A silver ribbon of light was all that remained of the moon as Catherine drew rein at the bottom of the rise. Thunder rolled over the angry sky marking the approaching tempest with a fury that matched her pulse.
He was here. She could feel his presence. Felt it in the shudder down her spine as she turned her mount in a nervous circle to study the road from both directions. Her gloved hands tightened on the reins. She was mad to do this. Insane to be here.
Her heart froze.
In front of her where the narrow dirt road melded with the darkness, the night had taken the shape of a man. He didn't move but stood before her, his feet slightly braced as if he rode the prow of a great ship. Embraced by wind and lightning, the shadows gave him wings for flight. Like her, he wore black, but it did not conceal his height or the breadth of his shoulders. Beneath the windswept military cloak, a cutlass rode the sash at his waist. 'Twas not a gentleman's rapier he wore but a sheath of steel that lent to his reputation. A French-cocked hat shrouded his eyes, but she could feel the burn of his gaze, shocking her into utter stillness.
To the Sons of Liberty, he was known only as Merlin. His exploits up north had been whispered among village gossips from Boston to the finest drawing rooms in Williamsburg. He was a hero to the fledgling continental cause, and an enemy of England. The price on his head could buy her an island in the West Indies, where she could run and never look back on a past she wished only to forget.
The gelding shifted and, after a moment's pause, Catherine kneed her mount forward. Though procedure dictated an exchange be made on foot, tonight she stayed mounted. Perhaps 'twas the storm that plucked away a measure of her courage, or maybe remaining on the horse allowed her some advantage over this stranger's height. Though, she doubted it. He looked ruthlessly capable of taking what he wanted.
Yet, he made no move to meet her half way.
This man set his own rules. And would play by no one else's.
But neither did she. Forcing her hands into a fist to still their trembling, Catherine held her mount steady. She would go no further. Let him come to her.
His cloak whipping around his powerful legs, the man considered her for a long space. The vague scent of cologne mixed with the rain-scented air and scrub pine that pocked the edge of the road. A trimmed beard covered his lower features. Black breeches were tucked into knee-length boots, which only added to his formidable presence.
As she faced him equally, one question plied her thoughts. What did someone of his repute want in this tidewater hamlet of Virginia?
"You are the courier they sent?" The barely polished timbre of his voice gave away a northern drawl, and something else borne of authority. He was not a man used to being challenged.
His quiet oath touched her ears.
Edging her mount forward a conciliatory inch, she proceeded with the prescribed greeting, despite the fact that he'd already broken with protocol. They both had.
"Do you have a white rose for Guinevere?" she asked.
He laughed. "Only if one so comely has a kiss for Lancelot."
Catherine stiffened. He'd recognized a woman through her boyish disguise. No one had ever done that before.
"That's . . . not the correct response."
"Close enough, lady." His eyes scanned the road behind her. "You're not Daniel Claremont."
A skein of alarm stabbed her. That he should know her brother by name warned her, an instant before he grabbed the bridle of her horse, preventing her from swinging away. "Who are you?" he demanded.
"You don't need to know."
"The devil I don't. I bought a meeting with Claremont. And lady . . ." He stepped closer. "You're not he."
A chill settled over her. Clearly, Daniel hadn't told her everything. But the reasons for his deceit made no sense and fanned an ember of doubt. "Are you here to make the exchange or not?"
"You tell me. Am I?"
Reaching inside her cloak pocket, Catherine pulled out the sealed letter. "Is this what you came for?" she queried, snatching it just out of his grasp. "You go first."
For a moment, he didn't move, and her heart froze as she realized he could take the missive without her consent. Then his eyes moved leisurely over her body, lifting to pin hers with their glittering touch. The air surged, sucking the breath from her lungs. She could not breathe for the unexpected shiver that burned through her.
"What fool sent a woman into the night to do a man's job?"
Heat filled her cheeks. "Definitely not the same fool who sent a boar in a man's stead?" Her voice remained steady. Catherine had not survived in life because she was weak- kneed. "You get this"--she boldly flagged the paper--"only after you speak."
He gently stroked the gelding's long nose. The wind caught his heavy cloak and the hint of a chuckle. "The muskets are hidden beneath the Low River wharf off the James." A sudden flash of lightning lifted his gaze heavenward. And her breath caught. The bright flickering light revealed the kind of decadent looks that annihilated feminine virtue with a single, solitary glance. His dark hair was bound in a queue.
