Slane entered the Wolf’s Inn, his blue eyes narrowing immediately as he assessed the main room. It was the kind of place that had trouble brewing around every corner, where pickpockets lurked in every dark shadow, where a killer could be bought for a shilling. Laughter and conversation rose and fell around him. A harlot seated near the door reached under a table and demonstrated her skills to an eager-to-learn merchant. Four armored men sat to Slane’s right; all had the dull haze of too much ale in their red-streaked eyes. Most of the tables were occupied by solitary figures nursing their ales or filling their bellies with steaming vegetables and mutton. Nobody appeared to notice his presence, but he knew they were all aware of his entrance.
“What can I do for you, m’lord?”
Slane turned to see a short man standing beside him.
The top of his balding head barely reached Slane’s shoulder. “I’m looking for a man called Jared Mantle.”
The innkeeper chortled. “M’lord must understand that I can’t just –”
Slane quickly produced a gold coin, silencing the man’s objections. The innkeeper pointed a chubby finger in the direction of a back table, where two men were sitting. Slane tossed over the gold coin and moved through the room toward the table.
A lone candle illuminated the two figures in earnest conversation, one of them possibly a merchant — no self- respecting tracker would wear such gaudy colors, nor tie a yellow-and-red scarf about his waist. Slane’s eyes quickly assessed the other man’s well-worn leather armor and easy confidence, and he knew that this man must be Jared. He was much older than Slane had anticipated, but his age was probably a testament to his skill. He was still alive, after all. “Jared Mantle?” Slane asked.
The man raised his eyes, eyes that were suspicious and alert, to meet Slane’s. “Who’s asking?”
Slane swiveled his gaze to the merchant and then back to Jared. “Slane Donovan.”
Jared’s eyes narrowed slightly. “I’m Mantle. Do we have business?”
“I’d like to hire you.”
“I’m in the process of doing the exact same thing,” the merchant protested.
“I can offer you double what this man is offering,” Slane said. “I need your services immediately.”
Jared’s eyes shifted to the merchant. “Can you better that?”
The merchant shook his head and rose from the table. “Perhaps next time,” he murmured, casting Slane an irritated glance before moving away.
When Slane took the vacated seat, Jared asked, “What services do you require?”
Slane couldn’t help but notice the skepticism in his voice. Had Jared had dealings with his brother, Richard? No matter. “I need you to find a ring.”
“A ring?” Jared echoed. “What importance does a ring hold to you?”
“That is my concern. Can you track such a thing?”
“What does it look like?”
Slane opened his mouth to respond when a woman slipped into the empty chair beside Jared. Annoyed at her presumption, Slane scowled… until he saw her face. It was covered in bruises and healing scabs. “God’s blood!” he exclaimed. “Where did you get those injuries?”
The woman glanced over at Slane. The one eye that wasn’t puffed closed narrowed instantly, and her swollen lip curled into a humorless grin. “A friend.”
He stiffened at her cold tone. “If you’ll kindly excuse us, we are in the middle of a business transaction. I’m not in need of your services.”
The woman didn’t budge. “If it’s business, then you can talk to me as well. Jared and I are partners.”
Slane darted a glance at Jared, who nodded, an amused look crinkling his eyes. “I’m only hiring you,” he said to Jared.
“We come together or not at all,” Jared replied.
Slane turned his thoughtful gaze to her. She responded with a chilly glare. He turned back to Jared. “Fine. But I don’t intend to pay any more than I did before.”
“For the work of two?” the woman objected.
Slane crossed his arms. “Take it or leave it.”
He watched her shoulders sink as she sighed and glanced at Jared, who nodded once. “What’s the job?” she asked.
Slane leaned across the table. “I’m looking for a ring. Two swords crossed under an S.”
Jared and the girl sat motionless for a long moment, then looked at each other. Suddenly, the woman began to laugh.
“What is so funny?” Slane snapped.
She met his solemn look with amusement. “This is going to be the easiest coin we’ve ever worked for,” she replied.
Slane frowned quizzically. “You know where it is?”
She nodded and began to rise, but Slane grabbed her arm, halting her movement. “Look, woman. If you know where it is, tell me. We can begin and end your employment right here.”
She hesitated for a moment casting an unreadable look at Jared. “Sully,” she finally said, her lips curving up in a grin. With her swollen lip, the smile was more grotesque than appealing. “My name is Sully, not woman.”
Taylor leaned against a wall and crossed her arms over her chest as she regarded Slane out of curious eyes. What could he possibly want with her mother’s ring? They had been traveling together for half a day now and he hadn’t spoken one more word about it
He glanced at her and she smiled brilliantly through her cut and fattened lips. He scowled and turned away.
