Read Legend Of The Highland Dragon Online

Authors: Isabel Cooper

Tags: #Highland Warriors, #Highlanders, #Historical Romance, #Paranormal Romance, #Romance, #Scotland, #Scotland Highland, #Scottish Highland, #Warrior, #Shifters, #Dragon Shifter, #Magic

Legend Of The Highland Dragon (9 page)

BOOK: Legend Of The Highland Dragon
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Eleven

The next evening, as she stood by the drawing room window and watched night fall over London, Mina was still thinking over what she’d heard from MacAlasdair.

She’d heard about clubs like the Emerald Star, of course. Florrie brought home stories every so often, and other girls in Mina’s boardinghouse gossiped about spiritualists and fortune-tellers. A few gauze-draped mystics had even called on Professor Carter from time to time, after which he’d usually had to have a lie-down and a glass of whiskey. Mina had just thought they were all frauds.

Hearing otherwise had brought on very mixed emotions. On the one hand, the presence of other magicians in London meant other people who could maybe deal with Ward if MacAlasdair really fumbled the matter. On the other hand, in Mina’s experience, you could count on other people to foul things up more than you could count on them to be helpful, and now there was a whole other world of potential accidents—or
not
accidents.

The sound of shattering glass broke through her reflections.

Mina darted back away from the window and was halfway across the floor before she realized that it hadn’t broken. The noise hadn’t come from the drawing room. It had come from the fireplace, but nothing around that was broken, either.

The noise had come down the chimney.

Closing her eyes, Mina pictured the floor above her. The stairs led up from the hall, and the drawing room was on the right side of the lower floor. Retracing her previous exploration, she thought that the noise had come from one of the bedrooms she hadn’t entered.

A bird or a bat had probably flown into the window. Granted, the second floor was a bit low for that and too high for children throwing stones, but stranger things happened.

In London, burglary wasn’t really strange. In the house of a wealthy man who lived alone—who was known to keep few servants and to send those away at regular hours—it wouldn’t be at all unusual.

And while Stephen had said the manes weren’t coming back for a while, Ward could have conjured up other things.

Mina swore under her breath and found that her mouth had gone completely dry.

MacAlasdair was locked away being a dragon for a little while longer. Running to get the police would give the burglars or demons or whatever time to do their work and get away. If they were working for Ward and managed to see Stephen in dragon form, that would be awful. If they weren’t human and caught either Stephen or the rest of the servants by surprise, that would be even worse.

She took the poker from the fireplace. It hadn’t helped much last time, but she wouldn’t be facing a dragon now—at least, not with any luck.

Mina went up the stairs slowly, keeping close to one of the walls and moving as quietly as she could. She wasn’t bad at that. She was no burglar, but she
was
a slim woman with a light step, and one who’d spent her life in crowded houses.

Nobody was waiting for her at the top of the stairs. No hand lunged out of the dark hallway to catch her wrist; no chloroform-soaked cloth descended over her nose and mouth.

Not yet, at least.

She snuck down the hallway, passing one closed door after another. No noise came from within any of them so Mina kept going, the poker heavy in her hand.

Then there was a thump at the end of the hall, from a room whose door had been left open just a crack. From what Mina knew about the house and what she’d seen from the servants’ routine, she thought that it was MacAlasdair’s bedroom.

She stepped closer, pressing herself against the wall.

“…anything in there?”

It was a male voice, and the accent was familiar. The speaker might have been any of the men she’d grown up with.

“Lot of fancy clothes,” said another similar voice. “You?”

“Nothing big enough. Couple sets of cuff links, though,” the first man added, clearly pleased by this unexpected development. “Look like gold, they do.”

“Well, don’t ’old out once we get clear of this place.
’E
only cares for one thing, after all.”

Mina had heard enough.

Slowly, she put the poker down, then moved away and into the bedroom next door. Shuttered windows and dust cloths announced that nobody had slept there for some time, but the furniture still remained: a bed with a brass frame, a washstand, and most importantly for Mina’s purposes, a dark wooden desk and a chair to match.

Good thing she was a strong girl.

Even so, when she lifted the chair, she knew she’d pay for it later—and that she wouldn’t have managed it normally. Fear did wonders for the human body.

As she approached MacAlasdair’s room again, one of the men inside spoke.

“Nothing ’ere but papers. Bloody desk was the devil to open, and it’s just a lot of scrap.”

“Anything look valuable?”

“Damned if I know, Bill. Do you take me for a barrister?”

Mina set the chair down very slowly, wiped her sweating hands on her skirt, and then grasped the doorknob. The door closed very quietly so she wasn’t sure either man had noticed the click.

Then came the chair. Terror still fueling her muscles, she shoved it against the door and wedged the top under the doorknob.

