London, January 1604
The drug had taken effect. Mariel Brandon caught the young earl as he slumped forward in a state of unnatural relaxation and eased him back against the lush velvet settee. A familiar ache tightened in her chest.
Aaron was wrong. She would never grow used to this.
The earl’s silk doublet was cool beneath her fingertips and far superior to the fraying skirts she wore.
She averted her gaze, unable to bear the weight of her own shame. He was younger than she had initially presumed. Not any more a man than she was a woman.
His face would haunt her dreams. As the ones before him already did.
Like all the others, he had fallen prey to her flirtation and allowed himself to be pulled into the private, sumptuous room in the bowels of Hampton Court Palace. The information he’d been entrusted with fell from his lips with a few kisses and a bared shoulder. The laudanum laced wine kept her from having to make good on false promises.
A lock of dark hair fell across his forehead. It was a reminder of why she did all this, of why she endured her lost morality, of why she let part of herself die when she coaxed men’s secrets. And every time, she slid deeper into the shadows of sin.
Jack. Sweet, innocent Jack with laughing blue eyes and silky black hair. He was but a pawn in the cruel game Aaron played. They all were.
How many more men would she be forced to betray until her brother would be released? Until the threat on his life would dissipate and she could be free from this hell?
She reached without thinking and brushed the black curl from the earl’s brow. Forgive me.
“Are you growing sentimental?” The voice laced with sarcasm sounded from the shadows behind her.
The heavy odor of Aaron’s perfume filled her nostrils and the familiar wave of nausea rolled her stomach. Mariel fought the flare of emotion that rose within her. The fear for what his presence represented and the hatred for what he had done. The helplessness he confined her to.
“Don’t be silly.” She let her hand fall to her side. “He’s just a boy.”
Aaron emerged from the dark corner of the room as she turned to face him. His breeches and jacket were midnight blue velvet, far more subtle than his usual attire.
She gave him a coy smile and sauntered in his direction, playing the game that had been forced upon her. “To what do I owe the pleasure?” Revulsion threatened her composure as she pressed her lips to his dry powdered cheek.
“I wanted to watch you work. I have to say, I’m most impressed.” He glanced to where the earl snored softly behind her. “How long will he be like that?”
“He will not wake until morning. And with a wicked headache, poor man.”
Aaron regarded her with obvious suspicion. “So long as he can never recognize you.”
Mariel pulled the heavy blond wig from her hairline, revealing her black tresses beneath. The cool air was heavenly against her scalp. “He leaves tomorrow.”
“And you never leave the house. I swear you are becoming a recluse, poppet. If you killed these men, you could be shopping and dancing like the rest of the girls.”
“You know what I want.” Keeping the malice from her voice was becoming more difficult as time went on.
“Yes, yes—your brother.” He rolled his eyes heavenward.
“He is not yet ten,” she added with great patience. “I haven’t been allowed to see him, and no one gives me word of his welfare. Have you given him my letters?” She pursed her lips to stop her desperate words. Aaron would only use them against her.
A slow smile curved his thin lips upward and raised the hairs on the back of Mariel’s neck.
“You will be most delighted with my news. I have one final job for you. The benefactor paid enough to cover the remainder of the fees you and your brother have accrued.”
Despite her wariness, her pulse raced at the prospect of their freedom. Never before had she been offered the hope of immediate release. Mariel waited for him to continue, but a thick silence settled between them. No doubt intentional.
Aaron ran his gloved finger over the glossy top of a marble table beside him. “There’s a Scottish barbarian at court presently. You need to compel him with your…” His gaze slid down her body. “…talents.” He rubbed his fingertips together with a look of disinterest. “You must discover the location of two people: Blair and Dougal Hampton. If you can’t do this, you must kill him.”
“I don’t kill,” Mariel reminded him gently.
“And I am not refused.” The threat glinted like ice in Aaron’s pale blue eyes. “Do you really think I would fund your training if I only needed you to lure men to private rooms and slip them a sleeping draught?”
Heat touched her cheeks and she hated that he would see her discomfort, that he would know she had been so naïve.
Under his insistence, she had been educated in foreign languages and customs. With honeyed lies served on a silver tongue, he had prompted her to learn the art of weaponry along with the ability to defend and kill using only her hands, skills taught by Aaron’s famed Chinaman. For her protection should something go awry, he had said. And like a fool, she had believed him.
His bark of laughter rang out sharp in the heavy silence of the room. “For one so intelligent, you can be so foolish, poppet.” He shook his head. “Any whore can garner secrets, but you…” He drew a deep breath and his eyes widened, “…you are something special.”
His face eased into a wide smile that revealed one crooked bottom tooth. “Besides, you need not kill him. You are given three months to obtain the information you need. After what I witnessed tonight, I doubt you will need even half that.”
“Why so much time?” Her cheeks flared with heat. Asking questions would only prolong the inevitable.
He gave a derisive snort. “Those Scottish beasts are always wary of strangers. I’ve held the manor for years and still the ghastly creatures don’t trust me enough to do my bidding without question. Do you have any idea how much it costs to staff a household with English servants so far from home?” A sound of annoyance rolled from the back of his throat. “Even you might need the full three months to gain his trust. You’ll need to travel to Scotland with him as I can assure you he won’t stay in London long. You’ve perfected your Gaelic, I assume?”
Before she could answer, Aaron waved his hand dismissively. “Of course you have.”
“What is the barbarian’s name?” The crude question sat bitter on her tongue, but she knew to reference the Scotsman otherwise would give Aaron cause to question her sympathies.
“His name is Kieran MacDonald. You need to seek him out tonight.” He glanced around the room. “Jane is with you, correct?”
