Authors: Stephanie Laurens
Tags: #Fiction; Romance
The Brazen Bride
The Black Cobra Quartet
December 10, 1822
One o’clock in the morning
On the deck of the
, the English Channel
ell hath no greater fury than the cataclysmic storms that raked the English Channel in winter.
With elemental tempest raging about him, Major Logan Monteith leapt back from the slashing blade of a Black Cobra cult assassin. Raising his saber to counter the second assassin’s strike, using his dirk, clutched in his left fist, to fend off the first attacker’s probing knife, Logan suspected he’d be learning about the afterlife all too soon.
Winds howled; waves crashed. Water sluiced across the deck in a hissing spate.
The night was blacker than Hades, the driving rain a blurring veil. Falling back a step, Logan swiped water from his eyes.
As one, the assassins surged, beating him back toward the prow. Blades met, steel ringing on steel, sparks flaring, pinpricks of brightness in the engulfing dark. Abruptly, the deck canted—all three combatants desperately fought for balance.
The ship, a Portuguese merchantman bound for Portsmouth, was in trouble. Logan had been forced to join its crew five days before, when, on reaching Lisbon, he’d discovered the town crawling with cultists. Battered by pounding waves, buffetted and tossed on the storm-wracked sea, as the deck leveled, the ship wallowed and swung, no longer held into the wind. Whether the rudder had broken or the captain had abandoned the wheel, Logan couldn’t tell. He couldn’t spare the time to squint through the rain-drenched dark at the bridge.
Instinct and experience kept his eyes locked on the men facing him. There’d been a third, but Logan had accounted for him in the first rush. The body was gone, claimed by the ravening waves.
Saber swinging, Logan struck, but immediately was forced to block and counter, then retreat yet another step into the narrowing prow. Further confining his movements, reducing his options. Didn’t matter; two against one in the icy, pelting rain, with his grips on his dirk and his saber cramping, leather-soled boots slipping and sliding—the assassins were barefoot, giving them even that advantage—he couldn’t effectively go on the offensive.
He wasn’t going to survive.
As he met and deflected another vicious blow, he acknowledged that, yet even as he did his innate stubbornness rose. He’d been a cavalry officer for more than a decade, fought in wars over half the globe, been through hell more than once, and survived.
He’d faced assassins before, and lived.
He told himself that even as, teeth gritted, he angled his saber up to block a slash at his head—and his feet went from under him, pitching him back against the railing.
The wooden scroll-holder strapped to his back slammed into his spine.
From the corner of his eye, he saw white teeth flash in a dark face—a feral grin as the second assassin swung and slashed. Logan hissed as the blade sliced down his left side, cutting through coat and shirt into muscle, grazing bone, before angling across his stomach to disembowel him. Instinct had him flattening against the railing; the blade cut, but not deep enough.
Not that that would save him.
Lightning cracked, a jagged tear of brilliant white splitting the black sky. In the instant’s illumination, Logan saw the two assassins, dark eyes fanatically gleaming, triumph in their faces, gather themselves to spring and bring him down.
He was bleeding, badly.
He saw Death, felt it—tasted ashes as icy fingers pierced his body, reaching for his soul.
He dragged in a last gasp, braced himself. Given his mission, given his occupation for the last several years, Saint Peter ought at least consider letting him into Heaven.
A long-forgotten prayer formed on his lips.
The assassins sprang.
Impact—sudden, sharp, catastrophic—flung him and the assassins overboard. The plunge into turbulent depths, into the churning fury of the sea, separated them.
Tumbling in the icy dark, instinct took hold; righting himself, Logan struck upward. His dirk was still in his left fist; he’d released his saber, but it was tied to his belt by its lanyard—he felt the reassuring tap of the hilt against his leg.
He was a strong swimmer. The assassins almost certainly weren’t—it would be a wonder if they could swim at all. Dismissing them—he had more pressing concerns—he broke the surface and hauled in a huge breath. He shook his head, then peered through the water weighing down his lashes.
The storm was at its height, the seas mountainous. He couldn’t see beyond the next towering wave, while with elemental rage the wind whipped and strafed, shrieking worse than a thousand banshees.
The ship had been in open water in the middle of the Channel when the storm had hit, but he had no idea how far the tempest had tossed them, nor any clear idea of direction. No idea if land was close, or . . .
He’d been losing blood when he’d hit the water. How long he would last in the cauldron of icy waves, how soon his already depleted strength would fail—
His hand struck something—wood, a plank. No, even better, a section of planking. Desperate, Logan grabbed it, grimly hung on as the next wave tried to slap him away, then, gritting his teeth, he hauled himself up and onto the makeshift raft.
The cold had numbed his flesh, yet the cut down his side sent burning pain lancing through his entire body.
For a long moment, he lay prone on the planks, gasping, then, gathering his ebbing strength, steeling himself, he inched and edged further onto the planks until he could lock his right hand over the ragged front edge. His feet still dangled in the water, but his body was supported to his knees; it was the best he could do.
The waves surged. His raft pitched, but rode the swell.
Beneath the lashing roar of the storm, waves crashed. Cheek to the wet wood, he listened, concentrating, and confirmed that the waves were smashing against something nearby.
The ship was, he thought, wallowing in the unrelieved blackness to his right. Breaking up. Sinking. Given how he and the assassins had been flung, the impact must have been midship. Whipping up his failing strength, he lifted his head, searched, saw debris but no bodies—no other survivors—but only he and the assassins had been so far forward in the prow.
Lightning cracked again, and showed him the ship’s bare masts silhouetted against the inky sky.
As the simultaneous clap of thunder faded, he heard a sucking, rushing sound. Recognizing the portent, he peered at the ship.
The listing, tipping, capsizing ship.
