The hunter waited patiently for his prey.
It was a dangerous deception the Marquess of Cainewood was playing. The infamous Pagan of Shallow's Wharf would certainly hear of his impersonator; he'd be forced out of hiding then, for his pride, monstrous by all whispered accounts, wouldn't allow another to take credit for his own black deeds. The pirate would certainly try to extract his own form of revenge. Caine was counting on that possibility. Once Pagan showed himself, Caine would have him.
And then the legend would be destroyed.
The Marquess had run out of choices. The spider wouldn't leave his web. Bounty hadn't worked. No, there wasn't a Judas among the seamen, which was surprising given that most ordinary men would have sold their mamas into bondage for the amount of gold he'd offered. It was a miscalculation on Caine's part, too. Each seaman voiced loyalty to the legend as his own personal reason for refusing the coins. Caine, a cynic by nature and past sour experiences, guessed fear was the real motive. Fear and superstition.
Mystery surrounded the pirate like the wall of a confessional. No one had ever actually seen Pagan. His ship, the Emerald, had been observed countless times skimming the water like a pebble thrown by the hand of God, or so it was reported by those who'd boasted of seeing the ship. The sight of the black beauty sparked terror in the titled gentlemen of the ton with fat purses, snickers of glee from the downright mean-hearted, and prayers of humble thanksgiving from the deprived, for Pagan was known to share his booty with the less fortunate.
Yet as often as the magical ship was sighted, no one could describe a single shipmate on board the vessel. This only increased the speculation, admiration, and awe about the phantom pirate.
Pagan's thievery extended beyond the ocean, however, for he was a man who obviously enjoyed variety. His land raids caused just as much consternation, perhaps even more. Pagan was discriminate in robbing only from the members of the ton. It was apparent the pirate didn't want anyone else taking credit for his own midnight raids on the unsuspecting. He therefore left bis own personal calling card in the form of a single long-stemmed white rose. His victim usually awakened by morning light to find the flower on the pillow beside him. The mere sight of the rose was usually quite enough to send grown men into a dead faint.
Needless to say, the poor idolized the legend. They believed Pagan was a man of style and romance.
The church was no less effusive in their adoration, for the pirate left trunks of gold and jewels next to the collection plates in their vestibules, topped by a white rose, of course, so the leaders would know whose soul they were supposed to pray for. The bishop was hard put to condemn the pirate. He knew better than to saint him, though, for to do so would incur the wrath of some of the most influential members of society, and therefore settled on calling Pagan rogue instead.
The nickname, it was noted, was always said with a quick grin and a slow wink.
The War Department held no such reservations. They'd set their own bounty on the pirate's head.
Caine had doubled that amount. His reason for hunting down the bastard was a personal one, and he believed the end would justify whatever foul means he employed.
It was going to be an eye for an eye. He would kill the pirate.
Ironically, the two adversaries were equally matched. The Marquess was feared by ordinary men. His work for his government had earned him his own dark legend. If the circumstances had been different, if Pagan hadn't dared to prod Caine's wrath, he might have continued to leave him alone. Pagan's mortal sin changed that determination, however; changed it with a vengeance.
Night after night Caine went to the tavern called the Ne'er Do Well, situated in the heart of London's slums. The tavern was frequented by the more seasoned dock workers. Caine always took the corner table, his broad back protected by the stone wall from sneak attack, and patiently waited for Pagan to come to him.
The Marquess moved in and out of such seedy circles with the ease befitting a man with a dark past. In this section of the city, a man's title meant nothing. His survival was dependent upon his size, his ability to inflict pain while defending himself, and his indifference to the violence and crudity surrounding him.
Caine made the tavern his home in less than one night. He was a big man, with muscular shoulders and thighs. His size alone could intimidate most would-be challengers. Caine was dark haired, bronze skinned, and had eyes the color of a dark gray sky. There'd been a time when those eyes had had the power to spark a rush of flutters in the ladies of the ton. Now, however, those same ladies recoiled from the coldness lurking there, and the flat, emotionless expression. They whispered that the Marquess of Cainewood had been turned into stone by his hatred. Caine agreed.
