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Publication: October 2017 by Harlequin Historical
“By order of the English king,”
Alice of Swaffham searches London nobility for the traitor dealing information to the Scots. Little does she know that the mysterious spy she seeks is the man she once loved and thought she'd lost forever…
If Hugh of Shoebury felt unworthy of Alice before, as the Half-Thistle spy he can never claim her heart. Now he must fight to keep not only his dark secrets—and Alice—safe from a vengeful king…but also his burning longing for her at bay!
October 1296, London
She wasn’t going to make it.
Heat prickled down her back. Her hands, clutching a seal to her chest, grew damp. Alice stopped running, pressed her back against the stone wall and let out a steadying breath.
She was going to make it. She had to. She had come too far. It was the labyrinth of passageways that was making her anxious. She didn’t know where she was going.
It was the dark...which was more heavy and cold than the stone she rested against.
How long had she been running? She should never have agreed to the game—never agreed to visiting Court in the first place.
As if she’d had a choice. King Edward needed gold and her family—wealthy wool merchants—were being heavily taxed for it. To soften the blow, the King often invited her family to Court. Beyond delighted, her father had always taken the trips alone. This time round, however, the King had formally invited her. And one could not avoid a direct royal command.
But she could have avoided the seal-seeking game. Noting that the King wasn’t in residence, she had tried to avoid the game. But someone had put her name in the bowl and it had been pulled. Then she and the others had been shoved into various darkened hallways to find a seal and solve the riddle.
Which should have been easy. Even if she didn’t know and couldn’t see where she was going, she’d thought she could depend on her ears to hear the lapping of the Thames or the running of the other seal seekers. But her ears had failed her. All was dead silent.
She rolled the seal in her hands, hoping the unusual shape would distract her from her thoughts. The seal was neither round nor square, and it was much too large for her hands, but it had to be the correct seal. She was sure that she’d understood the riddle: Find the door that holds the light.
A door couldn’t hold a light unless there was a light behind that illuminated it, and yet she had opened so many doors and there had been only more darkness.
Her breathing hitched. She mustn’t think about her fear of darkness. She must consider only the light and where she hadn’t been. If she concentrated on the riddle maybe she could forget the dark. Maybe.
Laughter. High-pitched and suddenly snuffed out.
Where had it come from? It had burst out and disappeared too quickly for her to tell. Was it the other seal seekers or someone hiding in the shadows?
She pushed away from the wall and walked to the left. She might be going in circles, but she had to move. The riddle had hinted at additional seals. The others might be ahead of her.
Not daring to run any more, she quickened her steps. If the other seekers were close and she slipped and the seal fell she would never find it again. But she couldn’t be too cautious. If she was quick enough she’d have the prize—she’d be out of the dark.
Another step and another—until the floor dropped.
She swiped at the dark with her hands and feet until the corridor curved into a staircase. Keeping a hand on the stone wall, she shuffled her way down until she found her way to a heavily latched illuminated door.
There were more sounds, too—murmurs and whispers of a crowd trying to be quiet. This was the door! She brushed her free hand against the smooth wood until she found the latch.
Other noises were reaching her ears—more laughter, and footsteps behind her. No time to waste. She placed the seal beside her feet, and used both hands to lift the latch. It held, as if someone on the other side was preventing it from opening. Did she dare call out?
No, the footsteps behind her were too close.
She jumped and used her body to press down on the handle. The latch broke free, but the clank echoed in the quiet corridor. The footsteps behind her changed direction.
No time to lose.
Grabbing the seal, she rushed into the too-bright room. Images of people and flames flickering in elaborate wall sconces distracted her. She collided with a wall wearing chainmail and started to fall backwards.
Thick arms wrapped around her waist and lifted her. Clutching the seal against her chest, she felt her feet leave the ground as she was pressed against the unmistakable curves of a trained warrior. Winded, and blinded by the sudden light, she felt his flat abdomen against her own, her breasts rubbing abrasively against interlocked steel, and still the warrior pulled her up...and up.
She was being held much too closely. She breathed in to catch her breath, to protest, and smelled leather and metal, and a scent that was this man’s alone. A scent that hovered on her memory...elusive, familiar. It filled her with such a sudden wanting that she clamped her mouth shut.
Images blazed in her mind. It couldn’t be him. It shouldn’t be him.
Another feeling assaulted her, more powerful than the embarrassment of being held too closely. It was even more deeply pitted in her stomach than her sudden inexplicable wanting.
She felt fear.
She blinked her eyes to focus and was caught by the bluest eyes she’d ever seen. No, not the bluest eyes she’d ever seen, because she’d seen these eyes before. Years ago. The fear went down her back all the way to her heels before it raced hot and fast to the top of her head.
She blinked again. No, these eyes were not the same—even though they were the crystal blue of a summer sky, so bright and too piercing to be real. These eyes had had that light taken from them. They were as clear and stunning a colour as to be almost impossible, but these eyes held something else—some darkness—as if an unseen storm was about to break.
