He refused to take the north road until they were an hour away from the city.
The ride should have taken them approximately three hours. Yet because of his cautious nature, they were only halfway to their destination before he took to the main road.
Jade recognized the area. "If they haven't moved it, Nathan's carriage is just a little ahead of us," she told Caine.
It was further away then she remembered. Jade decided the vehicle had been dragged off when they'd ridden another half hour or so and still not spotted it.
Then they turned yet another crooked bend in the road and saw it on the side of the narrow ravine.
Caine never said a word. His expression was grim, however, when they rode past the carriage.
"Well?" she asked.
"It was gutted, all right," he answered.
She heard the anger in his voice and began to worry that he was blaming her for the destruction. "Is that all you have to say?" she asked. She nudged her mount to his side so she could see his expression. "You didn't believe me, did you? That's why you're angry."
"I believe you now," he countered.
She waited a long minute before she realized he wasn't going to say any more.
"And?" she asked, thinking to gain his apology.
"And haven't you anything else to say?" she demanded.
"I could say that as soon as I find the bastards who did this I'm going to kill them," he replied in a mild, thoroughly chilling voice. "And after they are dead, I'll probably want to set their bodies on fire just for the hell of it. Yes, I could say that, but it would only upset you, wouldn't it, Jade?"
Her eyes had widened during his recitation. There wasn't any doubt in her mind that he meant to do what he said. A shiver passed through her.
"Yes, Caine, it would upset me to hear such plans. You can't go around killing people, no matter how angry you are with them."
He pulled his mount to an abrupt stop next to hers. Then he reached out and grabbed the back of her neck. She was so startled, she didn't try to move away.
"I protect what is mine."
She wasn't about to give him argument. He looked as if he might throttle her if she did. Jade simply stared at him and waited for him to let go of her.
"Do you understand what I'm telling you?" he demanded.
"Yes," she answered. "You will protect what belongs to you. I understand."
Caine shook his head. The little innocent was actually trying to placate him. He suddenly jerked her to the side of her saddle, leaned down, and kissed her. Hard. Possessively.
She was more bewildered than ever. Caine pulled back and stared into her eyes. "It's time you understood that you're going to belong to me, Jade."
She shook her head. "I'll belong to no man, Caine, and it's time you understood that."
He looked furious with her. Then, in the flash of a moment, his expression softened. Her sweet protector was back in evidence. Jade almost sighed with relief.
"It's time we left the main road again," he said, deliberately changing the topic.
"Caine, I want you to realize . . ."
"Don't argue," he interrupted.
She nodded and was about to nudge her horse down the slope when Caine took the reins from her hands and lifted her into his lap.
"Why am I riding with you?" she asked.
"You could tell?"
For the first time in a long while, he smiled. "I could tell."
"I am weary," she admitted. "Caine, will Lyon's horse follow us? Your friend will be upset if his mount gets lost."
"She'll follow us," he answered.
"Good," she answered. She wrapped her arms around his waist and rested the side of her face against
his chest. "You smell so nice," she whispered.
"So do you," he told her.
He sounded terribly preoccupied to her. He also seemed determined to take the most challenging route through the forest. Jade put up with the inconvenience for a good ten minutes, then finally asked, "Why are you making this journey so difficult?"
Caine blocked another low-hanging branch with his arm before answering her. "We're being followed."
That statement, given so matter-of-factly, stunned her as much as a pinch in the backside would if given by a stranger. She was immediately outraged. "We're not," she cried out. "I would have noticed."
She tried to pull away from him so she could look over his shoulder to see for herself. Caine wouldn't
let her move. "It's all right," he said. "They're still a distance behind us."
"How do you know?" she asked. "Have they been following us since we left London? No, of course
they haven't. I really would have noticed. How many do you suppose they are? Caine? Are you absolutely certain?"
He squeezed her into quitting her questions. "I'm certain," he answered. "They've been following us for about three, maybe four miles now. More specifically, since we reached my property line. I believe their number is six or seven."
"But. . ."
"I spotted them the last time I backtracked," he patiently explained.
"I backtracked with you, if you'll remember," she countered. "And I didn't see anyone."
She sounded incensed. Caine didn't know what to make of that reaction.
"Are we very far from your house?"
"About fifteen minutes away," Caine answered.
They broke through a clearing a short while later. Jade felt as though she'd just entered a wonderland. "It's beautiful here," she whispered.
The grassy clearing was circled on two sides by a narrow stream that trailed down a lazy slope adjacent to a small cabin. Sunlight filtered through the branches bordering the paradise.
"Perhaps the gamekeeper is inside the cabin," she said. "He might be willing to help us trap the villains."
"The cabin's deserted."
"Then we'll just have to trap them on our own. Did you leave all the pistols behind?"
He didn't answer her. "Caine? Aren't we going to stop?"
"No," he said. "We're just taking a shortcut."
"Have you chosen another spot to wait for them?"
"I'm taking you home first, Jade. I'm not about to take any risks with you along. Now tuck your head and close your mouth. It's going to get rough."
Since he was back to sounding surly again, she did as he ordered. She could feel his chin on the top of her head as she squeezed her face against the base of his throat.
"Someday I want to come back to this spot," she whispered.
He didn't remark on that hope. He hadn't been exaggerating either when he said it was going to get rough. As soon as they reached the open fields, Caine pushed his mount into a full gallop. Jade felt like she was flying through the air again. It wasn't at all the same feeling as being pitched into the Thames, though, for now she had Caine to hold onto.
Whoever was behind this treachery had sent men to Caine's estate to wait for him. Jade worried about the possibility of an ambush when they neared the main grounds. She prayed her men would be there to take up the battle.
