Thatcher writhed on the grimy, hard, cold stone floor of their prison cell with what he thought were believable contortions. It had been hours since they had been brought to their tiny prison, and it looked as if the Italians would take their own merry time in getting around to doing something about their unexpected guests. Thatcher was merely taking it upon himself to speed up the process.
Nothing had gone quite as planned since that moment in Dover when a tantalizing stranger had sat on the bench next to him in the seedy pub along the wharf, draping herself across him and whispering sweet plans of espionage into his ear. As a mercenary, he had experienced a few different situations in his life, but none as interesting as that moment. But he hadn’t known then that he and the evocative stranger would end up on a ship, bound for a destination they did not know, spending days sequestered in the cargo berth as they traversed the choppy ocean, hoping the ship’s captain would not find them out, decide stowaways were not worth the extra nuisance, and toss them overboard. It was about time Thatcher took matters into his own hands.
Katharine Cavanaugh, the Countess of Stirling, courtesy of her War Office cover, jumped right into the game, her incredible acting skills kicking into motion before he had even hit the floor. He hoped by not telling her his plan, her actions would be more authentic. But having seen her in play, he doubted she could get any better at what she did. As he began his first round of tremors, she knelt by his side, her voice raised in a scream of indecipherable terror. He dared to peek once, just to see what she was doing and enjoy a bit of the show, when he saw her kneeling there, her tattered bar wench costume barely clinging to her lush curves, the bodice a display for her ample bosom, her thick brown hair falling in waves around her face, framing her square features with soft velocity. He forced his eyes shut.
And soon running footsteps echoed down the passageway.
The staccato of rapidly moving footfalls grew more hurried the closer the sounds came to their cell, and Thatcher knew Kate’s screams drew them in like sheep to the slaughter. He hoped the guards would get there quickly. He wasn’t sure how much convulsing he could do without repeating his repertoire. But soon he heard the metal clinking of keys going into a lock, and Kate’s screams became focused in the direction of the door. Soon there was a thud, and the unmistakable screeching of a metal door swinging open, and then —
“Don’t touch him!” Kate yelled in English, her accent shifting like a mirage on the desert. It became something it could not be and yet was with absolute certainty.
Now Thatcher truly did wish to open his eyes just to see the sound as it escaped the full lips of the woman who so captivated him from the moment she came to rest on his lap in that pub in Dover. It was an accent unlike he had ever heard before, but he instantly knew that she was someone to be obeyed.
The footfalls stopped, and Thatcher almost stopped moving as well, so enraptured he was by the performance he could not see.
“Can you not see what is happening?” Kate went on, and Thatcher wanted to inform her that he, in fact, could not see what was happening. But he lay there, moving his body in undulating tremors.
He wasn’t sure what happened then , but there was indecipherable muttering in what must have been Italian, and then Kate’s harsh, “Silence!”
The noise about him ceased, and suddenly, a pair of hands were on him. He would have jerked away if the touch had not become so familiar to him in the past few days they had been at sea.
Kate’s sure hands gripped his head, pulling his upper body into her lap. He felt the brush of her skirts against his cheeks, smelled the salt from the sea on her skin.
And for a second, he was lost. Lost in the feel of her grip, in the smell of her body, in the nearness of her heat. For days, he had done nothing but exist in her company, her guardian as they crossed the Channel and made their way through the Strait of Gibraltar. And through all of that, he had done nothing to question his respect of her person, and now, he lay with his head in her lap, his body pulled against hers like he had longed to do during their entire sea voyage.
“He is having a vision!” Kate cried, and he felt one of her hands leave him. He pictured her swooping said hand into the air with dramatic flair.
He was having a what?
“A vision!” Kate cried again, and Thatcher assumed one of the Italians had done something to question her statement. “Do you not know who this is?” she continued. “It is Mick Brody of the Brodys of Galway. He is a seer of the old ways and the ancient wisdom. He sees something now before us. Speak, Mick, speak of what you see!”
What he saw?
He saw the backs of his eyelids or perhaps nothing at all. He really wasn’t sure how that worked. And he couldn’t speak if he continued to shake the way he was, so he did the only thing of which he could think. He stopped.
Sitting upright in one fluid motion, he worked the muscles of his abdomen as he swung his arms up toward the moist ceiling of their prison. He felt his hair swing along the sides of his head, but he didn’t dare move to shake it free from his face. He was supposed to be in a trance after all, a vision encompassing all of his senses.
“Oh great sacred one, you come before me again!” He tried to make his accent as alluring as Kate’s, knowing he could not carry off an Irish brogue if someone paid him to do so. He had been through Dublin a time or two, and he knew he would not be fooling anyone. So instead, he went for the slightly vague, if terribly curious, unknown lilt. He thought he had done a fairly accurate job when suddenly a rush of intake breath swept along his right side, and a collective step backward sounded in his ear.
He continued. “You have blessed me with yet another of your precious visions, and I thank you, oh sacred one.”