Other features of this warrior were different, too. His blond hair did not wave around his shoulders, but was cut short, its curls tamed to just behind his ears. His skin was not pale from the clouds and mists of a small town, but was sun-baked. Underneath the torchlight his face was all hard, lean planes and too fierce for softness. There were lines, too, around his eyes—not from laughter, but from determination. His lips, which curved sensuously and were made for smiling, were instead turned down deeply.
None of this seeming harshness hid the sheer beauty of his features. No, this man’s perfection was marred by a nose that crooked a little to the left.
The seal slipped in her suddenly damp hands. She knew that nose. She had broken that nose. Reluctantly, against her will, she raised her eyes to his again. He was still studying her.
She felt permanently latched to him. She could not move even to let air into her lungs. Oh, she didn’t want to, but she knew those eyes. And they knew her. There was no confusion in their blue depths, there was only...waiting.
But he couldn’t be the man she knew. She hadn’t heard from him or seen him for more than six years. She’d thought him dead. She wanted him dead.
‘Hugh?’ The name escaped before she knew she still had a voice, and the corner of his lips lifted.
She knew that crooked smile. She knew that smile all too well.
The bright room blurred. Her body felt like a whirling spindle. She felt the instant tightening of his hands against her back and his body bracing itself against her sudden lack of strength.
She was fainting.
A sharp pain in her back, a sudden shove forward, and Hugh shifted to keep their balance. It was all she needed to break eye contact. The dizziness left; the room turned bright again.
They were surrounded by heavily perfumed people. The courtiers’ dress of—multiple colours along with the copious amounts of gold and silver—glinted and glared in the torchlight. They were all staring at her. Their mouths moved, but she couldn’t hear their words above the roaring in her ears.
She pushed away, but Hugh did not immediately release her. Instead he slowly lowered her to the ground. If possible, the chainmail was more abrasive and his body was harder than a stone wall. Her breasts tingled inside her chemise; swathed in her heavy skirts, her dangling legs entwined with his.
It was all too intimate, too heady. When her feet touched the floor it felt as if he’d dropped her from that imagined cliff.
Unsteady, she pressed her hand against his chest. Her body shook with the rise of his breath, the strong beat of his heart. Hugh’s hands returned to her sides, and they were all too familiar, too proprietorial. He didn’t have a right to such touch. He had refused her offer to have a right to such touch.
‘Release me,’ she said, not looking in his eyes.
He stepped away. The crowd moved into the space before her. Their voices finally reached her ears. The circular room was clanging and echoing with cries of protest, outrage, laughter, loud talk.
The courtiers stared and pointed at her chest. Embarrassment warmed her skin. Had the ribbons around her dress loosened as Hugh held her so tightly? Had she become undressed—here, in public, at Court?
She looked down, but nothing was indecent. The light green ribbon that wound round her chest and sleeves still held her blue linen dress together. She was intact; there was nothing to cause her shame.
And she still had the seal clutched to her body.
The seal. She had the seal.
How could she have forgotten the game? How long had she been held by Hugh, staring at him as if she...as if she wanted to see him again? Embarrassment did more than warm her skin. This time she knew she turned red. Something she couldn’t control. But what she could control was what she did about it.
Putting as much coldness into her features as possible, she looked up. He wasn’t there. The crowd had surrounded her and was pushing her forward. Digging her heels into the flooring, she struggled against the crowd until they suddenly opened before her. With a last shove she was released into a small opening.
She righted herself, running one hand down her crumpled dress, and turned to glare at the courtiers—but a glint of red and gold at the corner of her eye shocked her into stillness.
Disbelieving, she turned towards the red and gold of the King’s throne. It wasn’t empty. Instead there was a very tall, very thin, bearded man reposing on the ornately carved chair.
Fighting the instinct to hide, she dropped in a deep curtsey. King Edward had returned to the Tower of London and he was staring right at her.
‘Rise, my lady. It appears you have something of mine.’
She rose, her knees unsteady, her hands trembling. In fear of dropping it, she pressed the seal to her belly. King Edward barely glanced at it.
She was suddenly acutely aware of falling very short of Court decorum. Hair tangled from running, purple dress crumpled by the crowd, cheeks flushed with bewilderment. Even her mind was in disarray.
But none of this was fair. She’d neither seen nor heard any formal announcement of his arrival. Literally, she’d been in the dark.
As if conjured by its name, darkness swirled around her chaotic thoughts. Was she about to faint?
She raised her chin. Damn the dark and—if she could—damn the King, too, for making her feel inadequate. After all, it was his stupid game she’d been playing. What did he expect? And whoever had heard of a king taking so long to gaze upon someone’s appearance?
But he wasn’t looking at her appearance. He hadn’t noticed the crumpled silk or the tendrils of hair that strayed out behind the silver circlet around her head. The King hadn’t noticed her physical appearance. The King seemed to be assessing her.
She was going to faint.