Once he'd decided to play the role of Pagan, his pretense hadn't been difficult to maintain. The storytellers all agreed on the fanciful notion that Pagan was actually a titled gentleman who took to pirating as a means of keeping up with his lavish lifestyle. Caine simply used that bit of gossip to his advantage. When he first entered the tavern, he'd worn his most expensive clothing. He'd added his own personal touch by pinning a small white rose to the lapel of his dinner jacket. It was an outrageous, silently boastful addition, of course, and gained him just the right amount of notice.
Immediately, he'd had to cut a few men with his sharp knife to secure his place in their group. Caine was dressed like a gentleman, yes, but he fought without honor or dignity. The men loved him. In bare minutes, he'd earned their respect and their fear. His Herculean size and strength gained him immediate loyalty, too. One of the more fearless asked him in a stammer if the talk was true. Was he Pagan then? Caine didn't answer that question, but his quick grin told the seaman his question had pleased him. And when he remarked to the tavernkeeper that the seaman had a very cunning mind, he forced the inevitable conclusion. By week's end, the rumor of Pagan's nightly visitations to the Ne'er Do Well had spread like free gin.
Monk, the bald-headed Irishman who'd won the tavern in a crooked game of cards, usually sat beside Caine at the close of each evening. Monk was the only one who knew about the deception. He was in wholehearted agreement with Caine's plan, too, as he'd heard all about Pagan's atrocity to Caine's family. Just as significant, business had picked up considerably since the deception had begun. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to get a good look at the pirate, and Monk, a man who put profit above all other matters, charged exorbitant prices for his watered-down ale.
The tavernkeeper had lost his hair years before, but his bright orange-colored eyebrows more than made up for any lack. They were thick, curly, and crept like determined vines of ivy halfway up his freckled forehead. Monk rubbed his brow now in true frustration for the Marquess. It was almost three o'clock in the morning, an hour past time to shut down the tavern for the evening. Only two paying customers were lingering over their drinks now. When they'd belched out their sleepy farewells and taken their leave, Monk turned to Caine.
"You've got more patience than a flea waiting on a mangy dog, coming here night after night. I'm praying you don't get too discouraged," he added. He paused to pour a full goblet of brandy for the Marquess, then swallowed a hefty portion directly from the bottle. "You'll flush him out, Caine. I'm sure of it. The way I see it, he'll send a couple of his men first to try to waylay you. That's why I'm always warning you to protect your back when you leave each night."
Monk took another drink, and snickered. "Pagan's a mite protective of his reputation. Your pretense must be turning his hair gray. He'll show himself soon enough. Why, I'll wager that tomorrow will be the night."
Caine nodded agreement. Monk, his gaze piercing with promise, always ended his nightly speech with the prediction that tomorrow the prey would show himself.
"You'll pounce on him then, Caine, like a duck on a bug."
Caine swallowed a long drink, his first of the evening, then tilted his chair back so he could rest his shoulders against the wall. "I'll get him."
The harshness in Caine's tone sent a shiver down Monk's spine. He was about to give hasty agreement when the door suddenly flew open, drawing his attention. Monk half turned in his chair to call out that the tavern was closed for the night, but the sight standing in the center of the doorway so stunned him, he could only gape in astonishment. When he was finally able to regain his voice, he whispered, "Holy Mother of God, has an angel come calling on us?"
From his position against the wall, Caine faced the entrance and had a clear view. Though he didn't move or show any outward reaction, in truth, his surprise was just as great as Monk's. His heart started slamming a wild beat and he couldn't seem to catch his breath.
She did look like an angel. Caine didn't want to blink, certain his vision would vanish into the night if he closed his eyes for just a second or two.
She was an incredibly beautiful woman. Her eyes captivated him. They were the most magnificent shade of green. The green of his valley, he thought to himself, on a clear, moonlit night.
She was staring at him. Caine stared back.
Several long minutes passed while they studied each other. Then she started walking toward him. As soon as she moved, the hood of her black cape fell to her shoulders. Caine quit breathing. The muscles in his chest constricted painfully. His vision was blessed with lush, auburn-colored hair. In the candlelight, the color was as brilliant as fire.
