a willful tomboy to a blushing debutante.
The bandit scum had killed Step-papa, his two bodyguards, and the young groom accompanying him on that fateful trip through the Gorges of Tiberio. It was fitting that Gillian would deliver justice in almost the same spot where those innocents had breathed out their last moments of existence.
Her brother cursed under his breath. “Gillian, this should not be your life.”
“Do I look like a proper young lady to you?”
He cast a sardonic glance at her attire—sheepskin coat, buckskin breeches, and riding boots. “You could be. You’re an attractive, respectable-looking girl when you’re not disguised as a bloodthirsty ruffian.”
“I thought you, of all people, would understand,” she said, exasperated.
“I do, but if you continue along this course, it will take its toll. Killing always does.”
She managed not to flinch. “I don’t have a choice.”
“There is always a choice, Gillian.”
She flicked her gaze back to Falcone, who was sitting on a rock as he smoked a pipe. He was also splendidly out in the open, but she had to get closer.
“There’s no point in discussing this. I’m doing it,” she said.
“No, I will—”
“It was my fault,” she hissed. “That’s why I have to do it. No one else.”
He frowned. “I don’t understand.”
She had to swallow before she could answer. “It’s my fault that my stepfather was murdered. I sent him straight into Falcone’s line of fire.”
“So . . . it’s guilt that motivates you. Killing Falcone will likely be nothing more than an empty victory, if such is the case.” Griffin squeezed her arm. “As long as you continue to blame yourself, you will never find peace.”
She hoped to God he was wrong. He had to be wrong. “You are the most irritating man I have ever met.”
“So my wife informs me on a regular basis.”
Below them, Falcone knocked the tobacco out of his pipe and then hauled his formidable bulk to his feet. Gillian mentally cursed as he began to stroll over to join his men under the trees.
She turned and signaled to Stefano and his grandson. The old man pulled his pistol from the brace on his saddle, ready to cover her back.
“Griffin, help me or not, but I’m doing this now.” Before he could answer, she slung her rifle across her back and slithered away from the edge. As quickly as she dared, she crawled down the narrow, rutted path that ran along the rim of the gorge. If she stood, it was unlikely the men below would notice her, but she was taking no chances. Falcone had evaded her too many times over the years.
Her brother followed her. She could practically feel him seething with frustration, but he made not a sound. She had to give him credit—he was awfully good.
A few feet short of her goal, Gillian held up a hand to halt her brother’s advance. She stole a quick glance over her shoulder. Just behind them Stefano crouched, his tanned, leathery features cast into shade by his broad-brimmed hat. Griffin’s expression registered shock at the sight of the old man so close, pistols at the ready. Stefano might be getting on in years, but he was still vital and strong. He could move like a ghost, silent and lethal, at her command.
After crooking a finger to signal Griffin to follow, Gillian wriggled up to the edge of the cliff. She cautiously peered over the rocks and saw the bandits under a stand of beech trees, their attention on their flasks of wine as they waited for the rabbits to cook over the open flame. Unfortunately, Falcone was half obscured by one of his men and was partly in shade. She would have to stand up if she wanted a clear shot.
She came up in a crouch and pulled the rifle from her back. She’d already checked it three times, but did so once more. The Baker was a fine weapon. It had belonged to a Hussar, and had a light, short carbine, which made it easier to handle. But it was less accurate than rifles used by sharpshooters. Although she could reload quickly if she missed her shot, she’d make an inviting target while she did.
So get it right the first time.
Griffin came up beside her. He gave her a terse nod as he brought his rifle to bear on the men below. But he then sucked in a harsh breath when Gillian rose swiftly to her feet, taking aim at Falcone.
As bad luck would have it, an eagle soared right overhead, screeching out a cry. The men below automatically glanced up, directly at her and Griffin.
Gillian fired. The shot echoed through the gorge in a deafening report. Another boom followed as Griffin fired a second later. Falcone stumbled against a low rock, roaring as he clutched his shoulder. Another bandit went down like a sack of grain tossed from a cart.
The other bandits scrambled for their weapons.
“Get down, you daft woman,” Griffin barked, reaching to pull her away from the edge.
Gillian evaded his grasp, sliding on the rocky scree and almost losing her footing. Still, she managed to recover and reload. Griffin did the same as he let loose a string of hair-raising curses. She yanked up her rifle, took aim, and fired again.
A moment later, a bullet slammed into her shoulder, throwing her to the ground. The back of her head connected with rock, and pain exploded through her skull. Gillian lay there stunned, staring up at a sky that shimmered with a milky haze. Her ears rang with the sound of a thousand church bells.
Move, you idiot.
She couldn’t—not even one blessed finger.
review journal of the American Library Association, as one of the “New Stars of
Historical Romance.” Her Regency-set historical romances have been nominated
for awards in a number of contests, and her second book, Sex and The Single
Earl, won the prestigious Maggie Medallion for Best Historical Romance. Her
current series, The Renegade Royals is a national bestseller. Vanessa also
writes USA Today bestselling contemporary romance with her husband, under the
pen name of VK Sykes.