‘Who are you?’ King Edward’s deep voice echoed in the unnaturally quiet room.
She desperately wished her mouth wasn’t so dry. ‘Alice of Fenton, sire.’
‘Yes, Your Majesty.’
He chuckled. ‘Well, it seems you have won a prize.’
Alice didn’t know how to answer. Despite the King’s laughter his brow remained furrowed, and it gave him a troubled look.
She chastised herself. Perhaps he could not rid himself of worry when there were such heavy matters to deal with in the north. But with such concerns, why was he bothering with a courtly game?
His chamberlain was suddenly on her right. In his hands was an elaborate ivory hunting horn. Even in the great glitter of Court the horn glimmered bright, its three bands of carved silver sparkling like stars. If this was her prize for such sport, every extravagance her sister had told her about Court was true.
She bowed her head. ‘Thank you, Your Majesty.’
He inclined his head, but looked beyond her shoulder. She would have looked, too, but the chamberlain was handing her the horn. His manner was overtly stiff, his arms barely extended. It forced her to bend low and forward to retrieve it, or look as if she was refusing the prize.
She was practically wrapped around him when she heard his message, whispered so softly only she could hear.
‘You will go to the antechamber when the third song starts.’
Startled at the words, she didn’t react as the chamberlain grabbed the seal, shoved the horn into her hand and disappeared.
When she looked up from the horn the King was gone. She had not acknowledged a king leaving the throne. What was wrong with her?
Courtiers swarmed around her, but her ears and eyes were numb to their excited chatter.
She heard music faintly in the background. Had she missed a song?
No, the chamberlain had just left, and the people around her were moving into a dance. It was the first song.
At the third song the King commanded a private meeting with her. Although the chamberlain had not said so, she knew this was not something to be repeated. Not that she would tell any of the people crowding around her to admire the horn. They were strangers all, and she had never felt that fact more than at this moment.
She tried to accept their congratulations, but mostly she waited for their interest to wane. It did so in very little time.
Soon she was left alone, while people danced, gossiped and flirted. She had never understood until now what it meant when it was said that people twittered. She watched people laugh too gaily and talk too loudly. If they would simply be quiet she could concentrate.
Two, she counted. She knew this song.
There wasn’t much time before she must reach the antechamber. Certainly not enough to collect her thoughts, which were now more crumpled than her dress. She didn’t know why she was being summoned, or why she had felt the King was measuring her.
Maybe by her winning she had caught his eye. The Queen had been dead for years and he had yet to remarry. Was that why he had been assessing her? Did he wonder if she’d make a suitable mistress? Her heart lurched. It was an honour, but one that she had never hoped for; she certainly hadn’t wanted to win the game that much.
She searched the crowd for bright golden hair. But she didn’t need her eyes to know that Hugh was not in the room. Her awareness of that man was something she had carried most of her life.
There was no one for her to confide in. She had thought herself lucky that she had an entire week without her family prodding her to dance with men they thought suitable. But right now she would have appreciated a familiar face. What good was it to have a large family if none of them were around when she needed them?
The second song was ending. It was time for her to go. She was too frightened to look around—too worried that people would see where she was going and know what would happen to her.
The guards at the door seemed reluctant. They only stepped slightly out of her way, and opened the door the merest slit. She was forced to turn sideways to fit through. She certainly wasn’t an honoured guest.
Once inside, she heard the door shut with a heavy metal clank. Immediately, the crowd and music were muffled. It was too late for her to realise that she had taken comfort in the noise and people.
The room was lit by tall, narrow stained-glass windows. The natural light was calmer than the glitter and torches of the throne room. The sun had not set, which surprised her. It seemed that more time had passed since she had started the game.
The walls were finely decorated with red fleur-de-lis. Dark green velvet draperies hung from an elaborately carved four-poster bed. The huge fireplace was not lit, but shone brilliant white from many cleanings. On the far wall was a small round nook that was overpowered by a large golden cross.
King Edward sat in the middle of the room, next to a rectangular table that was laden with fine pewter and food.
There were no guards, no nobles nor courtiers vying for his attention. They were alone, and this was not an antechamber but his bedroom.
It was not these facts that gave her pause. It was the feeling of the room. Fine refreshments on the table, the King sitting and enjoying a repast, drinking wine... It was all so private, so...personal.
He turned his head to her. Bedroom or not, she was still before a monarch. She gave another curtsey.
‘Come, there will be no formality here.’ He waved for her to sit across from him at the table.
She did, her eyes never leaving his. His face remained unreadable, his eyes shadowed.
‘Would you like some refreshment?’ he asked, his eyes resting on the horn she had laid in her lap.
‘No, thank you,’ she replied, as deferentially as she could. She wouldn’t be able to get anything down her throat even if she tried. She was surprised she was able to speak.
‘You are nervous,’ he said.
She hesitated. ‘I am.’
King Edward sighed. ‘It cannot be helped. I wondered how you would fair, being of the softer sex.’
