The man who'd murdered her stepfather was finally in her sights.
Unfortunately, he was still beyond her rifle's range. Gillian Dryden breathed out a curse that would have had her grandmother boxing her ears. They would need to get much closer to the bandits before taking a shot.
“You didn't learn that dainty expression in the salons of Palermo's distinguished nobles, I'll wager,” her brother murmured. Like her own, Griffin Steele's gaze was locked on the small cluster of men in the gorge below them.
“Indeed not. Their language is a great deal more shocking.”
When Griffin huffed out a laugh, Gillian's heart warmed with wonder and gratitude. Strictly speaking, he was her half brother, which didn't make him any less of a marvel. She'd only met him a few weeks ago, and yet there he was lying next to her on a limestone outcropping in the hardscrabble Sicilian hills. As was hers, Griffin's rifle was aimed with deadly intent. If that didn't constitute true familial affection, she couldn't think what did. Particularly since he didn't entirely approve of her actions.
“You do realize I'm here under duress,” he said, echoing her thoughts. That was another thing she'd discovered about him. He had a precise ability to read people.
Gillian peered at their target, a hulking man who'd just swung off his horse and handed the reins to one of his men. His gang of cutthroats had stopped to rest and to water their animals. One of the bandits quickly built a fire, while another retrieved a brace of rabbits hanging from a saddle and began skinning them. By all appearances they would be loitering for some time in the pleasant meadow. That suited Gillian perfectly. It was easier to kill a man taking a leisurely smoke under a tree than to pick him off the back of a cantering horse.
“I'm aware you don't wish to be here,” she said quietly. “I'm very grateful for your company.”
“Your dear mother will roast me over the coals if she finds out about this little escapade. As will my wife,” he muttered.
One only had to look into Griffin Steele's cool, dark gaze to realize how dangerous he was, but he turned into a puppy dog in the presence of his wife, Justine. With everyone else, a genial wolfhound was a better description for him, but one with a lethal bite.
“They won't have anything on Grandmamma,” Gillian said. “You can't imagine what she'd say about this.”
Not that it mattered what her mother or grandmother thought. Not when she was so close to achieving the goal she'd pursued these past five long years. And now that Antonio Falcone was in her sights, Gillian would allow nothing to stop her from exacting justice.
Griffin shifted, as if trying to get comfortable on the unforgiving rock surface beneath them. “Actually, I've heard quite a lot on the subject from Lady Marbury. She's extremely concerned about your impetuous behavior.”
Gillian twisted to look at him, narrowing her gaze on his tanned, clever face. His eyes were shadowed under the brim of his slouched hat, and his features were devoid of expression. The long black hair clubbed back over his shoulders and the thin scar running down the side of his face made him look more like the bandits below than a wealthy, educated man who had royal blood running through his veins.
“They want you to get me in hand, don't they?” she asked. “I assure you, it's pointless.”
“So I told Lady Marbury. She found my reply less than satisfactory, I'm sorry to say.”
“If you don't approve of what I'm doing, then why are you here? This isn't your fight. And it's not like I don't have help.”
He snorted. “An old man and a boy.”
“Stefano taught me everything I know, and his grandson is coming along quite nicely.”
Griffin glanced over his shoulder to a rocky alcove where the man and the boy held the horses. “Stefano looks to be at least eighty, and his grandson is barely big enough to mount a horse.”
Gillian switched her attention back to the bandits. “So that's why you came with me today. You promised my family you'd protect me. It's entirely unnecessary, I assure you.” She had been patiently working toward this moment for years. If she didn't have the strength, the skill, and the brains to take down Falcone now, she didn't deserve another moment's peace.
I won't fail you, dear Step-papa.
“I told Lady Marbury that you're more than capable of defending yourself,” he said. “I just thought I'd come along and lend a hand.”
She was so grateful that Griffin never talked to her as if she were some silly miss. Or worse, treated her like a lunatic for seeking vengeance for her stepfather's brutal murder. She was fine with not being like other girls, but it wasn't always easy to be an outsider, living half in the shadows with her nameâher very existenceâmarked by scandal. The fact that her half brother and his wife had come to Sicily to seek her out warmed Gillian down to her toes.
They studied the men below in the meadow. Dappled sunlight fell along the banks of the nearby stream, and the trees partly obscured a clear shot. The best firing position would be down and to the right, on a rutted path that ran along the cliffs.
Gillian had received word only a few hours ago from a local villager that Falcone was on the move. She'd had to scramble, but fortunately it had been early enough that no one had seen her race to the stables of her grandmother's villaâno one except Griffin. She'd been stunned when, instead of trying to stop her, he'd simply rolled his eyes and saddled another horse.
“You don't need to do this, you know,” Griffin murmured. “I can take care of it for you.”
She peered at him, squinting in the strong morning sunlight. From the look on his face, he was entirely serious. That unfamiliar sense of gratitude once more curled its warmth around her heart.
“No one's ever offered to do that before,” she said softly.
He flashed a grin. “Most people aren't in the habit of offering to shoot people for young ladies.”
“Except for you, of course.”
“You wouldn't be the first.”
For a fleeting moment she was tempted to let him kill Falcone for her. After all, it wasn't as if she relished killing. The first time she'd taken down one of the bandit's men, she'd barely escaped before having to drop to her knees and retch up the contents of her stomach. The second and third time, the same thing had happened. It might even be the same with Falcone himself, despite the fact that he'd been the one to put the pistol to her stepfather's head and pull the trigger. Seeking justiceâor vengeance, some would call itâdid tend to wear on one's soul. More than once, she'd almost given the whole thing up. But for too long Falcone and his men had been allowed to roam free, committing murder and mayhem. Gillian would hold fast to her purpose, and to the vow she'd made to her stepfather the day they'd entombed him in cold marble.