Caine noticed the pitiful condition of her clothing when she neared the table. The quality of her cloak indicated wealth, yet the expensive material had been shredded halfway up one side. It looked as though someone had taken a knife to it. Part of the green satin lining hung in tatters around her hem. Caine's curiosity intensified. He looked back up at her face, saw the faint bruises on her right cheekbone, the small cut below her full lower lip, and the splotch of dirt marring her forehead.
If his vision was an angel, she'd just been forced to pay purgatory a visit, Caine decided. Yet even though she looked like she'd just lost the battle with Satan, she was still very appealing, too appealing in fact for his peace of mind. He grew tense as he waited for her to speak.
She stopped when she reached the other side of the round table. Her gaze was now directed on the rose pinned to his lapel.
His angel was obviously frightened. Her hands were shaking. She clutched a small white bag to her bodice and he noticed several faded scars on her fingers.
He didn't know what to make of her. Caine didn't want her to be afraid of him, though. That admission made his frown intensify.
"You're all alone?" he asked, his tone as brisk as the rising wind.
"At this time of night, in this section of the city?"
"Yes," she answered. "Are you Pagan?"
Her voice, he noticed, was husky, whisper soft.
"Look at me when you ask your questions."
She wouldn't comply with his command but stubbornly continued to stare at the rose. "Pray, answer me, sir," she returned. "Are you Pagan? I have need to speak with the pirate. It is a terribly important matter."
"I am Pagan," Caine said.
She nodded. "It's said that you'll do any task if the price be enough. Is that true, sir?"
"It is," Caine acknowledged. "What is it you want from me?"
In answer to his question, she dropped the bag onto the center of the table. The drawstring tore open and several coins spilled out. Monk let out a low whistle.
"There are thirty pieces in all," she said, her gaze still downcast.
Caine raised an eyebrow in reaction to that statement. "Thirty pieces of silver?"
She timidly nodded. "Is that enough? It's all I have."
"Who is it you wish to betray?"
She looked startled by that assumption. "Oh, no, you misunderstand. I don't want to betray anyone.
I'm not a Judas, sir."
He thought she looked insulted by his comment. "It was an honest mistake to make."
Her frown indicated she didn't agree. Caine vowed he wasn't going to let her get his temper riled.
"Then what is it you ask from me?"
"I would like you to kill someone, please."
"Ah," he drawled out. His disappointment was almost painful. She looked so damned innocent, so
pitifully vulnerable, yet sweetly asked him to murder someone for her.
"And who is this victim? Your husband, perchance?" The cynicism in his voice was as grating as a nail scraping down a chalkboard.
She didn't seem to mind his biting tone. "No," she answered.
"No? You're not married then?"
"Does it matter?"
"Oh, yes," he countered in a whisper to match hers. "It matters."
"No, I'm not married."
"Then who is it you want killed? Your father? Your brother?"
She shook her head again.
Caine slowly leaned forward. His patience was wearing as thin as the ale Monk watered down. "I tire
of having to question you. Tell me."
He'd forced a belligerent tone, certain he'd intimidate her into blurting out her full explanation. He knew he'd failed in that endeavor, however, when he caught the mutinous expression on her face. If he hadn't been watching her so intently, he knew he would have missed the flash of anger. The frightened little kitten had a little spirit inside her, after all.
"I would like you to accept this task before I explain," she said.
"Task? You call hiring me to kill someone a task?" he asked, his voice incredulous.
"I do," she announced with a nod.
She still refused to look him in the eye. That fact irritated him. "All right," he lied. "I accept."
Her shoulders sagged in what Caine surmised was acute relief. "Tell me who my victim is," he instructed once again.
She slowly lifted her gaze to look at him then. The torment Caine saw in her eyes made his chest ache. The urge to reach out, to take her into his arms, to offer her comfort very nearly overwhelmed him. He suddenly felt outraged on her behalf, then had to shake his head over such a ludicrous, fanciful notion.
Hell, the woman was contracting him to murder someone.
Their gazes held a long while before Caine asked again, "Well? Who is it you want killed?"
She took a deep breath before answering.
"Holy Mother of God," Monk whispered. "You cannot be serious, dear lady."
She didn't take her gaze away from Caine when she answered the tavernkeeper. "I'm very serious, my good man. Do you think I would have ventured out into this part of town in the middle of the night if