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The isle of Cyrene March 1815
She wished she could paint him. His nude body was beautiful, set against the backdrop of a turquoise sea.
Feeling her pulse leap, Diana Sheridan stared transfixed at the breathtaking sight as Christopher Thorne rose from the gently foaming waves.
The sun-drenched cove below the bluffs was one of many small bays and inlets secreted along the island’s rugged, picturesque shoreline. The scene would make a magnificent landscape on canvas, Diana well knew. The golden line of sand dotted with palms . . . the white, rocky promontory stretching to meet the sparkling, endless Mediterranean beyond . . . dazzled in the sunlight. But it was the man’s virile form glistening with seawater that most captured her attention.
She wet her dry lips.
She had seen Lord Thorne only once from afar, several years ago. If she’d thought him a beautiful man then, she was even more captivated by his physical attributes now. Unable to help herself, Diana studied his body, admiring him from both artistic and feminine perspectives.
She had never seen a completely nude man, nor had she ever painted one. She’d trained in human anatomy and the techniques of oils by duplicating sketchings and paintings by prominent artists and by studying plaster casts of ancient statues. But canvas was still inanimate, and statues had no color, no life.
Not as this man did.
Even the great masters would have relished so vital a subject.
Admittedly she had a measure of talent, yet she wasn’t certain she could do Christopher Thorne justice. If she could capture the vivid feeling of life, the play and ripple of muscle in his lean, lithe body, or the way the sun’s glowing warmth caressed his skin like a lover’s touch—
He looked almost leonine. His streaming wet hair was dark gold in color, while a sprinkling of hair on his powerful chest arrowed down to his groin to widen in a thicker thatch. He moved with the grace of a lion, as well, as he climbed up the narrow beach and flung himself down on a linen towel spread on the sand.
Diana stood riveted, fascinated by his body—his broad shoulders, strong back, slim hips, tight buttocks, athletic flanks. . . .
Her heart was beating far too rapidly, she realized, and her skin had suddenly flushed. Worse, she felt an unmistakable warmth pool between her thighs at the primal sight of him.
“Don’t be a fool,” she suddenly muttered, scolding herself beneath her breath. “You should know better than to allow an attractive man to affect you.”
Perhaps she could blame her flush on the unfamiliar climate. It was barely mid-March, but the golden afternoon was warmer than many summer days in England. And her unsteadiness was no doubt caused by spending several weeks at sea navigating a pitching ship’s deck. She’d arrived on Cyrene with her younger cousin Amy merely two hours ago, and she still hadn’t properly regained her balance.
They’d traveled a great distance in search of Thorne—from London and the cold Atlantic, past the peninsula of Portugal and Spain, around Gibraltar, and another day’s sail beyond the Balearic Islands of Ibiza and Mallorca and Menorca, before finally reaching Cyrene’s sole harbor and colorful little seaport.
When she’d hired a carriage at the town stables and sought out Thorne’s estates, they were taken to a splendid villa perched on the eastern shore of the island. His servants suggested he might be found in the cove beneath the bluffs, at the rear of the villa, so Diana left Amy to enjoy a refreshing tea while she investigated. Upon seeing a man swimming below, Diana had carefully negotiated the steps carved into the rock. But when she reached the beach, she was taken aback to discover him nude.
No doubt she should have expected something so scandalous from Lord Thorne. This was the charmingly wicked nobleman she had heard so much about over the years—both from her cousin Nathaniel and from the scandal sheets. By all reports, Thorne was a rebel: wild and reckless and totally unconventional.
It was no surprise that he was one of England’s most eligible and unattainable catches. He bore the title of viscount, as well as being heir to a dukedom. And his fortune was said to be substantial, even without the prospect of one day inheriting his father’s vast estates.
After seeing him now, however, Diana could understand better why he was considered a devil with women: because he was so sinfully beautiful. But she’d fallen in love with a beautiful face before, a disastrous mistake that had led to her social ruin.
