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Chapter 3

Hugh would not have been surprised to learn that this was the first time in her entire life Alice had been rendered speechless.

He contemplated her wide green eyes, her parted lips, and the stunned amazement on her face with some amusement and not a little satisfaction. He doubted that there were many men gifted with the ability to bring the lady to such an abrupt halt.

He prowled the room as he waited for Alice to find her tongue. What he saw did not astonish him. Unlike most of the rest of Lingwood Hall, this chamber was dusted and well swept. The air was scented by fresh herbs. He had anticipated as much.

Last night, while dining on such delicacies as sturgeon dressed in spicy cold green sauce and finely seasoned leek pie, he had been greatly impressed by Alice's talent for household management. This morning he had quickly learned that whatever magic she had worked for the banquet had not been applied to the rest of Sir Ralf's household, except for the chambers in this wing. Alice had obviously claimed these rooms for herself and her brother.

Here, all was spotless. Signs of efficiency and order were everywhere, from the carefully placed tapestries that hung on the walls to limit drafts to the gleaming floors.

The new light of day had revealed a different scene in the rest of Sir Ralf's hall. Odoriferous garderobes, unswept floors, tattered carpets, and an odor of dampness in many of the chambers made it plain that Alice had not bothered to exert her wizardry outside her own small world.

Here in Alice's study chamber Hugh discovered not only the cleanliness he had expected, but also a variety of interesting items. The chamber was filled with a number of strange and curious things.

Some well-worn handbooks and two fine, leather-bound volumes occupied the place of pride on a nearby shelf.

A collection of dead insects was displayed in a wooden box. Bits and pieces of what appeared to be fish bones and an assortment of shells were arranged on a table. In one corner a metal bowl was secured above an unlit candle. There was a chalky residue in the vessel, evidence of some past experiment.

Hugh was intrigued. The collection bespoke a lively mind and an inquiring nature.

"My lord," Alice finally managed to say, "what in the name of the Cross are you talking about?"

She was not responding well to the notion of marriage, Hugh acknowledged. He determined to pursue a less obvious route to his goal. He was skilled at stratagems. He saw no reason why he could not apply that talent to securing himself a wife.

"You heard me. I have need of a lady whom I can claim as my own."

"But"

"Temporarily."

"Well, you cannot claim me, sir. Find yourself another lady. I'm certain that there are any number of them scattered about the countryside."

Ah, but none such as yourself, Hugh thought. I doubt if there is another female such as you in all of Christendom. "But you are so very convenient, Lady Alice."

She bristled very nicely with outrage. "I am no man's convenience, sir. Pray, inquire of my uncle just how convenient I am. I believe that he will disabuse you of that notion. He finds me a great trial."

"No doubt because you have deliberately set out to make yourself one. I am hoping, however, that you and I can do business together as colleagues rather than as adversaries."

"Colleagues," she repeated cautiously.

"Associates," he clarified helpfully.

"Associates."

"Aye, business associates, just as you, yourself, suggested last night when you declared that you wished to strike a bargain with me."

"This was not quite what I had in mind. Mayhap you had best explain precisely what you mean, my lord."

"Mayhap I should do just that." Hugh paused beside a complicated instrument composed of a set of circular brass plates and a siting rule. "Where did you obtain this very beautiful astrolabe? I have not seen the like since I was in Italy."

She scowled. "My father sent it to me. He found it at a London shop a few years ago. You are familiar with such instruments?"

Hugh bent closer to the astrolabe. "It is true that I have made my living with my sword, lady, but it would be a mistake to assume that I am a complete fool." Experimentally he moved the siting rule that angled across the metal plates, shifting the position of the stars in relation to the Earth. "Those who have made that error in the past have generally paid a price."

Alice jumped to her feet and hurried around the edge of the desk. " 'Tis not that I thought you a fool, sir. Quite the opposite." She halted beside the astrolabe, frowning at it. "The thing is, I have been unable to determine the proper workings of this device and I know of no one who has any knowledge of astronomy. Could you teach me how to use it?"

Hugh straightened and looked at her intent face. "Aye. If we seal our bargain today, I shall undertake to teach you the proper use of the astrolabe."

Her eyes lit with a degree of enthusiasm that could have been mistaken for passion in another woman. She blushed. "That is most gracious of you, my lord. I discovered a book in the small library of the local convent that describes the device but there were no instructions for its use. I vow, it has been most frustrating."