Mariel bit back a grimace. Jane had been sent to act as her lady’s maid. For appearance’s sake, or so Aaron had claimed. But Mariel knew the truth. He wanted her watched at all times, especially after she had discovered where they were keeping Jack. He’d since been moved, and Jane had become her permanent shadow. As much as Mariel hated it, she knew Jane hated it more and considered the task beneath her.
“She is outside the door. While she may follow me at your bidding, I work alone.” She lifted her chin, her heart racing with the boldness of her challenge.
He studied her carefully for a moment. “Very well, but she will travel with you to Scotland. That is not up for debate.”
“Of course, I wouldn’t suggest otherwise.”
His bony knuckle rested beneath her chin and tilted her face up toward his. “Heaven help the man when he looks into your violet eyes and falls prey to the words whispered from your sweet lips.”
She met his gaze and silently willed the impossible. “Let me see Jack before I go. Just once.”
Aaron dropped his hand and sighed with impatience. “You are wasting time. Go find the savage and secure a place for you and Jane in his party as they travel back to Scotland. I don’t care who you have to kill or seduce to get there.”
Her heart sank low into her belly. Of course she wouldn’t be able to see Jack. That she should have known better did little to ease the burn of disappointment.
“I’ll make sure to give your regards to your brother when I see him next.” The edge of warning in Aaron’s tone was unmistakable.
* * *
Mariel’s gaze swept over the crowded room once more, but to no avail. Several Highlanders stood out in King James’s new court, but not one in particular looked approachable to question about Kieran MacDonald. Concentrating on the task at hand was impossible with the heat of so many bodies in one small area. The air was thick with heavy perfumes and left little room for breathing. White spots dotted her vision and a cold sweat broke out along her brow. She needed to get outside, to breathe fresh air. Fainting would call far too much attention.
She threw open the heavy glass door and found herself submerged in the quiet dark of night. All traces of the party were shut out as the door snapped closed behind her. The late winter air nipped her heated cheeks and turned her breath to white fog. Shadows stretched over the garden below and shrouded various shaped hedges.
Did Aaron lurk in the darkness?
A shiver slid down Mariel’s spine as she imagined his eyes trained on her. Would she ever live a life where she was not constantly watched?
Doubtless Jane stood just inside the door—waiting, spying…
Jack would be free once she betrayed Kieran MacDonald…or killed him. Doubt niggled her conscience. Could Aaron be trusted? Would he really free them when this was done? She drew a deep breath of the frigid air in an effort to steady herself. Women had been released from his clutches before; she’d seen it with her own eyes. Besides, what choice did she have? He had Jack, and if this was her only opportunity, she had to take that chance at freedom.
Aaron had been correct in his reason for the length of time she had been granted. The Scottish did not take well to strangers, especially English strangers.
Winning a Highlander’s trust was a most impossible feat, and if she managed it, her betrayal would be all the more painful. No longer would her victim be someone she knew only several hours.
A hard knot balled in her throat. Completing this task would tear away the final vestiges of her morality.
To kill a man…She gripped the coiled iron railing and let the metal bite into her damp palms. No, the option was hers and she refused to kill. The truth would be found, no matter what the cost to her conscience.
Who were these people being sought? Blair and Dougal Hampton. Obviously brothers or perhaps father and son. Most likely political refugees. Whoever they were, they had caught the attention of the wrong people.
“If ye squeeze that bar any harder, ye may snap it from the wall.” A man’s voice sounded behind her, startling her from her reverie.
“What?” she gasped and spun around to face him. She had not heard the door open.
Dark brown hair grew past the stranger’s shoulders, and he stood a head taller than any man she’d seen in London. His eyes were black against the darkness of night as he studied her. “Why do ye cry?”
Had she been crying? She touched her cheek and met the cold wetness of her tears.
The hard lines of his face softened as he regarded her with a tenderness that made her long for the ability to speak candidly to him, to be comforted by him. But she was no ordinary woman with ordinary fears that were able to be soothed.
She dragged her gaze from the warmth of his stare, severing the delicate connection between them and kept her silence.
“Will ye tell me yer name?” He moved closer, and a subtle breeze carried the light masculine spice of his scent toward her. She breathed deep before she realized what she was doing.
“Mariel Brandon.” Her response came automatic and without thought. Her heart slammed erratically within her chest. She had given her real name. For the last two years she had maintained an alias, her own name nothing more than a memory. Yet here, in the face of a foreign stranger, she had announced her true name without hesitation.
“Mariel,” he repeated in his hypnotic burr. The corners of his lips tugged up in a ghost of a smile.
Something about him gave her a reassuring sense of comfort and made him feel somehow trustworthy. Doubtless he could help her find Kieran MacDonald. She drew a slow breath around the sudden tightness in her chest. Like so many before him, she would have to use this kind man to her benefit. And she hated herself for it.
“Perhaps you might help me.” She stared up at him, keeping her gaze innocent.
The golden glow of the lights from inside the palace spilled onto the balcony and highlighted his strong features. His jaw was hard, too sharp for his sensual mouth, and his nose appeared bent as if it had been broken before. He wore a kilt belted around his waist and a simple jacket over his plain white leine, the garb of a Highlander.
His eyes searched hers; his thoughts were impossible to discern from his impassive expression. “What is it ye need?”
“I’m looking for Kieran MacDonald.” It was a direct approach, but Highlanders were a direct sort of people.
His face did not reflect any kind of recognition. “Why do ye seek him?”
“I heard he returns soon to Scotland and hoped to secure passage with his party.” She glanced down, unable to meet his gaze. “I cannot stay in London any longer, and I have nowhere else to go.”
“I hate to add to yer sadness, lass, but I dinna think he will take ye.”
Mariel’s heart raced. So he did know him? “Why do you say that?”
“Because I’m Kieran MacDonald.” His eyes narrowed. “And I’m curious how ye came to know my name.”
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