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Ethan had long grown used to the sinking expressions people cast him when they realized it was he who darkened their doorsteps -- but in the East End rookeries this tendency seemed even more pronounced.
Many saw Ethan and ran.
The sound of his boots booming across wet cobblestones was all Ethan heard as he chased a drunken cockney -- one among many of his sources of information.
Lunging forward, Ethan clamped the cockney's shoulders, tossing him headfirst into the side of a tenement building. The man collapsed into a stunned heap.
Hauling him to his feet, Ethan drew his pistol, pressing the muzzle against the man's temple. "Where's Davis Grey?"
"I 'aven't seen 'im." He hissed in a breath between the copious gaps in his teeth. "I swear to ye, MacCarrick!"
Ethan casually cocked his gun. The drunk knew of his reputation, knew Ethan would just as easily shoot him as not back in this dark alley. "Then why did you run?"
"B-because ye scare the piss out o' me."
"I 'eard Grey was in Portugal, with an 'unger for opium. And that 'e might be returnin'. That's all. I swear it!"
After a hesitation, Ethan released him, deciding to believe him. The information meshed with his own, and this man likely wouldn't court Ethan's wrath by lying. "You know what to do if you see Grey. And you know what I'll do if you doona notify me."
The cockney muttered thanks for his mercy, then scurried off into the night.
For the last several hours, Ethan had combed the slums, using all his resources to track Davis Grey, a onetime compatriot and family friend -- and now Ethan's target.
Though all his reports indicated that Grey wasn't in England, Ethan had wanted to make certain. Tonight he'd chased every lead he'd been able to think of in London. Tomorrow he would leave the city to hunt for Grey elsewhere.
As Ethan strode down the winding, narrow streets back to his mount, a surprisingly comely whore smiled and dropped her shawl, revealing her heavy breasts to him.
And he felt nothing.
When he passed under a flickering gaslight, he showed the woman the other side of his face. She turned away in disgust, yanking her shawl to her neck. It was because of women like her that he'd stopped seeking sex entirely.
At twenty-three, he'd still been in bandages when he'd fully comprehended he wouldn't be having any woman he didn't have to pay. He'd already vowed never to drink again after that night in Buxton. And for a young man suddenly deprived of drinking and women -- two of his routine follies -- a profession in the Network, one of the Crown's clandestine organizations, had held definite appeal. Along with his brother Hugh, Ethan had signed on, but only after he'd delivered a subtle, but absolute, revenge against his enemies.
Whereas Hugh was an assassin in the Network, cleanly completing his assignments, Ethan would kill, spy, and extort to get a job done. Ethan was skilled at what he did, successful doing the jobs no one else wanted to do. His brothers called him a jack of all lethal trades.
Once he'd returned to his horse -- a fine gelding with a strong and unwavering dislike for him -- Ethan mounted up and decided to ride by the London town house of Edward Weyland, Ethan and Hugh's superior. More news might have come in. Besides, what else did he have to do?
When he arrived, he caught Quin Weyland just climbing into his saddle. "Is your uncle in?" Ethan asked. Quin also worked in the Network and was being groomed to eventually take over his uncle's role.
"No, he's out of town. But I saw Hugh just a few minutes ago."
"Just Hugh? No' Court?"
Quin absently shook his head.
Damn it, Hugh was supposed to be with Court, their younger brother, making sure he returned to London from the Continent.
In an irritated tone, Quin said, "I thought you told us Hugh was going to be able to handle this situation with Davis Grey."
"Aye, he will."
"You should have seen the look on his face when I apprised him of the threat."
"He should react that way," Ethan said impatiently. "Grey's a dangerous killer with an agenda." Grey had worked in the Network as an assassin -- in fact, he'd trained Hugh.
"No, I meant when I told him it was Jane in danger." Jane Weyland, the fair daughter of Edward Weyland.
They'd heard word that Grey sought to kill Jane for revenge against Weyland because she was what Weyland treasured most in the world. To protect her, Weyland planned for Ethan to hunt and destroy Grey and for Hugh to act as Jane's bodyguard, trailing her.
Shouldn't be a problem. Where Jane went, Hugh yearned to follow.