“Confound him, don’t you dare allow his looks to addle your wits,” Diana chastised herself.
Trying to regain control of her senses, she remained in the shadow of the bluff as she debated whether to leave or to make herself known to Thorne.
She needed to speak to him alone, the sooner the better, for he had been awarded guardianship of Nathaniel’s younger sister, Amy. At nineteen, Amy was now an heiress and, as such, was the target of numerous fortune-hunters and rakes bent on seduction.
Nathaniel’s will hadn’t surprised Diana, for Thorne was his longtime friend, and women were rarely appointed legal guardians. Besides, in society’s eyes, her own single state, as well as the scandal in her past, precluded her from making a proper steward for her flighty young cousin.
But a man like Lord Thorne was hardly a suitable guardian either, even if he had made Nathaniel a promise to look after his sister.
Diana was very protective of her spoiled but basically lovable younger cousin. At her uncle’s passing several years ago, she’d taken over raising the girl, while her cousin Nathaniel assumed legal guardianship. Yet the responsibility she felt was based as much on affection as on moral duty or the ties of blood. She loved Amy dearly, like a sister or even a daughter. And now she was the only family Amy had left . . . and Amy was hers.
Since Nathaniel’s shocking death, they’d both spent the past year in mourning for him, quietly living in the country. But such a tranquil life had made Amy highly susceptible to male attention and flattery, and now she fancied herself in love with the handsome fortune-hunter who’d begun to pursue her over the Christmas season.
Diana was determined to prevent the girl from making the same ruinous mistake she had once made. To stop Amy from being so badly hurt, the way she had been.
If it meant dealing with the devilish Lord Thorne, Diana would do it.
She certainly wouldn’t allow his rakish reputation to intimidate her—for the sake of her own pride if nothing else. She’d vowed she was through hiding herself away. No longer would she voluntarily be held back because of her dubious past. Nor would she willingly suffer any more of society’s punishment.
She was starting an entirely new life of independence, Diana reminded herself. Indeed, this was the first test of the first real freedom she’d ever had.
She had never expected to visit such a glorious island as Cyrene. The golden sunlight, the fresh, salty sea breeze, the magnificent vista, all were completely foreign to her. Faith, she’d never been to the seashore before this. Since being orphaned at age seven, she’d spent most of her life at her uncle’s country estate in Derbyshire.
Diana squared her shoulders. She didn’t intend to let any man, wicked or not, beautiful or not, naked or not, drive her back into her shell.
Summoning her courage, she took a deep breath, raised her muslin skirts to keep them from dragging in the sand, and stepped forward into the sunlight.
He knew he was being watched.
A sixth sense alerting him to danger, Thorne glanced covertly at his pile of clothing, assuring himself that the dagger he usually carried was close to hand.
Pretending to keep his eyes shut, he stretched languidly and rolled over onto his back, so that he could glimpse the intruder who was now moving toward him.
The watcher wore skirts.
What the devil was a woman doing down here in his private cove? And a lady, by the looks of her attire.
Irritation was Thorne’s first automatic response. The last genteel female to unexpectedly see him in the buff had tried to trap him into wedlock.
In fact, that lamentable incident was what had driven him to take refuge on Cyrene for the past two months. At a house party in the English country- side in January, a calculating young debutante had sneaked into his bedchamber while he slept and was caught naked with him by her avaricious mother.
Feigning shock, Mama had immediately petitioned his ducal father, insisting that Thorne be forced to marry the girl. Redcliffe contended that he should do the honorable thing and accept his fate, but innocent of seducing the little schemer, Thorne had refused to be dishonorably trapped in marriage. As soon as he concluded his current assignment for the Guardians, he’d sailed for Cyrene to escape their connivances and his father’s hounding.
Highly suspicious now, Thorne peered through his lowered eyelids at the interloper. She had stopped a short distance away—the moment he’d rolled over, in fact—and was staring at him as if fascinated.
