England, 1294: Rogue Warriors
…KIER STOOD in the shadows, silent and watchful, as the last passenger disembarked the ship in the sea-stinking darkness.
Darkness suited his mood. A raging thunderstorm would suit it better. But he held himself motionless nonetheless. Five years spent resurrecting himself, mind and body, had seen him emerge as something hideously scarred. Barely human. A vessel of vengeance.
It made everything so much easier.
Now, he was nearing the end of his long-planned mission, a brash, audacious plan that would wreak destruction on the men who had ruined him.
At least, that was the plan.
Right now, that plan involved waiting. Waiting for a ledger.
Funny, how something so small could spell the demise of so many.
But small things often did that. A horseshoe thrown in the midst of flight. A dark-haired woman who made a man hope.
He shut down the line of thought about Sophia before it had a chance to take root. That too had become a well-practiced skill. No hope, no remembrances save one: the faces of the men who tried to destroy him.
And now, the goal of finding the ledger that detailed all of Cosimo’s foul deeds and the men he’d done them with—moreover, the ships he used to do them. It was on the loose, stolen from one of Cosimo’s men out of a far-flung post in France. Someone had betrayed Cosimo.
The man kept having these sorts of problems.
Kier knew very well the burning grave they tried to lay him in five years ago was intended not only as punishment for Kier, but as a warning to all Cosimo’s associates on the perils of crossing him.
Evidently, the warning had not taken. Yet Kier’s informants reported everyone was accounted for. All Cosimo’s associates and lieutenants, even the one found carved up like a Christmas boar on the floor of the French port house on this, the eve of some big push.
But someone had taken the ledger that documented all the operations of the commenda. Cosimo’s lieutenant, dying on the floor, had said something, told them something. Someone had fled and taken documents.
Or so Kier’s informant had told him.
It was enough.
It had taken an astonishing amount of time and coin to sift through couriered messages from his web of informants, but eventually Kier had learned only one ship left the French port that fateful night two months ago. He also knew which stops it was to make. The first two had been in France.
The last was in Last Fells, England. Here. Now.
Seeing as England was where the ledger was worth the most money, he’d known exactly where to go, and knew precisely what he was looking for: an enterprising, audacious idiot who thought to oppose Cosimo Endolte.
It would be someone traveling as anonymously as possible. Someone who would stand out in their attempt to fit in.
Should be a simple matter.
Kier waited until the goods were offloaded and watched passengers flitting off in twos and threes, burdened with coffers and wagons and very loud voices.
Not the ones he wanted.
Then, last of all, a single hooded figure disembarked.
Kier stepped out behind the cloaked figure—it would not due to have a confrontation in plain sight.
He followed at a distance, but never far enough back to lose sight of the thief who’d dared defy Cosimo.
His prey moved gracefully, a gliding figure with bent head, looping folds of hood enshrouding even a glimpse of a face. But within seconds Kier knew it was a woman beneath all that wool. Everything about her bespoke femininity.
Of course it would be a woman who’d upended Cosimo’s plans. Women did that. It was their essential truth.
For some reason, the hairs on the back of his neck went up.
Very well. He adjusted his plan minimally. No swords, no weapons. Perhaps charm, he thought hopefully.
She traveled at a surprisingly swift pace, as if she had a destination in mind. No doubt she did. A hundred people wanted that ledger.
One would pay a thousand pounds for it.
He increased his pace as she crossed the bridge that led toward the richer part of town, where the wealthy and cultured did their business, far enough from the docks to avoid the stench of the coarse ruffians who abided there, but close enough to reap the benefits of their coin.
It was a thick, murky dawn, already soupy with heat. The woman paused at the end of a street and peeked around the corner, her cloak hem swaying.
He stared at the sway. He didn’t like the sway. It was a familiar sway.
Without warning, she stepped out onto the bridge.
His attention snapped back. She was out in the open.
With a curse, he moved into motion, gliding up behind her on silent steps. She kept close to the buildings erected all along the sides of the stone bridge, the offices of the moneychangers, who saw to the needs of everyone passing and out of town. She paused beside one.
Kier stared in surprise. He knew that door, knew the man whose business operated behind it. Tomas Moneychanger? Why on earth…
She turned her back to the street and a slender hand went up, under her hood, pulling a pin from her hair.
He arrived behind her and said softly, “This was an extremely bad idea.”
She froze, the hood atop her head rippling slightly, and something, some strange thread of…something winded through him.
She turned, clutching a satchel to her chest, and lifted her face.
It was as if someone had punched him in the chest. He jerked back, stopped breathing, felt his bones crunching.
His eyes widened in stunned realization: Sophia was the enterprising, audacious idiot?
She stared at him. Her jaw slowly dropped. “Kier?” she whispered.
He threw his chin up, as if someone had tried to land a fist on it.
For a mad second he wanted to deny it. Claim he had no idea what she was talking about, move past her, ignore her, pretend he didn’t know her amid all the women of the earth.
