain and forced them into the background.
"I'll get her," called Trent.
"No, wait!" Warrick gave silent thanks as his friend halted before reaching the door. Good intentions were no match for the woman. "She's mine. Make sure she doesn't go another way." He ran past his father without a glance, awkwardly down the carpeted stairs, gaining with each stride. Through the lit hallways and across the blue and white tiles of the kitchen, he had no sooner opened the door to the garden when there was a snap and a sickening crash. He saw her hit the ground and roll; then she was on her feet, although how, he had no idea. She stumbled, teetered, and collapsed as he reached her, her breath in shudders. Anger ripped through him. Glaring at the crown of her head, it was impossible to tell if there was blood in this light. Touch revealed dampness, possibly from the drizzle, or something more sinister. "I should shake you for being a fool."
She swayed, tightened her grip, and looked up. "That would hurt."
"It would be far less than what your band of pirates has done. Three people died last week in smugglers' raids. That makes the total over forty." He paused and searched her face as she blanched. "Who is the organizer?"
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"Last week I spread the story I had found evidence that would send the smugglers to the gallows. I told everyone I hid it in my bedroom, but I made the story up. It was a trap, for you apparently. If you tell me what you know, I might be able to help you. Maybe you didn't realize what you were in to."
"I'm here with my uncle, no band...."
She sagged, and the light from the torches showed her eyes green and brown, lacking focus but full of wisdom. "There'll be time for questions later, after you're settled."
"I can't stay." She hissed a breath, struggled to find her feet, but only leaned harder on his support as he started back for the house, tripping over the uneven cobblestones.
They reached the bottom of the stairs, and he knew they were at her limit. Warrick lifted her into his arms, her tiny sigh a bittersweet reward. She sank closer, the heat of her body and the scent of flowers and earth oddly peaceful. He had never held her before-he would have remembered this one-and yet she was familiar, he was more certain now than earlier. Memory rarely failed him, which meant more secrets. Beneath his hand he could feel her strength and spirit, even barely conscious, ruling out the ladies of the ballrooms.
Her head lolled against Warrick's shoulder, and she lost consciousness as Daniels arrived, his weathered face belying the seasoned finance minister. "She's hurt. Get a doctor." Taking the stairs two at a time, he strode down the hallway past portraits of proud noble relations and reentered his bedroom. A cold trickle of sweat traced the chill down his spine as he laid her in the bed, feeling her loss. His father moved to his side, but he didn't look up. "When I passed word I had information on the gang hidden here at the house, I thought I would catch"-he gave a shrug-"someone larger. She can't be much more than twenty."
"Villains can be any age or size."
"She doesn't look the part." Ivory damask pillows and comforter paled her appearance, the elaborately carved headboard of dark mahogany enhancing the effect. Warrick fumbled for her wrist. "Her pulse is too fast." Skimming his fingers over her head, he felt the rising welt. From either a branch or the ground, it did not matter, the damage was done. He ran a finger above a scratch on her cheek that seeped blood. Her skin soft, her mouth fine, it could have been a romantic caress except for the circumstances. He retrieved water, cloth, and basin from the corner and set to work, dabbing and cleaning as he went, until he came to her jaw. "I thought this was grime." Purple and black, the sinister bruise was too old to have been caused by the tree.
"Someone hit her."
"Rather viciously," Trent said, entering the room. "I've sent the men out to check the waterfront. They'll come back tomorrow at seven to report if she belongs to anyone."
"It would have been better if you hadn't done that. We don't want to alert the smugglers we might have one of them," Warrick said quietly.
Trent moved closer and studied the woman. "There's no difference. By the time they act she'll be in the Tower, if not already hung."
The man was his friend, and not hard by nature. Trent was the third son and lacked the funding to do as he wished. It had made him practical in all matters, except women. And he did have a point: she would most likely be put to death, although not as quickly as Trent predicted. For the first time since he agreed to stop the smugglers, he had doubts on his course of action. Fortunately his father distracted Trent. Movement caught his attention, and he glanced down as the woman's eyes fluttered half open. He continued his ministrations. "You took quite a fall."