"You may consider the instruction a betrothal gift."

The glow faded quickly from her huge eyes. It was promptly replaced by renewed wariness. "About this betrothal, my lord. As I said, I would have you explain yourself."

"Very well." Hugh wandered over to a table holding a large array of stones and crystals. He picked up a chunk of reddish stone and examined it. "I regret to say that I find myself the victim of a most annoying curse, lady."

"That is no doubt your own fault, my lord," she said crisply.

He glanced up from the stone, surprised by the asperity of her tone. "My fault?"

"Aye. My mother always said that diseases of that sort came from frequenting brothels, sir. You will no doubt be obliged to take a dose of theriac and have yourself bled. Mayhap you should undergo a good purge while you're at it. In my opinion, 'tis nothing more than you deserve if you have been hanging about such places."

Hugh cleared his throat. "You are an expert in these matters?"

"My mother was very skilled with herbs. She taught me a great many things concerning their uses in adjusting the balance of the bodily humors." Alice glowered at him. "However, she always said that it was infinitely wiser to avoid certain ailments in the first place rather than to attempt a cure after the damage has been done."

"I do not disagree with that principle." Hugh looked at her. "What happened to your mother?"

A shadow flickered across Alice's face. "She died three years ago."

"My condolences."

Alice heaved a small sigh. "She had just received a shipment of strange and unusual herbs. She was very eager to conduct experiments with them."

"Experiments?"

"Aye, she was forever concocting potions. In any event, she mixed some of the new herbs in a recipe she had recently discovered. It was supposed to be good for treating those who suffered from serious pains of the stomach and bowel. She accidentally drank too much of the concoction. It killed her."

A cold feeling seized Hugh's gut. "Your mother took poison?"

"It was an accident," Alice said hastily, obviously alarmed at his conclusion. "I told you, she was performing an experiment at the time."

"She experimented upon herself?" he asked, incredulous.

"She frequently tried new medicines on herself before she gave them to the sick."

"My own mother died in much the same manner," Hugh heard himself say before he stopped to consider the wisdom of imparting such a confidence. "She drank poison."

Alice's lovely eyes filled with quiet sympathy. "I am very sorry, my lord. Was your mother a student of strange herbs and such?"

"Nay." Hugh tossed aside the reddish stone, angry at his lack of discretion. He never discussed his mother's suicide or the fact that she had deliberately administered the lethal poison to his father before drinking it herself. " 'Tis a long story that I do not care to repeat."

"Aye, my lord. Such matters can be very painful."

Her sympathy irritated him. He was unaccustomed to such sentiment and he had no wish to encourage it. Sympathy implied weakness. "You misunderstood me, lady. When I said that I was the victim of a curse, I was not referring to an illness of the body."

She gave him a quizzical look. "Surely you do not mean a magical curse?"

"Aye."

"But that is utter nonsense," Alice scoffed. "By the Saints, I have no patience with those who believe in magic and curses."

"Nor do I."

Alice seemed not to have heard him. She was already setting sail on a new course. "Mark me, I am well aware that it is quite the thing for learned men to travel to Toledo these days in search of ancient secrets of magic, but I'm certain that they waste their time. There is no such thing as magic."

"I happen to agree with you about the foolishness of magic," Hugh said. "But I am a practical man."

"So?"

"So, in this instance I have concluded that the quickest way to achieve my own ends is to comply with the requirements of an old legend, which is, in part, a curse."

"A legend?"

"Aye." Hugh picked up a bit of clouded pink crystal and held it up to the light. "The good people of Scarcliffe have endured a variety of masters during recent years. None of them have endeared themselves to the local folk. And none of them have lasted long."

"You intend to be the exception, I take it?"

"Aye, lady." Hugh set the pink crystal down, leaned back against the table, and rested one hand on the hilt of his sword. "Scarcliffe is mine and I will hold fast to it while there is breath in my body."

She searched his face. "I do not doubt your intention, my lord. What, exactly, are the stipulations of this legend?"

" 'Tis said that the true lord of Scarcliffe must accomplish two things. First, he must guard the last remaining stone of an ancient treasure. Second, he must discover the location of the rest of the Stones of Scarcliffe."

Alice blinked. "The green crystal is truly valuable then?"

