The Brazen Bride
Third volume in The Black Cobra Quartet
First published 2010
They're bold, courageous, resolute...ex-officers of the Crown united against a deadly traitor known only as the Black Cobra.
Shipwrecked, wounded, he risks all to pursue his mission - only to discover a partner as daring and brazen as he.
Fiery, tempestuous, a queen in her own realm, she rescues a warrior - only to find her heart under seige.
Bound by passion, linked by need, together they must brave the enemy's gauntlet to win all their hearts' desire.
A New York Times, USA-Today & Publishers Weekly Bestseller!
"The third volume of the Black Cobra Quartet is nothing short of incredible! The compelling story has well-crafted three-dimensional characters who are passionate, honorable and understand the underlying power of love and the value of humanity. Laurens raises the standard for excellence in this must-read book." Romantic Times, 4 stars, KISS Hero & TOP PICK!
"Another captivating romantic tale. Prepare yourself for tons of action and quick-witted thinking." Fresh Fiction.
"Stephanie Laurens has done it again in this captivating, sizzling romance fused with fast-moving action." Bookseller + Publisher ANZ
December 10, 1822
One o'clock in the morning
On the deck of the Heloise Leger, The English Channel
Hell hath no greater fury than the storms that raked the English Channel in winter.
With elemental tempest raging about him, Major Logan Monteith leapt back from the slashing blade of a Black Cobra cult assassin. With his saber countering the second assassin's strike, using his dirk, clutched in his left fist, to fend off the first attacker's probing knife, Logan suspected he'd be learning about the afterlife all too soon.
Winds howled; waves crashed. Water sluiced across the deck in a hissing spate.
The night was blacker than Hades, the driving rain a blurring veil. Falling back a step, Logan swiped water from his eyes.
As one, the assassins surged, beating him back toward the prow. Blades met, steel on steel ringing, sparks flaring, pinpricks of brightness in the engulfing dark. Abruptly, the deck canted-all three combatants desperately fought for balance.
The ship - a Portuguese merchantman bound for Portsmouth that Logan had been forced to join five days before, when, on reaching Lisbon, he'd discovered the town crawling with cultists - was in trouble. Battered by pounding waves, buffeted and tossed on the storm-wracked sea, the ship wallowed and swung, no longer held into the wind. Whether the rudder had broken or the captain had abandoned the wheel, Logan couldn't tell. He couldn't spare the time to squint through the rain-drenched dark at the bridge.
Instinct and experience kept his eyes locked on the men facing him. There'd been a third, but Logan had accounted for him in the first rush. The body was gone, claimed by the ravening waves.
Logan struck, saber swinging, but was immediately forced to block and counter, then retreat yet another step into the narrowing prow. Further confining his movements, reducing his options. Didn't matter; two against one in the icy, pelting rain, with his grips on his dirk and saber cramping, leather-soled boots slipping and sliding - the assassins were barefoot, giving them even that advantage - he couldn't go on the offensive.
He wasn't going to survive.
As he met and deflected another vicious blow, he acknowledged that, yet even as he did his innate stubbornness rose. He'd been a cavalry officer for more than a decade, fought in wars over half the globe, been through hell more than once, and survived.
He'd faced assassins before, and lived.
He told himself that even as, teeth gritted, he angled his saber up to block a slash at his head - and his feet went from under him, pitching him back against the railing.
The wooden scroll-holder strapped to his back slammed into his spine.
From the corner of his eye, he saw white teeth flash in a dark face - a feral grin as the second assassin swung and slashed. Logan hissed as the blade sliced down his left side, cutting through coat and shirt into muscle, grazing bone, before angling across his stomach to disembowel him. Instinct had him flattening against the railing; the blade cut, but not deep enough.
Not that that would save him.
Lightning cracked, a jagged tear of brilliant white splitting the black sky. In the instant's illumination, Logan saw the two assassins, dark eyes fanatically gleaming, triumph in their faces, gather themselves to spring and bring him down.
He was bleeding, badly.
He saw Death, felt it - tasted ashes as icy fingers pierced his body, reaching for his soul.
He dragged in a last gasp, braced himself. Given his mission, given his occupation for the last several years, St. Peter ought at least consider letting him into Heaven.
A long forgotten prayer formed on his lips.
The assassins sprang.
Impact - sudden, sharp, catastrophic - flung him and the assassins overboard. The plunge into turbulent depths, into the churning icy fury of the sea, separated them.