At least he’s consistent, she thought. Her gaze shifted to Jared, who was speaking earnestly with a large man — a man who was almost as tall as Slane but with a much less flattering physique. His belly flopped over his breeches; the muscles in his arms were slack. Jared had sensed he was the town gossipmonger the second he laid eyes on him. And as usual, Jared was right. The large man looked at her and smiled, then glanced back at Jared and spoke quickly to him.
Taylor shifted slightly. “This ring must be very important to rouse you from the comfort of Castle Donovan.”
“Yes,” Slane answered stiffly.
“No more tournaments to play in?” she quipped.
He stared curiously at her.
She cast him a wry look. It was like speaking to a wall. A well-muscled wall, with long, glorious blond hair, but a wall nonetheless.
Jared and the man headed over to them, Jared wearing the same exasperated expression he always wore when some man would insist on propositioning her. Taylor shook her head. They never learned. Or were there just too many to teach?
“He says he won’t give me any information unless you bed him,” Jared explained.
As a large, eager grin split the man’s lips, Slane’s eyes widened in outrage.
Taylor pushed herself from the wall, placing a hand on Slane’s chest to quiet him. “I’m used to it,” she said.
“You’re not thinking –” Slane began, but Taylor turned her attention to Jared.
“You offered him a gold coin?”
Jared shrugged slightly. “Two,” he said.
Taylor smiled at the large man. “You know, you’re being quite unreasonable about this,” she told him. “All we need is information. You’ve seen the ring?”
The man nodded. “I’ve seen it. But that’s all you’ll get from me unless I see some action.”
“Action?” Taylor repeated. “Is that all you want?” She half turned to Slane, clenched her fist, and turned back to the man, ramming her balled fingers into his stomach.
The man doubled over. Taylor shoved the brutish lout backward over Jared’s carefully positioned foot and he slammed into the ground. Taylor whipped out her dagger and held it to the man’s neck. “Is this the type of action you wanted?” she asked.
The man fought back the urge to swallow as Taylor pressed the side of the blade against his throat.
“All we want is a little information about the ring. I know that you’ll be very accommodating, won’t you?” Taylor eased the tip slightly from the man’s neck.
“I don’t want any trouble,” the man gasped.
“Out with it,” she ordered.
“They went toward Briarwood,” he gasped. “I swear that’s all I know. They rode north!”
Taylor paused for a long moment. She knew he was too shocked and scared to lie. Still, she liked the feeling of this slime groveling in the dirt. “Maybe next time you’ll think before you insult a woman,” she said and slowly stood up.
The man sat up, putting his hands to his throat, eyeing her with hatred.
Jared joined her, standing protectively behind her.
Finally, the man narrowed his eyes, stood and scrambled away.
Taylor’s lips quirked up in a grin of satisfaction.
“I bet you make a lot of friends that way,” Slane said and moved toward the stables.
“No one needs friends like that,” Taylor retorted, casting one last glance at the man’s retreating back before following Slane.
“Good job,” Jared congratulated as he trailed after the duo.
Slane rode behind Sully and Jared. His gaze lingered on the woman, this enigmatic Sully. Her long, braided black hair swung back and forth over her cuir-bouilli armor. The hard leather armor had been worked and shaped to fit her tiny figure. And the leather maker had done an admirable job. It fit her very well indeed. She wore black leggings beneath her armor. Black boots hid her calves. The sword strapped to her waist continued to catch his attention every time he glanced at her. He had rarely seen a woman with a blade and wondered how good she was at wielding the weapon.
It was a shame he probably wouldn’t have time to find out. He turned his concentration back to his mission.
The Sullivan woman.
He was certain that once he found the ring, he would find the girl and his search would be over. He wondered what she looked like. Had eight years on her own taken their toll? Was she haggard and gaunt from lack of food and working too hard? Did she look older than her twenty years? He knew she had dark hair. But that was all he knew of her.
His eyes shifted to the two horses before him as one of the animals snorted. Sully smiled at Jared in a private joke and spurred her horse on to take the lead. Slane wondered if Sully and Jared were lovers. And if they were, how could he have let her get beaten like that? How on earth had she gotten those cursed bruises? Why, if Sully were his woman, he would never let anyone hurt her. He would kill anyone who laid a hand on Elizabeth.
He sighed, thinking of Elizabeth waiting for him at her home in Bristol. He had sent word with his best man, John Flynn, that he would be delayed. He knew John would watch over Elizabeth and protect her while he was away. He wouldn’t be long. Not with the best tracker this side of France in his employ.
