I weren't serious?"

Caine answered her question. "I think you've lost your mind."

"No," she replied. "It would be much easier if I had."

"I see," Caine said. He was trying to keep his temper controlled, but the urge to shout at her made his throat ache. "When would you like this ... this .. ."

"Task?"

"Yes, task," Caine asked. "When would you like this task done?"

"Now."

"Now?"

"If it's convenient, mi'lord."

"If it's convenient?"

"Oh, dear, I'm so sorry," she whispered. "I didn't mean to upset you."

"Why do you think you've upset me?"

"Because you're shouting at me."

He realized she was right. He had been shouting. Caine let out a long sigh. For the first time in a good long while, his composure was completely shattered. He excused his shameful condition by telling

himself that anyone with half a mind would have been caught off guard by such an outrageous request. She looked so sincere and appeared to be terribly fragile, too. Hell, the woman had freckles on the bridge of her nose, for God's sake. She should be home under lock and key with her loving family protecting her, not standing in this seedy tavern calmly discussing her own murder.

"I can see how distressed I've made you," she said. "I really do apologize, Pagan. Have you never killed

a woman before?" she asked. Her voice was filled with sympathy.

She looked as if she felt sorry for him now. "No, I've never killed a woman before," he grated out. "But there's always a first time for everything, now isn't there?"

He'd meant the comment to be sarcastic. She took it to heart. "That's the spirit," she rushed out. She actually smiled at him then. "It really shouldn't be too difficult for you. I'll help, of course."

He wanted to throw his head down on the table. "You're willing to help?" he strangled out.

"Certainly."

"You have lost your mind."

"No, I haven't," she countered. "But I'm very desperate. This task must be done as soon as possible.

Do you think you could hurry and finish your drink?"

"Why must it be done so soon?" he asked.

"Because they're going to come for me sometime soon, perhaps even yet tonight. I'm going to die, Pagan, by their hand or yours, and I'd really rather determine my own end. Surely you can understand that."

"Then why don't you just kill yourself?" Monk blurted out. "Wouldn't that be much easier than hiring someone else?"

"For God's sake, Monk, don't encourage her."

"I'm not trying to encourage her," Monk rushed out. "I'm just trying to understand why such a pretty would want to die."

"Oh, I could never kill myself," she explained. "It would be a sin. Someone else has to do it. Don't you see?"

Caine had taken about all he could handle for one evening. He bounded to his feet, upsetting the chair

in his haste, then planted the palms of his big hands on the tabletop. "No, I don't see, but I promise you I'm going to before this night is over. We're going to start at the beginning. First you'll begin by telling

me your name."

"Why?"

"It's a little rule I have," he snapped. "I don't kill anyone I don't know. Now tell me your name."

"It's a stupid rule."

"Answer me."

"Jade."

"Damn it, I want your real name!" he commanded in a near roar.

"Damn it, that is my real name," she replied. She had a thoroughly disgruntled look on her face.

"You're serious, aren't you?"

"Of course, I'm serious. Jade is my name," she added with a shrug.

"Jade's an unusual name," he said. "Fitting, though. You're proving to be a rather unusual woman."

"Your opinion of me isn't at all relevant, sir. I hired you to complete an assignment and that is all. Is it customary for you to interview your victims before you do them in?"

He ignored her glare. "Tell me the rest of your name, or I may strangle you."

"No, you mustn't strangle me," she replied. "I don't want to die that way and I am the one doing the hiring, if you'll remember."

"What way did you have in mind?" he asked. "Oh, hell, never mind. I don't want to know."

"But you have to know," she argued. "How can you kill me if you don't know how I want it done?"

"Later," he interjected. "You may instruct me in the method you've chosen later. First things first, Jade. Are your parents waiting at home for you?"

"It's doubtful."

"Why?"

"They're both dead."

He closed his eyes and counted to ten. "So you're all alone?"

"No."

"No?"

It was her turn to sigh. "I have a brother. I'm not going to tell you anything more, Pagan. It's too much

of a risk, you see."

"Why is it a risk, miss?" Monk asked.

"The more he knows about me, the more difficult the task will become. I believe it would be very upsetting to kill someone you liked. Don't you, sir?"

"I ain't never had to kill someone I liked," Monk admitted. "As to that, I ain't never killed anyone.

Still, your theory makes sense to me."

It took all Caine had not to start bellowing. "Jade, I assure you that won't be a problem. At this moment, I don't like you at all."

She took a step back. "Well, why not?" she asked. "I haven't been half as insulting as you have. Are you just a cranky person by nature, Pagan?"

"Don't call me Pagan."

"Why not?"

"It's a danger, miss, if anyone overhears," Monk blurted out when he saw how infuriated Caine was becoming. The muscle in the side of his jaw had started flexing. Caine had a fierce temper and she was innocently shaking him into a real froth. Why if he let loose, he might very well give her her wish and frighten her to death.

"What should I call him then?" she asked the tavernkeeper.

"Caine," Monk answered with a nod. "You can call him Caine," She let out an inelegant snort. "And he thinks I have an unusual name?"

Caine reached out and grabbed hold of her chin. He forced her to look at him again. "What is your brother's name?"

"Nathan."

"Where is Nathan now?"

"He's away on pressing business matters."

"What business?"

She slapped his hand away before answering. "Shipping business."

"When will he be back?"

Her glare could melt a lesser man. "Two weeks," she snapped. "There, I've answered all your

questions. Now will you please quit pestering me and get on with your assignment?"

"Where do you live, Jade?"

"Sir, your endless questions are giving me a pounding headache. I'm not at all used to having men

scream at me."

Caine glanced down at Monk and let him see his exasperation. "The daft woman wants me to kill her, yet now complains about a headache."

