A shadow could not hold water and she could never truly love him. That made her the worst choice for a mistress, as if Jonathon Barry needed one at all. He saw a tiny shudder shake her frame and he leaned forward. “Do I frighten you?”
She neither moved nor flinched, nestled behind an eerie façade of composure. The words hung in the air between them and fractured the tentative calm.
Slowly, she lifted her brilliant onyx eyes to meet his, wayward curls masking one side of her face, dirt the other, her expression watchful. “You do, a little,” she said, an odd lilt in her voice.
“I trust that will fade with time and experience,” he offered. She gave a slight nod and turned to study the alleys of Constantinople as the carriage rattled on through the early morning light. He must be a fool. His life was too complicated as it was, even though the war was almost over. He felt her eyes on him, met her gaze and logic dimmed. Lust made his throat dry. He wanted her and now she was his, a slave, won in a gambling den. It didn’t matter. Vivid erotic thoughts clouded his mind. “You’ll become accustomed to me.”
The corners of her mouth lifted in a wickedly uncertain smile. “I learn quickly.”
Jaline clasped her hands in her lap. “This morning I watered horses.” She drew a long breath. “Now I’m to share your bed. I understand.” She paused and cocked her head. “Are we going to your ship, Mister Barry?”
“The name is Jonathon.” With a small frown, she looked away. Jonathon glanced down at her delicate fingers. He wanted to take them in his, feel their warmth, their touch. More importantly, he had questions starting with what happened after she left him. Her friend, Faresh had appeared only a few hours later to plead for his help. He studied her as they passed an inn, its lights flickering over her features. “The Lornea is moored in the Golden Horn.”
“What happened to the Amadine?”
“Thanks to the information you provided, she sailed for Odessa.”
Her eyes brightened. “Then it was helpful.”
“I expect it will be profitable too. Collectors want artifacts of any kind, even if there are half the number of Greek relics.”
She gave a nod and brought her fingertips together, studying them. “So you are taking the Lornea back to London?”
He raised a brow. “I don’t recall telling you that.”
Her full lips pursed into a straight line. “I am good at gathering pieces of information, as you well know.”
He inclined his head. This was no hapless kitten, but a careful, clever, exotic creature. He needed to watch what he said. “Once I talk to this Asam you mentioned.” Her smile vanished and the mask returned. He narrowed his eyes and searched for the reason. “You will come with me.” She nodded, lifted her hands and began to braid her hair, then dropped it from sight. She might have been fiddling, but it was one of the most erotic gestures he had witnessed, possibly because she was completely unaware of the effect. “Why don’t you explain why you are limping?” He inclined his head to catch her gaze. “That was not the situation when I left you.”
Jaline clasped her hands and set them in her lap. “Yesterday was a long time ago.”
“You’re different.” Before, her eyes had been lit with a hidden fire. Whereas tonight, she was far away, as if he was watching her somewhere in the distance.
“Faresh said you were in trouble.” He could almost see her pale.
When he spoke the name, she met his gaze and held it. “He shouldn’t have made you feel responsible.” Jaline swallowed. “Faresh has been like an uncle to me since I was sold to Toran.”
Faresh had been twice her age and several inches taller, his eyes black but the resemblance ended there. His skin had been olive whereas Jaline was fair, the shape of his face narrow while Jaline’s was a classic heart, her features near perfect. “He’s not an actual relation?”
She exhaled and smiled wistfully. “We looked after each other in the slave quarters. I cooked his evening porridge, he taught me to – survive.” She lifted her chin. “That’s near to family.”
He returned her look and narrowed his, distinctly aware of what she had said, and what she had left out. “Tell me what happened.”
She blinked and lowered her eyes. “When I got back to the stables, Toran was waiting. Someone told him we had been talking. He found the coins you paid me and wanted to know where they came from. When I didn’t tell him, he assumed you were my lover. That you had paid me for…” she gave a quick jerky shake of her head. “He ordered ten lashes, one for each coin.”
Rage bubbled deep. He had known the man was cruel, sensed it as they sat across the table from each other. There had been a lifeless boredom in Toran’s speech that held his sneer firmly in place. Greasy with perfumed oils, he had waved his jeweled finger at the money Jonathon had offered, as if it were a dish that offended his nose. “Toran didn’t want to do business, you did.”
“I’m not his servant. I’m his slave. Toran can do whatever he wants.”
“You sold me information about ancient valuables. That doesn’t warrant a beating,” he said tightly.
She gave a feminine snort and shook her head. If anything, she appeared more vulnerable than moments before, her breath uneven. Time passed before she lifted her gaze to his. “A slave owner’s rights are absolute. That is the way it is.”
She didn’t have to cry for him to hear the unshed tears in her voice, or feel the brush of accusation. He was the master now. It didn’t matter if that hadn’t been his original intent. Anger burned in his soul. “Where did he hit you?” he asked.
She shifted and looked around as if searching for a way not to answer. Finally, her gaze returned to his. “The bottom of my feet. That way there are no scars.”
“None that anyone can see,” Jonathon said and cursed inwardly. Her voice had remained even, but she couldn’t hide the strain. Fury at the stable master tore through him. Steeling himself, he centered his attention on her and controlled his emotions. He kept his words to the point. “Faresh said your life was in danger.”
Jaline squeezed her eyes momentarily shut and gave an unconvincing shrug. Then she tipped her head, as if seeing him for the first time. “Is it? You own me now.”