Tumbling in the watery dark, instinct took hold; righting himself, Logan struck upward. His dirk was still in his left fist; he'd released his saber, but it was tied to his belt by its lanyard-he felt the reassuring tap of the hilt on his upper thigh.
He was a strong swimmer; the assassins almost certainly weren't - it would be a wonder if they could swim at all. Dismissing them - he had more pressing concerns - he broke the surface and hauled in a huge breath. He shook his head, then peered through the water weighing down his lashes.
The storm was at its height, the seas mountainous. He couldn't see beyond the next towering wave.
The ship had been in open water in the middle of the Channel when the storm had hit, but he had no idea how far the tempest had tossed them, nor any clear idea of direction. No idea if land was close, or?
He'd been losing blood when he'd hit the water. How long he would last in the cauldron of icy waves, how soon his already depleted strength would give out-
His hand struck something-wood, a plank. No, even better, a section of the ship's side. Desperate, Logan grabbed it, grimly hung on as the next wave tried to slap him away, then gritting his teeth, he hauled himself up and onto the makeshift raft.
The cold had numbed his flesh. Even so, the cut down his side sent burning pain lancing through his entire body.
For a long moment, he lay prone on the planks, gasping, then, gathering his ebbing strength, steeling himself, he inched and edged further onto the planks, until he could lock his right hand over the ragged front edge. His feet still dangled in the water, but his body was supported to his knees; it was the best he could do.
The waves surged. His raft pitched, but rode the swell.
Beneath the lashing roar of the storm, waves crashed. Cheek to the wet wood, he listened, concentrating, and confirmed; the waves were crashing against something near.
The ship was, he thought, wallowing in the unrelieved blackness to his right. Breaking up. Sinking. Given how he and the assassins had been flung, the impact must have been mid ship. Whipping up his failing strength, he lifted his head, searched, saw debris but no bodies - no other survivors - but only he and the assassins had been so far forward in the prow.
Lightning cracked again, and showed him the ship's bare masts silhouetted against the inky sky.
As the simultaneous clap of thunder faded, Logan heard a sucking, rushing sound. Recognizing the portent, he peered at the ship.
The listing, tipping, capsizing ship.
Out of the night, the main mast came swinging down?
He didn't even have time to swear before the top of the mast thumped down across him and the world went black.
* * *
"Linnet! Linnet! Come quickly! Come see!"
Linnet Trevission looked up from the old flagstones of the path that ran from the stable to the kitchen door. She'd left the stable and was nearing the kitchen garden; directly ahead, the solid bulk of her home, Mon Coeur, sat snug and serene, anchored within the protective embrace of stands of elm and fir, bent and twisted into outlandish shapes by the incessant sea winds.
At present, however, in the aftermath of the storm that had swept over them last night, the winds were mild, coyly coquettish, the winter sun casting a honey glow over the house's pale stone.
She smiled as Chester, one of her wards - a tousle-headed scamp of just seven - came pelting around the side of the house, heading for the back door. "Chester! I'm here."
The boy looked up, then veered onto the stable path.
"You have to come!" Skidding to a halt before her, he grabbed her hand and tugged. "There's been a wreck!" His face alight, excitement and more bubbling in his voice, he looked up into her eyes. "There are bodies! And Will says one of the men is alive! You have to come!"
Linnet's smile fell from her face. "Yes, of course." Swiping up her skirts - wishing she'd worn her breeches instead - she strode quickly toward the back door, inwardly reviewing the necessary tasks - tasks she'd dealt with often before.
On the southwest tip of Guernsey, dealing with shipwrecks was an inescapable part of life.
Chester trotted at her side, his hand gripping hers - too tightly, but then his father had been lost at sea three years ago. As they neared the kitchen door, it opened to reveal Linnet's aunt, Jemima.
"Did I hear aright? A wreck?"
Linnet nodded. "Will sent Chester - there's at least one survivor. I'll go straightaway - can you find Edgar and the others? Tell them to bring the old gate, and the pack of bandages and splints."
"Yes, of course. But where?"
Linnet looked at Chester. "Which cove?"
Grimacing, Linnet met Jemima's eyes. Of course it would be that one - the rockiest and most dangerous. Especially for whoever had been washed up. "Broken bones, almost certainly."
Nodding briskly, Jemima waved her off. "Go. I'll have everything ready here when you get back."
Linnet met Chester's eyes. "Let's race."
Chester flashed a grin, let go of her hand, turned and ran back around the house.