She was being judged. Had she disappointed him by being nervous? She had every reason to be uneasy—even to fear him. He was one of the greatest rulers in the world. But she realised that her nervousness stemmed from something more than simply knowing his power.
She was in a situation she couldn’t comprehend. Why would a king come back from war to play a game, and why she was in his private counsel, alone with him in his bedroom?
‘My fear is for what is expected of me, Your Majesty, not necessarily at your august company,’ she said.
He set down his goblet and raised surprised eyes to hers.
Her answer had gone too far. She had practically challenged a monarch.
‘I did not mean—’ she began.
King Edward gave a low chuckle and shook his head. ‘No, do not recant your answer. I am pleased with your honesty and I am relieved that you have no fear of me but of what is expected of you.’
‘I did not say that I did not fear your company—simply that I fear what I am doing here more.’
He leaned back in his chair, his creased brow softening. ‘Ah, it is good to know that you are wise. It would be remiss of me to say you should not have fear.’
She boldly strode on. ‘What is expected of me, sire?’
He reached for the flagon of wine between them and gave it a swirl. The wine’s floral scent filled the air as he poured. His actions allowed her to watch him without his too knowing eyes staring back at her. Although he would not remember, she had been presented to him at Court when she was very young. He had changed much since she had last seen him. The shadows under his eyes and the cynical way he held his body told his age more than the grey of his beard.
‘How did you escape my guards?’ He set down the flagon.
It took her a moment to realise he was talking about the game. ‘I waited in the dark until they were occupied by the other players, Your Majesty.’
‘Although I am not pleased that my guards should be so easily distracted, it is good that you show both intelligence and patience,’ he said. ‘You will need both.’
She didn’t reply. Being the last of three daughters, she had learned patience. The King was weighing his words and she was still waiting for an answer to her question.
‘Did you enjoy finding the seal?’ He grabbed a loaf of bread and tore it. The crumbs scattered across the table.
‘I did, thank you.’
He chewed slowly. ‘You hold your prize as if I will take it back,’ he said. ‘I promise that it is yours, but I do desire you to place it on the table so that I may enjoy it in these last moments.’
Her eyes fell to the horn still clasped in her hand. She placed it on the table.
He set down the bread and pointed at the horn. ‘You have not looked at it closely, have you?’
There had been little opportunity for her to inspect her prize. She shook her head, fearing she would offend him.
‘Did you not find it odd that the prize is a hunting horn?’
‘No, Your Majesty, it is a fine prize.’ She glanced at it, and noticed that numerous pictures had been carved into the thick silver bands.
He picked up the horn and turned it in his hands. ‘There are many tales told here.’ He touched the smallest band by the mouth of the horn. ‘This is the resolution of the story, although how it is resolved makes little sense in comparison to the tales told by the first two bands.’
‘And those tales, sire?’ she asked.
The King seemed in little hurry for their meeting to be over. And if he thought he was putting her at ease by talking about a decorative horn he could not be more wrong. She felt tighter than the silver bands.
He gave a slight shrug. ‘It tells of kings warring and lovers being torn apart. It is a typical story for troubadours.’
‘And what is shown in the resolution that does not make sense?’ she asked.
‘We only see the lovers joined again, their arms cradling a child between them.’
‘And this does not make sense?’
He set the horn down and reached for his wine. The liquid sloshed against the sides of the blue glass. In the light streaming from the stained-glass windows the dark red colour looked like blood.
‘We do not see what happens to the kings. I have to admit I am biased, but there should be some balance between the two tales.’
She glanced at the perfect workmanship of the horn. ‘Perhaps a band is missing.’
‘Or the craftsman didn’t think what had happened to the kings of different countries was important enough to depict.’ He drained his goblet. ‘I want you to know that I do not hold to such a belief. I could not care less what happens to the lovers, or to individual people. There are greater risks than the lives of two people. How old are you?’
‘I have known twenty-two summers, Your Majesty.’
‘You are old enough for what I need of you. You showed cunning and care in pursuit of the seal and you live in the very town that plagues me the most. So, although you have no training for such a task, I am ordering you to take on a mission of the utmost importance.’
‘I do not understand.’
She shifted in the seat that was no longer comfortable. Her first instinct was to leave the room, but she could not rise without his permission. Maybe she should not have been so clever in the game-playing. But she was coming to realise that perhaps it hadn’t been a game.
‘I want you to know that what I speak of now is between us. If this information becomes public before your duty to me is accomplished, you and your family will be placed in this very tower—and not as guests.’
She wished now that she had taken his offer of wine. The liquid would have quenched her suddenly parched throat. She nodded her head to let him know she understood, although she didn’t, not fully.
‘No need to lose your courage now. I am not asking you to break any commandments with God.’
Her heart did not ease. Maybe she wouldn’t have to commit murder, but it was something grave. Something that was important enough to bring the King back to London. Something that he felt necessitated his making a threat to her family.