"It wasn't supposed to turn out that way." She shifted, tried a tiny stretch, and grimaced.
He gave her his most charming smile. "We'll start with your name." Her eyes flickered in the direction of the duke and Trent hovering nearby. "You might as well tell me; I'll find out soon enough." He waited through her silence, meeting her gaze whenever she looked in his direction.
"Katherine Bane, but I prefer Karly," she said finally. Her gaze went to the ceiling, away from any of them. "You played a game of cards with my uncle last night. He lost a small miniature. In it was a portrait of my father, painted by my mother. I came to get it back."
Trent gave a loud snort. "You mean steal it back."
Warrick shot Trent a warning glare. "Angus Roberts never mentioned a niece."
"He doesn't relish the connection. Neither of us do." She blinked, her eyes becoming watery as she squinted to keep them from closing. "I'll pay you for it."
Warrick lifted both brows. He was not getting the answers he expected; rather than simplifying matters, everything had just become a great deal more complicated. "Wouldn't it have been easier to contact me, offer to buy it back, rather than climbing trees?"
"My uncle doesn't know I'm here. He wouldn't approve. I can't have him find out."
"Trent, go and fetch my greatcoat." When his friend returned, Warrick reached into the pocket, and withdrew the intricately etched locket from where he had stored it. "Is this it?" he asked softly. Her eyes lit at the sight of the small treasure, and he pressed it into her palm. "It's yours," he said and felt some satisfaction as her features brightened. Keeping her hand in his, he moved the cloth and stroked her forehead as she had slipped away again. He tried her name, but she was gone from him. Karly's face, which had shone only a short time before, remained as still as a porcelain doll.
"You shouldn't have given that back to her," Trent said after a long pause. "You had her for stealing. She would have gone to prison."
"I have her for far more when I'm ready." He paused, letting the irritation hang between them. "I chose to play cards with Angus Roberts because his brother-in-law is Patrick Bane, who spent time with the Barbary pirates. Their raiding tactics were similar to the ones being used by our smugglers."
Trent took a step forward, exchanging a knowing look with Warrick. "Patrick Bane was a pirate based in Bermuda."
"He died a couple years ago after attacking a British vessel, but his crew vanished." Warrick glanced at Karly. "There was no mention of a daughter."
The duke frowned, studying Karly, and shook his head. "You think she could be the one behind the smugglers?"
"She wouldn't be the first female pirate." Warrick searched Karly's quiet features for the secrets behind her lashes. He had told his father and friend enough. The hunch, that Karly was the key, would have to wait until he had facts or they would assume it was her figure that swayed his judgment. He couldn't be certain that it wasn't. Her presence captivated him. He wanted to know more, have her longer, learn and understand. Desire, unusually incarnated, seeped through his soul, but the words to explain were best unsaid. "I have a few days to find out before she can leave and go anywhere." He glanced at Trent. "If anyone does come looking for her, delay them. Father, I need you to take a closer look at Roberts's affairs."
"I assume you mean more than his finances."
They had shifted roles and it had been so effortless. His father had always been the one in command. Now, with the authority granted him by Parliament, it was his turn. Warrick studied the man he had known his entire life. Hard determination stared back, the same he saw in himself each morning in the mirror, and yet there was fondness. "Go as deep as you feel necessary."
"I'll make the inquiries."
Warrick moved to stand in the corner and rested his hand on the strongbox as the doctor arrived. Perhaps it would be proper to wait outside, but Karly had almost escaped him once. Given the chance, she would most likely try again. He tried to be patient as the man checked Karly's limbs and head with slow, precise movements. When Warrick could stand the tension no longer he cleared his throat. "What is your estimation?"
The doctor cocked his head. "A nimble athlete. The damage could have been much more severe. She appears to be undernourished and already in a weakened state. The trauma has done the rest of what you see here. Keep her warm and give her laudanum for any discomfort, but not too much. Her brain will best set to right if left to heal on its own." He stood and patted Warrick's shoulder. "Do not worry, your lordship. She appears to have fire. Good food and rest will do wonders."