Quin added, "Grey told me Hugh loved her."
Ethan quirked a brow. "We're talkin' to Grey now?"
"Years ago, before he turned."
Turned madman. Grey was known to wear a jovial expression, his demeanor complimentary and amenable, even while he was slitting his targets' throats.
"Well, is it true?" Quin asked.
"Hugh might have had an infatuation when they were younger," Ethan lied. Hugh was likely still in love with Jane to an unspeakable -- an embarrassing -- degree. "He hasn't even seen her in years." And had never told her how he felt.
"He rode off after her tonight quickly enough."
"Where's she gone at this hour?" Ethan asked.
"She sneaked out her window to meet my sisters and their young friend from out of town."
"To go where?"
"Haymarket Street," Quin finally answered. "I'm on my way there right now."
"Gin palaces and prostitutes." The rookeries were squalid, but Haymarket was seamy. "What's there to tempt them?"
Quin admitted, "The Hive."
"They dinna go there," Ethan bit out incredulously. The Hive, a warehouse converted into an unlicensed dance hall, was infamous for debauchery. "How do the women in your family even find these things?" Quin's two sisters and his six female first cousins comprised the Weyland Eight, as society called them. They were progressives, loving all things modern, and had dubbed themselves "sensation seekers."
Ethan called them "spoiled chits with too much coin and too much freedom."
Quin shook his head. "I wish I bloody knew."
"I canna believe they're voluntarily going into that place. You ken your sisters will no' come out in the same shape as they went in."
"Go to hell, Kavanagh -- "
"Doona call me that," Ethan snapped. He hated being reminded of his title, of that life. "Why do you no' drag them home by their ears?"
"And be forced to give Jane a reason why she suddenly has none of the freedom she's accustomed to?"
"She does no' know she's in danger?"
Quin shook his head. "We are hoping you'll take out Grey early enough that Jane never has to know about any of us." He reined around when Ethan prodded his obstinate mount forward. "You're going?"
"Aye, I need to see my brother." And make sure he's capable of the job at hand. "What's the fare tonight at the Hive?"
Quin muttered, "An illegal courtesans' ball."
Ethan gave a humorless laugh. He could practically feel sorry for the unsuspecting "young friend from out of town." The lass was about to get an eye-opening lesson in depravity.
Regrettably, Ethan had seen the love-struck look on his brother's face before.
Though Hugh was an assassin -- one of the most skilled and prolific in the world -- his mind went blank when he was near Jane Weyland. He had difficulty speaking. His brow would bead with sweat like a green lad's.
Just minutes ago, Ethan had found him in this state in an alleyway that crossed Haymarket Street. Hugh had been so engrossed as he watched Jane stroll up Haymarket with her entourage that he hadn't even heard Ethan approach.
Hugh was never taken unaware; tonight a runaway dray cart could have slipped up on him.
The situation with Hugh and Jane was incomprehensible to a man like Ethan, who'd never felt even a casual regard for a woman. As Ethan often reminded his brothers, he himself remained immune to untidy entanglements like that.
But for some reason, Hugh wasn't shamed that a woman could make him so weak. And obviously, ten years of being away from her had done nothing to make his feelings ebb.
After Ethan had joined him in the alley, the two of them had begun exchanging terse words -- as was customary -- only this time they argued in lowered voices.
Hugh had always been disgusted that Ethan had wanted -- and had offered -- to kill Grey, who'd once been Hugh's friend; Ethan had always been disgusted that Hugh had fallen for Jane and opened himself up to such a glaring liability. Ethan's liability was his protectiveness of his brothers, but he'd been born into that one, and it couldn't be helped.
"I wager that right about now, you wish my offer to kill Grey had been accepted," Ethan told Hugh, his smugness conveyed even in hushed tones. "But no' to worry, little brother, it certainly has now. Weyland will do anything to protect his daughter." Ethan jerked his chin at Jane and her group as they passed the alley. He faced Hugh, then did a double take back to the group, only to stare.
The fourth woman in the group -- a wee lass with shining blond hair -- had caught his attention utterly.
The young friend from out of town...