“’Old up a tick, Fred,” said Bill. “Was that door closed before?”

Mina didn’t wait to hear the rest. She picked up her skirts in one hand, the poker in the other, and ran. Behind her, the doorknob rattled. Then the door itself thumped.

The chair was sturdy, but it wouldn’t hold forever, nor against all force. Mina didn’t know how strong the men in MacAlasdair’s room were. She went faster, taking the stairs down two at a time. She didn’t let herself look behind her because that wouldn’t help anything.

It had been getting dark before she went upstairs. Surely the first stars would be out by now!

At the bottom of the staircase she turned left, trying to remember her first mad flight through this house—and she did seem to be running for her life every time she came this way. She’d have to have a word with someone about that.

Another left, and then a right, and oh, there was
that
room again, down the hall ahead of her. She couldn’t see red light under the door this time. Maybe that was a good sign?

“Knocking” was an inadequate description for what Mina did next. She banged on the door with all her strength, rattled the doorknob as the men upstairs had done, and finally lifted her voice to shout. “MacAlasdair!”

Nothing.


MacAlasdair!

Had there been movement from within? She couldn’t tell. Were there footsteps in the hall behind her?


Stephen!

The door banged open. Stephen stood in the doorway, human, alert—and bare-chested. “Good God, Cerberus, what—”

“Burglars. In your bedroom.” Mina spoke as quickly as she could, gasping for breath between the words. “I think Ward sent them.”

A short Gaelic oath sprang from Stephen’s lips, and he turned his blazing eyes on her. “Are you all right?”

“Fine. They never even saw me.”

“Keep behind me, then,” he said and strode out into the hall.

Mina followed, though not too closely. Two people were better than one only as long as she didn’t end up a hostage. She’d be close enough to help but not to be in danger. She was also close enough to see the play of muscles in Stephen’s back as he walked. She hadn’t intended that, but it helped her morale.

Halfway up the stairs, they could hear loud, rhythmic thumping. When they reached the hall, Mina could see the door to Stephen’s bedroom shuddering under blows from the other side. The chair was still roughly where she’d left it, but the edge under the doorknob was beginning to slip.

Stephen turned his head and flashed her a smile: wide and white, and probably terrifying to anyone who’d come up against him on a battlefield. Then, in one quick and noisy motion, he hurled the chair away from the doorknob, yanked the door open, and burst through.

Caught in the process of striking the door, Fred and Bill stumbled back away. They recovered more quickly than Mina would have liked, finding their feet and realizing that they outnumbered the new arrival. After a quick glance, they rushed Stephen, one with a knife and one with a short club.

Stephen moved like a dancing flame, ducking away from the knife and letting the club glance harmlessly off his hip. With an elbow to the face, he sent the man with the club down to the floor. Then he spun around, and his fist smashed into the knife-wielder’s jaw just as his booted foot took out the thug’s legs.

It took maybe a minute. Mina wasn’t exactly a stranger to fights, having taken George home from the pub often enough before he’d left for the sea. Still, she was now left standing, opening and closing her mouth like a carp.

Stephen straightened himself up and rubbed absently at his side. “There’s one that could bruise a bit, I’m thinking,” he said. “Not too shocked, are you?”

“No!” Mina answered, pride putting force into the half-truth.

“Good. We’ll be needing to tie these up,” said Stephen, “and ask them a few questions before we bring in the police. Best make it quick—and it’ll go quicker with the two of us.”

Twelve

Once Stephen had a moment to look at the burglars without trying to hit one or the other, they proved to be unremarkable-looking enough. One was young enough to still be spotty; one was old enough to have lost most of his hair.

Bound with several of Stephen’s cravats—Baldwin was going to have a few things to say about this entire evening—the younger burglar shifted nervously, to the extent that he could, and looked between Stephen and Mina. “What’re you gonna do now?”

“That depends on you, I should think,” Mina said. Ice clinked in her voice. In her dark dress, with her hair loosened by her run through the house, she looked like the more attractive sort of avenging angel. “You got yourselves into this situation. I’d imagine you can get yourselves out, if you can be clever.”

The man looked from her to his still-unconscious companion, chewed on his lower lip, and then sighed. “What do you want,” he asked, “and what’ll you give me for it?”

“Who hired you and why and when and where.” Stephen crouched down beside the thief. “You tell us, and perhaps you won’t be seeing the inside of Newgate any time soon.”

The threat of the law had lost some of its power. Fifty years ago, he’d have mentioned hanging or transportation. Perhaps mortals’ fears adapted as easily to a changing world as everything else about them did, though, for the name of the prison made the thief’s face go pale beneath its spots.

“We never got a name, m’lord.”