They were just about to reach the crest and the cover of the trees again when the sound of pistol shots rang out. Jade didn't know how to protect Caine's back now. She tried to twist in his arms to see where the threat was coming from, even as she instinctively splayed her hands wide up his shoulders to cover as much of him as she could.
The shots were coming from the southeast. Jade jostled herself over onto his left thigh, just as another shot echoed in the wind.
"Hold still," Caine ordered against her ear at the same second she felt a mild sting in her right side. She let out a soft gasp of surprise and tried to look at her waist. It felt as though a lion had just swatted her with his claws extended. Just as quickly, however, the ache began to dissipate. A rather irritating burning sensation radiated up her side, and Jade decided one of the branches they'd just broken through had cut into her side.
Numbness set in and she put the matter of her paltry scratch aside.
"We're almost home," Caine told her.
In her worry, she forgot to act afraid. "Watch your back when we get near the house," she ordered.
Caine didn't answer that command. He took the back road up to the stables. His men must have heard the commotion, for at least ten hands were rushing toward the forest, their weapons at the ready.
Caine shouted to the stablemaster to open the doors, then rode inside. Jade's mount galloped behind. The stablemaster grabbed the reins and had the mare slapped inside the first stall before Caine had lifted Jade to the ground.
His grip on her waist made the ache in her side start nagging again. She bit her lower lip to keep herself from shouting at him.
"Kelley!" Caine shouted.
A yellow-haired, middle-aged man with a stocky frame and a full beard rushed over. "Yes, mi'lord?"
"Stay here with Jade," he ordered. "Keep the doors closed until I get back."
Caine tried to remount his steed then, but Jade grabbed hold of the back of his jacket and gave it a fierce jerk. "Are you demented? You can't go back outside."
"Let go, sweetheart," he said. "I'll be right back."
He pulled her hands away and gently pushed her back against the stall. Jade wasn't about to give up, however. She dug into his lapels and held on.
"But Caine," she wailed while he was peeling her hands away. "They mean to kill you."
"I know, love."
"Then why ..."
"I mean to kill them first."
He realized he shouldn't have shared that truth with her when she threw her arms around his waist and squeezed him in a grip that was surprisingly strong.
They both heard two more shots ring out while he pulled her arms away.
Caine assumed his men had taken up the fight. Jade prayed her men had already intervened and chased the villains away.
"Shut the doors after me, Kelley!" Caine shouted as he swiftly remounted and goaded his stallion around.
Another shot sounded just a minute or two after Caine had left. Jade rushed past the stablemaster and looked out the small square window. Caine's body wasn't sprawled out in a pool of blood in the field.
She started breathing again.
"There's absolutely nothing to be worried about," she muttered.
"You best get away from the window," Kelley whispered from behind.
Jade ignored that suggestion until he started tugging on her arm. "Mi'lady, please wait for the Marquess
in a safer spot. Come and sit over here," he continued. "The Marquess will be back soon."
She couldn't sit down. Jade couldn't stop herself from pacing or fretting, either. She prayed that both Matthew and Jimbo had taken care of the intruders. They were two of her most loyal men. Both were well trained in trickery, too, for Black Harry had personally seen to their education.
This was all Caine's fault, she decided. She certainly wouldn't be in such a state of nerves if he'd turned out to be anything like the man she'd read about in the file. He seemed to have two completely different personalities, however. Oh, she knew the file told the truth. His superiors had referred to him as a cold, methodical man when the task at hand needed his special consideration.
Yet the man she'd encountered wasn't at all cold or unfeeling. She'd played on Caine's protector instincts, but she believed he was going to be very difficult all the same. He hadn't turned out to be difficult at all, though. He was a caring man who'd already taken her under his wing.
The problem, of course, was the contradiction. Jade didn't like inconsistencies. It made Caine unpredictable. And unpredictable meant dangerous.
The doors suddenly flew open. Caine stood there, his mount still in a lathered pant behind him.
She was so relieved to see he was safe, her knees went weak on her. Every muscle in her body began to ache. She had to sit down in the chair Kelley provided before she could speak.
"You're all right, then?" she managed to ask.
Caine thought she looked as if she were about to burst into tears. He gave her a smile to reassure her, then led his horse inside. After handing the reins to the stablemaster, and waving the men who were following him back outside, he casually leaned against the wall next to her. He was deliberately trying to make her believe nothing much out of the ordinary had happened.
"The fight was over and done with by the time 1 got to the forest."
"The fight was over? How could it be over?" she asked. "I don't understand."
"They must have changed their minds," he said.
"You don't have to lie to me," she cried out. "And you can quit acting as though we're discussing the crops, too. Now tell me what happened."
He let out a long sigh. "Most of the fight was over and done with by the time I got there."
"Caine, no more lies," she demanded.
"I'm not lying," he countered.
"Then make sense," she ordered. "You're supposed to be logical, remember?"
He'd never heard that tone of voice from her before. God's truth, she sounded like a commander now. Caine grinned. "It was the damnedest thing I ever saw," he admitted. "I got two of them, then turned to the area I thought hid the rest, but when I got there, they were gone."
"They ran away?"
He shook his head. "There was evidence that a fight had taken place."
"Then your men . . ."
"Were with me," he interjected.
Jade folded her hands in her lap, her gaze downcast so he wouldn't be able to see her expression. She feared she wouldn't be able to hide her relief or her pleasure. Matthew and Jimbo had done their jobs well. "No, that doesn't make any sense," she agreed.
"There was evidence of a fight," he said, watching her closely.
"Evidence?" she asked, her voice whisper soft. "Such as?"
"Footprints . . . blood on a leaf," he returned. "Other signs as well, but not a body in sight."
"Do you think they might have had an argument among themselves?"
"Without making a sound?" he asked, sounding incredulous.
"You didn't hear any noise?"
"No." Caine continued to lean against the wall. He stared at Jade.