Slane nudged his horse and took up step beside Jared, turning his head to regard the mercenary. He was indeed old. There were deeply shadowed wrinkles around his eyes and his skin sagged around his cheeks. He glanced up ahead at Sully. What could she see in this old man? What kind of pleasure could he show her? And then another thought occurred to Slane. Perhaps they weren’t lovers. Perhaps their relationship was more of a father watching over a daughter.
“We’re coming to Briarwood,” Jared announced.
“Are you sure the ring is here?” Slane asked.
“Look,” Jared said, “you’re paying me to track. That’s what I’m doing. I’ll find the ring. Don’t doubt that.”
Slane nodded, satisfied. They rode in silence for a few moments, the hot sun beating down on their shoulders. “You used to work for lord Sullivan, did you not?” He felt Jared’s gaze turn to him.
“Aye,” Jared replied. “A long time ago.”
“Tell me of the girl,” Slane ordered.
“Taylor Sullivan,” Slane clarified. “What did she look like?”
“That was a long time ago,” Jared replied, keeping his eyes on the road. “I was surprised she ran away. Didn’t think she had it in her.”
Slane looked steadily at Jared, not saying anything. After a moment of silence, Jared added, “I suppose when your mother dies, you do impulsive things.”
“So you haven’t seen her since then?”
“No,” Jared said. “Don’t know if I’d recognize her anymore.”
“What do you remember of her?”
“Why do you want to know?”
Slane watched Jared’s knuckles tighten on the reins of his horse. He had no intention of telling him his reasons. Not with his unusual behavior. “Just curious.”
Jared looked at him then, and Slane swore he saw hostility in his blue eyes. But then it was gone. “She was a fat, lazy thing, from what I remember,” Jared said. “There was one pretty thing about her. She had the most brilliant blond hair that I’ve ever seen. Almost like gold.”
“Golden hair,” Slane murmured. “Indeed.” He allowed his horse to fall behind. As he studied Jared’s back for a long moment, Slane’s eyes narrowed slightly. Why would Jared lie? What was he hiding?
Taylor walked back and forth before Jared, who sat beneath a tall tree. With each step, her muscles stretched and she almost groaned in delight. After such a long ride, it felt good to be off the horse. She paused to glance over her shoulder at the stream, where the horses drank, to see Slane bent over near the water, splashing his face.
“What do you think he wants with the ring?” Taylor wondered.
Jared snorted. “Don’t know,” he said, lifting a flask of ale to his lips. He lowered the bag and wiped his mouth with his sleeve, then offered the flask to Taylor. “But that’s not all he’s interested in.”
Taylor took the flask and lifted it to her lips. The refreshing ale slid down her dust-filled throat.
“He was asking about you,” Jared whispered.
Taylor lowered the flask and shifted her startled gaze to Jared. He raised his eyebrows and nodded. She returned her gaze to Slane. He was standing now, stretching, reaching toward the sky with his arms.
“What did you tell him?” Taylor asked.
Jared chuckled. “That you were a fat, lazy girl with blond hair.”
Taylor lifted an amused eyebrow. “And he believed you?”
“They don’t know you like I do,” Jared said, chortling deeply.
She squatted beside her friend and handed back the flask. “Do you think Father sent him?”
Jared’s eyes narrowed as he looked at Slane. “I don’t know,” he said quietly. “All I know is I don’t like him.” His gaze turned to Taylor. “So stay away from him. You hear?”
“You know me, Jared,” Taylor said, standing. “I don’t court trouble.”
Jared groaned and rubbed his hands over his face.
Taylor walked across the small clearing toward the horses. Slane was checking his animal’s bridles and straps, and she watched his strong shoulders and golden head over the horse’s back. How many stories she had heard about him! Lord Slane Donovan of Castle Donovan winning the tournament at Warwickshire. Then the tournament at Glavindale. Then another tournament. And there were the great battles, fighting at the King’s side. She shrugged. It all seemed so unreal to her. She had just turned away when his soft voice reached her.
“Where was Jared when you got those bruises?”
Taylor turned slowly. “Jared is not my protector,” she said. “I am a free woman and I do as I please.”
He lifted his gaze to her, and she was suddenly startled at how blue his eyes were. Then those tawny brows slanted over his eyes, and he returned his concentration to his horse.
He had dismissed her without a word! Exasperation filled her. But in that exasperation was a sense of victory. For the woman he sought stood face-to-face with him and he didn’t even know it!
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