Authors: Stacey Brutger
“Sir, two visitors are here to see you.” Milles gave nothing away with his voice, always the perfect, impassive butler.
The man also knew better then to interrupt Gabriel when he’d finally succeeded in getting Diana alone, so it must be something important. “So early?”
“Yes, sir. The new pastor and his friend.”
“Send them in.” He tugged at his jacket once again, displeased at the wrinkles marring the fabric. When he faced Diana, she had turned white, backing away from him in horror. His jaw locked at the stark fear emanating from her.
He took a step toward her, wanting to convince her to stay, only to have her immediately back farther away.
He was used to people flinching away from him, but it hurt to have her do it.
It was stupid, but for a second, he had completely forgotten his size.
Gabriel very deliberately moved back, everything within him rebelling at the idea of moving away from her instead of gathering her in his arms the way he wanted. And the bastard that he was, his fingers tingled at the thought of touching her for the first time, feeling like the bumbling oaf his first wife had always accused him of being. “There is nothing to be afraid of.”
Footsteps grew louder, and he glanced at the door, not sure if he was looking for a rescue or cursing them for the interruption. He and Diana had been getting along just fine, actually having a normal conversation until the interruption.
For the first time in years, he’d almost felt normal.
Then everything had gone to hell.
The fragile hope for the future he’d been constructing for them turned to ash.
He carefully backed away from her, trying to appear unthreatening as possible.
Instead of calming her, it had the opposite effect. She whirled, frantically searching the room. When she ran toward the window, he finally registered that her fear had nothing to do with him.
A trickle of sweet relief swept through him before his protective urges roared to life.
He’d been right. She was in trouble.
And if it hadn’t been for him, she would have made her escape.
He owed it to her to do everything in his power to protect her.
When he half-expected her to vault out the window, she ducked back. Her chest heaved as she pressed herself against the wall, her eyes wide with panic. “Diana, you’re safe here. I won’t let any harm come to you.”
She was his.
The sound of his voice shocked her into action. She practically leapt over the desk, slid over the smooth surface, and dove underneath just as the door to the study began to open.
His jaw dropped, nonplussed by her reaction.
The dark wooden front panel of the desk concealed her presence from prying eyes.
A lightheaded feeling of relief ran through him.
She wasn’t running from him.
He quickly rearranged his face to greet the guests as though nothing out of the ordinary had just happened. He wanted to laugh at the absurdity, but frowned instead, wondering what could compel a woman so competent and self-reliant to cower in fear.
“Sir.” Milles opened the door and set down a tray of tea before delivering a short bow.
The man had obviously known Gabriel wanted privacy and had delayed as much as possible.
Manners his nurse ingrained in him as a child took over, and Gabriel stepped forward. “Pastor Graham, I hope everything at the rectory is satisfactory.”
“Quite. Quite.” The lean pastor bobbed his head, his light brown hair flopping, his faded green eyes congenial.
“Please be seated.” Gabriel rounded the desk then hesitated when he realized sitting in the chair would put his crotch at eye-level with Diana. Must to his chagrin, his body reacted predictably. He gingerly took a seat, awkwardly trying to rearrange his legs to mask his arousal. “Who’s your friend?”
Gabriel hadn’t realized how relaxed he had become speaking with Diana. Faced with the two men, tension flooded back, the long night finally beginning to catch up with him.
Diana was an enigma. She wasn’t normal gentry.
There was nothing pretentious about her, and he liked her more for it. If anything, she was frank and honest to a fault…even when she was hiding from something that frightened her so much it sent her scurrying under his desk.
“Oh, yes. This is Pastor Williams. He was in the area and came to visit for a short time.”
The older man sat unbending, his dark brown eyes alert, almost predatory, as he took in his surroundings.
At the sound of the pastor’s name, Diana pressed forward, practically vibrating with rage, as if she wanted to leap out and murder the man. With the heat of her body soaking into his leg, his depraved mind could almost imagine what her breath would feel like on his cock seconds before she took him into her mouth.
Gabriel froze, then shifted uncomfortably, well aware that Diana had a clear view of his reaction to her. He’d never felt an attraction this strong, and he marveled at the power of sheer lust.
And since it was happening while there were two pastors in the room, he knew he was going straight to hell.
“Pastor Williams came to me with some disturbing news, and I felt it my duty to notify you immediately.”