Hugh shrugged. "It is in the eyes of my people. They believe that it is part of what was once a large collection of priceless gems. All but the green stone disappeared a long time ago. The local convent has had the care of the crystal in recent years. But it disappeared a fortnight ago."

"Stolen, you say?"

"Aye. And at a most inauspicious moment."

She eyed him with sharp perception. "Shortly after you arrived to take control of Scarcliffe?"

"Aye." The lady was quick-witted, Hugh thought. "I want it back. 'Twill go far toward quelling the fears and uncertainties of my people."

"I see."

"If I return with the stone and a suitable bride, my people will understand that I mean to be their true lord."

Alice looked distinctly uneasy. "You wish to wed me?"

"I wish to become betrothed to you." One step at a time, he reminded himself. He did not want to frighten her off at this stage. Now that he had hit upon this scheme, he was convinced it would work. But he needed Alice's cooperation. There was no time to search for another bride. "For a very short period of time."

"But a vow of betrothal is very nearly as binding as a wedding vow," Alice protested. "Indeed, some church scholars claim that it is equally binding and that there is no real difference between the two."

"You know as well as I do that such scholars are in the minority. In truth, betrothals are broken readily enough, especially if both parties are agreed on the matter. I see no problem."

"Hmm."

Alice was silent for a long moment, her brows knitted together in an expression of grave consideration. Hugh could see that she was turning his proposal over and over in her mind, checking for pitfalls and traps. He watched her, fascinated.

With a strange jolt of awareness, he realized that she reminded him of himself when he was plotting stratagems. He knew exactly what she was thinking. It was an odd experience to study her like this. It was as though he had a fleeting glimpse into her mind. A sensation of eerie familiarity gripped him for a moment. He had the strange feeling that he knew Alice far better than their short acquaintance warranted.

The knowledge that her wits were as sharp as his own and might very well work in much the same manner left Hugh feeling disoriented. He was not accustomed to the notion that he might have something so fundamental in common with another person, let alone with a woman.

It struck him that he had always considered himself as being set apart from others, removed from their lives, detached and distanced from them even as he intermingled with them. He had spent his life feeling as though he lived on an island while everyone else in the world existed on the opposite shore.

But for a brief moment in time it seemed as though Alice shared the island with him.

Alice watched him with a shrewd gaze. "I had intended to enter a convent as soon as my brother was safely launched in the world."

Hugh shook off the odd sensation and forced himself back to the matter at hand. " 'Tis not uncommon for a lady whose betrothal has been broken to enter a convent."

"Aye." Alice offered nothing further. She was clearly engrossed in consideration of the matter.

Hugh abruptly wondered if she would wear such a radiantly fierce expression when she lay beneath a man in bed.

That thought made him reflect upon the matter of whether or not she had ever lain with a man. Alice was three and twenty, after all, and Dunstan was correct. She was not what one would term a shy, unopened rosebud.

On the other hand, she was no flirt, Hugh thought. Judging by the collection of stones, dried beetles, and assorted equipment cluttering her study chamber, it appeared that her passions were more easily inflamed by matters of natural philosophy than thoughts of passion and lust.

Alice folded her arms beneath her breasts and drummed her fingers against her arms. "Precisely how long would this betrothal need to last to suit your purposes, my lord?"

"As to that, I cannot be precise, but I should think a few months would do it."

"A few months."

" 'Tis not such a great length of time," he said smoothly. "By spring I shall have everything under control at Scarcliffe." By spring I shall have you safely wedded and bedded. "You have nowhere else to go, do you?"

"Nay, but"

"You may as well spend the winter at Scarcliffe. Your brother will be welcome there, too, naturally."

"What if you wish to become betrothed to a woman you genuinely desire to wed while I am living under your roof, sir?"

"I shall face that problem if and when it arises."

"I am not certain. This is all so different than what I had planned."

Sensing that he was winning, Hugh pressed his point. "Spring will be here before you know it. If you are not content at Scarcliffe we can consider other solutions to your situation."

Alice swung around. She clasped her hands behind her back and began to pace the chamber. "You would need my uncle's permission to become betrothed to me."

"I doubt that I will have any difficulty in obtaining it."

"Aye." Alice made a face. "He is eager enough to be rid of me."

"I shall ensure his eagerness with a suitable offer of spices."

Alice gave him another keen glance as she turned to start back across the chamber. "You have a store of spices?"

"Aye."

"Are we speaking of valuable spices, my lord, or merely poor quality salt?"

