McAlistair's Fortune(3)

By: Alissa Johnson

Anyone looking at him now—standing on the grounds of Haldon Hall, his dark gaze unreadable, and his tall frame honed to the muscled leanness of a panther—would have a difficult time mistaking him for the former.

Pity, that.

Because despite what his reaction may, or may not, have been ten years ago, McAlistair had indeed fallen in love. And a man in love could always use the gifts of a poet.

Particularly when burdened with the sins of an assassin.

Reflecting on those sins now, he rolled his shoulders in a rare, albeit barely perceptible, show of nerves.

He shouldn’t be there.

With Evie Cole in danger, though, he couldn’t possibly be anywhere else. He scanned the lawn before him, mapping out his path before taking a step. “Act in haste, repent in leisure,” his dear, departed, and no doubt often repentant mother had been fond of saying. An interesting bit of advice from a woman who’d birthed six bastards.

He moved forward silently, keeping to the long shadows in the late evening light. It was a precaution taken out of habit more than necessity. He’d already checked the grounds and woods immediately surrounding the house for signs of an intruder. All was as it should be. And he knew, down to a branch, exactly how it should be. Those woods had, after all, been his humble home for years. Long years of hardship and solitude—of trying to atone for, or perhaps just forget, the heavy burden of his memories.

The forest would be his home still if he’d had his say in the matter, but William Fletcher, his one-time employer and current thorn in his side, had been steadily pushing him back into the world over the past few months.

McAlistair had capitulated to a point—walking away from the old forgotten hunting cabin he used during inclement weather and buying an equally old, but slightly less secluded cabin just outside the Haldon estate. He was making use of the money he’d earned from the War Department. Money he’d thought he would never touch. He had an armoire filled with the clothing of a gentleman. He owned the fine gray mare he’d just slipped into the Haldon stables. But those trappings were as far into the realm of society as he was willing to venture. He wanted to be left alone, to live as he pleased. And he would…as soon as this business with Evie was sorted out.

To avoid the irritating custom of being announced, and to skip the pesky formality of knocking, he let himself in through a rarely used side door of Haldon Hall. He had to pick the lock, of course, but that was a minor detail, and not unexpected given the nature of his visit. Whittaker Cole, Earl of Thurston, was no fool, and when it came to the safety of his family, took no chances.

Once inside, he shot a brief glance at the ceiling, where Whit’s muffled voice filtered down from the study above. The sound drifted softer and louder as McAlistair navigated the twisting halls and stairways of Haldon, taking a side trip here and there to avoid the staff. He moved with silent efficiency, a vital talent in his former career.

He arrived at the open doors of the study without being detected—a matter he intended to discuss with Whit later—and quietly slipped inside, taking up a position in the dark shadow of a bookcase.

An argument was in progress, with Whit and Lady Thurston of the mind to keep Evie at Haldon, while William Fletcher, Mrs. Summers, and Evie were of the opinion that a trip to the shore would be in her best interest. He said nothing, simply kept to his corner and watched.

He was accustomed to watching and waiting. And, in recent years, to wanting.

He was not, however, accustomed to being indoors, boxed in by walls and surrounded by noise and movement. The mix of voices, the shuffle of feet, and the random creaks and bangs of a busy household scraped at his nerves.

But that was nothing, nothing, compared to the torture of standing so near Evie Cole. She was little more than three feet away, her back turned to him, and he could make out each soft brown curl on her head, take in the clean lingering scent of her soap, and hear every breath as it left her lips. He remembered, quite clearly, what it was like to caress that hair with his fingertips and feel that breath against his mouth.

He recalled vividly—and with far more frequency than was comfortable—that she’d tasted of lemons and mint.