If she was a blasted husband-hunter, he would send her packing. And if not . . .
He couldn’t deny that she was a beauty, with her delicate, fine-boned face, flawless ivory skin, and nicely curved body. Her high-waisted muslin gown of dark blue flattered her slender, shapely figure and firm, high breasts, and sent an immediate shaft of awareness lancing through his loins.
She looked, however, to be a bit older than the usual debs who pursued him, perhaps in her mid-twenties. She wore her rich dark hair pinned up in a simple knot, Thorne noted, and her eyes, which were just as dark and lustrous, held awe and curiosity as she surveyed him.
Deliberately he opened his own eyes fully and locked gazes with her.
The impact made him feel an instantaneous heat—an involuntary physical response that came as a sweet, if unwelcome, shock.
She felt the same sweet shock, he was certain. She had stiffened, looking wary and unsettled now, as if all her feminine instincts were on keen alert. Just as all his male instincts had suddenly roared to vibrant life.
To Thorne’s further irritation, he could feel himself hardening. It was difficult to remain unmoved, though, when a lovely young woman was contemplating his body so intently.
Cursing his swelling erection, Thorne pushed himself up on one elbow. “Do you realize you are trespassing on private land?”
“Your servants said I might find you here.”
Her low, husky voice sent a further charge of heat along his nerve endings. “Did my father send you?” he demanded. “If so, then pray let me inform you that I have no intention of wedding you.”
She blinked at that. “I beg your pardon?”
“The last young lady to see me nude claimed I compromised her and insisted that I wed her. If that is your aim, sweeting, you can turn around at once and take yourself away.”
He watched as her sensual mouth thinned in a wry smile. “I promise you, my lord, you are safe with me. I have no interest in marriage whatsoever.”
Her claim reassured him to a degree, yet Thorne couldn’t let himself relax. “You obviously have an interest in my body.”
Color rose in her cheeks, and she looked flustered to be caught ogling him. “Forgive me. I was contemplating you with an artist’s eye . . . trying to determine how I would paint you.”
Thorne’s lips curved in a sardonic grin. “Now that is a novel tactic no one has ever used on me before.”
Her chin lifted with a trace of defiance. “I am perfectly serious. I am an artist.”
He regarded her for a long moment. “If that’s true, then I suppose I should be flattered by your attention.”
“It is true. You would make an admirable subject for a portrait.”
“Is that all? You see me as one of your subjects?” He arched a taunting eyebrow. “You don’t feel the slightest urges beyond the artistic?”
“I regret to disappoint you, but no, my interest in your male anatomy is purely objective.”
“How lowering. I am mortally wounded.”
Her wry smile held genuine humor this time. “I should think you would be pleased. By all reports, you have an army of eager females fawning all over you.”
“A regiment, at the very least,” Thorne drawled, feigning a shudder. “And all with matrimony in mind.”
“But you have no desire to be leg-shackled,” she said in understanding as she took a step toward him. “Well, you can rest easy, my lord. I have no intention of wedding anyone, most certainly not a man of your rakish reputation.”
“I am hardly a rake.”
“If you were a gentleman”—she gave his lower body a pointed glance—“you would cover yourself.”
Realizing his manhood was fully erect now, Thorne reached for his shirt. “I confess that a beautiful woman staring at my loins has an arousing effect.”
The flush in her cheeks fascinated him. In truth, she fascinated him. From her bold appraisal, he had to conclude that she was no meek-mannered miss. Nothing like the chaste, featherheaded young innocents who often pursued him. If he hadn’t sent her scurrying away in fright by now, she had to have some measure of experience. An enticing thought, Thorne reflected.
Draping the shirt around his hips, he tied the sleeves together and rose to his feet. “Better?”
“Yes . . . I think so.”