He hid a smile. "Only the best."

"Cinnamon? Saffron? Pepper? Fine white salt?"

"Those and more." Hugh hesitated, debating how much to tell her about his personal finances.

Most successful knights who had not inherited their father's patrimony made their fortunes through ransoms and booty. They gained wealth either by competing in tournaments or by selling their swords to generous lords who rewarded them for their services. Few lowered themselves so far as to engage in trade.

Hugh had taken his share of ransoms, valuable armor, and fine war-horses in various tournaments and he had, indeed, been fortunate in his choice of lords. But the true source of his rapidly growing personal wealth was the spice trade.

Until this moment Hugh had not cared for the opinion of the world in such matters. But he suddenly realized that he did not want Alice to scorn him for the fact that he engaged in trade.

On the other hand, she was a practical-minded woman. Mayhap she would not care. The knowledge that he had a solid, secure source of income might even serve to reassure her of his intentions.

Hugh swiftly calculated the possibilities and decided to risk the truth.

"I do not generally make it widely known," he said quietly, "but I do not rely solely upon my sword for an income."

She looked at him with surprise. "You deal in spices, sir?"

"Aye. During recent years I have become involved in an extensive trade with several merchants from the East. If and when you choose to enter a convent, I shall be able to provide a dozen respectable dowries for you, lady."

"I see." She looked overwhelmed. "I shall need a plump dowry if I wish to enter a fine convent."

"Naturally. Convents are as choosy as husbands from landed families, are they not?"

"Especially if they are expected to overlook a somewhat sullied reputation," Alice muttered. "And if I go to live with you as your betrothed and we are not eventually wed, my reputation will be in tatters."

Hugh nodded. "It will be assumed that we have lived together as man and wife. But, as you say, a suitable dowry will persuade any fine convent to ignore such petty details."

Alice continued to tap her fingers against her arms. "I'd advise you not to let Sir Ralf know that you are willing to pay a large dowry for me, sir, else he will likely try to cheat you."

A grin tugged at the corners of Hugh's mouth. He controlled it with an effort. "I have no desire to be fleeced, lady. Never fear, I have had a fair amount of experience in the art of bargaining. You have my oath that I shall make it a point not to pay overmuch for you."

She frowned, unconvinced. "Sir Ralf has no scruples in matters of business. He stole my brother's inheritance."

"Mayhap I shall even the score by stealing you from him for a pittance."

Alice fell silent again as she continued to pace. "You would do all this in exchange for my help in recovering the green stone and for our temporary betrothal?"

"Aye. 'Tis the shortest, most convenient route to my goal."

"And therefore, 'tis naturally the path you elect to take," she murmured half under her breath.

"I do not believe in wasting time."

"You are a bold man, sir."

"I sense that we are well matched," Hugh said softly.

Alice came to a halt. Her expressive face was bright with renewed enthusiasm. "Very well, my lord, I shall agree to your terms. I shall spend the winter with you at Scarcliffe as your betrothed. In the spring we shall reassess the situation."

Hugh was startled by the degree of exultation that swept through him. It was a simple business arrangement, he reminded himself. Nothing more than that. He tried to temper the surging satisfaction.

"Excellent," he said simply. "The bargain is struck."

"I foresee a large problem, however."

"What is that?"

Alice paused beside the astrolabe. "It occurs to me that although my uncle will be much pleased at the prospect of ridding himself of my presence in his household, he is unlikely to believe his good fortune."

"Do not concern yourself, Lady Alice." Hugh was impatient to get on with the matter now that he had completed the bargain. "I told you, I shall deal with your uncle."

"But he will be extremely suspicious of your sudden desire to wed me," she insisted.

Hugh frowned. "Why is that?"

"In case it has escaped your notice," she said tartly, "I am somewhat beyond the customary age for a bride."

Hugh smiled slightly. "One of the reasons you are so eminently suited to my needs, Lady Alice, is precisely because you are no longer a young, frivolous innocent."

She wrinkled her nose. "Aye, there is that, isn't there? I can well believe that you would not wish to strike this bargain with a female who is still part child or one who has had no experience of the world."

"You are correct." Hugh wondered again just how much experience of the world Alice had had. "I need a business associate, not a demanding bride who will pout and sulk when I do not have time to entertain her. I require a woman of mature years and practical ways."

A wistful expression passed across Alice's face. "A woman of mature years and practical ways. Aye, that is a very good description of me, my lord."