He suddenly wished he had paid attention when his mama had dragged him to church with Thomas. If only he had had the sense to pay attention to her religious, dramatic ways, he may have something to say at this moment. But in all fairness, he never expected to be in such a situation when he was ten years old. Well, at least the part about having to pretend to have some sort of divine observance. He would not be so bold as to suggest he hadn’t thought about having his head in the lap of a bar wench.
“I see what you have come here to show me. I see what you have wrought.”
Here he quickly pulled his arms against his chest, doubling over as he held his arms against himself. He felt his hair drape across his eyes, and in that moment, he peeked, taking in the appearance of the guard nearest him. Continuing the fluid motion, he swung his head back, spreading his arms wide to the ceiling above him.
“It is him you seek!” he shouted, and with one outstretched hand, he extended a single index finger to indicate the guard he had stolen a glimpse of in his hastily concealed peek. “It is him. He with the matted beard. He with the green eyes of lust and envy. He with the scuffed boots of disrespect. You wish him–”
He was unable to finish the sentence as the entire armed guard descended on their chosen brethren. A tug on his shoulder had him opening his eyes and dropping his arms as Kate struggled to pull him away from the fray. The guard of Italian soldiers, perhaps six or seven of them, had all piled into a corner. The unfortunate soul Thatcher had seen when he had chanced a glimpse of the men was invisible in the crush, but Thatcher knew he lay at the very center of the throbbing mass of religiously terrified men.
“Well, I reckon our welcome is worn thin. Shall we see to getting ourselves out of this place?” Thatcher said as he stood and brushed carelessly at his pants. He quickly pulled Kate to her feet, but the movement was perhaps abrupt as she bounced unexpectedly against him. For a moment, he wished she would do it again, but in the back of his mind, his internal safety mechanism kept bumping at his conscience, telling him to keep moving. And so he did, relinquishing the closeness of a delectably warm Countess of Stirling.
“But–” Kate began, but he was already moving her in the direction of the now open cell door, abandoned by the Italian guard engaged in apprehending one of their own. She didn’t finish her sentence but followed willfully behind him, her height affording a stride nearly equal to his.
He quickly found his way back through the passages the guards had taken when they had removed them from the officer’s quarters where they had been interrogated. Soon Thatcher heard the sounds of the world above, and a ray of sunlight bounced down a flight of stairs that came into view as soon as they rounded a third corner of crumbling stone. He did not have to drag Kate behind him, for at the sight of the stairs, her pace quickened to match his.
Sunlight struck him full in the face as he emerged from the grated door of their prison and into the bustling streets of a port city on the Mediterranean Sea. As soon as his feet hit the cobblestone, he dodged to the left, tucking Kate behind him as a cart laden with crates of olives passed just in front of the toes of his boots.
Kate pressed against his back, her heart beating a tattoo into the muscles there. He felt a corresponding ripple in other parts of his body and swallowed to focus on the task at hand. They needed to get away from the prison and the authorities that had brought them there. They needed to find a place to hide until they could regain their composure and perhaps find some suitable clothes for Kate, even if she did make a fetching bar wench.
“Get in the cart.”
Thatcher looked quickly to his right at the cart that had just passed them as if the voice had come from the olives themselves. But knowing that could not be right, he looked up to the bench. A small, squat man, thick through the middle and thin at the limbs hovered like a forgotten presence on the worn bench of the rickety cart. Surely, it was him who had spoken the words, for in the bustle around them, no other person was close enough to utter such words with such clarity for Thatcher to hear.
And the man had spoken in English.
Thatcher turned long enough to scoop Kate into his arms, and together, he launched them into the back of the cart, landing precariously between the rows of olive crates. The cart lurched forward before his body settled onto the boards of the cart, and Kate’s unbelievable warmth came to rest against the full length of his body. He let out a rush of air that had nothing to do with escape and possible pursuit. It was a rush of pure male lust that exited his lungs and with it, his last hope of keeping his hands off of the woman who now lay sprawled across his body.
She struggled against him, likely trying to gain purchase and find a space for herself where there was none in the cart. Thatcher stilled her with his hands a little too far down on her hips, the tattered skirts of her costume having ridden up to her knees, trapping her legs between his. Her head came up, and he stared into hazel eyes, murky with a mystery he could not wait to solve.
“Better relax, my friend. I think we’re going for a ride,” he said, letting his hands slip just a little more down her hips.
And that was when he saw it. The flash of responding desire in those hazel depths that brought a corresponding flicker from his own awareness.
She wanted him.
She may not know that she wanted him, but there, pressed against each other between crates of olives in a cart that was likely to collapse before safely rescuing them away from their captors, driven by a man they did not know and who could possibly have nefarious connections, Matthew Thatcher knew that a lusty bar wench wanted him. And not just any lusty bar wench.
Katharine Cavanaugh, the Countess of Stirling.
And for the first time in days, he smiled.