“I am a gentleman, you know—although my father would sometimes dispute it. What of you?” His gaze slid down her body. “Most ladies would think twice before coming to a secluded cove where a strange man was sea-bathing in the nude.”
Her eyes kindled a little at that. “Of course I am a lady.”
“Yet you come here alone, and you don’t shy from the sight of me.”
“I wished to speak to you in private. And I must warn you, attempts to intimidate me usually have precisely the opposite effect. You won’t frighten me away.”
Thorne realized he was beginning to enjoy himself. Certainly he no longer wanted to drive her away. Instead he wondered if he could persuade her to stay. “In that case, you are welcome to join me. But you have on far too many clothes. You would be far more comfortable without your gown.”
Her eyes widened at his brazen suggestion.
“Wouldn’t you care to take a swim?” he pressed, moving toward her. “The water is a bit cool but invigorating.”
“I don’t know how to swim.”
“I would be delighted to teach you.”
With an unwilling smile, she shook her head sadly. “I should have known the tales I’ve heard about you are true. You are indeed a seasoned rake.”
“Oh, no,” he murmured, halting before her. “If I were truly a rake, I would take advantage of having a beautiful woman alone and try to steal a kiss from her.”
He’d often been accused of having a wicked sense of humor, so he wasn’t surprised that his brazenness didn’t appear to shock her. Yet suddenly she was no longer amused. She lifted her chin again, eyeing him coolly.
The directness in her gaze, in her stance, was challenge incarnate. And he could never resist a challenge. Especially not from a woman so alluring as this one.
Her lips were temptingly close and perfectly shaped, while all his senses avidly relayed the fact that she was lushly curved in all the right places. He wanted to draw her down into the sand with him and slowly strip her gown from her body, exploring those sweet curves with his hands and mouth. . . .
A jolt of pure desire sizzled through Thorne at the prospect.
He took the final step toward her, so their bodies almost touched. It startled him, how badly he wanted her. He couldn’t remember ever being this aroused this swiftly.
Neither could Diana.
Gazing up at Thorne, she once again felt transfixed. His eyes were a stunning hazel—gold dappled with flecks of green—and deep enough to drown in.
She drew a shaky breath at his unsettling nearness. Any well-bred lady would doubtless have fled at the first sight of his nudity. But dismayingly, her strongest urge was to touch him, to see if his skin was as warm and supple as it looked. If the muscle and sinew rippling beneath the surface was as hard as she suspected. If his firm, beautiful mouth would taste as arousing as she imagined it would.
He seemed to understand her dilemma, for a beguiling hint of wickedness glimmered in those gold-green eyes as he studied her in turn. Her heart skipped a beat at the seductive sensuality she saw there.
He was near enough for her to feel his warmth. The fine cambric covering his loins was better than nothing but still was almost sheer, leaving her all too aware of his masculine attributes. She was even more disturbed by the way her body flared in response. She couldn’t help feeling the power that had beguiled so many women into his arms.
Then he flashed her a slow, devastating smile that took her breath away.
Merciful heavens, he was dangerous, Diana thought, feeling slightly dazed.
That smile could prove deadly, she had no doubt, for it melted away any thought of resistance . . . as he likely intended.
When he lowered his head toward hers, she realized with a sense of shock that he intended to kiss her. His boldness caught her off guard, but she could not have moved if her life had depended on it. Instead she watched spellbound as he bent the final distance.
His breath fanned warm against her lips . . . then his mouth covered hers. At the first touch, sensation arced between them, making her pulse leap.
He kissed her as if he were sampling some exotic fruit for the first time, savoring her flavor. When unconsciously Diana parted her lips, his tongue slid inside her mouth in a sensual invasion. Another frisson of fiery sensation sparked between them as he tasted her.
His kiss was incredibly arousing, his mouth settling on hers in a more determined caress, creating an irresistible friction. When she gave a little whimper of surprise, his hand rose to cradle her jaw, his long, lean fingers holding her still for his seductive assault.