‘In any war, information is as important a part of winning as the ability with a sword,’ he continued. ‘Right now there are letters that are passing secrets from this very chamber to the usurpers in Scotland. For distinction, or for pride, all these letters are sealed with the impression of a half-thistle.’
She could not be following this conversation correctly. It was too private, too important. The King of England was telling her that he had a traitor in his court. And the traitor closed his treacherous letters with a seal. A true seal.
‘The seeking of the seal...the riddle,’ she said, ‘it wasn’t a game.’
‘No, it was a test. I thought that whoever was cunning enough to find and escape with a fake seal would be cunning enough to find a real one.’ He tapped the table and smiled. ‘And, in case you were wondering, none of those seekers were randomly chosen to play the game.’
She had to concentrate on his words and not on the image of her sisters locked in the Tower. ‘What is it that you want me to do?’ She forced the words from her lips.
‘I think it should be clear to one who has beaten my best guards and won a testing game. It is the reason the winner’s prize must be a hunting horn. I wish for the winner to be a hunter.’
She must be shaking her head, for the King raised his hand and nodded.
‘Yes, Alice of Fenton from Swaffham. I wish you to find the Half-Thistle Seal,’ he continued. ‘Whoever has this seal will be the traitor. We believe that this traitor is in your very town—might indeed be among the people you know.’
She stopped breathing. This couldn’t be happening to her. He couldn’t possibly mean what she thought he meant.
‘I wish you to become a spy,’ he finished.
Oh, spindles—he did.
Publication: July 2017 by Harlequin Historical
“A maiden for the mercenary.”
Mercenary knight Rhain is living on borrowed time. With a vengeful warlord pursuing him, he has accepted his fate—though first he must get his men to safety. When he rescues mysterious and deeply scarred Helissent from her attackers, Rhain soon wishes he wasn't marked for death. He can never be the man she deserves—his scandalous lineage alone dictates that—but Rhain can't resist the temptation to show this innocent maiden how beautiful she truly is…
He was here.
Helissent let out a breath and rearranged the flagons on the tray. Again. This was the second night he’d come in, which wasn’t the only reason she’d noticed him.
‘Hurry up, girl, customers are thirsty.’
Helissent didn’t glance at Rudd. She never glanced at the innkeeper’s son, now owner. She tried not to notice him at all, but it didn’t help. His eyes grew more calculating every day as if she was in a trap and he was merely fattening her up.
‘If you stand there much longer,’ he said, snapping a towel in the air, ‘I’ll add another flagon to that tray and make you carry it over your head.’
If he put one more flagon on the tray, she’d make sure to dump it on his head.
Then where would she be? Out in the streets.
Pasting a smile that only deepened her scars’ appearance, she gave him her most guileless look.
‘I’m simply ensuring that everything is in its place, so the customers have what they need.’
Rudd didn’t have any reaction to her scarred and distorted smile. And that fact frightened her most of all. The fact she couldn’t frighten him. Her deep scars that spanned the entire right side of her body from her temple to her feet made everyone frightened. It’s how she kept the travelling customers away.
‘If you give me any more grief I’ll ensure you give them what they truly need...’ he answered, twisting the towel around his fist.
She lifted the tray and suppressed the anger and fear she couldn’t afford to expose. Her village didn’t have many streets to live on and there were certainly no others who would take her into their homes.
The only reason her tiny village survived was that it was on the road between London and York. People mostly travelled through and never stayed. If only she didn’t have to stay. But she had nowhere else to go.
Here, at least, they knew why she was disfigured. Any place else, people could think she was cursed. Or worse, they would pity her.
Here, she was just ignored. Except for Rudd, the prodigal son, who had returned a month after his parents’ death. He didn’t ignore her at all.
It was up to her to avoid him and focus on the inn’s patrons. Some travelers, mostly regulars...and now him, who she could feel watching the altercation between Rudd and her.
Sidestepping the narrow counter, she dodged a stumbling patron on her way to the patrons by the large window and set the tray in the center of the table. For a brief moment, she closed her eyes to soak up the bit of warming sun slanting down. Often it was the only sunlight she felt during the daytime.
Then she gave a genuine greeting to the patrons at the table. Regular customers, who met her eyes and exchanged pleasantries. Patrons, who knew her family and the former innkeepers, John and Anne, who’d taken her in after the fire destroyed her home and killed her family.
She’d take any kindness thrown her way. It was probably why she kept skirting her eyes to him. He, who sat at the shadowed table in the rear. Sat in shadows, though he never lowered his cloak’s hood.
He watched her, which usually made her angry, made her tilt her chin so that those gawking could see every grueling angle of her physical and personal pain. She liked it better when they winced or flushed and turned away.
She liked it not because it hurt them, but because it reminded her of her shame, her cowardice, and all the hurt she deserved.
But she didn’t tilt her head with the man in the shadows because he’d told Rudd her honey cakes were exceptional. It was why he’d returned today. He’d ordered more and paid in advance. He was here to collect them.