“You must know what he looked like, though,” said Mina. “Hooded cloaks stand out a bit these days.”

“Tall and kind of fat. Dark ’air. ’Is collar was turned up, though, and it
were
dark where we met.”

“And where was that?” Stephen asked.

“Dog an’ Moon, m’lord. Cable Street.”

Mina’s eyes flickered for a second, but she didn’t volunteer anything. “When did you first enter into your arrangement?” Stephen went on.

“’Bout three weeks ago, or the like.”

“Then this wasn’t the first job you did for him,” said Mina. “What was that?”

The thief looked down. “Deliverin’ a package, ma’am. Through a letter slot, it was.”

“Ah,” said Stephen, not at all surprised. “How did you meet?”

“The barman there sometimes passes word on to us, word of jobs and that. ’E’s the one set up the meeting.”

Stephen nodded. “What was your job this time?”

“’E wanted us to look around. Tell him about anything odd we saw, take anything we thought was important, that sort of thing. Said nobody’d be about at this ’our. Never should’ve trusted ’im for that. Bloody toff.”

“Watch your language,” said Stephen, though Mina’s face hadn’t changed a bit at the words. Indeed, he’d heard her use similar terms, though rarely. Still, he felt a need to make the gesture. “Anything else?”

“Not for ’im, no.”

“When did he hire you for this job?” Mina asked.

“Two days back. Said we’d get money when we brought ’im the crown.” The young man sighed. “That’s all I know of it, m’lord, I promise.”

He was, as far as Stephen could tell, speaking the truth. Stephen sighed and got to his feet. “For what it’s worth,” he said absently, “I very much doubt that he would have followed through with the payment he promised you. And I suggest that you avoid his company in the future.”

“Yeah, o’course,” said the young man. Perhaps he meant it; perhaps he didn’t.

It probably didn’t matter either way. He and his companion hadn’t seen enough of the house—or of Stephen—to be a threat. The police couldn’t get any more useful information from them than Stephen already had and wouldn’t know how to follow up on it anyway. At least, Stephen’s prior experience with Scotland Yard had led him to expect no great feats there.

Stephen bent and picked up the knife from where it had fallen. It was cheap work. Even if its wielder had landed a blow, the blade might have broken before doing Stephen any real harm. The club had been more effective—he had a sore place just under his ribs now—but there was something visceral and intimidating about a knife, and he didn’t keep them lying about his bedroom these days.

“Would you be kind enough to untie our visitor?” he asked Mina.

She set to work, her slim fingers flying over the knots. The cravat fell away, leaving the young man rubbing his wrists.

“Get up,” said Stephen. He adjusted his grip on the knife—casual, but not too casual, just enough to make the thief aware of its presence. “Pick up your friend.”

That process involved some grunting. “’E’s
heavy
,” the young man said.

“That’s very unfortunate for you,” said Stephen. “Now walk.”

At knifepoint, the two thieves went out the door, through the hall, and down the dark staircase. Stephen followed closely behind, as did Mina, who had stopped briefly to re-arm herself.

At some point, Stephen thought, he’d just have to
give
her a poker, perhaps one with her initials on it. Certainly she looked as natural holding the thing as anyone could under the circumstances.

At last, after a dim and silent journey that was mercifully free of further incident, they reached the back door. Stephen stepped forward and jerked it open, then gestured to the small street beyond, where a gas lamp barely cut through the growing night. “You’d best be getting on your way, hadn’t you?”

The young burglar started forward, moving slowly under the weight of his older companion. As they crossed the threshold, Mina spoke again.

“I’m going to send for the police now. I’ll tell them I saw someone lurking around the house. It’ll take them”—she looked off down the street and did a few mental calculations—“oh, about ten minutes to get here, I should think. If you move fast, I might just be a silly girl spooked by the fog.”

Then she shut the door.

“I don’t suppose,” she said, looking up at Stephen, “that this sort of thing happens often?”

“It’s the first time of it to my knowledge,” he said and then cleared his throat. “I’ve you to thank for making sure they didn’t do worse or see more. You had no reason to risk yourself the way you did.”

The flush on Mina’s cheeks deepened, and she shrugged. “A hundred pounds seems a fair reason to me. I don’t go back on a bargain.”

Being tactful, she didn’t add
whatever
you
may
have
thought
.

She was looking down again, Stephen noticed, and her hair fell across her face. Tired? Worried? He stopped at the foot of the stairs and put a hand gently on her shoulder. “Is anything wrong? Other than the obvious, I mean?”

“I—no. Not really. Um…” She took a breath and then gave a what-the-hell sort of shrug.

Oh, this was going to be good.

BOOK: Legend Of The Highland Dragon
8.95Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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