She had been kissed before—several times—by the man she had once intended to marry. Yet her former betrothed’s kisses had been sweet, worshipful, as if she were made of spun glass and fragile enough to break.
This man, on the contrary, treated her like a flesh-and-blood woman. A woman he wanted.
Thorne angled his head and deepened his kiss, his mouth suddenly turning more demanding. Diana shivered as his tongue plunged between her lips, hot and silky. Of their own accord, her hands rose to clutch his shoulders. Beneath his golden, sun-warmed skin, she could feel the hardness of his corded muscles.
At the same time his own hands moved to her hips to pull her closer, flush against him . . . making her keenly aware of his huge phallus swelling against her stomach.
She had wondered about that hard ridge of male flesh, and now she knew. At the erotic pressure, she could feel a shameful tingling in her breasts, feel a brazen heat uncoiling between her thighs. The wanton intensity of her body’s reaction startled her; the desire he stirred in her was impossible to deny.
Then his hand left her jaw and slid slowly along the column of her throat to cup her breast, and her shock deepened. Her betrothed had never touched her this way . . . exciting her, arousing her. . . .
When instinctively she arched against the alluring pressure, Thorne made a satisfied male sound low in his throat. A moment later his fingers curled over the square neckline of her gown, dipping beneath the fabric of her shift to explore the swell of her breast, finding the taut nipple.
Fire shot through her, making her knees weak.
His knuckles teased the furled bud, startling a raw moan from Diana, yet penetrating her dazed mind at the same time. She had wanted to test the boundaries of her newfound liberation, but this was beyond brazen. Their embrace had turned too passionate. . . .
With a gasp, she pushed at his bare chest and broke away.
Her breasts rose and fell rapidly as she stared at him.
For a long moment, Thorne stared back. His eyes had darkened to forest green fractured with chips of gold, while his expression had become shuttered, as if he didn’t trust her or the searing flame that had momentarily kindled between them.
His voice was slightly hoarse when he finally spoke. “I was right. Your lips are every bit as inviting as they look.”
No apology, no contrition at all, for his outrageous behavior, Diana realized.
Unsettled, she pressed a hand to her stomach to calm the excited flutter there and retreated a few steps, to a safer distance. It was impossible to recover her dazed senses or to quell her erratic heartbeat, but she made an effort to pretend nonchalance.
“I suppose you simply cannot help yourself, Lord Thorne. Rumor has it that you try to seduce every woman you meet.”
“Only the ones who interest me.” He smiled—charmingly—which only set her pulse racing harder. “I admit you interest me, sweetheart. And I expect I was driven by the island’s enchantment, as well.”
“You haven’t heard the legend of our island? The sun god Apollo fell in love with the nymph Cyrene, but when she spurned him, he created an island paradise here and held her captive until she came to love him in return. The spell he cast is said to uncontrollably arouse the senses of mere mortals and drive them to passion.”
Diana returned a skeptical look. It was certainly true that the island’s beauty stirred her blood, but she couldn’t quite credit the tale of a mythical spell.
Her gaze pinned Thorne, while her mouth curved with sardonic amusement. “It sounds more as if you are exploiting a myth as a convenient excuse for your dissolute behavior.”
“Perhaps so,” Thorne allowed, flashing her that provocative, heart-melting grin. “We have never met before, have we, love? You must be new to Cyrene, for I know all the beauties here, and I could never have forgotten you.”
“No, we have never actually met,” Diana replied.
When Viscount Thorne had come to visit Nathaniel shortly after her disastrous aborted elopement, she was purposely kept out of sight because her uncle deemed Thorne a dangerous rake, and she was considered susceptible to rakes.
She hadn’t attended Nathaniel’s funeral last year either, since it had been held in London, several days’ journey from the Lunsford country estate where she lived. And by the time she received word of her cousin’s untimely death, Nathaniel had already been buried. At least Amy had been able to attend her brother’s service, for the girl was in London at the time, preparing for her comeout.