Unaccountably nervous, she passed him to get to the kitchens out the back. His head was partially bowed and she still did not see his eyes, but she nodded her head in greeting. She woke up early this morning to make twenty-five cakes. She often received compliments on her baking, but was never requested to make this many cakes before. She’d never known a man with such a sweet tooth and she’d dared to ask Rudd about him.
Rudd didn’t know the man’s name, but he did know his business. He’d come in a couple of days ago and was staying in the lodgings at the edge of town, him and almost twenty other men. Travellers, but two had spurs. This man with his hood, and another man, who was immensely tall and ducked his head to avoid the ceiling rafters.
The first day, he and the other men sat at the different tables. There was much talking, sometimes in languages she didn’t know. All of them addressed the man in the hood. She never saw his face nor heard his voice, though the men did.
Whatever he said made them laugh, made them nod in agreement. They deferred to him. Fascinated, she watched when she could. She wondered who these men were, where they were going next. Not for her to know, but it was a small bit of entertainment she made for herself.
On the second day, it was only him and the giant. On that day, she swore he watched her.
She didn’t see spurs when her shadow man came in, but she thought he must have been a knight. His travel clothing wasn’t particularly fine, but it was his bearing that he couldn’t hide beneath his cloak. Tall, with a lean grace not many people possessed, and certainly none in this mostly farming community.
He couldn’t hide the sword he carried, like it was a part of him, either. Natural, predatory...lethal.
He returned alone on the third day. On this day to retrieve his order. Carefully placing the cakes in the travelling sacks, she turned again to the inn. She wondered if this time, he would raise his head so she could see him.
* * *
Rhain peered at the customers in the ramshackle inn. Nothing made this one any different than the hundreds he had occupied over the last five years. For a mercenary like himself and his men, only location and information mattered.
This inn had neither. What it did have was sheep...lots of sheep. Even with a stiff breeze, there was no mistaking the smell or din.
A few days’ ride north of here lay the comfortable Tickhill Castle, a strategic motte and bailey now held by the King himself. He and his men would be welcomed at such a castle, and when he started this journey, it was his intention to oblige himself of their company, sumptuous bedding and fair.
Castles had location...they also had information, but he could no longer indulge himself of such. Not any more.
Instead, now, he opted for obscurity. An obscurity that had nothing to do with his occupation as a mercenary. Hence he’d stopped at this wreck of village meant to accommodate the local farming community and the occasional poor traveler.
The lodgings down the street were adequate protection from the rains, but this inn—
Rhain lowered his head as the woman passed by his table. Even so, he noticed her greeting. It was difficult not to notice her. When he first came to the inn two days ago, he almost lost his protective hood.
She’d been standing at the counter, arranging cups. He’d opened the door and the sunlight had hit her. He only had a profile of her, but it was enough to stun him and his men had slammed into him before they’d stumbled around him. She was absolutely exquisite. The pale perfection of her skin, the thick eyelashes. The room’s light wasn’t bright enough to see the exact color of her hair, but it was close to chestnut and waved luxuriously down her back. Then she lifted the tray and he could see the curves of her body, the graceful way she moved. In this hovel of a tavern was someone who belonged in a king’s bed.
And he should know, having grown with wealth and privilege, knowing the King himself, he knew the quality of the woman. But that wasn’t all that surprised him.
It was the wide berth of patrons around her. The inn was crowded at that time of day and a beautiful woman should have been pressed against, or been fighting, some of the more inebriated customers. If nothing else, if she was some wife, or sister, there would have been some camaraderie, some familiarity with her. Instead, she was ignored...
No, in a crowded inn, she was ostracized, the berth continued though she was done arranging the goblets, had lifted the tray and was turning to serve them. Everyone’s back was to her. As the door behind him closed, she hoisted the tray and then he saw what he had not from the profile of her left side.
As she turned to feed the customers behind her, he saw her right profile. Then he understood why, while in a crowded bar, she was left alone. Scarred beyond any repair. Old and healed burns from what he could tell. She had suffered some time in her past and suffered greatly.
He watched her. It was as if that moment had locked something inside him. She made him...curious. He didn’t know what side of her compelled him more. It wasn’t just her physical differences, it was her personality. Wary with the innkeeper, friendly with regulars. Defiant as if she insisted on showing her scars to travelers like him.
So he watched her while he sat in the back of the inn and drank poor ale, but waited for food that should never have been produced in such a hovel.
The innkeeper was a giant oaf of a man, whose unctuous manner grated on Rhain. Though he’d seen enough cruelty in the world, the innkeeper taunting the woman angered him. More than once he found himself reaching for his dagger to throw. A disquieting impulse, since he’d been able to shrug off such behavior before.
Yet he came back since he and his men enjoyed food he’d never expected to taste here. The cuts of meat in the stew were poor and often the vegetables were not fresh. But instead of grease and gristle, herbs and flavors had been added. Fine, arduous sifting of flour had been done to the rolls, which also had a sprinkling of herbs, making them both light and delicious.
