Smuggling tunnels near the Kentish Coast
Aden St. George managed to avoid having to kill the guard stationed outside his quarry’s crypt-like cell, although the thug outside the caves hadn’t been so lucky. Still, that bastard had tried to knife him in the gut so Aden could hardly be faulted for returning the favor. And knowing what he did about the men who’d kidnapped Lady Vivien Shaw, he wouldn’t waste his fitful conscience on that brutal but necessary act. Killing was not a favorite pastime, but only rarely did it disturb his sleep.
Tonight’s rescue mission carried no inconvenient opportunities for remorse since a woman’s life and innocence hung in the balance. True, the gossips whispered that Lady Vivien’s innocence was an open question, but what would happen to her if Aden failed wasn’t. Without his intervention she would disappear into a nightmarish life, forever beyond the protection of her family and friends.
Even if she’d simply been the victim of a kidnapping for ransom, as her wealthy brother suspected, her reputation at the very least was at stake—especially if rumors of her disappearance started to circulate throughout the ton. More importantly, Aden hoped he wasn’t already too late to ensure she continued her easy, privileged life, and that her brutish guards hadn’t already used her as their plaything.
As he eased the guard’s beefy, foul-smelling form to the floor, Aden cast a swift glance down the dimly lit corridor. All was silent, as it should be if he’d done his job correctly. He normally felt little pride in his abilities, but he could at least acknowledge a grim satisfaction that his last disastrous mission in France hadn’t affected his instincts or his lethally-honed skills.
Shrugging away any residual tension, he extracted his pick locks from the inner pocket of his coat and went to work on the sturdy oak door separating him from his objective. Although no sound emanated from behind the rough-hewn panels, he was certain Lady Vivien was there. Three other tunnels ran up from the coast into the smuggler’s lair, but only this corridor boasted a table, lamp, and chair for the guard by the door. An assessing glance down the other tunnels had convinced him the majority of the gang was elsewhere, probably in a room with a fireplace and more creature comforts than those in this dank corner. But clearly the bastards thought one of the rooms obviously used for storing contraband was quite good enough for a gently-bred lady.
Aden forced down the flare of rage that a woman like Lady Vivien—orany woman—would be stowed like a cask of brandy in a moldering hole carved from dirt and rock. But he could hardly spare to indulge in that kind of emotion. Emotion was an insidious enemy that clouded the judgement, as it had only a few weeks ago in Paris. He couldn’t afford it, not when the lady’s life was at stake.
The lock snicked and the tumblers slid open. Aden slipped quietly past the door, ignoring the choking miasma of mold and dust that assailed his nostrils. It took a few seconds for his eyes to adjust to the murky depths of the room, illuminated by a single candle standing on a crate, burned down to a nub. Ghosting forward, he made out a pallet shoved against the sloping, roughly carved wall of the room.
A slight form lay motionless under a dark cloak.
Silent, he gazed down at Lady Vivien, sister to the Earl of Blake and one of the most acclaimed young women of the ton though she was a dab little thing to be the recipient of so much admiration and gossip. But even in the dim light cast by the candle, though disheveled and dirty, her beauty shone clear to Aden in the cast of her elegant features. Hair the color of golden honey wound down from her ruined coiffure and tumbled around her shoulders. Her velvet evening cloak, woefully inadequate to ward off the chill from the room’s moisture-slicked walls, had slipped from her shoulders to puddle about her waist, revealing creamy skin and gently sloping breasts that rose and fell in the rapid, shallow breathing of her disturbed sleep. A ridiculously delicate dress, all white lace and yellow silk, had silly little sleeves that exposed most of her arms and shoulders, and her pale breasts gently swelled from the wispy bodice of her gown.
Aden crouched beside her pallet, noting the dirt smudges on her pale arms and shoulders, and grimy marks of filthy hands streaking mud across the bodice of her gown. She’d clearly been manhandled, and anger again lanced through his gut like a poison-tipped blade. He feared he was too late to save her from a lifetime of remembered horror and degradation, just as he’d been too late to save John Williamson from a pointless death in a French inn not two weeks ago.
He throttled back his frustration, because he could at least save her from death or more abuse. For now, that was all he had. Any personal vengeance he chose to exact against her captors would come later, when he had extracted Lady Vivien from danger. The unconscious guard outside her room wouldn’t stay down forever, and other members of the gang could wander along at any time, either to relieve the guard or check on the other man, now crumpled dead in the bushes outside the entrance to the tunnels.
Leaning over, Aden inhaled, taking in her sickly-sweet, heavily scented breath along with the pallor of her winsome features. She’d been drugged, likely a blessing given what had happened to her in this disgusting hole.
He flicked the cloak up over her chest and gently slid his arms under her slender body. As he started to lift, she suddenly came to life in his arms, thrashing madly. Startled, he instinctively tightened his grip. But preoccupied with keeping a hold on her twisting body, he failed to notice her arm snake out from under the cloak until her fist smashed into his cheekbone.