Diana suspected, however, that Thorne would at least recognize her name, for she’d written to him on several occasions during the past year—although his solicitors had always handled his return correspondence with her.
“I am Nathaniel’s cousin, Diana Sheridan.”
At her revelation, he gave her a measuring stare. “You might have said so from the first,” he said finally.
Detecting a hint of ruefulness in his tone, Diana couldn’t repress a smile. “Why? Would it have prevented you from assaulting me?”
“Very likely. In all honor, I never would have touched you.” Turning casually, Thorne bent to pick up the linen towel and draped it over his shoulder, so that it covered much of his bare body in the style of a toga. “My friends’ sisters and cousins are off-limits, even to rakes like me.”
“I am gratified to know you have some scruples,” Diana observed dryly.
“A very few.” His expression sobering, he regarded her with his penetrating gaze. “Why are you here on Cyrene?”
“Your solicitors in England informed me you could be found here. It wasn’t easy persuading them to divulge your location, but I made them see the necessity, since you are Amy’s legal guardian.”
“And you came all this way just to speak to me?”
“I would not have been forced to such lengths had you been in London as expected. Your sudden disappearance . . . complicated matters. But then I decided to use it to Amy’s benefit. Nathaniel seemed convinced you would help her if she was ever in trouble. And she is in trouble now.”
“What kind of trouble?”
“It’s commonly known that she is a substantial heiress. And recently a certain fortune-hunter has been courting her so earnestly, she believes herself in love. I brought her to Cyrene, primarily to escape his pursuit, in the hopes that the respite will give her a chance to get over her infatuation. I am also hoping that you can persuade her to wait until she has her Season before bestowing her affections again. Perhaps with the delay, Amy will settle on a more respectable suitor. I have had . . . difficulty, however, making her see reason.”
“And you think I can?”
“She is very fond of you, at least. She might listen to you. In any event, I needed to discuss the particulars of her comeout with you.”
Diana paused to let Thorne digest her disclosures. As Amy’s guardian, he had done his legal duty by the girl, although mainly he’d allowed his solicitors to deal with Amy’s fortune. Yet it was time now for him to take a serious interest in his ward’s future.
For the past year while Amy mourned her brother, convention required that she postpone all social functions, including her formal presentation. But she was nineteen now, past the age when young ladies usually made their bow to society.
“Her comeout?” Thorne repeated warily.
Diana nodded. “I think it would benefit her greatly if you could convince your Aunt Hennessy to sponsor Amy’s Season this spring.” Thorne’s aunt, Lady Hennessy, was a leader of English society and, as such, stood the greatest chance of giving Amy a successful debut.
Grimacing, Thorne ran a hand roughly through his tawny wet mane. “The thought of being responsible for a girl’s comeout makes me shudder. To be perfectly blunt, I never wanted the office of guardian in the first place. In fact, I’m not the best choice Nathaniel could have made.”
“I fully agree,” Diana said lightly, “but he trusted you to care for his sister. And your aunt could prove a major advantage to Amy’s presentation to society.”
“I suppose so,” Thorne agreed with reluctance.
“There is one other significant reason I wanted to see you,” Diana added. “To deliver a letter Nathaniel left for you.”
Reaching inside her muslin sleeve, she withdrew a tightly folded sheet of vellum and handed it to Thorne. “Apparently he wrote this shortly before his death, in the event something dire should befall him.”
Thorne stood staring down at the letter, at his name, which had been written in a bold scrawl, and Diana caught the anguish in his gaze. He still grieved for his friend, she had no doubt.
She had been devastated, as well, by Nathaniel’s death, for he’d been more a beloved brother than cousin to her.
“Where did you find this?” Thorne asked, his low voice almost hoarse.