“Don’t play with me, Jaline. I doubt you view me as a threat.”
“You’re wrong,” she blurted and looked away. “You told Toran you wanted me as your mistress.”
“After hearing what happened to you, I hoped to convince him.”
“What happened to your last one?”
She turned her full attention to him and his heart raced. She was magnificent. There was a grace to her movements, an elegance to her bearing, that set her apart even before she lifted her exotic black eyes or spoke. Her intoxicating voice was soft as velvet with a sweet, lilting quality. Even now, under strain, it caressed his senses and left him wanting more. “I have no ‘last’ mistress.”
Her gaze flickered away, and returned with a lift of her chin. “What made you decide to change your ways?”
“You,” he said, offering the truth. Thoughts of how her lips might taste, her breasts might curve, her body might heat tormented his imagination. It was his turn to change the course of the conversation, before it ended completely. “Not many women in this part of the world speak proper English.”
“English women do.”
“You’re not English.” He said it with a forced smile, his blood still hot.
She pursed her lips and locked her eyes with his for a long silence, then exhaled deeply. “My father was English. My mother was Greek,” she said, her voice quiet. “Both died when I was young.”
“And the rest?”
Jaline looked away and around. “An English family took me in for a while as a companion to their daughter. When they left for England, they sold me to Toran. Running away requires money for bribes. I saw you, heard what you were looking for and found the information. It’s not much more complicated than that.”
He leaned forward and trapped her gaze. “Where were you going to go?”
One corner of her mouth lifted as sadness filled her eyes. “I thought I would raise goats, in the mountains.”
He didn’t believe her, not even a little. “Toran would have found and killed you.”
“Now I am to be your mistress.” She closed her hands into fists. “I want to know what is expected of me. Please?”
Her voice tinged with desperation. But how much could he reassure her when he had no idea of what to say? He needed a mistress no more than he needed a chandelier above his desk on the Lornea, but he wanted Jaline. She was affecting him and he wasn’t sure he liked it. “I expect you to heal and get well. I expect that if you know anything else about relics, you will tell me.”
“That wasn’t what I meant.”
“I’m aware of that, Jaline.”
“You wish me to become your mistress in more than just name, correct?”
He found himself staring at her mouth. She had drawn her lower lip between her teeth. His thoughts and gaze drifted down to the ragged edge of her skirt where she had drawn her feet up and tucked them from view. Most of her figure was hidden, but it didn’t matter. Male instinct told him of the beauty that was beneath every facet of her dress. Controlling his desire, he met her gaze. “Yes,” he whispered, his voice hoarse.
She gave an almost imperceptible nod. “You needn’t apologize.”
“Take time to decide.” For the first time all evening, he saw anger, her eyes narrowing slightly.
“I don’t need time.”
He waited for her to continue, but her spirit faded and she looked away. Jonathon captured her hand and ran his thumb over the back. There might be some calluses, but the skin was soft and feminine. “No?”
Jaline gave a deliberate shake of her head. “As your mistress, I have a station, a position. That is more important.”
His passions collided with his conscience. It wasn’t desire that had brought her to him. Desperation, duty, and necessity were driving her, none of which would give him pause in London. Here in Constantinople she was under his care, his control. This was not the same. “You can refuse.”
“And what would I do then?” she answered far too quickly.
He took a long moment before answering, aware he needed to speak with caution lest his frustration get the better of him. “It’s late. We will discuss that after some rest and a meal.”
“No.” She sucked in a deep breath, then lifted her chin and stared at him hard. “Unless you do not find me desirable.”
The question was a clever method of baiting him. It also broke his control. He slipped from his bench to hers. Bracing one hand on the wall, he effectively caged her, his words clipped and sharp. “I can show you here and now. We could use the bench.”
Jaline’s tilted her head, her expression hardening but her voice shook. “You might overturn the carriage or frighten the horses.”
He eased back and studied her. “That might kill us both.”
She released a shaky breath. “Precisely. We should wait until we reach your cabin.”
Jonathon watched as she bit her lip. Such a mouth. Full, ripe and in need of kissing. He longed to begin a long slow seduction that would slip her free of the knots she had tied herself into. His cabin, however, might be a problem. “I’m not so cruel or desperate as to force an unwilling woman.”
“You are not forcing me,” she rushed and sucked in a breath. “You could even say you’re helping me.”
At that he could only stare. The carriage turned and they both had to lean to keep their balance but she never looked away. “You’ve never been with a man before,” he declared and watched her reaction closely. She didn’t have to speak. From the parting of her lips, the flash of fear in her eyes, then resolve he had enough experience to know he had guessed correctly.
Jaline drew herself up. “You find me interesting, I have no objections. There need be no more reasons than that.” She pulled her arms close and crossed them over her breast. “Or you can sell me again.” She gave a shrug.
His soul rocked along with the carriage as it drew to a halt and settled in the street. The sea was stronger here and he could hear the sound of seabirds squawking overhead, but Jaline filled the moment. “No.”
The driver called out and Jaline gave a start. “Good,” she said and absently brushed a wayward curl from her face.
The cab shook as the driver climbed down. Jonathon cupped her cheek and traced its lines. “It is only a matter of time before I discover what you aren’t telling me.”
“If you know the story of Pandora’s box, you know some things are best left alone,” Jaline said under her breath.
“I thought you said you had nothing to hide.”
“Every woman has something to hide,” she said after a long pause.