"Then there is no reason why our arrangement should not go forward."

Alice hesitated. "We come back to the problem of convincing my uncle that you truly wish to contract a marriage with me."

"I told you, you may leave that problem safely in my hands."

"I fear 'twill not be so simple as you seem to believe," she said. "Shortly after Sir Ralf removed my brother and me from our home and brought us here to Lingwood Manor, he made several attempts to marry me off."

"The attempts failed, I see."

"Aye. My uncle got so desperate that he actually offered a small dowry, but even with that none of his neighbors could be convinced to take me off his hands."

"There was not so much as a single offer?" Hugh was surprised. After all, a dowry was a dowry and there were always a few poor men desperately in need of one.

"One or two knights with small fiefs nearby went so far as to pay us a visit to meet me in person. But upon becoming acquainted with me, they quickly lost interest."

"Or were persuaded to lose interest?" Hugh asked dryly.

She turned a shade of pink. "Aye, well, I could not tolerate any of them for more than a few minutes. The thought of actually marrying one was enough to induce hysteria."

"Hysteria? You do not appear the type of female who is prone to hysteria."

Her eyes gleamed. "I assure you, I fell into the most severe fits in front of two of my suitors. There were no others after that."

"You found the prospect of remaining in your uncle's household preferable to marriage?"

Alice shrugged. "Until now it has been the lesser of two evils. So long as I am unwed, I have at least a chance of obtaining my own ends. Once married, I am lost."

"Would marriage be so terrible?"

"Marriage to any of the louts my uncle chose would have been intolerable," Alice said forcefully. "Not only because I would have been unhappy but because none of them would have had any patience with my brother. Men who are trained for war tend to be cruel and unkind to youths who cannot be trained in arms."

"I take your point," Hugh said gently. He realized that her concern for her brother underlaid most of her decisions.

Alice's mouth tightened. "My father had no use for Benedict after my brother fell from his pony and injured his leg. He said Benedict could never be trained as a knight and was therefore quite useless. For the most part he ignored his son after that."

"It is understandable that you do not want to expose Benedict to similar unkindnesses from another lord."

"Aye. My brother suffered enough from being ignored by our father. I did what I could to make up for the poor treatment he received but it was not enough. How does one take the place of a father in a boy's life?"

Hugh thought of Erasmus. "It is not easy, but it can be done."

Alice gave herself a small shake, as though she were mentally casting aside unhappy memories. "Ah, well, 'tis not your problem. I shall see to Benedict."

"Very well. I shall speak to Sir Ralf at once." Hugh turned to leave the study chamber.

He was vastly pleased with the results of the bargaining. True, he had only succeeded in coaxing Alice into a vow of betrothal, but a betrothal was near enough to a wedding. Once he had her under the roof of Scarcliffe Keep he would worry about the details of the arrangements.

Alice raised an imperious hand to hold his attention. "One moment, Sir Hugh."

He paused and turned back politely. "Aye?"

"I warned you that you must not arouse Sir Ralf's suspicions and thereby induce him to demand a king's ransom for my hand. We shall need to concoct a reasonable explanation to explain why you wish to wed me. After all, you have only just met me and I have no dowry to offer."

"I'll think of something."

She gave him a quizzical look. "But what?"

Hugh stared at her for a moment. It occurred to him that in the morning light, her hair was a lovely hue. There was a straightforward, clear-eyed perception in her gaze that drew him. And the curve of her breasts beneath her blue gown was very enticing.

He took a step back toward her. His mouth was suddenly dry and he could feel a distinct tightening in his loins. " 'Tis obvious that, under the circumstances, there is only one reasonable explanation why I would ask for your hand."

"And what is that, sir?"

"Passion."

She stared at him as though he had just spoken in some strange, unknown tongue. "Passion?"

"Aye." He took two more steps toward her, closing the gap between them.

Alice's mouth opened and closed. "Nonsense. You will never convince my uncle that a legendary knight such as yourself would be so so utterly witless as to get himself betrothed for such a trivial reason, my lord."

He came to a halt and closed his hands around her delicate shoulders. He was astonished at how very pleasant it was to touch her. She was fine-boned but sturdy. There was a resilient feminine strength about her that excited him. She was fiercely alive under his hands. He was close enough to smell the scent of herbs in her hair.