Diana’s hand clamped down on his knee, and he nearly jumped out of his skin. The small gesture was devastating, his body reacting as if she reached into his pants and caressed him. There was nothing sexual in her touch, but his wicked mind immediately imagined what her touch would feel like if she shifted her hand higher.
It took all his concentration to stay focused. This was his only chance to discover what she so arduously tried to hide from him.
He wouldn’t be so easily distracted.
Gabriel laced his fingers over his stomach, mostly to keep from reaching for her. “I’m glad you came to me. Tell me what’s bothering you.”
Pastor Williams, an old, gaunt man with a stack of gray hair, seemed innocuous enough until he spoke, and an inner fire lit in his eyes. “A criminal has escaped capture and has been spotted heading in this direction.”
“Excuse me?” Gabriel practically snorted at the absurdity of the comment.
Diana was not a criminal.
He didn’t believe the pastor for one moment.
“You may laugh, but this is a serious issue. I’ve been following a young woman throughout England. She’s been stealing from the church, but every time I close in on her, she slips through my grasp. I’m beginning to suspect her of witchcraft. She must be stopped before more innocent people are hurt.” Gnarled fingers reached into his jacket pocket, and Williams reverently removed a piece of paper. He carefully unfolded the sketch and handed it over. “This is the woman.”
“Witchcraft?” Gabriel allowed his skepticism to show.
“What is an attack on the house of God, if not witchcraft?” The prompt reply indicated just how much time he’d spent chasing after Diana, and his determination to hunt her down.
Gabriel’s heart sank. He grabbed the sheet, thinking the best way to get rid of the crackpot was to humor him. When he glanced down, his breath stalled in his chest.
Diana stared back at him from the page.
The sketch exposed every exquisite detail of her face, and his stomach clenched in dread. He struggled to keep his face impassive and not reach over the desk to physically pick up the little jackal of a man and toss him out.
The reason for Diana’s stark fear became startlingly clear.
The bastard was hunting her.
“She is very beautiful.” He folded the paper and opened a drawer, intent on keeping the incriminating paper. Her nervousness and insistence about leaving now made sense.
“I will take that.” Williams didn’t wait for Gabriel’s agreement, instead snatching back the drawing. He caressed the page almost reverently. “She uses her wiles to bewitch others, clouding their minds while she schemes to steal everything they have of value. She is very dangerous. If she is spotted, don’t approach her. You must notify me immediately, and I’ll see justice done.” His voice rose in volume, booming throughout the room, no doubt practice from speaking at the pulpit.
The fervor in Williams’s eyes left Gabriel uneasy.
This man would never give up the hunt or let her go easily.
Everything inside Gabriel rebelled at the thought of turning her over to this man. Nothing the pastor said made a lick of sense. Diana lived in a tiny cottage without a single servant, her style of dress years out of date. He’d seen nothing that suggested she was a thief living in the lap of luxury.
She would not have risked his ire and left the comfort of her home to rescue his daughter if she was the woman Williams described. “Do you have an arrest warrant?”
“Not yet. As soon as she is caught, I’ll take her into custody personally.” Williams took a sip of his tea as if he hadn’t just discuss capturing an innocent woman for his own nefarious ends.
The pastor was completely insane.
Gabriel listened to every word, very much doubting Williams had any intention of turning Diana over to the officials. Once she was in his grasp, Gabriel suspected no one would ever see her alive again.
As if pleading for his silence, Diana tightened her grip on his leg.
Gabriel highly doubted Diana had done anything wrong. The pastor obviously saw her as some kind of threat to be eliminated.
Rage surged through his gut that this man would dare hunt her like an animal. No way in hell would he allow this man to lay hands on her. He reached under the desk and squeezed her hand reassuringly. Her pulse beat wildly under his fingers, and he brushed his thumb across her wrist to offer what comfort he could. Gabriel chose his words with care. “You have my word, I will get to the bottom of this.”
The cadaverous man remained so still Gabriel would have thought him a corpse, his eyes narrowed as if he suspected his subterfuge. The hair on the back of Gabriel’s neck stood on end, and he knew the pastor hadn’t believed a word he said. Williams lifted his chin like a bloodhound catching a scent of his prey. “Remember, do not confront her. Her delicate appearance is deceptive. She’s a very dangerous woman. You must notify me
if you locate her, and I will handle things from there.”
Over Gabriel’s dead body.
Williams did not wait for a reply before standing and heading toward the door.