Shock more than pain lanced through him as she wrenched herself free. She landed on the pallet with a startled oof and then exploded up again, her slender body a furious tangle of kicking, thrusting limbs. Her eyes blazed with rage, wide and full of desperation. She fought with the instinct and fear-generated strength of a cornered animal, one who preferred death to submission.
Recovering from his momentary paralysis, Aden pressed her back down onto the pallet, capturing her flailing arms and legs beneath him. She sucked in a sobbing, terrified breath but surprised him again when she lunged up, trying to smash the top of her head into his face. He jerked back just in time, then whipped a hand up, grasped the back of her skull and held it firmly against the scratchy burlap cloth beneath her.
For a few infernally long seconds they glared at each other, their rasping breaths shattering the clammy closeness of the room. She shook beneath him, her body slim and lithe beneath the fragile silk of her ball gown. A heated tendril of scent reached his nostrils, an elusive whisper of roses and summer warmth. Her chest rose and fell in a pattern of fractured breaths, plumping the fullness of her breasts over the top of her low-cut bodice.
The candle on the crate beside them sputtered and flared, throwing light on her face. A hectic flush rose in her cheeks, driving a wash of pink across her pale skin. Her lips, plush and bow shaped, trembled open in a travesty of invitation, and for one demented instant Aden fought the urgent need to taste them, to plumb the sweet temptation they offered.
And then she drew in a breath, preparing to scream. He whipped up a hand and covered her mouth, disgusted with his lapse in discipline and what it must have revealed to her. She might be the kind of spoiled beauty he disdained, but he’d consign himself to the darkest hell before he frightened her or harmed a hair on her head.
“Hush, Lady Vivien.” He lifted slightly, giving her more room although he kept his hand clamped over her mouth. “Sir Dominic Hunter sent me. I’m going to get you out of here, but you can’t scream or keep fighting or your captors will hear.”
Her gaze darted to the door and the corridor beyond, then flashed back to his face.
“The guards won’t trouble us,” he murmured in response to her unspoken question. The terror that glazed her eyes dimmed a notch. She blinked rapidly as if to chase away her drug-induced confusion.
He held her gaze, willing her to trust him. “If I take my hand away, you must not cry out. You will endanger us both if you do. Understand?”
She stared up at him, eyes rounded with fear. He could practically hear the turning of the cogs and wheels in her brain and feel her body go still as she weighed her decision.
Blast. If she continued to fight him, a sharp tap to the jaw to knock her senseless might be the only safe way to handle her. But then he saw the clearing in her eyes and sensed the beginning of a wary acceptance of him.
“Yes?” he whispered.
The flush leached from her face. She gave one sharp, economical nod and then settled under him, as if waiting for him to respond. Cautiously, he removed his hand from her mouth, straining an ear for any noises. He deliberately pulled his awareness away from her, focusing his instincts, trying to sense traps that might await them in the corridor beyond.
“Who are you?” Her voice was a throaty croak. “You know Sir Dominic?”
“Yes. I’m a friend.” Right now she didn’t need to know more than the basics.
He rolled off the pallet, bringing her slight body with him as he rose. She gave a little gasp and staggered, sinking against him. Steadying her, he wrapped the velvet cloak tightly around her and lifted, settling her easily against his chest, a fragile package in his arms. The fact that she’d tried to fight him and struggled so desperately to defend herself spoke of a reckless courage that filled him with dismay. If she had struggled thus with her abductors, God only knows what they’d done to her. They would have relished the sport of breaking her in unimaginably brutal ways.
Once more, a thirst for vengeance settled low in his gut. His mind began to reshape itself into the cold, ruthless pattern that automatically formed whenever he planned a kill. Emotions began to fall away. He felt the man inside him—the creature of blood, bone, muscle, and morality—giving way to something akin to iron wheels and gears, defined by a single, deadly purpose that swept everything before it.
The girl stiffened in his arms. She peered at him, caution pulling her features tight as if she’d sensed the change in him. How the hell was that possible?
When she wriggled, clearly wanting down, he knew she had sensed it. Swiftly, he refocused. Vengeance would change nothing. In this moment, the only thing that counted was saving Lady Vivien Shaw.
He tried a reassuring smile. Her eyes widened and she shrank into herself, her expression screaming distrust. Very well. She’d have to trust him, or he just might be forced to tap her under the chin after all. So far she’d surprised him with her lack of hysterics, but would that last much longer?
Her tongue swiped out to wet her full lips—a distraction he didn’t need—then she spoke in that croaking whisper. “How will we—”
He shook his head in warning as they reached the door. A fine tremor flowed through her limbs before she fell silent and still against him.
Shifting her in his arms, he moved, keeping the door between them and the open corridor. He glanced down at the burly form of the guard crumpled against the wall. Aden gave him a hard nudge with his boot.
