London: February, 1692
The colonel towered over Clark Tanner’s small, cluttered desk. The tiny office somehow made the man seem twice as big as he really was. Clark shrank further into his chair. His hand fluttered up to shield his eyes as one would do under the glare of a scorching sun.
“Where is he?” the colonel demanded.
“Sir?” Clark said, though he knew quite well what the man wanted.
“You know where he is.”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand,” Clark said. If only the man would believe his lie and go away. “If you seek my employer, I assure you, he has gone home for the eve—”
The colonel slammed his fist down on the desk, upsetting a stack of shipping receipts which tumbled across the worn floorboards.
“Do not think to play me for a fool!”
“I would never presume to insult you,” Clark said. “I merely—”
“Enough of your games. Where is your brother?”
Clark sucked in an unsteady breath. “You are mistaken, sir, to believe I can help you.”
“And you are gravely mistaken if you think I cannot make you talk. Jared Tanner murdered my brother. You will help me find him and bring him to justice or I will have you charged as an accessory and hanged right beside him.”
Clark believed him. What a fool he was to think he could ever protect Jared. He had never succeeded before.
Still, he had to try.
“Perhaps it was an accident.”
“A man does not wrap his fingers around another man’s throat and squeeze the life out of him by accident.”
There was no refuting that. Perhaps he really should just give in to the man, end Jared’s torment once and for all.
He almost gagged on the bitter bile that rose in his throat. What was he thinking? Jared was his brother. His brother! He couldn’t betray him.
Rapier quick, the colonel lunged forward and took hold of the lapels of Clark’s worn black coat. He jerked Clark from his chair and hauled him halfway across the desktop crushing receipts and upsetting a pot of ink which left a shiny, wet trail as it rolled off the desk to spread its dark contents across the floor.
Nose to nose with this brutal and all too real avenging angel, Clark knew that he would betray Jared and the knowledge lay heavy on his heart.
One word. One small word, spoken with the force of a pistol shot.
Clark felt the impact. His breath rushed out of him and with it the words. “The colonies. He went to the colonies.”
The colonel released him and he sank back into his chair with all the life of a flag in calm air. He watched the man tug his coat straight, pick a bit of lint from his sleeve, then turn on his highly polished heel and pull open the door.
“Have mercy on him, sir.” The plea bubbled up and out of Clark before he even knew he had thought it.
The man stopped dead, but he did not turn or look back as he said, “I will show the bastard the same mercy he showed my brother.”
Then he was gone, his words of doom lingering to chill the air in his wake.
“Jared.” Clark moaned, burying his face in his hands. Never in all their growing years had Jared asked Clark for protection. Not even when their father singled him out time and time again as the object of his violent abuse. Not once had Jared asked for help and Clark had never found the courage to offer it. Not once.
Until the night Jared had killed Lord Robert Carthstead. Then he had come, desperate and terrified of what they would do to him. For the first time Jared had begged for help and for the first time Clark had been capable of giving it. It had, in fact, seemed rather simple at the time. Many people went to the colonies to escape punishment. Some even accepted it as their punishment in place of imprisonment. For Jared to disappear should have been so easy.
But Clark was weak. Now Jared would hang for sure, betrayed by the one person in the world he thought he could trust.
Or maybe not.
Clark bolted up from his chair sending the last of the papers on his once cluttered desk scuttling to the floor. There was still a chance. Colonel Carthstead did not know just where in the colonies Jared was hiding. But Clark did, or at least the general area. Together they had gone over the map several times before Jared sailed.
He dropped to his knees and began a frantic search for a shipping schedule amidst the fallen papers. Working for a shipping company had its advantages. He could arrange passage on the next ship sailing for Virginia. He would reach Jared before Carthstead and together they would find a haven so safe that nothing, no one could ever touch Jared again.
A slick wetness on his fingers brought him up short. Ink. He pulled his handkerchief from his pocket and tried to clean the liquid off with impatient swipes, but the black stain remained and in fact seemed to spread. He stared at his fingers. They seemed to grow blacker by the moment, the ink crawling over his skin. The handkerchief fell unnoticed from his hand to land in the puddle on the floor.
It was an omen.
Unnerved, he scrabbled for his fallen handkerchief and scrubbed once more at his fouled hand, rubbing and rubbing, but the stain only grew and what skin remained unstained turned dark red—like blood.
Clark gave a small cry as he thrust the ruined handkerchief away from him and clutched his hand to his stomach. He cowered back against his desk, closed his eyes and forced himself to take deep, calming breaths.
It was just ink. Just ink.
After a long moment his breathing slowed almost to normal and though his hands still shook, he resumed his search for the shipping schedule.
He had to be strong now. Had to keep his head. If he did not reach Jared before Carthstead….