Sadly, that proved impossible.
Five years of training to still every urge and control every impulse fell away. He stepped forward, his body going where he no longer let his mind go: toward Sophia.
His heart slammed against his chest. How odd, for he had no heart anymore.
Her eyes, the fire eyes he remembered so well—memory was a foul curse—stared at him. Her mouth opened slightly in amazement.
Her crooked mouth.
She came a step closer, then another, until she stood an inch away.
Close enough to touch.
Her hair is darker.
His mind, entirely unhinged from reason, took note of the change. As if the color of her hair mattered.
Her face was fuller, the lean planes filled out, the angles of untried youth fleshed. Her eyes were fire still, but darker. Faint lines skimmed out from the corners. She had a nick on her chin. She’d been tried. She’d been tested. She may not have won.
“How is this happening?” she whispered. As if she was asking him to explain.
As if this was a dream, she reached up to his face.
As if he was trapped in the dream with her, he allowed it.
She skimmed her fingertips along his jaw, the faintest, brush-like stroke.
She might have simply punched him.
The muscles of his stomach rippled, tightening. His hand shot up, encircled her wrist, stopping her with a jerk.
She stared at his hand, holding her wrist in the air, then her eyes came back to him. “But…you left.”
“I am back,” he said simply.
“Oh.” She exhaled the word.
Still dream-like. For a ridiculous length of time, they stood there in the amber dawn light, staring at each other.
He had no idea what he meant to say next, but was saved the trouble of deciding when she slammed the heel of her hand into his chest and cried, “You devil!”
He stumbled back a step.
“You left me!”
He closed his hands around her arms and pulled her to him. The move was swift and firm, with a silent warning only a fool would miss.
“Be quiet,” he ordered.
Sophia had never been a fool, so she stilled. The morning silence settled back over the bridge. The only sounds were distant ones: the bleat of a sheep, a wooden wash bucket banging against a well.
Their chests almost touched. He was infuriatingly aware of this. When he did not release her—it proved an impossible task—she tugged her arms in close, fists up by her chin, and glared at him over the tops of them.
He did not like how he was immediately aware how slim her arms were, nor how familiar the heat of her was.
He did not like how stray wisps of dark hair lifted beside her parted lips.
He did not like how each breath pressed her body against the silk of her gown.
He did not like Sophia. Not now, when all he wanted to do was get on with his mission.
But God’s truth he wanted her.
Five years had not dimmed a single thing about her. Or how much he desired her. Everything still alive in him—admittedly, there was not much—wanted her.
She was the last thing he needed.
Her eyes were an amalgam of emotions: shock and confusion. But her body was certain; it was pure anger from the tips of her toes to the strands of dislodged hair trembling beside her face. Her cheeks were flushed almost red. Her tunic lifted with swift, shallow breaths.
“You remember me,” he said quietly.
She gasped, a silk-rough sound in the morning air. “Dear God, remember…?”
“Good,” he murmured. It slipped out. He hadn’t meant that.
It didn’t go over well.
“Good? Good? You devil.” She wrenched one arm free and pummeled him again, her eyes flashing as she struck him on the chest, pushing him backward. “There is nothing good about you, Kier. Not in having known you, nor in occasionally recalling you—”
“When?” When had she recalled him?
“—nor in anything to do with you, or your intrigues or your—”
Face flushed, color high, she stopped short, perhaps out of breath. Kier assumed she could have gone on indefinitely, enumerating all the things that were not good about him.
She’d be correct in every one.
“Outlaw. Robber. Thief. Bastard.” She hissed the litany of whispered accusations, all true but the last. Unfortunately.
He tightened his hands, and she stilled again. She tossed her head, and the veil covering her hair floated back in a delayed waft of anger. Her tirade had dislodged a few more strands of hair, and they floated beside her face like dark punctuation marks.
“I hate you,” she announced.
Well. There it was. Someone had to say it.
“Why are you here?”
Swiftly he thought of possible answers, seeking anything but the truth. But holding Sophia, even for a moment, had rendered him incapable of anything but the truth.
He said simply, “Business.”
“What business?” The words were a lance of loathing.
His gaze dropped between their bodies, to the pouch she still clutched in her arms. “I need that ledger.”
The truth was an awful thing.
Her jaw fell. “You want my ledger?”
He tried to think of the right thing to say at such a time. What did a woman in dire straits need to hear when the lover who’d abandoned her years ago returned unexpectedly, and desperately needed something she had in her possession?
“I will pay you for it,” he said gallantly.
Swift as a cat, she shoved him once more, this time so hard he staggered backward.
That was three times.
This time, he got angry.
She tore free and he reached for her but she spun and took off at a run and ran directly into a man neither had seen standing in the shadows.
Before Kier could react, the stranger wrapped his arms around Sophia, yanked her off her feet, and started dragging her away.
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