Both hands now free, Linnet gathered her skirts and set out in pursuit; with her longer legs, she was soon on Chester's heels. The path cut through the surrounding trees, then out across the rocky expanse that bordered the edge of the low cliffs.
"Hold up!" Linnet called as they rounded the southern headland of the long northwestern side of the island and the west cove opened up below them.
Chester halted at the top of the path - little more than a goat track - that led down to a strip of coarse sand. Beyond the sand lay rocks, exposed now the tide was mostly out, a jumble of tumbled pieces from fist-sized to small boulders that formed the floor of the cove. The cove wasn't all that wide; two promontories of larger, jagged rocks enclosed it, marching out into the lashing gray waves.
Looking down, Linnet saw three bodies, two flung as if carelessly discarded on the rocks. Those two were dead - had to be given the contortions of limbs, heads and spines. The third she could only catch glimpses of; Will and Brandon-another two of her wards-were crouched over the man.
Aware of Chester's pleading look, Linnet nodded. "All right - let's go."
He was off like a hare. Linnet kilted her skirts, then followed, leaping down the familiar path with an abandon almost Chester's equal. As she descended, she scanned the cove again, noting the flotsam thrown up by the storm; to her educated eyes the evidence suggested that a good-sized merchantman had broken up on the razor-sharp rocks that lurked beneath the waves out to the southwest.
Reaching the sand, Chester bounded toward Will and Brandon. Suppressing the urge to follow, Linnet carefully made her way out onto the rocks, and confirmed that the other two men were indeed dead, beyond her help. Two sailors by the look of them, both swarthy. Spanish?
Leaving them where they lay, she picked her way through the rocks back onto the sand, then walked to where the third body lay close to the cliff.
His back to her, Will looked up and around as she neared, his fifteen-year-old face unusually sober. "He was on this piece of siding, so we lifted it and carried him here."
Halting, she dropped a hand on Will's shoulder and answered the question he hadn't asked. "It was safe to move him if he was already on the planks."
Shifting her gaze from Will's face, she got her first look at their survivor. He was lying on his stomach on the section of planking, a wet tangle of black hair screening his face.
He was large. Big. Not a giant but in any company he would rank as impressive. Broad shoulders, long heavy limbs. Running her gaze down his spine, she frowned at the bulge distorting his sodden coat. Bending, she reached out and touched it, traced.
"It's a wooden cylinder in oilskins," Will said. "It's slung in a leather holder with a loop through his belt. We think his arms must go through other loops to hold it in place."
Linnet nodded. "Curious." Had he been carrying the cylinder secretly? With it nestled between the long muscles on either side of his spine, if he'd been upright, the fall of his coat would conceal it,
Straightening, she ran her gaze down his legs, but saw no evidence of breaks or wounds. He was wearing breeches and a loose coat, the sort many sailors wore. His right arm was extended, the fingers of his large hand curled around the front edge of a plank. His other hand, however, lay level with his face, fingers locked in a death-grip around the hilt of a dagger.
That seemed a trifle odd for a shipwreck.
Conscious of her pulse thudding - the run to the cliffs shouldn't have made her heart beat so rapidly - she bent to look at the dagger. Not just a dagger, she realized - a dirk. The fine scrollwork on the blade was exquisite, the hilt larger than that of most knives, with a rounded stone set in the crosspiece. Reaching down, she pried long, hard, ice-cold fingers away from the hilt, then handed the dagger to Will. "Hold that for me."
The man hadn't stirred; not a single muscle had so much as tensed. Linnet drew back, aware of her instincts twitching, flickering in definite warning, yet for the life of her she couldn't make sense of the message.
The stranger was all but dead - indeed, she wasn't sure he wasn't-so how could he be dangerous?
From his position kneeling on the other side of the planking, Brandon said, "He's got a sword, too. On this side."
Linnet circled the man, looked where Brandon pointed, then crouched and unhooked the lanyard that attached the weapon to the man's belt. Drawing the blade carefully from under the man's leg, she straightened, studied it.
"It's a saber - a cavalry sword." She'd seen enough of them during the war, but the war was long over, the cavalry largely disbanded. Perhaps this man had been a trooper, and after the war had turned to sailing?
"We think he's alive," Brandon said, "but we can't find any pulse, and he's not breathing - well, not so you can tell."
Leaving the saber with Brandon, Linnet returned to Will's side. The man's head lay turned that way.
