The Kingdom of Morocco, North Africa
"Take the shot, MacCarrick!" Davis Grey ordered yet again. His tone was harsh, but low enough not to give away their vantage, concealed high in the desolate headlands of the Atlas Mountains.
Hugh ignored him. This was to be his first kill, and he knew that once he committed this deed, there was no going back - a weighty decision for a man of only twenty-two years.
He would do it when he was bloody ready.
Taking his eye from the telescopic sight, Hugh released his rifle with one hand and ran his forearm over his face, wiping away the sweat and sand that stung his eyes like needles. Summer was upon them, and the surreal blue of the sky stretched relentlessly, unmarred by clouds. Hugh squinted against the light of a white, indistinct sun.
"Why in the hell are you hesitating?" Grey bit out. "It's noon." The sun was directly above, casting the fewest shadows of the day. Shadows mocked a gunman's truest aim.
Hugh didn't want to disappoint the older Grey, his mentor of sorts. Grey was Hugh's only real friend outside of the MacCarrick clan, and the only person Hugh would spend time with, apart from his brothers. And apart from an auburn-haired lass Hugh would kill for. He gave a bitter laugh, adjusting his rifle against his shoulder.
In a way, hewas killing for her.
To take out a stranger in cold blood was to cross a line. Which was what he wanted.
"Goddamn it, MacCarrick!" Grey yanked his own rifle and its detached refractor scope from his leather holster, assembling them. "It'll take us four more weeks to get a shot like this again."
That was true. The traitor knew he was marked for assassination for his treason and had been running for a month, before holing up in the abandoned Berber farm far below them. In this part of the world, even a battered, flat-roofed hut like the one below had a courtyard for a private oasis, and the man sat within it. He faced the courtyard's only entrance with a pistol in his lap and a shotgun by his side, yet he was unguarded from above.
The shot was clear, but both of them knew Grey could never hit a target so far away. Where Grey's preferred weapon was a blade, Hugh had been hunting and target-shooting since he'd been old enough to lift a rifle. Besides, Hugh wanted to act soon while the man was still alone. "I'll do it," Hugh grated, sliding a glance toward Grey. He refused to believe he saw excitement there in the man's expression. This was a job, a foul task. Grey couldn't enjoy this.
Hugh turned back and took a bead once more. The wind was light, but the target was more than a quarter of a mile away. The glare of the sun was an environmental factor, and the nearly four feet of his gun barrel were heated, as was the single bullet inside the chamber. He took all of this into account.
He stroked his forefinger over the trigger guard before placing his sensitive fingertip at the trigger, beginning a ritual he performed with every shot, almost unconsciously. With his other hand gripping the forestock, he rubbed his thumb twice over the wood, then froze halfway through an exhalation of breath.
The press of the trigger was smooth; the report was like a cannon boom in his ears, louder, for some reason, than all the times he'd shot while hunting.
Nearly two seconds later, the bullet pierced the man's forehead and cast him to the ground. Blood seeped out from the back of his head, soaking the gravel, and his legs twitched in death, stirring a cloud of dust at his feet.
It's done, then.
Hugh was done.
There again, he saw something like pleasure in Grey's eyes. "I've never seen anyone shoot like you, Scot." Grey slapped him on the back, then took a swig from the flask he always kept near, grinning against the opening.
All Hugh felt was disgust and a strange sense of relief.
They mounted up quickly, then rode hard down winding mountain trails. An hour after they reached the valley, they neared a village and slowed.
"When we get back to London," Grey began, still jovial, still excited, "I'm going to tell Weyland that you're ready to go out on your own."
Hugh's expression must have revealed his uneasiness with Grey's buoyant mood.
"Don't look at me like that, MacCarrick. You do this for as long as I have, and we'll see if some part of you doesn't come to love it."
Love it?Hugh shook his head and quietly said, "It's a job. Nothing more."
"Trust me." Grey's smile was knowing. "It'll be something more - when it's all you have...."
Ahardened killer, denied his obsession for a decade.
That was what Edward Weyland was bringing back into his daughter's life with one cryptic message:Jane is in grave danger.
Since receiving Weyland's missive in France two days ago, Hugh had read and reread it with fingers gone white from clutching it in fury.
If anyone had dared to hurt her...