“I'm touched, Griffin, but I need to see this through.”
He blew out a frustrated breath. “You do realize the bastard's death will never truly bring you peace.”
“I don't seek peace; I seek justice.”
“Revenge, more like it. The authorities in Palermo should handle this.”
A derisive snort was her only reply. Her grandmother, the Countess of Marbury, had spent years seeking justice from the authorities. They weren't interested, and neither was her stepfather's heir, the current Count Paterini. As long as Falcone continued to fill their coffers with bribes, the authorities and the local noblemen were content to let the bandit lord wreak havoc on the Sicilian countryside.
Griffin studied her. “You needn't soil your hands with their blood, my dear girl.”
“They're soiled already, Griffin.”
He shot her a puzzled look before understanding dawned. “Good God. How many men have you killed over this?” He sounded thunderstruck.
“A few,” she hedged.
“Oh, is that all?”
“They deserved it.”
The bandit scum had killed Step-papa, his two bodyguards, and the young groom accompanying him on that fateful trip through the Gorges of Tiberio. It was fitting that Gillian would deliver justice in almost the same spot where those innocents had breathed out their last moments of existence.
Her brother cursed under his breath. “Gillian, this should not be your life.”
“Do I look like a proper young lady to you?”
He cast a sardonic glance at her attireâsheepskin coat, buckskin breeches, and riding boots. “You could be. You're an attractive, respectable-looking girl when you're not disguised as a bloodthirsty ruffian.”
“I thought you, of all people, would understand,” she said, exasperated.
“I do, but if you continue along this course, it will take its toll. Killing always does.”
She managed not to flinch. “I don't have a choice.”
“There is always a choice, Gillian.”
She flicked her gaze back to Falcone, who was sitting on a rock as he smoked a pipe. He was also splendidly out in the open, but she had to get closer.
“There's no point in discussing this. I'm doing it,” she said.
“No, I willâ”
“It was my fault,” she hissed. “That's why
have to do it. No one else.”
He frowned. “I don't understand.”
She had to swallow before she could answer. “It's my fault that my stepfather was murdered. I sent him straight into Falcone's line of fire.”
“So . . . it's guilt that motivates you. Killing Falcone will likely be nothing more than an empty victory, if such is the case.” Griffin squeezed her arm. “As long as you continue to blame yourself, you will never find peace.”
She hoped to God he was wrong. He had to be wrong. “You are the most irritating man I have ever met.”
“So my wife informs me on a regular basis.”
Below them, Falcone knocked the tobacco out of his pipe and then hauled his formidable bulk to his feet. Gillian mentally cursed as he began to stroll over to join his men under the trees.
She turned and signaled to Stefano and his grandson. The old man pulled his pistol from the brace on his saddle, ready to cover her back.
“Griffin, help me or not, but I'm doing this now.” Before he could answer, she slung her rifle across her back and slithered away from the edge. As quickly as she dared, she crawled down the narrow, rutted path that ran along the rim of the gorge. If she stood, it was unlikely the men below would notice her, but she was taking no chances. Falcone had evaded her too many times over the years.
Her brother followed her. She could practically feel him seething with frustration, but he made not a sound. She had to give him creditâhe was awfully good.
A few feet short of her goal, Gillian held up a hand to halt her brother's advance. She stole a quick glance over her shoulder. Just behind them Stefano crouched, his tanned, leathery features cast into shade by his broad-brimmed hat. Griffin's expression registered shock at the sight of the old man so close, pistols at the ready. Stefano might be getting on in years, but he was still vital and strong. He could move like a ghost, silent and lethal, at her command.
After crooking a finger to signal Griffin to follow, Gillian wriggled up to the edge of the cliff. She cautiously peered over the rocks and saw the bandits under a stand of beech trees, their attention on their flasks of wine as they waited for the rabbits to cook over the open flame. Unfortunately, Falcone was half obscured by one of his men and was partly in shade. She would have to stand up if she wanted a clear shot.
She came up in a crouch and pulled the rifle from her back. She'd already checked it three times, but did so once more. The Baker was a fine weapon. It had belonged to a Hussar, and had a light, short carbine, which made it easier to handle. But it was less accurate than rifles used by sharpshooters. Although she could reload quickly if she missed her shot, she'd make an inviting target while she did.
So get it right the first time.
Griffin came up beside her. He gave her a terse nod as he brought his rifle to bear on the men below. But he then sucked in a harsh breath when Gillian rose swiftly to her feet, taking aim at Falcone.
As bad luck would have it, an eagle soared right overhead, screeching out a cry. The men below automatically glanced up, directly at her and Griffin.
Gillian fired. The shot echoed through the gorge in a deafening report. Another boom followed as Griffin fired a second later. Falcone stumbled against a low rock, roaring as he clutched his shoulder. Another bandit went down like a sack of grain tossed from a cart.
The other bandits scrambled for their weapons.
“Get down, you daft woman,” Griffin barked, reaching to pull her away from the edge.
Gillian evaded his grasp, sliding on the rocky scree and almost losing her footing. Still, she managed to recover and reload. Griffin did the same as he let loose a string of hair-raising curses. She yanked up her rifle, took aim, and fired again.
A moment later, a bullet slammed into her shoulder, throwing her to the ground. The back of her head connected with rock, and pain exploded through her skull. Gillian lay there stunned, staring up at a sky that shimmered with a milky haze. Her ears rang with the sound of a thousand church bells.
Move, you idiot.
She couldn'tânot even one blessed finger.
Griffin's face suddenly swam above her, only slightly less hazy than the sky. Gillian forced the words out past the pain. “Did I get him?” she whispered.