Graham gave Gabriel an apologetic look as he hastily stood and returned his cup of tea to the serving tray. “He is very zealous in his beliefs.”
“So it would seem.” Gabriel glanced away from the empty doorway, pinning Graham with his gaze. “Do you believe in witches?”
The pastor sighed, rubbing his hand over his head. “I believe evil can take many forms.” He spread his arms. “I read about the witch trials at the seminary. The greed of men had its own evil in those trying, sad times, and it was the innocents who suffered.”
Graham took a step toward the door, then hesitated. “Keep your eyes open. Williams might be a zealot, but he is a good man. If he singled out this woman, the least we can do is investigate the matter. If she is guilty of witchcraft, it is a matter for the church.”
Everything inside Gabriel rebelled at the thought of handing Diana over to that man. As they shook hands, Gabriel refused to release his grip. “Remember what you said, pastor. Before condemning her, we need to uncover the truth. I will not have an innocent woman’s death on my hands if he is wrong.”
Gabriel watched them depart, chilled by Williams’ conviction and what might happen if he located Diana before Gabriel could find a way to protect her. The man had no intention of bringing her to trial. If she disappeared, she would forever be beyond his ability to help her.
“They’re gone.” He pushed his chair back slightly, but not enough for her to escape. If given the opportunity, he had no doubt she would bolt. Instead, he leaned back and waited for her to explain. He could not let her go now, not until this matter was settled.
Pale, haunted eyes peered out from under the desk, both fear and defiance blazing in her face. Damn him for being a fool, but he couldn’t allow anything to happen to her.
“Maybe it is time for you to tell me who you are and the real reason the pastor is hunting you.”
around Diana like a living, breathing thing, and it was all she could do to contain her magic before it seeped in the air, seeking a target in an attempt to protect her. It wasn’t fear of discovery that worried her, that she could handle, she’d been trained to deal with that scenario all her life.
No, what held her immobile and cowering like a rabbit was the fear that if she lost control, she wouldn’t be able to protect Gabriel. She swallowed back every ounce of power until even the slightest touch of air was agony, her skin prickling with the need for action. Thank goodness Wolf was out of reach, occupied hunting with the other dogs, or he would’ve charged to her rescue and likely been killed for the trouble.
Pastor never travelled alone. Armed men were no doubt scouring the countryside for her. If she tried to protect Wolf, she would be taken and he would still die.
It was a no-win situation.
“They’re gone.” Gabriel slipped out of his chair and crouched, dipping his head to see her hiding like a halfwit. Shame heated her face at her lack of ability to control her gift. Concern wrinkled his brows, and he leaned forward, his broad shoulders blocking any escape. “Breathe.”
She recoiled, afraid of what would happen if he touched her. She shouldn’t care. Her first order of business should be how to escape, not whether she might hurt the man intent on turning her over to a madman.
He calmly reached out, picked her up without effort and deposited her in his chair. She went rigid at his touch and tightened her hold on her bow, not willing to be handed over without a fight. Her magic whirled inside her, gathering force, readying to strike. Only to find the room empty. She stared at him in complete bafflement. “You didn’t hand me over.”
Gabriel snorted, carefully prying her hands off her bow, gently rubbing warmth back into her fingers. “I wouldn’t even trust him with that dog of yours. No way in hell was I going to hand
over to that buffoon.”
Her skin tingled wherever his large, callused hands touched, and the burning heat just under her skin began to abate, her magic gradually tapering off and vanishing into nothing. She braced for the repercussions of calling on so much power, but the crippling pain never arrived.
She stared down at his hands in awe, wondering what enchantment he wielded to be able to calm the wild magic she carried in her blood.
It was all she could do not to latch on to the safety he represented.
Unfortunately, with the pastor breathing down her neck, she couldn’t allow herself to linger and explore the mystery of his touch, no matter how desperate she wished for answers.
She refused to put him in more danger.
She reluctantly untangled his hands and glanced up at his guarded blue eyes. She ignored his scowl and ran through her limited options.
She counted it as a blessing that he hadn’t turned her over immediately, but his implacable expression warned he was no closer to letting her go than when she first set foot in his house just two hours ago.
He very deliberately placed his hands on the arms of the chair, effectively trapping her. She could easily lash out and break his nose or thrust out with her feet to knock him away, or one of a dozen other blows to incapacitate him, but she couldn’t bring herself to harm him.