She wore a deep blue gown and cape, tied at her pale neck like a choker, and a matching mask tilted up into points at the corners above her bright eyes. By the flickering glow of the gaslights, Ethan saw her dark pink lips curl intermittently into a mysterious grin, yet not when her friends were laughing. She seemed to be in her own little world.
Though she appeared lively and fresh, he sensed in her a world-weariness -- the same that affected him so markedly.
He frowned to find that his heart had started to race --
Hugh had him shoved against a building wall, his forearm lodged against Ethan's neck, before he could tense.
What is this...? Ethan rolled his eyes. "Rest easy. I'm no' ogling your precious Jane."
Hugh finally released him but appeared disbelieving. "Then what held your attention?" he demanded. "Claudia? The one in the red mask?" When Ethan gave no answer, Hugh said, "Belinda? The tall brunette?"
Ethan shook his head slowly, never taking his eyes from the blonde.
The unusual notice clearly stunned Hugh. "I doona know her, but she must be one of Jane's friends," he said in a wary tone. "And she looks no' more than twenty. Too young for you."
Ethan's age was thirty-three, and he felt every year of it, but she was young. So how could she possibly have that weariness about her? "If I'm as bad as you and Court and all of the clan believe," Ethan began, "then I'll find her that much more enticing for it, will I no'?" Ethan strove for a bored tone, but he suspected his bitterness came through. Truthfully, he wasn't as bad as they thought.
He was worse.
He had blood on his hands and a heart so cold that he was considered the evil brother of the three -- and the other two were a gunman and a mercenary. Ethan was the sodding laird, and yet most in the clan feared him, wanting nothing to do with him -- and that was before he'd been scarred.
Reminded of his appearance, he tried to turn away from the girl. If he approached her, a beauty like that would run in terror at the sight of his face. Drop back in the shadows where you belong. Forget you ever saw her....
But then a loud masquerade-goer neared them, sporting a domino in the latest style, with a drop of cloth in the front. Ethan's lips slid into a smirk that tugged the tight skin of his face. Perfect.
In the blink of an eye, Ethan's hand shot out to snare the mask. The much smaller man opened his mouth to object, but Ethan gave him a killing look, and the man dashed away.
"Doona toy with her, Ethan," Hugh said.
"Afraid I'll ruin your chances with Jane?" Ethan asked as he donned the mask. "Hate to remind you, brother, but they were ruined before you even met her. And you've got a book to prove it."
"Your fate is just as grim as mine," Hugh said, "yet you're going after a woman."
"Ah, but I'm in no danger of falling in love with her" -- Ethan turned to stride into the masquerade, tossing over his shoulder -- "so it's no' likely my dallying will get her killed."
With a grated sound of frustration, Hugh followed him to the warehouse entrance, where they tendered admission to a bald man in a pig mask. Inside, the drunken crowd was thick; there had to be over a thousand people crammed in.
Oh, aye, the girl was about to get a lesson. All around them, obscene murals hung on the walls, and half-clad whores were openly fondling men.
Ethan couldn't see the group immediately in the crush, so he and Hugh strode to the second-story landing for a better view. They spotted the women in front of a small raised stage, scrutinizing an exhibit -- which consisted of two women and a man, unclothed and covered in clay, posing as Greek statues.
In such an atmosphere of dissolution, the young chit looked...bored.
When Jane viewed the naked man with an appraising eye, Hugh's fists clenched. The blonde appraised him, too, but Ethan had no urge to hit anything. Ethan had known he was immune....
The group moved on to a punch service tended by a half-clad courtesan, but the blonde turned back to the stage. With a sensual grin, she languidly blew the male model a kiss. Ethan frowned. I doona like that. Bloody hell. Why do I no' like that?
"I dinna think blondes were your type," Hugh said, beginning to sound alarmed.
Never looking away from the girl, Ethan said, "They're no'."
"Nor slim, short lasses."
"Tall and buxom for me," Ethan said absently. He watched her accept a glass of punch, delicately take a sniff of her drink, then partake heartily.
"Then what is it?"
"Doona know," Ethan answered in half truth. He knew why he was attracted to her -- he could tell she was an extraordinary beauty, even with her mask -- but he didn't understand the degree of his attraction.