"He must be alive because he's bleeding," Will said. "See?" He lifted the clothes along the man's side, and a rent parted, exposing pale flesh and a long nasty cut. A recent cut.
Crouching beside Will, Linnet looked, and recognized a sword slash. That explained the dirk and saber. While Will held the clothes, she leaned closer, examining the wound, following it up - to the side of the man's breast. Thick muscle had been sliced through. Tracing the wound down, she sucked in a breath when she saw bone - a rib. But that was lower, where there wasn't so much muscle between taut skin and ribcage.
"He's bleeding," Will insisted. "See there?"
Linnet had noted the pale pinkish liquid seeping from the cut. She nodded, not yet ready to explain that that might simply be seawater oozing back out of the wound, tinged with blood that had bled out before. Before the man died.
Yet it was possible he still lived. The sea had all but frozen his flesh; any bleeding would be extremely slow, even were he alive.
Continuing to trace the wound, she discovered it curved inward, angling down and across the man's belly. She couldn't see further than the side of his waist, but a gut wound?if he had one, he was almost certainly dead, whether he'd already died or not.
Lying as he was, the pressure of his body, combined with the effects of the icy sea, might have held the wound closed, inhibited the usual bleeding.
She glanced at Brandon's face, then at Will, alongside her. Chester was hovering at her shoulder. "I need to check the wound across his stomach. I need you to help me ease this side of him up - enough for me to look."
The boys eagerly reached for the man's left shoulder, his side. Settling on her knees, Linnet placed Brandon's hands on the man's shoulder, positioned Will's hands beneath the left hip, set Chester ready to help support the shoulder Brandon would lift. "All together, then." Linnet licked her lips, said a little prayer. She was too experienced in matters of life, death, and the sea to allow herself to become invested in a stranger's survival; she told herself it was for the boys' sake that she hoped this stranger lived. "Now."
The boys heaved, pushed, propped. As soon as they had the man angled up and steady, Linnet ducked down, close to the heavy body, peered beneath to trace and follow the wound - then exhaled the breath she hadn't realized she'd held. Easing back, she nodded. "Let him down."
"Will he be all right?" Chester asked.
She couldn't yet promise. "The wound is less deep over his belly - no real danger. He was lucky." A scenario was taking shape in her mind - a picture of how the man had received such a wound. It should have been a killing, or at least incapacitating, slash. He'd escaped death by less than an inch, just before his ship had wrecked.
"But he's still not really breathing," Brandon said.
And she still wasn't sure if he was alive. Linnet checked for a pulse in the man's wrist, then in his strong throat. There was none she could detect, nor any discernible rise and fall of his chest - but all that could be due to being close to frozen. There was no help for it; shuffling nearer, with one hand she brushed back the fall of black hair hiding his face, bent close, focused - and stopped breathing.
He was heart-breakingly, breath-takingly beautiful. His face, all clean angular lines and sculpted planes, embodied the very essence of masculine beauty - there was not a soft note anywhere. Combined with the muscled hardness of his body, that face promised virility, passion, and direct, unadorned, unadulterated sin.
Such a face did not belong to a man given to sweetness, but to action, command, and demand.
Chiseled lips, firm and fine, sent a seductive shiver down her spine. The line of his jaw made her fingertips throb. He had winged black brows, a wide forehead, and lashes so black and thick and long she was instantly jealous.
The boys shifted uneasily, watching, waiting for her verdict.
As usual her instincts had been right. This man was - would be - dangerous. To her peace of mind, if nothing else.
Men like this - who looked like he did, who had bodies like his - led women into sin.
And into stupidity.
Dragging in a breath, she forced her eyes to stop drinking him in, forced her mind to stop mentally swooning. She hesitated, needing to get nearer - and too rattled to lightly risk it.
Maintaining her current, already too-close distance, she held her fingers beneath his nose. And felt nothing.
Turning her hand, she held the sensitive skin of her wrist close, but could detect not the smallest waft of air.
Lips thinning, mentally muttering an imprecation against fallen angels, she leaned down, close, in - angled her cheek so that it was a whisker away from his lips?
And felt the merest brush of air, a breath, an exhalation.
She eased back, straightening on her knees, and stared at the man's face for an instant longer. Then she turned to the wound in his side, checked again. And yes, that was blood, not just seepage. "He's alive."
Chester whooped. The other two grinned.
She didn't. Getting back to her feet, she looked down at trouble. "We need to get him up to the house."
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