His nearness left her confused. His lack of fear left her uncertain about his intentions. The fool must be trying to protect her, and had made himself a target in the process. Even if she managed to escape the pastor’s clutches once again, the man would not forgive Gabriel for helping her. His pride would demand vengeance.
Remaining was out of the question.
Pastor Williams will never give up.
She would eventually have to fight, and she couldn’t bear for Gabriel to turn his back on her when he discovered the truth.
She needed to gather her packed bags and book passage on the nearest ship. England was too small for her to escape the pastor’s long reach. Unfortunately, the resolute expression on Gabriel’s face said she had little chance of leaving without some sort of explanation.
“Tell me he lied.”
Her shoulders slumped in defeat at his demand.
She could tell Gabriel some of the truth, but she would be damned if she’d tell him the rest and risk him further. The less he knew, the better.
“My name is Diana Legend. A few months ago, I caught Pastor Williams blackmailing people by using the information his parishioners confided in him.”
“What happened?” Gabriel asked through gritted teeth. His eyes narrowed dangerously, and she shivered, grateful to know the look was not directed at her.
She relaxed slightly.
He was listening, which was far more than she’d expected.
“Williams is a retired pastor, traveling the countryside. I don’t know how or when it started, but he’s been blackmailing people for years. I caught him tallying money in a ledger one afternoon. Nothing out of the ordinary, but I knew something was wrong when he pocketed the money and ledger instead of putting them in the safe at the rectory.” Diana clenched her hand into fists, wishing she had killed the bastard when she had the chance, and damn the consequences.
“He’s clever, only targeting people who can afford to pay, and are willing to do anything to keep him quiet.” She glanced down at her hands, shaking her head at her own foolishness. “I thought I could help. I tried to grab the ledger. If he no longer had any proof, the people he was hurting would finally be free.”
Gabriel sighed and rubbed his palm along his jaw. “He caught you snooping.”
“Yes.” She’d been foolish and ignored years of training by trying to make a grab for the ledger. “He carries the book with him wherever he goes. Someone rushed into his office one afternoon in need of his services. He calmly closed the ledger and put it in the safe. It was too good an opportunity to pass up. Against my better judgment, I slipped through the window.”
“He came back before you finished.” Gabriel looked grim.
Diana sighed in disgust. “I had just opened the safe when he returned. We both froze and stared at each other. There were at least a dozen ledgers inside. I confronted him and called him a criminal. Something vicious crept into his eyes when I said he was going to lose his position and go to jail.” Diana snorted at her own naïveté. “I wasn’t in any danger. He had no leverage against me, but I underestimated him. Without hesitation, he accused
of stealing the church money. He calmly pulled his replacement ledger from the safe, pocketed what little money was inside, then thrust open the door and yelled thief. ”
“You were a threat.”
Diana gave a bitter smile. “He can’t afford to have me besmirch his name. I barely escaped out the window before people came to investigate.”
Gabriel shook his head, his expression perplexed. “Why didn’t you stay and tell the truth?”
“It was my word against a man of God. They would have dragged me off to jail without hesitation. By the time anyone investigated the matter, the money and ledger would be long gone. For the past few months, he has been following me from one town to the next, intent on bringing me to
.” Diana glanced away, knowing the truth…the man didn’t have justice on his mind when he looked at her. He didn’t see her as human, and therefore considered her exempt from the protection of the law. He was free to capture someone like her and do with her whatever he pleased.
Who needed secrets and blackmail when you had someone who could see the future?
Not that Williams knew the full truth, but by now he was suspicious of how she always managed to stay one step ahead of him at every turn. At first he had wanted to eliminate her, now she feared it was much worse…he wanted to discover what made her tick, and use it to benefit himself.
“He is clever. He never approached me directly, he can’t risk me defending myself. Instead, he appeals to the people. Small items would disappear; money would go missing. People became paranoid. He would start with mentions of thievery, then before too long, it would escalate into rants about witchcraft.”
Gabriel struggled to control the rage coursing through him, unable to speak for fear he would start cursing. The vibrant, defiant woman who saved his daughter had been replaced by a young woman at the mercy of things beyond her control. Not normally a violent person, he clenched his fists to stop himself from going after the pastor and beating him to a pulp.
He wanted to gather her in his arms and offer her comfort, but he knew she would fight him every step of the way. With her just inches away, the opportunity to touch her was too delicious to pass up. He reached up from where he still had her trapped in the chair, allowing his fingers to brush against the strands of her hair.
The touch was light.