“In Nathaniel’s personal effects, which he had bequeathed to Amy. I discovered it when I was packing her belongings for our journey to Cyrene. A note accompanied the letter, asking Amy to forward it to you, but with her flighty nature, she must have overlooked it.” Diana paused, debating how much more to say. “The letter was sealed, of course, and nearly a year old, but I opened it in case Nathaniel’s message contained anything of importance.”
Thorne’s piercing gaze locked on her again. “And did it?”
“I believe so,” Diana said with conviction. “No doubt you will prefer privacy to read it, so I shall return to your house to wait for you.”
She hesitated once more, wishing she could erase that grim look from Thorne’s eyes. “Perhaps we can discuss this and Amy’s situation once you put on some proper clothing.”
Her deliberately provoking remark managed to dredge a faint smile from him, but by the time she turned away, Thorne was already unfolding the letter, and she knew she had already been dismissed from his thoughts.
If you are reading this, old friend, then I am most likely dead.
Thorne scanned the contents swiftly, then reread every dismaying word more slowly. He could hear the thudding of his heart over the murmur of the waves as the import of Nathaniel’s revelations sank in.
I have spent the past several days looking over my shoulder, unable to shake the sensation of being followed.
And perhaps I am. Some weeks ago I came to suspect a traitor of attempting to expose our identities to the French, so I set about investigating. I now fear that my lovely Venus may be involved in spying for the enemy, yet I don’t wish to accuse her until I have proof of my suspicions.
Furthermore—I regret to confess to my own shame—I revealed information to her which I never should have. An egregious error, I know. And it is no excuse or consolation whatsoever that I was duped by her seductive beauty.
But I prefer to correct my mistake before telling S. G. Thus I have been making inquiries into V’s past.
If she is indeed guilty, however, her accomplices will not be pleased by my actions and may seek to stop me. In the event of my untimely death, I want you to have a path to follow, old chap. Thus I shall leave this letter for my sister to deliver, for I know you will carry on if I should fail.
The letter was signed merely with a scrawling N.
Lifting his gaze, Thorne stared unseeingly out at the aquamarine sea, a turmoil of emotion churning inside him like acid: guilt, anger, self-castigation. He hadn’t known a thing about Nathaniel’s investigation. Not even the slightest hint.
He had no trouble deciphering the cryptic references in the message, of course. “Our identities” meant the sixty-odd Guardians who operated clandestinely in Britain and across Europe. And the initials S. G. referred to their remarkable leader, Sir Gawain Olwen. Nathaniel wouldn’t refer to the order by name when anyone, his sister or cousin included, could stumble across his missive. The Guardians of the Sword worked in secret for a reason—because their effectiveness would greatly diminish if they could no longer execute their missions in the shadows.
Yet if Nathaniel had let slip key intelligence to Madam Venus, he would be reluctant to confess his sin to Sir Gawain before trying to rectify it.
A harsh invective escaped Thorne’s lips. He understood why Nathaniel would want to keep such a damning miscalculation secret from him. But his own obtuseness was inexcusable—for not suspecting his friend’s murder might have been caused for more sinister reasons.
How could he have been so blind? At the time, Nathaniel’s death had been ruled a random robbery by the authorities . . . a wealthy mark forced into an alley and knifed for his purse. Thorne hadn’t understood how a Guardian of Nathaniel’s fighting skills had allowed himself to be taken unaware. But a weeklong exhaustive search of the surrounding district had turned up no witnesses or suspects or leads to his killer, or any alternative theories regarding motive.
Now, however, it seemed far more likely Nathaniel had been murdered to silence his investigation of a traitor.
Thorne bowed his head as guilt washed over him anew. He had been the one to recruit Nathaniel into the Guardians in the first place. And now his friend was likely dead as a result.
Involuntarily Thorne clenched his fist around the letter as he silently made a solemn vow.
He would unearth the traitor Nathaniel had been seeking, but more crucially, he would find his friend’s killer or die trying.