"You'll return tonight for any changes?"
"If you wish," the doctor frowned.
"Seven, no later, and I'll see she rests."
His father had stiffened, moving to the center of the room, where he waited while Warrick dismissed the doctor. "When do you plan to turn her over to the Tower and let her be questioned?"
"You know that would be signing her death sentence."
His father glanced toward Karly and shook his head. "I recommended you for this position against your mother's wishes. She's certain you'll be killed, but I know what it's like to be restless." He hesitated and turned to face Warrick. "Still, you are the future Duke of Berington. You've had your time at sea. Your assignment is to gather the information, no more."
"Tell mother that London ballrooms are far more hazardous than anything I'm doing."
The duke gave a soft chuckle. "Amanda Claridge, along with most of the available women in London, knows you will choose a wife soon. She wants to be a duchess. Besides, once you pick a wife, the man has the upper hand. In the end, it is the man's house."
It was Warrick's turn to smile, a relief after the tension of the past hours. "Yes, I see how well that works with mother." To his father's raised brow, he laughed.
"I made a mistake when I married your mother. I fell in love with her."
The world shrank to the room about them, and Warrick searched his father's face. "You regret that?"
"No," the duke said introspectively and sighed. "But tell her nothing. She knows me too well already." He gave Warrick's shoulder a squeeze and let go. "I'll send you word what I find."
As the duke's footfalls faded down the corridor, Warrick said good night and returned to Karly's side. Possible scenarios played across his mind. None answered all the questions and problems. He had much to learn if he was going to understand what brought her here. He held vigil as the light grayed, pinked and rays began to peek through the blue damask curtains. One touched the blanket, then crept its way, caressing a single strand, then another until gold, copper, and bronze framed her face.
Beauty was a woman's sword, and Karly was well armed. His father was right to be concerned as he rejected one plan after another, his mind returning to his father's cautions. At nightfall, Trent returned, his expression bleak, his golden hair askew from running his fingers through it. "You heard something."
Pursing his lips, Trent narrowed his eyes on Karly. Apparently satisfied she was asleep, he motioned Warrick to the far corner, his voice no more than a whisper. "Daniels spoke to the bosun from Roberts's ship, bought him a few pints. Apparently Roberts picked Karly up in Bermuda after a scandal there, something about an officer who is the brother-in-law of the governor. She was forced to leave, and Roberts was told never to return until she was gone. Two days ago, Baron Landgon was onboard Roberts's ship. Apparently they signed a contract. Karly is to be Landgon's mistress."
It took effort to mask his irritation. He didn't like surprises. "Anything else?"
"Her uncle took a hundred pounds for her-not a bad price to have a woman at your whim." Trent glanced toward Karly, as if assuring himself she was still sleeping.
"Landgon could afford more, but then again, he's eccentric."
"You mean mad."
"What would Landgon want with the daughter of a pirate, beyond the obvious?" At first he couldn't respond to his own question, even as answer fragments tumbled through him. She was pretty, lovely in fact, given the right circumstances. He had held her only briefly, and his body ached with the memory of her in his arms. Her impractical hair, cascading about her, haunted him, beckoning to be touched, caressed. A step of his imagination had his fingers speared, gripping with passion, with her beneath him, her lips parted. Uncomfortable, he chose the seat at the end of the bed and sent Trent out again, fighting to cool his blood.
Landgon's involvement altered the map; he was a known fop, unpredictable, with money, time, and a thirst for recognition. To him, Karly would be more than play or passion. She would be a tool and the project, ominous. He would have to change his plans accordingly, take a risk.
Evening passed; the doctor came and left. Warrick's resolve strengthened. Whatever the cost, Karly would have to remain with him until he had the answers. When her uncle sent a note the following morning demanding an audience, the time had come to act before she slipped through his fingers. Taking a seat at his writing desk, he opened the compartment, drew a piece of paper and a long breath, and began to write. The moment he finished, he sent the note and his gamble on its way to his royal highness King George III.
Excerpted from His for the Taking by Sarah Parr Copyright © 2010 by Sarah Parr. Excerpted by permission.
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