“Is he dead?” Lady Vivien whispered.
He shook his head. After what the guard had likely done to her, he’d assumed she’d want to see him dead. Yet she seemed relieved more than anything.
As he moved down the corridor, she stretched up again to murmur in his ear, “I can walk.” Her warm breath slid over his skin like a caress, her soft lips brushing his ear. Aden had to repress an instinctive shiver of pleasure.
Scowling at his undisciplined reaction, he bit out a low reply. “We’re almost out.” He thought she rolled her eyes at him, but his mind rejected the absurd notion.
“I would nonetheless prefer to walk,” she hissed.
Apparently she had rolled her eyes at him.
When they came to a branching intersection he stopped, hugging the wall as he listened while grasping her even more securely against his chest. She grumbled something under her breath which he ignored. They were almost out. The fools who had snatched her had failed to avail themselves of the opportunity offered by the extensive network of tunnels. They could have stashed their captive in the deepest recesses of the smugglers’ lair, making it hard to find her and harder to get her out. Instead, they’d dumped her in an easily accessible room in one of the first tunnels off the main corridor, topping off their stupidity by leaving her inadequately guarded. Those mistakes told Aden a great deal about her captors. He prayed their ineptitude would hold true for the rest of the night.
Not that he couldn’t handle whatever problems arose. Dominic had wanted to send more men, but Aden had vetoed the idea. Time had not been on their side, and he preferred to work alone in any event. This type of mission suited his skills and temperament perfectly—in and out quickly using whatever amount of lethal force was required.
He glanced down at the bundle of femininity in his arms. If he had to kill someone else, he surely did not want a hysterical woman complicating matters. Not that Lady Vivien seemed predisposed to hysterics, but she was likely in shock and a good agent never took chances.
Or shouldn’t, as he’d been so recently and harshly reminded.
Resting against the wall, vaguely aware of Lady Vivien’s soft, rose-petal scent, Aden thought about his options. After a moment, he ducked his head to find her ear, blowing aside the fine strands of golden hair that had snagged in the collar of his coat. She jerked in his arms then looked at him, blue eyes wide and startled.
“Are you certain you can walk?” he murmured.
She blew out a relieved breath and nodded. For some reason, it annoyed him that she was so intent on freeing herself from his grasp. He felt better with the girl secure in his arms. Obviously she didn’t feel the same way, and it did make sense to have his hands free, knives at the ready, when they reached the entrance to the tunnels. So far all had gone according to plan, which was usually the best evidence that matters were about to blow up in his face.
He eased her down until her feet touched the floor, the top of her head barely level with his chin. When she inhaled sharply, he glanced down at her feet and quietly cursed. They’d taken away her shoes and now she stood on the cold, dirt-packed floor in stocking-clad feet.
When he slid an arm around her waist to lift her again, she slapped a hand on his chest to stop him.
“It’s fine,” she whispered. “I can still walk.” A wry little smile shaped the corners of her pretty mouth. “Besides, my feet are so cold I can hardly feel a thing.”
Slightly bemused by her stoic attitude, he raised his brows. She simply shrugged. Aden cast an assessing glance at the tunnel floor. Though dirty and assuredly cold, it seemed relatively free of debris. The exit was close, and they should make it with little trouble if no one had yet discovered the dead guard in the bushes.
That, however, was a big if.
Aden bent to whisper, “Stay behind me. If there’s any trouble, run for the woods. There’s a horse tied up in a small clearing about four hundred yards straight ahead. If that’s not possible, double back and hide down that corridor.” He jerked his head to indicate a shadowed, low-ceilinged tunnel branching off to the right. “Wait there until I come for you.”
She stared at him, and that glazed look of terror seeped back into her eyes as he sensed panic freezing her limbs. Ignoring his growing sense of urgency, Aden took her face between his gloved hands, stooping until their gazes were level. Her breath sawed in and out in shallow pants, as he stared into her eyes until the pupils contracted and focused on him.
“You are safe with me,” he said quietly. “I will not let anyone harm you again. Do you understand?”
Her slender hands came up in a fluttering motion, touching his wrists. An elusive sense of connection shimmered in the air between them, slowing time to a crawl. Tension flowed from his limbs and evaporated in a gust of cool air blowing from the mouth of the tunnel. The outside world faded away and there was only her—her wounded, sapphire gaze, her slowly quieting breath, her beautiful, anxious face between his hands. Her needs became paramount, along with his need that she trust him. In that suspended moment, their mutual needs encompassed the entire world.
Finally, she blinked several times, breaking the ephemeral thread of the connection. She dropped her hands from his wrists and nodded her understanding.
“Good.” His heart throbbed with a strange, pulsing ache as he brushed a stray lock of hair from her brow. Clamping down hard on the unfamiliar sensation, Aden gathered himself and turned to face whatever awaited them outside the tunnels.