It was a tiny village with no information. Completely useless to him for his business. No one would expect for him to be here and his men could be dry and fed well. More to the point, none of them protested when he said they would stay a few days.
And that was before he ate the cake which was light, but dense with honey that dripped and glossed over the top. He might be a giant oaf of an innkeeper, but the man’s cooking was unmatched.
Two sacks set on the table in front of him. It was the woman who delivered them, one hand perfect, the other gnarled with scars. Ravaged from fire like the entire right side of her face, neck and no doubt, by the way she moved, her body as well. One side exquisite, the other disfigured.
Slowly, he tilted his head up so as not to dislodge his hood, but enough to meet her eyes, which were a color he could not guess—green, grey or brown. He couldn’t determine their exact color, but they were clear, straightforward with intelligence, wariness and just a bit of pride. The fire had tilted down the corner of her right eye, and marred just a hair of her full lips. Her nose was left perfect, but her cheek and ear were deeply grooved.
This was the first time he had dared look at her fully. He of all people knew what it was like to be stared at.
Compelling though she was, he tried not to keep watching this woman. Still...
Her voice was melodious, and cultured, with a hint of French, her teeth white and even. It was just as conflicting as the rest of her and this inn. A hovel of an inn, sumptuous fare, a woman both beautiful and disfigured. A voice that should be filled with laughter instead of sorrow.
It was the sorrow he heard. His hands almost shook as he grabbed silver coins from his pouch and set them on the table. Too many, perhaps, but he didn’t dare check or she’d noticed his momentary weakness. He didn’t let anyone see his weakness.
‘I’ll require fifty by tomorrow morning.’
A slight flutter of those hands like he surprised her. ‘Twenty-five can be done by morning, another twenty-five by afternoon. The ovens are too small for fifty.’
‘I’m leaving tomorrow morning, and I require fifty. I’ll pay you double.’
She darted a glance before she slid the money off the table with her perfect hand. Her movements were graceful, but more importantly, they were silent. She acted like she didn’t want anyone to know she was pocketing such money.
He dared to look at her again, although it gave her an opportunity to see his own features. No one could see him now. It wasn’t for his safety, but for his men’s. For that he wouldn’t appease her curiosity though he recognized it since he felt the same about her.
Her expression was unreadable, almost as silent as the scraping of the coins on the table. On closer inspection, her face wasn’t badly scarred, the scars were softer, white and a light pink. But the deep gnarled grooves on her hand spoke of another story. She hadn’t been subjected to fire for a short time. Only prolonged exposure could cause that kind of damage.
Another coin hit into her hand, then to her pocket, and she left the rest. ‘It’s too much. This is more than double.’
Ah, she’d been counting as she took. Cultured voice and educated. Contrasts, and his curiosity was more than piqued. It was good he would be gone tomorrow. He hadn’t been curious about anything or anyone for many years. He didn’t have time to be curious now.
‘I just want the cakes done on time,’ he said.
She didn’t take the coins on the table. An honest tavern keep, too.
‘Take the rest for you.’ He wouldn’t raise his head, but he saw her shake her head.
‘Double will be enough,’ she said. ‘I’ll talk to the innkeeper, but I have no doubt you’ll get your cakes.’
Pleasure coursed through him. Another emotion he didn’t have time for. But if a few coins would give him such delicious pleasure, albeit briefly, he’d take it. He hated coin at the same time he used it to his advantage. He’d use anything to his advantage. It was his nature and even more so now.
‘Thank you,’ he said as she walked away. He untied one of the sacks in front of him and released a cake. It was warm and the smell of butter and honey were extravagant in the musty, almost putrid smells of the tavern. It fit perfectly in his hand and he reveled in the color, and the springy texture of his first bite.
He knew the taste would be better out of the darkness of the tavern. For a man of his wealth and status, a man who made his money on his mercenary skills and diplomacy, he knew the art of patience. He could wait until he reached the lodging and his men, but he didn’t want to.
Cakes. Such a little pleasure to most, but to him all the more precious since a price went on his head.
Publication: December 2016 by Harlequin Historical
“You have a debt to pay. You owe me your life.”
Anwen, bastard of Brynmor, has fought hard to find her place in the world. But she’s forced to rethink everything when she’s saved from death by her enemy Teague, Lord of Gwalchdu. Instead of releasing her, he holds her captive…
Teague trusts no one. So, with ominous messages threatening his life, he must keep Anwen under his watch, no matter how much her presence drives him wild. And when passionate arguments turn to passionate encounters, Teague must believe that the strength of their bond will conquer all!
Helplessly, he stood beside her in the early morning light. He stood partly in darkness, but she knelt on the cold stone floor at the entrance of the fortress and the sun’s light cut like spears across her huddled form.
