Colin laughed. He rolled to his side and put his arm around his wife. "You're quite the little negotiator," he drawled out. "Love, it isn't that I don't want you to sleep with me, but I get up off and on all night long and I don't want to wake you. You need your rest."
"You won't wake me," she replied. "A nice long letter arrived from Mother Superior today," she said then, turning the topic. "I left it on your desk so you could read it. The roses are in bloom all around Stone Haven now. Perhaps next year, when you take me to see our castle, all the flowers will be in their full glory. It's quite a sight, husband."
"Lord, I really do own a castle, don't I?"
She cuddled closer to his side. "Mother Superior was able to get the funds released from the bankers. I never doubted her ability, of course. She can be very persuasive when she wants to."
Colin was pleased with the news. He didn't want the general to get even a fraction of Alesandra's inheritance. "Dreyson will quit worrying," he remarked. "Once the money is safe in the bank here…"
"Good Lord, Colin, you don't believe Mother Superior will send the funds on to us, do you?"
"I did think…"
Her laughter stopped him. "What is so amusing?"
"Getting the money away from the general wasn't difficult at all, but trying to get the Mother Superior to release the funds will be quite impossible."
"Why?" he asked, still confused.
"Because she's a nun," she answered. "And nuns solicit funds. They don't give them up. The general wasn't any match for the mother superior, and neither are you, husband. God wants them to have the money," she added. "Besides, it was a gift, remember? And they can certainly put the money to good use. Dreyson will pout for a little while and then he'll forget all about it."
Colin leaned down and kissed her. "I love you, Alesandra."
She'd been waiting to hear that declaration and immediately pounced on it. "Perhaps you do love me just a little, but certainly not as much as Nathan loves Sara."
Her announcement astonished him. He leaned up on one elbow so he could see her expression. She wasn't smiling, but there was a definite sparkle in her eyes. The little woman was up to something, all right.
"Why would you say such a thing?"
She wasn't the least affected by the growl in his voice or the scowl on his face. "I'm negotiating again," she explained.
"What is it you want now?" Colin was having difficulty controlling his frown. He wanted to laugh.
"You and Nathan were going to use Sara's gift from the king, and I ask—nay, I demand—you take the exact amount from my inheritance. It's only fair, Colin."
"I don't like being slighted, husband."
"Slighted? Where in God's name did you come up with that notion?"
"I'm really very sleepy now. Think about the fairness in my request and let me know tomorrow. Good night, Colin."
Request? He scoffed over that word. She'd demanded, and that was that. He could tell her mind was set, and she was simply too stubborn for her own good. She wasn't going to let up on the issue, either. From the tone of her voice he knew her feelings had somehow been injured over what she considered a slight.
"I'll think about it," he finally promised.
She didn't hear him. She was already sound asleep. Colin blew out the candles, pulled his wife close, and fell asleep minutes later.
The household hadn't completely settled down for the night. Flannaghan was still downstairs putting the finishing touches on his sister's work. He had given Meg the task of dusting the salon and was now diligently cleaning the spots she'd missed. Flannaghan was a worrier, a perfectionist as well, and until both his sisters learned the routine of the household he would continue to scrutinize their work to make certain it was up to his standards.
It was after one in the morning when he finally finished with the salon and blew out the candles. He'd just reached the foyer when a knock sounded at the front door.
Because of the late hour, Flannaghan didn't open the door to see who was there. He peeked out the side window first, recognized his employer's friend, and then unbolted the latch.
Morgan Atkins rushed inside. Before Flannaghan could explain that both Colin and Alesandra had already retired for the night, Morgan said, "I know it's late, but this is an emergency and I've got to see Colin right away. Sir Richards will be here in a few minutes."
"But milord has already gone to bed," Flannaghan stammered out.
"Wake him," Morgan snapped. He softened his voice when he added, "We have a crisis on our hands. He'll want to know what has happened. Be quick about it, man. Richards will be here any moment now."
Flannaghan didn't argue with the earl. He immediately turned to run up the steps. Morgan followed him. Flannaghan assumed the earl wished to wait in the study. He half turned to ask him to take a seat in the salon.