She suddenly reached out, grabbed hold of his chin, and nudged him back to look at her. It was a deliberate imitation of his earlier action. Caine was so surprised by her boldness, he let her have her way.

"Now it's my turn," she announced. "I'll ask you my questions and you will answer them. I'm the one giving you the silver coins, sir. First, and most important, I want to know if you're really going to kill

me. Your hesitation alarms me. That and this endless inquisition."

"You're going to have to satisfy my curiosity before I decide," he told her.

"No."

"Then I won't kill you."

"You scoundrel!" she cried out. "You promised me before you knew who your victim was. You gave

me your word!"

"I lied."

Her gasp of outrage nearly knocked her over. "You are a real disappointment to me. A man of honor wouldn't so easily break his word. You should be ashamed of yourself."

"Jade," he answered. "I never said I was a man of honor."

"Nay, miss, he didn't," Monk interjected.

Her eyes turned the color of green fire. She was apparently furious with him. Her hands joined his on

the tabletop. She leaned forward and whispered, "I was told Pagan never, ever breaks his word."

"You were misinformed."

They were almost nose to nose now. Caine tried to concentrate on their conversation, but her wonderful scent, so clean, so fresh, so utterly feminine, kept getting in the way.

She was shaking her head at him now. Caine was literally at a loss for words. He'd never had a woman stand up to him before. No, the ladies of the ton usually cowered when he showed the least amount of displeasure. This one was different, however. She wasn't just standing up to him either. She was

actually matching him glare for glare. He suddenly felt like laughing and didn't have the faintest idea why.

Her insanity was obviously the catching kind.

"You really should be hanged," she said. "You certainly had me fooled. You don't look like the sort to act so dastardly."

She tried to move away from the table but Caine's hands covered hers, trapping her. He leaned down again, until his mouth was just a scant kiss away. "I'm a pirate, madam. We're known to be dastardly."

He waited for another angry rebuttal. She burst into tears instead. Caine wasn't at all prepared for that emotional display.

While he reached for his handkerchief, Monk jumped to his feet and rushed over to comfort her. The barkeep awkwardly patted her on her shoulders. "There, there, miss, don't cry now."

"It's all his fault," she sobbed. "All I asked was a simple little favor. Just one quick task that wouldn't

take him any time at all; but, no, he couldn't be bothered. I even offered to wait until he'd finished his refreshment," she continued with a wail. "I was willing to pay good coins too."

By the time she'd finished her pitiful tirade, Monk was glaring at Caine. "You've upset the pretty," he told the Marquess. "Why, you've broken her heart."

The tavernkeeper grabbed the handkerchief out of Caine's hand and began to awkwardly mop the tears away from her cheeks. "It will be all right, miss," he crooned.

"No, it won't," she argued. Her voice was muffled by the linen cloth Monk had shoved under her nose. "Do you know I've never asked anyone for anything in all my days? Yet the very first time I do ask, I'm denied my request. No one wants to make an honest living anymore. No, they'd rather steal than

earn their way. It's a shame, isn't it, Monk?"

Caine was too incredulous to speak. He didn't know if he should take her into his arms and comfort her or grab her by the shoulders and shake some sense into her. One thing was certain, however. If Monk continued to frown at him, he was going to break his nose.

"Mi'Iady, it really ain't honest work to take coins from a lady and kill her," Monk argued. He patted

her shoulder in a bid to soften his gentle rebuke.

"Of course it's honest work," she replied. "As long as the lady wants the killing done."

Monk paused to rub his brow. "She's got a true point there, don't she?" he asked Caine.

"For the love of... now what are you doing?" Caine asked Jade when she began to collect her coins.

"I'm leaving," she announced. "I'm sorry I bothered you, Pagan, or Caine, or whatever your real name is," she whispered.

She tied the string into a knot, then tucked the bag in her pocket.

When she turned and started for the door, Caine called out. "Where do you think you're going?"

"That's none of your concern," she answered. "Still, I'm not half as insolent as you are and so I shall tell you I'm going to find someone more cooperative. Have no fear, sir. I won't give up. Before this black night is over, I'll find someone willing to kill me."

He caught her at the door. His hands settled on her shoulders and he slowly forced her around to look at him.

The minute he touched her, she started crying again. Caine was exasperated, unsettled too. He gave in to his overwhelming urge though, and roughly pulled her into his arms.

His bear hug seemed to be all the prodding she needed. She wept against his chest, whispering her apology for her unladylike behavior in between her loud sobs.

Caine was content to wait until she'd regained a bit of control. He couldn't possibly reason with her now. She was making so much noise she wouldn't have been able to hear a word he said anyway. And she kept blaming her current condition on him too. She was, without a doubt, the most confusing woman

he'd ever encountered.

Lord, she was wonderfully soft. She fit him nicely too. He usually disliked women who cried, yet found he didn't want to let go of this one.

She was hiccupping just like a drunken peasant now, the aftermath of the quick storm.

It was high time he reasoned with her. "Jade, it can't possibly be as terrible as you now believe," he told her in a low, husky voice. "Surely, come morning, you'll be thankful I didn't give in to your request."

"I'll be dead come morning," she wailed.

"No, you won't," he replied. He gave her an affectionate squeeze. "I won't let anything happen to you.

I promise. You can't really want to die just yet."

"My brother's bound to be disappointed if I die," she said.

"I would imagine so," he answered dryly.

"Still, I'm not strong enough to fight them. They're very mean-hearted men. I fear they'll use me before they kill me. I don't want to die that way. There's no dignity in it."

"Death with dignity?" he asked. "You speak like a soldier preparing for the battlefield."

"I don't want to be remembered as a coward."

"Will your brother be able to take care of your problem once he returns?"

"Oh, yes," she answered. She rested her cheek against his chest. "Nathan wouldn't let anything happen



----