His muscles eased at the feel of those glossy strands, and he marveled at the silken texture.
Diana had managed to escape the pastor in the past. Gabriel would make sure the man would never bother her again. “He can’t afford for you to be turned over to the law. If he’s been at it for years, he wouldn’t be able to hide that amount of cash. If anyone investigated, they would find out the truth. He can’t take the risk that you will talk. His first step is to spread enough rumors—that you’re a thief or a witch, whatever he can get people to believe—so they won’t come to your aid.”
Diana gave a tired sigh, a defeated slump to her shoulders that put a final chink in his resolve to remain impartial. “What better way to make people fear and distrust strangers? It also makes him look like a hero, risking his life to chase a witch throughout England.”
Her situation appalled him, and after meeting the pastor, he had no doubt that she spoke the truth.
Mysteries still lurked in her eyes.
Gabriel didn’t think she had lied to him, but he was convinced she’d omitted quite a bit as well.
He released his death grip on the chair and straightened, holding his hand out to her. As much as he craved her nearness, he couldn’t keep her prisoner. “Did you not try to tell someone the truth or seek help?”
Her fingers were slim and capable. When he noted a slight tremble to them, his heart missed a beat and he cupped her hand, his whole body tingled at the contact.
She gripped him back, just for a second, before she wiggled her fingers. He tightened his hold, reluctant to release her, when she pulled free from his grip, leaving his hand achingly empty. She stared out the window, practically quivering with the need to escape, and he very much feared if she walked out the door, he would never see her again.
That was unacceptable.
“Some would warn me to leave. An old woman tried to defend me. I learned later she was locked in an asylum, where she had died. He even sent bounty hunters after me once.” She turned toward him, her blue eyes fierce and determined. “I’ll admit, I took great pleasure eluding them and wasting his ill-gotten gains.”
The little smirk dancing around her mouth was his complete undoing.
Then her words penetrated the haze of lust clouding his mind. His grip tightened until the wood creaked from the strain. “So he tried to kill you?”
“At first.” She let her voice trail off, and she turned away, as if she found the design in the rug enthralling. “In recent weeks he’s been urging people to turn me over to him. I fear he has other plans for me now.”
She was lying.
The shadows in her eyes had thickened, and he stilled, not wanting to move, the truth hovering just out of reach. “What does he want?”
The vibrancy left her face as secrets crowded between them. “He keeps all his notes in that ledger of his. I suspected he wrote down his plans for me as well.” She clenched and unclenched her fists as if mentally plotting ways to get close enough to pick his pocket.
Alarm spiraled through him.
Surely she wouldn’t be foolish enough…then he remembered that she’d already tried to steal the book once. She believed it was her only ticket to freedom. Gabriel couldn’t keep his distance any longer, determined to stick close to her side to stop her from doing anything so foolish. He reached out and brushed his fingers lightly along her arm.
But something didn’t make sense.
“Why?” Gabriel’s head snapped up when the answer came to him. “You have a skill he wants.”
Diana blanched, his guess so close to the truth that her heart stumbled. She quickly turned away from his too-penetrating gaze, only to be stopped by his grip on her arm. Her attention dropped to the hand keeping her prisoner, pointedly ignoring his question. “You have to let me go.”
“No.” No way in hell!
He refused to abandon her to the tender mercies of that monster. “He’ll continue to follow you until he catches you. You must stay and fight back.”
“Fight back?” She laughed bitterly, and his chest ached at her hopelessness. “He’s a man of God. It would be my word against his. People would gladly hand me over to him without a single doubt in their minds that I was guilty.”
“But you have friends here who can help you now.” At her vacant expression, he stretched his arms wide in exasperation. The devil take him, he’d forgotten how stubborn women could be. “Me.”
“No! He will only convince everyone I bewitched you and take me by force.”
Diana reached out and brushed a single finger down his cheek, and he nearly swallowed his tongue. “He will watch you every second, wait for a weak moment, and snatch me. You won’t even know I’m gone until it’s too late.”
Sorrow pooled in her eyes, and Gabriel grasped her shoulders, wanting to shake her for giving up so easily. “You have proof he is a fraud. If we can get our hands on that book, you will be free.”
A spark of interest ignited in her eyes before she doused it. “No, there is no
will be the only one taking action.
will not get anywhere near that man.”
Gabriel gritted his teeth, the infuriating woman making him want to growl in frustration. “Why are you giving up? Why won’t you accept my offer of help?”