He'd bedded women as lovely as she, so why did he feel an inexplicable sense of urgency to join her -- to get her? Ethan knew he could find her again. She was friends with the Weylands. So why did he want her at this moment?
"Are you actually going to approach her?" Hugh asked.
"Bloody hell I am."
"I thought I was no' to reveal myself to Jane if I could help it. She'll recognize you."
"No' with this mask," Ethan said, then asked, "Why are you behaving as if my interest is so bloody consequential?"
"It's consequential because you've never pursued a woman in your entire life."
Ethan had never had to before that night in Buxton -- and he hadn't bothered to after.
"No' even your fiancée," Hugh added.
No, Ethan's fiancée had been handed to him as though on a platter -- and it had cost Sarah her life. He'd had no idea that by trying to salvage his life after what the Van Rowens had done to him he'd be destroying another's....
Shaking off those memories, wanting to forget, Ethan strode for the stairs to go after the blonde lass, but Hugh shoved him back.
"What the hell is wrong with you?" Hugh demanded.
"Doona shove me again, brother, or I will put you down." Hugh was the only one who'd ever dared to challenge him like this. "Did you never think I just want to bed her?" Christ, he wanted to bed her, wanted her fiercely. Finally! his mind seemed to roar.
"Bed her?" Hugh got an uncomfortable look about him. "No, I dinna think that."
Ethan narrowed his eyes. So Hugh suspected or knew the truth about him. Ethan should have realized that the secret of his celibacy would have gotten out among the Network. The members gossiped worse than old matrons at the village well.
Ten years had passed since his face had been so horribly damaged. As he'd predicted, the only way he'd been able to bed women had been to pay them, and he'd done so for the first seven years. Yet there were only so many times a man could tolerate looking down at a woman he was using and seeing her thinly veiled revulsion -- especially after he'd paid for her.
One unsatisfying encounter after another had taken their toll, and now his body couldn't seem to be bothered to desire, to ache, any longer. If he was attracted to a woman, it was tepid, like a shadow of what he used to feel. Though his manhood had been left intact that night, it might as well not have been. He hadn't had a woman beneath him in years.
And even more disquieting -- he hadn't especially missed it.
"She's a lady," Hugh insisted. "No' to be used by you."
"Then what is she doing here?" Ethan asked incredulously, waving his hand around the warehouse.
"The same thing Jane is -- they're thrill seekers. Typical rich Londoners."
"In a place like this, even a lady is fair game."
"You doona know that she's no' an innocent." His expression severe, Hugh added, "Ethan, you're...you just canna be this bad."
Ethan raised his eyebrows.
"Damn it, if for no other reason, then you should leave the girl alone to concentrate on hunting Grey." Hugh ran his fingers through his hair. "If I canna count on you to take out Grey while I'm watching Jane -- "
"Have you forgotten who you're addressing?" Ethan reached the end of his patience and snatched off his mask to stare his brother down. "I've wanted to put a bullet between Grey's eyes for years -- a dozen times, I've had him in my rifle sights and my finger on the trigger -- but I dinna because you thought the man could be redeemed."
Ethan had stalked Grey repeatedly, always keeping an eye on him. In fact, Ethan was the only one in the whole bloody Network who'd discovered Grey was killing on his own. "Now, when Jane's involved, you see reason. So how can you possibly think I would waste my opportunity to destroy someone I've craved killing?" When Hugh remained unconvinced, Ethan said, "I'm going to scratch this itch, then get to work." His tone and demeanor were bored.
He turned back, but the girl was gone, separated from her friends. He felt a flare of alarm. This was a dangerous place, and she was alone.
Or was she?
She could be meeting someone. She could even be married and already involved in an affair. He found himself striding down the stairs, donning his mask once more. He ignored Hugh's last call of warning, then plunged into the crowd.
Ethan was bent on finding her, which baffled him. He liked voluptuous brunettes, earthy women who gave as good as they got in bed. And Hugh was right -- he didn't pursue women.
But if it took a delicate, angelic-looking blonde to provoke his body to this kind of reaction once more, then he'd be damned if he was letting the object of his lust out of his sight.
He promised himself he'd be inside her this very night.
Copyright © 2007 by Kresley Cole