"You are wrong, madam." His tongue felt thick in his mouth. "Witless passion is obviously the only force strong enough to make a man overcome good sense and sound reason."

Before she could comprehend his intention, Hugh pulled her against his chest and covered her mouth with his own.

He acknowledged then, for the first time, that the desire to kiss her had been brewing within him since he had first seen her in the firelit hall.

She was a creature of shimmering magic. He had never before touched a woman such as this one.

This was madness. No woman could be allowed to affect him so intensely.

He knew that the easiest way to rid himself of the dangerous sensual curiosity that plagued him was to surrender to the impulse. But now, as he felt the small shiver that coursed through Alice, he wondered if he had unleashed a force that would be far more difficult to control than he had anticipated.

She stood very still beneath his hands, as though uncertain how to react.

Hugh took advantage of her confusion to indulge himself in the taste of her.

Her mouth was as warm and moist as figs drenched in honey and fresh ginger.

He could not get enough of the taste.

Kissing Alice was more intoxicating than walking into a storehouse full of rare spices. She was everything the dark imaginings of the night had promised. Sweet, soft, and fragrant. There was heat in her, the sort of fire that inflamed all of a man's senses.

Hugh deepened the kiss, searching for a response.

Alice made a tiny, muffled sound. It was neither a protest nor a cry of fear. It seemed to Hugh to be a choked exclamation of pure astonishment.

He eased her more tightly against his body until he could feel the thrust of her soft breasts beneath her gown. Her hips pressed against his thighs. His shaft stirred hungrily.

Alice moaned softly. Then, as though she had been freed of a spell that had bound her in place, she abruptly gripped the sleeves of his tunic. She rose on tiptoe and clung to him, straining against him. Hugh felt her pulse quicken.

And then, to his great satisfaction, Alice parted her lips beneath his. He seized the opportunity to plunder the lusciousness that had been opened to him. He was suddenly mad with a desire to possess all of her, as if she were a seasoning that had no name, exotic beyond description.

Hugh was well aware of the effects the unique spices of women had upon the male senses. He had long ago learned to control and moderate his taste for them. He knew that a man who was not the master of his own appetites was doomed to be mastered by them.

But it was suddenly very difficult to recall his own rules. Alice was a heady mix. The taste and scent of her beckoned him as he had not been beckoned in a very long time. Mayhap in his entire life.

He wanted more. Much more.

"Sir Hugh," Alice finally gasped. She freed her mouth and looked up at him with wide, stunned eyes.

For a moment Hugh could think of nothing else except retaking her mouth. He started to lower his head once more.

Alice put her fingertips on his lips. Her brows snapped together in a quelling expression. "A moment, if you please, sir."

Hugh forced himself to take a deep, steadying breath. The realization of how close he had come to sacrificing the iron self-mastery that had served him so well all of his life struck him with bruising force.

He shook off the disturbing suspicion that Alice might be able to exert a woman's power over him. It was simply not possible. He had not been vulnerable to feminine wiles since the earliest days of his youth. He certainly had no intention of allowing this particular woman to work her way past the armor of his control.

Every move he made was calculated, he reminded himself. Kissing Alice had merely been one more such maneuver. To judge by the rosy flush on her cheeks, the stratagem had worked. The lady was not immune to passion. That fact would no doubt prove useful.

"As I said," Hugh muttered, "I believe I can convince your uncle that I have been swept away by passion."

"Aye, well, I shall leave the matter in your hands, my lord." Alice's cheeks were very pink. She turned away, not meeting his eyes. "You appear to know what you are about."

"Rest assured that I do." Hugh took a deep breath and went toward the door. "See to your travel preparations and those of your brother. I wish to be on the road by noon."

"Aye, my lord." She glanced at him. Satisfaction and a womanly pleasure gleamed in her vivid eyes.

"There is just one more small detail that must be dealt with before we leave," Hugh said.

Alice gave him a politely inquiring look. "What is that, sir?"

"You have neglected to tell me in which direction we shall be traveling. It is time for you to fulfill your end of the bargain, Alice. Where has the green stone been taken?"

"Oh, the stone." She gave a shaky chuckle. "By the Saints, what with one thing and another, I very nearly forgot about my part of this arrangement."

"The green stone is what this is all about," Hugh said very coolly.

The glow promptly disappeared from Alice's eyes. "Of course, my lord. I shall lead you to the stone."


Chapter 2 | Mystique | Chapter 4