"The muskets should remain visible as long as it doesn't rain too hard tonight. So I suggest they be fetched before dawn." His gaze came back around and trapped her stare before she could cast her eyes elsewhere. Snatching the document from her grasp, he had the audacity to be amused. "You will remember that?"
"Oh . . .!" He easily evaded her kick. "Get your hands off this horse." Catherine drew her pistol from her belt and pointed it at his chest. The first drop of rain splattered on her nose. "Now."
Tucking the paper in his shirt, he kept his gaze on her face. There was something feral in the white flash of his smile. "Are your eyes as bright when you kiss a man as when you threaten to kill him?"
"I guarantee you'll never find out."
Catherine shoved the pistol in her waistband and whirled the gelding. The wind nearly took her hat. She kicked the horse into a gallop, furious that she allowed the arrogant roué to provoke her.
She reached the top of the first knoll in the road when the crack of musket fire sounded from behind her. Her heart stopped. Bone-chilling fear iced her veins. That sounded like an ambush. Reining in her horse, Catherine snapped her gaze to the brow of the next rise.
Her heartbeat marked the frantic seconds as she searched the darkness below for the stranger. Brandishing her rapier, she swung the gelding around. Suddenly hands were all over her, trying to rip her off the horse. Tearing blindly at the grasping fingers, she kicked a man in the face. With a cry, she whipped her blade over the soldiers' heads slicing the tops of their hats. They stumbled back nearly on top of each other. She spurred the gelding back down the road. Behind her, a musket fired. Another shot. She felt the solid whip against her cloak. Somehow, she lost her rapier as she clutched desperately to hold on to her mount. The stranger was gone. She knew that now as she reached the dip in the road only to confront more soldiers. She wheeled the gelding off the road.
Blinded by darkness the horse stumbled down a steep bank and flung Catherine from its back. The scream died in her chest. She rolled end over end like a barrel cascading down a waterfall. Branches tore her hat and cloak off her battered body. She smashed into a bush and came to a painful stop against a fallen log. She didn't know how long she lay in the mud and rocks, sucking in every breath, heart pounding, fear eclipsing every thought. She tasted blood. Voices roused her. To be caught meant certain death.
Clawing at the dirt for purchase, she raised to her knees. Her horse had vanished in the woods behind her. An empty field lay to her right. She swung her gaze back to the road, looking for the rapier. Soldiers were hunting the brush for her.
That was when she saw the rider, a silhouette forged by lightning against the ebony sky. He sat atop his horse on the opposite knoll where the soldiers had first appeared. Seized by the tempest, his cloak whipped around him, inseparable from the roiling power of the storm. He seemed to search the darkness, and she knew the instant his eyes touched her. She cried out softly, terrified that he would leave, terrified that he wouldn't. Her heart thundered. Her ribs ached. Checked by the rider's strength, the horse pranced in an angry circle. Then the beast reared as the rider sawed hard on the reins, turning the mount down the road toward her.
The sudden cry to arms rang out. Good God! He would go through the rank of soldiers to reach her!
Two men broke rank and ran. Catherine staggered to her feet. She would not have him flayed to ribbons. Pray let him see her in the night. Catherine whirled on her heel and took off running in the field. The mud dragged at her boots. A voice heralded her escape and soon she heard the slap of boots pursing her. Her long braid coiled like an inky rope around her shoulders: not unlike the palpable horror of real hemp. Her feet tangled with bushes.
Swallowing a panicked sob, she flung her rain-whipped hair behind her, and saw him only a moment before the thunder of horse's hooves rose above the din of shouts and gunfire.
Two horses struck off the road behind him.
"Grab on," she heard him yell.
The hot reek of horseflesh permeated the rain-scented air as he ran the huge stallion beside her. Mud sprayed her soft leather boots. Bending low in the saddle, he held out his hand. Breath rasped from her lungs. She latched on to his powerful arm and, without breaking stride, he swung her effortlessly behind him.
"Why the hell did you come back?" The wind lashed the ruthless words from his lips.
"To . . . save you!"
He swore. She would have pounded his back with frustration, so great was her fear and relief that both mingled to leave her bereft of everything but the instinct to survive. Fused against the security of his broad back, she clung to his chest with fingers of steel. The cloak did not hide the hard warmth of his back beneath her cheek or the braided coil of his muscles as he kicked the stallion into a run. Harnessing the power of the wind, the horse easily outdistanced their pursuers. Escape was as imminent as the distant sunrise. They crested a hill.
Catherine barely saw the canvas tents, or the line of British soldiers perched on one knee in wait. She had no time to scream. The black horse reared. And went down in a hail of musket fire.