Out of the night, the main mast came swinging down. . . .
He didn’t even have time to swear before the top of the mast thumped down across him and the world went black.
Come quickly! Come
Linnet Trevission looked up from the old flagstones of the path that ran from the stable to the kitchen door. She’d left the stable and was nearing the kichen garden; directly ahead, the solid bulk of her home, Mon Coeur, sat snug and serene, anchored within the protective embrace of stands of elm and fir bent and twisted into outlandish shapes by the incessant sea winds.
At present, however, in the aftermath of the storm that had raged for half the night, the winds were mild, coyly coquettish, the winter sun casting a honey glow over the house’s pale stone.
She smiled as Chester, one of her wards—a tow-headed scamp of just seven—came pelting around the side of the house, heading for the back door. “Chester! I’m here.”
The boy looked up, then veered onto the stable path.
“You have to come!” Skidding to a halt, he grabbed her hand and tugged. “There’s been a wreck!” His face alight, excitement and tension straining his voice, he looked up into her eyes. “There are bodies! And Will says one of the men is
! You have to come!”
Linnet’s smile fell from her face. “Yes, of course.” Swiping up her skirts—wishing she’d worn her breeches instead—she strode quickly toward the back door, inwardly reviewing the necessary tasks, tasks she’d dealt with often before.
On the southwest tip of Guernsey, dealing with shipwrecks was an inescapable part of life.
Chester trotted at her side, his hand gripping hers—too tightly, but then his father had been lost at sea three years ago. As they neared the kitchen door, it opened to reveal Linnet’s aunt, Muriel.
“Did I hear aright? A wreck?”
Linnet nodded. “Will sent Chester—there’s at least one survivor. I’ll go straightaway—can you find Edgar and the others? Tell them to bring the old gate, and the pack of bandages and splints.”
“Yes, of course. But where?”
Linnet looked at Chester. “Which cove?”
Grimacing, Linnet met Muriel’s eyes. Of course it would be that one—the rockiest and most dangerous. Especially for whoever had been washed up. “Broken bones, almost certainly.”
Nodding briskly, Muriel waved her off. “Go. I’ll have everything ready here when you get back.”
Linnet met Chester’s eyes. “Let’s race.”
Chester flashed a grin, let go of her hand, turned and ran back around the house.
Both hands now free, Linnet gathered her skirts and set out in pursuit; with her longer legs, she was soon on Chester’s heels. The path cut through the surrounding trees, then out across the rocky expanse that bordered the edge of the low cliffs.
“Hold up!” Linnet called as they rounded the southern headland of the long northwestern side of the island and the west cove opened up below them.
Chester halted at the top of the path—little more than a goat track—that led down to a strip of coarse sand. Beyond the sand lay rocks, exposed now that the tide was mostly out, a tumbled jumble of granite from fist-sized to small boulders that formed the floor of the cove. The cove wasn’t all that wide; two promontories of larger, jagged rocks enclosed it, marching out into the lashing gray waves.
Looking down, Linnet saw three bodies, two flung as if carelessly discarded on the rocks. Those two were dead—had to be, given the contortions of limbs, heads, and spines. The third she could only catch glimpses of; Will and Brandon—another two of her wards—were crouched over the man.
Aware of Chester’s pleading look, Linnet nodded. “All right—let’s go.”
He was off like a hare. Linnet kilted her skirts, then followed, leaping down the familiar path with an abandon almost Chester’s equal. As she descended, she scanned the cove again, noting the flotsam thrown up by the storm; to her educated eyes the evidence suggested that a good-sized merchantman had broken up on the razor-sharp rocks that lurked beneath the waves out to the northwest.
Reaching the sand, Chester bounded toward Will and Brandon. Suppressing the urge to follow, Linnet carefully made her way out onto the rocks and confirmed that the other two men were indeed dead, beyond her help. Two sailors, by the look of them, both swarthy. Spanish?
Leaving them where they lay, she picked her way through the rocks back onto the sand, then walked to where the third body lay close to the cliff.
His back to her, Will looked up and around as she neared, his fifteen-year-old face unusually sober. “He was on the planking, so we lifted it and carried him here.”
Halting, she dropped a hand on Will’s shoulder and answered the question he hadn’t asked. “It was safe to move him if he was already on the planks.”
Shifting her gaze from Will’s face, she got her first look at their survivor. He was lying on his stomach on the section of planking, a wet tangle of black hair screening his face.
He was large. Big. Not a giant, but in any company he would rank as impressive. Broad shoulders, long, heavy limbs. Running her gaze down his spine, she frowned at the bulge distorting his sodden coat. Bending, she reached out and touched it, felt the hardness, traced the odd shape.
“It’s a wooden cylinder in oilskins,” Will told her. “It’s slung in a leather holder with a loop around his belt. We think his arms must go through other loops to hold it in place.”
Linnet nodded. “Curious.” Had he been carrying the cylinder secretly? With it nestled between the muscles bracketing his spine, if he’d been upright, the fall of his coat would have concealed it.
Straightening, she ran her gaze down his legs, but saw no evidence of breaks or wounds. He was wearing breeches and a loose coat, the sort many sailors wore. His right arm was extended, the fingers of his large hand curled around the front edge of a plank. His other hand, however, lay level with his face, fingers locked in a death grip about the hilt of a dagger.
That seemed a trifle odd for a shipwreck.
Conscious of her pulse thudding—the run to the cliffs shouldn’t have made her heart beat so rapidly—she bent to look at the dagger. Not just a dagger, she realized—a dirk. The fine scrollwork on the blade was exquisite, the hilt larger than that of most knives, with a rounded stone set in the crosspiece. Reaching down, she pried long, hard, ice-cold fingers away from the hilt, then handed the dirk to Will. “Hold that for me.”