Jasper could remember when his face had been whole. He
could remember feeling the breeze on his skin instead of
the sticky silk of the mask plastered to his raw, irritated
flesh. He could remember when ladiesâ€™ heads had turned as
he walked by. Now the ladies, and even the females who
couldnâ€™t rightly be called ladies, turned away.
The sun was hot as Jasper made his way through the village
of Penbury on the southern coast of England. The breeze off
the English Channel would have cooled him if heâ€™d removed
his mask, but it was bad enough being out in daylight. Heâ€™d
send the people already staring at him running and
screaming if he revealed his burn scars. As it was, the
black silk covering his hair, forehead, and the upper half
of his face attracted enough unwanted attention. He tried
to ignore the whispers and furtive looks and followed the
directions heâ€™d secured from the local heâ€™d treated to ale
the night before in exchange for information.
Fewer and fewer people were about as he left the village
behind and neared the rocky shoreline. Only then did Jasper
realize he should have set out earlier. The trek would
involve more climbing than he expected, which was his own
fault. The Duke of Withernsea had warned him the woman was
elusive. Sheâ€™d managed to evade the other investigators
Withernsea had hired.
But she wouldnâ€™t escape Jasper. He hadnâ€™t come on behalf of
Withernsea. Even if the duke hadnâ€™t been a miser too cheap
to pay Jasperâ€™s rates, Jasper wouldnâ€™t have worked for the
man. Jasper had no desire to drag women into matrimony with
men they didnâ€™t fancy, especially not to a man with
Withernseaâ€™s vices. Jasper would never understand why the
girlsâ€™ parents had promised her to such a monster, but now
that the mother, Viscountess Carlisle, was ill, and her
dying wish was to see her daughter again, he didnâ€™t think
it appropriate to ask. The pleas of the viscount and his
wife had moved Jasper. And surely Miss Carlisle would want
to know that her mother was on her deathbed.
If not, well, Jasper didnâ€™t exactly need the money. He
could have used it, but as a retired member of The
Survivors and the son of the Marquess of Strathern, Jasper
had other means available to him.
Sweat streaked down his face, burning the sensitive tissue
around his scar, and making Jasper wish, for the thousandth
time, he could remove the mask. Heâ€™d gone far enough that
the beach was mostly empty. Squinting into the distance, he
spotted the large rock the informant had described. Jasper
just had to climb up the narrow path marked by the boulder,
and the cottage would be at the top. It was a clever
arrangement. The cottage could not be seen from below, and
there was enough soil on the outcropping that a dozen or
more trees had grown there, giving the cottage additional
shade and cover.
If the cottage was indeed up there. Only one way to find
Jasper started up, but halfway he paused to shake out his
boots. The rocks stabbed the bottom of his feet, and he
needed a drink. He sat on a small patch of leaves and dirt,
pulled out his flask and drank deeply. The water was warm
now, but it eased his thirst, wetting what felt like a
desert in the back of his throat.
He took hold of one boot and struggled to yank it off. The
effort almost caused him to fall back, but the boot came
loose unexpectedly and shot out and into the path. â€śDamn
it,â€ť Jasper cursed under his breath. He moved to rise and
retrieve the boot, then froze.
The stab in his ribs was all too familiar. He knew the feel
of a knife pressed to his side, and he knew whoever held it
was serious. The trickle of blood running down his skin was
serious as hell.
â€śWhat do you want?â€ť Jasper muttered, barely moving his
lips. His instinct was to leap away, but heâ€™d fallen on his
arse when the boot came free and jumping up was out of the
â€śYour blunt,â€ť came the hoarse reply. â€śAnd anything else of
The accent was indistinguishable from any other, not lower
class but not of the higher ranks either. Jasper couldnâ€™t
even determine whether it was from the north or south of
England. He rather doubted this was purely by chance. His
assailant did not want to be identified. A professional
then? Surely not simply someone who happened upon him.
Someone whoâ€™d known heâ€™d come this way and who lay in wait.
â€śI have a wallet in my coat pocket,â€ť Jasper answered.
â€śGet it out.â€ť The manâ€™s voice hitched slightly, indicating
â€śI have to reach for it.â€ť
â€śNo sudden moves,â€ť the knife-holder cautioned.
Jasper blew out his breath. Sudden moves or not, the man
with the knife at his flank would use it. Jasper didnâ€™t
care much about the money heâ€™d lose. But he sure as hell
didnâ€™t intend to bleed to death on the side of a sea cliff
with one boot on and one boot off. â€śIâ€™m reaching for my
pocket,â€ť he said, moving his right arm slowly. The wallet
was in his left inside pocket and the knife rested against
his left side. Jasperâ€™s hand slid inside his greatcoat then
inside his tailcoat. But instead of reaching for the
wallet, he lunged for the knife, gripping it with the
fabric as his shield.
It was a risky move, but it took the assailant by surprise.
He sprang back. Unfortunately, the knife went with him, and
Jasper couldnâ€™t keep hold of it through the fabric. Jasper
lunged to his feet, but his awkward position hampered him,
and the attacker came at him with the knife. Jasper raised
a hand to deflect the blow, but he was off-balance and
aimed too high. Instead of the weapon grazing his arm, he
gave his foe an opening. The sharp prick of the knife took
Jasperâ€™s breath away as it slid through the fabric of his
coat and into his skin.
The dull pain ratcheted up to a shrill scream of agony as
the assailant yanked the knife back out. Ignoring the pain,
Jasper threw a punch at the man with the knife, hitting him
on the side of the jaw. The man went down, but so did
Jasper. He fell hard, and when he tried to rise again, he
saw black spots dancing in front of his eyes. His entire
left side felt as though he had fallen into a pond. Blood
was gushing from the wound. He struggled, but the attacker
rose first. Jasper knew this because the man used his
booted feet to land a hard kick to Jasperâ€™s uninjured side.
Jasper huffed out a curse and reached for the man, who
landed another kick, this one to Jasperâ€™s jaw.
That was when the spots grew too big for Jasper to blink
away. That was when the light faded, and the last thing he
knew was the feel of the manâ€™s rough hands rummaging
through his coat pockets.