A blinding light exploded inside his head. The pain was so intense, so consuming, it overwhelmed him. There wasn't time to shout a warning, or enough strength to fight. Flannaghan was whirled into darkness the second the blow was delivered to the back of his head.
He fell backward. Morgan grasped him under his arms so the unconscious man wouldn't make any noise falling down the steps, then propped him against the banister.
He stood there staring down at the butler a long minute to make certain he hadn't just stunned him, then, satisfied he wouldn't wake up anytime soon, he turned his attention to the more important task at hand.
He crept up the stairs. In one pocket was the dagger he planned to use on Alesandra. In the other pocket was the pistol he would use to kill Colin.
His eagerness didn't make him less cautious. He'd replayed his plan over and over again inside his mind to make certain there weren't any flaws.
He was glad now he hadn't given in to his urge and killed her sooner. He'd wanted to… oh, yes, he'd wanted to, but he hadn't given in to the urge. Why, he'd even taken out the contract with Morton and Sons, naming Colin as beneficiary of course, so that the husband would be the only one who stood to gain from her death. Oh, yes, he'd been clever about what he was going to do. The princess had intrigued him from the moment he'd met her. Would there be a stronger rush killing royalty?
He smiled in anticipation. In just a few minutes he would have his answer.
He knew which bedroom belonged to Alesandra. He'd found out that interesting fact when he'd called on Colin that first time. He'd met Alesandra in the hallway outside the library, heard her mention she needed to get something from her room, and then watched her hurry down the hallway, past the first doorway and through the second. Oh, he was the clever one, all right. He'd filed that information away for possible future use and now it was going to give him the edge he needed.
He wanted to kill Alesandra first. There was surely a connecting door between the two bedrooms, and if not, then the hallway door would serve him just as well. He wanted to make Alesandra scream with her terror and her pain and watch as Colin rushed into the bedroom to save his beloved wife. Morgan would wait until Colin had taken it all in, had seen the blood pouring from Alesandra's body, and once he'd feasted on the horror and the helplessness in Colin's eyes, then he would kill him with one shot through his heart.
Colin deserved to die a slow, agonizing death, but Morgan didn't dare take such a chance. Colin was a dangerous man, and for that reason alone he would kill him quickly.
Still, the look on his face when he realized his wife was dying would be treasured in Morgan's mind a long, long while. And that would have to be enough, he decided as he slowly made his way down the dark hallway.
He passed the study, then the door to the first chamber, as silent as a cat now, barely breathing at all until he reached the door he'd watched Alesandra open.
He was ready now, composed… invincible! And still he waited, more to tease himself with the anticipation of the reward soon to be his than anything else. He listened to the silence for long minutes… waiting… letting the fever catch hold of him, burn him, strengthen him.
They both deserved to die—Alesandra because she was a woman, of course, and Colin because he had ruined his chances for success with the War Department. Richards didn't trust him anymore, and it was Colin's fault he hadn't succeeded. If Colin had gone along with him on the assignment, he wouldn't have given in to the fever raging inside him when he'd spotted the Frenchman's sister. He wouldn't have thought about how smooth her skin had looked or noticed the innocent vulnerability in her eyes. He would have been able to control the need to touch her with his blade in his hands… But Colin hadn't gone with him, and luck hadn't been on his side that time. The brother returned from town earlier than scheduled and had come upon him while he was sliding his blade in and out, in and out, in his own mating ritual that gave him such a rush of pleasure. The screams had alerted the man—those necessary, thrilling screams that fed his passion—and if Colin had been there both the sister and her brother would still be alive. He would have been able to control himself—yes, yes, he would have—and, oh, God, she'd been so sweet…
Her body had felt like butter against his steel erection, and he knew Alesandra's body would feel just as soft. Her blood would be hot and sticky as it spurted over his hands, as hot and sticky…
He didn't dare wait any longer. After Richards told him Colin and he had both come to the conclusion he wasn't suited for their line of work, Morgan had pretended disappointment. Inside he raged with fury. How dare they think him inferior? How dare they?