Now, after days, and nights, riding like hell was at his heels, Hugh had finally reached the Weyland town house. He slid down from his saddle and nearly toppled over, his legs gone boneless from so many hours on horseback. His mount was as winded as Hugh, its coat lathered and its barrel chest twitching.
As Hugh approached the side door, where he always entered, he encountered Weyland's nephew, Quinton Weyland - who also didwork for Weyland - sprawled along the stairs.
"Where's Jane?" Hugh demanded without preamble.
"Upstairs," Quin said, seeming preoccupied and even somewhat dazed. "Getting ready for...for her night out."
"She's safe?" When Quin nodded absently, relief sailed through Hugh. Over the hours alone on the road, his mind had conjured too many ways she could be ingrave danger . He'd prayed she hadn't been hurt, that he wasn't too late. Now that Hugh had been assured of her safety, the hunger and thirst he'd ignored for two days began to gnaw at him. "Who's watching her now?"
Quin answered, "Rolley's inside, and I'm trailing her tonight."
Rolley was Edward Weyland's butler. Most butlers in the exclusive enclave of Piccadilly were older with a hint of grandeur about them, denoting experience and the longevity of a family's fortunes. Rolley was in his mid-thirties, wiry, his nose shapeless from being broken so many times. His fingers were scarred from his incessant use of steel knuckles. Hugh knew the man would die for Jane.
"Is Weyland here?" Hugh asked.
Quin shook his head. "Not getting in till late. He said if you somehow managed to get here tonight, to tell you he wants to see you in the morning to give you all the details."
"I'm going in - "
"I wouldn't do that if I were you."
"Why the hell no'?"
"For one thing, your clothes are covered with dirt, and your face looks like hell."
Hugh ran a sleeve over his cheek, remembering too late the jagged cuts marking his skin.
"For another, I'm not sure Jane would want to see you."
Hugh had ridden nonstop for days, and his body was a mass of knotted muscles and aching old injuries. His head was splitting. The idea of being near her again had been all that kept him going. "That does no' make sense. We used to be friends."
Quin flashed him an odd expression. "Well, she's...different now. Completely different and completely out of control." He caught Hugh's eyes. "I don't know that I can take another night of it." He shook his head forcefully. "No longer. Not after what they did last night...."
"Who? Did what?"
"The Eight. Or at least, three of them. Two of whom are my sisters!"
Society's notorious Weyland Eight consisted of Jane and her seven female first cousins. Remembering the brazen antics they'd encouraged Jane to take part in, Hugh felt his irritation building.
"But this is no' what I've been brought here for?" Hugh had abandoned his injured younger brother Courtland in France and nearly killed his new horse, a fine gelding that had been a gift for a service he'd rendered. "Because Weyland needs someone to rein her in?"
Surely Weyland wouldn't be so foolish as to call Hugh back for this. Weyland knew what Hugh was, of course. He was Hugh's superior and dispatched him to deliver deaths in the name of the Crown. But then, Weyland had no idea how badly Hugh coveted Jane. Nor for how long.
An obsession. For ten bloody years...
Hugh shook his head. Weyland would never have exaggerated the danger in his missive.
"Weyland didn't tell you what's happened?" Quin's brows drew together. "I thought he sent you a message."
"With little information. Now, what in the hell - "
"Bloody hell!" Rolley came barreling through the doorway. "Bloody, bloody hell! Quin! Have you seen her?"
"Rolley?" Quin shot to his feet. "You're supposed to be watching her until she leaves."
The butler cast Quin a scowl. "I told you she knew we'd been following her. She must've gone out the window. And got that saucy maid of hers to walk about, tryin' on dresses in her room."
"She's gone?" Hugh lunged for Rolley and fisted his hands in the man's shirt. "Where's she going and who's she with?"
"To a ball," Rolley said, but immediately glanced at Quin.
Hugh gave Rolley a shake, knowing he was risking Rolley's swift uppercut, usually accompanied by those steel knuckles.
"Go ahead," Quin said. "Weyland tells him everything anyway."
"She's goin' to a masquerade with Quin's sisters and one of their friends."
"What kind of masquerade?" Hugh asked, though he had a good idea.
"Libertines and courtesans," Rolley said. "In a warehouse on Haymarket Street."
