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Night of the Huntress
By Kathryn Smith
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2007 Kathryn Smith
All right reserved.
Fagaras mountain region, 1899
The spinning gold coin fell at Marika Korzha's feet. Rather than reach for it, her hand instead went to the knife strapped to the outside of her thigh.
"You . . ." She thought for the right word in English, "insult me."
The man smiled smugly, narrowing his pale eyes. His confidence told her that he thought himself safe with his men flanking him, backing him. He thought because she was a woman in a tavern filled with men, he was in control.
He was wrong.
She was not alone; her own men sat at a table waiting. All she had to do was give the signal and they would come to her side.
She would have three of these men dead by the time her own arrived.
"You are insulted by gold?" The man's voice was smooth, mocking.
She didn't reply. She merely watched him. He knew full well what the insult was.
He flashed his arrogant grin at his companions before turning it back to her. "Aren't you going to pick it up?"
The English came easier this time now that she remembered the language. "Pick up what?"
"The gold at your feet."
Marika's gaze remained fixed on him, but she shifted her right foot so that the toe of her boot caught the coin. It sailed across the uneven floor to bounce off the man's leather-covered shin. His eyes widened at the force ofimpact. "Perhaps you should pick it up."
Some of the smugness left his narrow features. "I shall take it out of your payment then."
"Payment?" She lifted her shoulders in a casual shrug, the light wool of her collar brushing her cheek. "How can I be paid for something I have not yet said I will do?"
The man approached her--only one step. Some of the patrons of the little tavern watched the encounter with interest. Others wisely kept their attention on their own affairs. "We had an agreement."
Her shoulders drew back, straightening her spine. She wasn't as tall as he was, but that didn't mean she would be cowed by him. She wasn't afraid of him, or his money or his men. "I agreed to meet you. I agreed to listen to you. I may agree to work for you. So far you have done nothing to convince me to accept."
Indistinct eyes narrowed. "Pretty cheeky for a woman, aren't you?"
Marika wasn't quite certain what "cheeky" meant, but she could tell from the man's expression that it wasn't a compliment.
Her head tilted as she regarded him, her face carefully blank. "If I were a man you would not talk to me as if I were an idiot."
Had he no other expression but that irritating smirk? "But you're not a man."
No, she wasn't. It would take more than trousers and boots to conceal her sex. Her hair was too long, too thick, held in a braid that fell far down her back. Her skin was too pale and unshadowed, her features too delicate and fine. She didn't want to be a man. It was far more advantageous to be what she was.
It made it all the more satisfying to see the expression the moment her opponents realized they had underestimated her.
"Neither am I an idiot. You try my patience. This meeting is over." She turned purposefully, presenting him her back. Would he shoot it? Bury a blade in it? Would it kill her, or would her men wonder yet again at how quickly she healed from injuries that might have been fatal to lesser mortals?
Over the voices and raucous laughter in the tavern, she heard the step, the scuff of a boot on the floor. She felt the air announce a coming danger with a subtle shift, raising the hair on the back of her neck.
The man wasn't the first to attack her when her back was turned. Men always waited. They wanted to prove themselves her superior, but they always waited until she couldn't see them coming to do it. She knew without looking that the Englishman had sent one of his minions after her rather than make the attempt himself.
She whirled, seizing the man's arm as he reached for her. Had she not been expecting this tactic she might have broken his wrist, but she held back, bringing him to his knees with the force of her grip.
Her own brethren rose, coming to stand beside her in case the situation intensified.
Her gaze met that of the narrow-faced man. He stood with the remainder of his men, watching her with barely concealed wonder.
"The stories about you are true." He spoke as though suddenly realizing she was more than just a woman--more than human.
Marika didn't like it. The patrons of the tavern were watching as well. Whispers started. Whispers about her--a woman who dressed like a man and fought like a soldier. Was it her? Was she hunting? Were they in danger? Fear raised their voices, heightened the smell of their sweat.
It was time to leave.
"You are a man who always sends others to do what he is afraid to do himself." She released her captive's wrist, flinging him away from her. "I do not trust that."
"I am not asking for your trust," he replied.
Marika snorted. This man had no honor, and she would not lessen her own by associating with him. "We are done."
Her men followed as she turned to leave, clustering around her as though she needed their protection. They knew better, but they were simple men and their habits were ingrained to the bone.
"Does the name Saint mean anything to you?"
It was a desperate demand, but it had the desired effect. Marika froze. Her lungs, as still as death, refused to work. She couldn't blink, couldn't think. But her heart thrashed in her chest, like a bird flailing against its cage.
Excerpted from Night of the Huntress by Kathryn Smith Copyright © 2007 by Kathryn Smith. Excerpted by permission.
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