He'd made up his mind then and there to kill both of them. He'd been so terribly clever with his plans, too. Colin and Richards would both die in tragic accidents, of course, but the plans changed today when he'd taken Colin's sister riding in the park and she'd told him Alesandra had tried to talk her out of going.
The stupid chit told her every thought. Morgan knew then that they were becoming suspicious of him. There wasn't a shred of proof to link him to any of the women… was there? No, no, it was wrong of him to think of himself as vulnerable. He was far too cunning to ever give in to self-doubt.
He had immediately changed his plans, however. He'd worked every detail out. He would kill Alesandra for the sheer pleasure involved, then kill Colin, and on his way out he would make certain the butler never awakened.
No one was going to be able to point the finger at him. He had the perfect alibi. He was spending the night with the bitch Lorraine, and she would tell anyone who asked that he had never left her bed. He'd given her a large dose of laudanum mixed in with her drink and slipped out the back window of the whore's cottage. When she awakened from her drug-induced sleep, he would be back by her side.
Oh, yes, he'd thought of everything. He allowed himself to smile with satisfaction. He pulled the dagger out of his pocket and then reached for the doorknob.
Colin heard the squeak of the door as it opened. He was already awake and was just about to get out of bed to walk off the throbbing cramping in his leg when the muffled sound gained his attention.
He didn't waste any time waiting to hear any more noises. His instincts were screaming a warning. Someone was inside Alesandra's bedroom now and he knew it wasn't any of his staff. His servants wouldn't dare enter either bedroom without begging entrance first.
Colin moved with the speed of lightning, yet didn't make a sound. He removed the loaded pistol he kept in the drawer of the night stand, then turned back to his wife. He clamped one hand over her mouth and dragged her across the bed. His gaze and his pistol stayed centered on the connecting door.
Alesandra came awake with a start. The moonlight filtering through the windows was bright enough for her to see the look on her husband's face. His expression was terrifying. Her mind instantly cleared. Something was terribly wrong. Colin finally removed his hand from her mouth and motioned for her to go across the room. He never looked directly at her. His attention continued to be focused on the door to her chamber.
She tried to walk in front of him. He wouldn't let her. He grabbed hold of her arm and gently pushed her behind him. He followed her across the bedroom, his back to her all the while, then pushed her into the narrow corner between the wall and the heavy wardrobe. He stood in front of her, protecting her from direct attack.
She didn't have any idea how long they stood there. It seemed an eternity to her and yet she guessed only a few minutes actually had passed.
And then the door slowly opened. A shadow spilled across the carpet. A blur followed. The intruder didn't creep into the chamber but ran with a demon's speed and determination.
The low, guttural cry he made sent chills down Alesandra's spine. She squeezed her eyes shut and began to pray.
Morgan held a knife high above his head in one hand and a pistol in his other hand. Because he'd run into the room he'd almost reached the side of the bed before his mind registered the fact that it was empty. The sound he was making, that god-awful mewing, inhuman sound he couldn't seem to control, suddenly turned into an outraged roar very like that of an animal being denied its prey. Morgan knew, even before he started to turn, that Colin was there, waiting for him. He knew without a doubt he had only a second at best to save himself, but he was so very clever, so superior… he was certain the second was all he needed.
He was, after all, invincible. In one fluid motion he whirled, his pistol at the ready, his finger caressing the spring…
His death was instantaneous. The shot from Colin's pistol entered Morgan's head through his left temple. He collapsed to the floor, his eyes wide open, his weapons still clutched in his hands.
"Don't move, Alesandra."
Colin's command was harsh, clipped. She nodded, then realized his back faced her and he couldn't see her agreement. Her hands started aching. She had been clutching them tight against her bosom. She forced herself to relax.
"Be careful," she whispered in a voice so low she doubted Colin could hear her.
He walked over to the body, kicked the pistol out of Morgan's hand, then knelt down on one knee to make certain he was dead.
He let out a long sigh. His heart was pounding a furious beat. "Bastard," he muttered as he stood up. He turned back to Alesandra and reached out his hand to her. She scooted out of the comer, her gaze locked on Morgan Atkins, and slowly walked over to her husband. Colin pulled her into his arms, blocking her view.