With a grated curse, Hugh released Rolley, then forced his legs to cooperate while he crossed to his horse - which seemed to eye him with disbelief that their journey wasn't over yet. Gritting his teeth at his tightened muscles, Hugh mounted.
"You're goin' after her?" Rolley asked. "We're just supposed to follow her. Weyland doesn't want her to know yet."
"MacCarrick, rest," Quin said. "I'm sure they took a hansom, and the traffic will be mad. I've got time to saddle up and beat them there - "
"Then follow, but I'm going now." Hugh reined around. "Best tell me what I'm up against."
Quin's grave expression made Hugh's fists clench around his reins.
"Not what, but who . Weyland thinks Davis Grey's on his way to kill her."
At his first sight of Jane in nearly ten years, Hugh forgot to breathe. The pain in his body, the hunger and fatigue went unnoticed.
He strode headlong after her, shadowing her group from a parallel alley as they strolled down Haymarket after alighting from their hansom.
At the mere mention of Grey, Hugh was determined to take Jane from this place -
A massive hand clamped on his shoulder and yanked back. "Could've planted a knife in your back a dozen times these last ten minutes," a deep voice intoned from behind him. "Losing your touch?"
"Ethan?" Hugh wrenched his arm back, throwing off his older brother's grip, then swung a lowering glance at him. "What are you doing here - "
"Christ, what happened to your face?" Ethan interrupted.
"Explosion. Falling rock." Hugh had been caught in a shower of slate in a battle down in Andorra just days ago - the same battle Courtland had nearly lost his leg in.
"Now answer the question."
"Went by Weyland's. Caught Quin just as he was readying to leave," he replied. "And lucky thing I did. It's no' like you to be so careless in a place like this. What are you thinking?"
"I'm thinking I'm taking Jane home."
"Weyland only wants her followed. Stop shaking your head - Grey has no' made England yet." When Hugh remained unconvinced, Ethan said, "And he might no' make it here alive. So just calm yourself and take your nursemaid duty like a man."
"Is that what I've been called back here for? Why would Weyland want me?"
"He seemed to think I would unnerve Jane while protecting her," Ethan said casually. His scarred face had been known to scare women. "And that Quinton is only qualified to divest certain foreign ladies of certain critical secrets. No, Weyland needed a gunman. And you know Grey best."
Hugh returned his attention to Jane, who was at that moment passing the cross-street where he stood concealed, so close he could hear her throaty, sensual voice, but couldn't make out the words. She was clad in a rich green dress with a plunging neckline that bared her alabaster shoulders and revealed how much fuller her body had become. Her face was partially covered by a mask of dark green feathers that fanned out to the sides, like the wings they'd been plucked from.
In that dress and that mask, she looked...wanton.
He wasn't even surprised when cold sweat dotted his forehead. He'd always reacted physically to her. He remembered well the symptoms he'd endured that last summer he'd spent with her - the thundering heart, the need to swallow half a dozen times a minute, the stifled shudders of pleasure at her lightest touch.
One of her soft whispers in his ear could make him bite back a groan....
"Is Courtland back in London with you?" Ethan asked.
Without looking away from her, Hugh said, "I had to leave him behind when I got the missive from Weyland. Court injured his leg and could no' ride fast enough."
"Where did you leave him?" Ethan snapped. "Far enough away fromher , I hope."
Hugh had been charged with more than just seeing Court back to England - he was supposed to make sure that Court didn't have second thoughts and return for his woman, Annalía Llorente. "I left him in France. Court will no' go back for her. He understands what he'll do to her if he returns," Hugh said confidently enough, though he had to wonder. Court yearned for his lass so badly it was palpable. But Hugh hadn't had a choice except to abandon him, not after learning Jane was in danger. "What the hell is this I'm hearing about Grey?" Hugh asked. He had counted the man a friend until the last couple of years.
"Weyland sent him on a suicide mission. That failed."
That got Hugh to face Ethan. "Were you a part of that?" Sometimes, most times, he wished Ethan had never been recruited with himself by Weyland.
Ethan gave him a chilling half smile - distorting the whitened scar winding down his face - the sneer that now seemed to say,Brother, had I been, there would be no failure . Then he replied, "I was no', but I did volunteer to take him out. Weyland seemed to think I was personally too involved, and declined."