Tears streamed from swollen eyes and fell to clenched hands. Her fine grey gown gathered around her like shadows and her black hair, tangled, writhed to the floor. She pulled her head back, suddenly, like a wounded animal showing its jugular to its killer and the cruel light slashed across muscles strained with sobbing. She opened her mouth, but the only sound that came out was a guttural crackling deep in her throat. Then silence. Then with a sound he would never forget, he heard her scream a name he would never allow to be spoken again in his presence.
‘William!’ Her body contorted upwards, her face raised in an effort to throw her voice. The name whipped around him as her breath came in small pants.
Teague watched his mother weeping. Watched, as she tore at her dress and as the deep jagged sounds shuddered and tore through her body. He watched and could do nothing to change the truth. No matter how long she cried for him, his father could not hear his mother’s call. His father was dead. He had been standing by his mother’s side when the messenger delivered the news.
Now, he stood behind a pillar and clenched his fists against his side. He did not grieve. His pain came from a much deeper and darker emotion. Anger. The anger he’d felt since he heard his mother and his aunt arguing a fortnight ago.
Their voices had been soft, but discordant, and he had hidden behind the green-linen wall coverings to hear them. It did not matter that he was only a child. He had understood then, in their rushed accusations, his father was never coming back. His father was dead, but he paid no heed to the news. To Teague, his father had died when he had forgotten his son and forsaken his wife.
He did not mourn his father’s death, but he was helpless at the sight of his mother’s grief. She wept, when he could not. She loved him still, when he would not. They were both unwanted. They’d been betrayed. Yet, he could hear the love she felt when she screamed his father’s name. Teague stepped out from behind the pillar and placed his arms around his mother’s neck. He held her for only a moment before she suddenly stilled and let out a new sound. One hand clutched her heavily swollen stomach, while the other clenched his hands.
‘Teague! Teague, get help!’ she gasped. Beneath his mother’s knees the stones darkened with water and rivulets of red. The foreboding liquid pooled and streamed towards his feet before he let go. As he raced to find some help, Teague made his heart a promise.
* * *
Wales — 1290
‘I’m going to die,’ Anwen of Brynmor muttered. ‘And why would that be? Because I climbed a tree and plunged to my death. That’s why.’
She circled the giant oak again. The thick lower branches could easily hold her weight. But it wasn’t the lowest branches terrifying her. No, it was the thinnest sprays of green at the top where she needed to go. She could no longer see her hunting goshawk tangled in the highest branches, but she could hear his screeching.
‘Oh, now you need me, do you? It would have been useful if you heeded me when you broke your creance and flew into Dameg Forest.’
She jumped, reached and missed the lowest branch. Her great blue gown billowed heavily around her legs. She quickly began unlacing the bodice.
‘No, I called and called and you just flapped your little wings, trailing your leather jesses behind you. You care now, don’t you? Now your jesses are tangled.’
Finished unlacing, she shrugged her shoulders until the gown pooled at her feet. Shivering, teeth chattering, she stepped out of the material. It was too cold to be in the forest, certainly too cold to be shedding any layers of clothing. At least it was also too cold for many people to be in the forest at this time of morning so there was no one to protest her lack of modesty. Shaking out any mud or wrinkles, she laid the gown gently on a fallen tree. It was her best dress despite the worn hem and hole in the sleeve.
‘I’d leave you if I could, Gully. But we have England’s fine King, and Gwalchdu’s arrogant lord, who’d order a hand chopping for losing you.’
The tiny hawk let out a wild screech.
‘Oh, you’re for the death punishment as well, are you? It won’t be me who will be punished, it will be Melun. That kind old falconer never hurt you one day in his life. So I’ll fetch you for his sake, not for your stringy neck.’
Stepping closer to the trunk, she crouched low and leapt. She was rewarded with shredding her hands against the bark and falling on her backside in cold partially frozen mud.
She sat catching her breath, but not able to catch her anger which bloomed up out of her. Punching the mud, she vented her frustration. ‘Why couldn’t I simply go home peacefully? You know I loathe visiting Gwalchdu village with all its perfectly thatched houses and perfectly cleaned streets.’
Thinking of Gwalchdu angered her more. She sprang up and threw mud at the tree trunk. ‘Then you fly off, making more work for me. And now I’m ranting, you rotten bird!’
Jumping, she grabbed the branch with her lacerated hands. Pain knifed through her arms, but she wouldn’t let go. Swinging her legs, she pushed her feet on to the roughened bark. Her grip slipped and fury arced through her.
It was bad enough losing her pride and yelling at a bird. It was worse yet wanting to sulk. And for what? Only so she could compare Brynmor with Gwalchdu? Her home was superior to Gwalchdu and it always would be.
She bit her fingers deep into the bark. She refused to slip. Strongly Welsh, Brynmor had fought to the end of the war against the English and so would she. Pulling up with all her might, she screamed.
‘Did you hear that?’ Teague, Lord of Gwalchdu, halted his horse.
‘There is nothing here in Dameg’s Forest but the beasts, the trees and the icicles clinging to my stirrups.’ Rhain shuddered. ‘In fact, I can think of little reason to be this deep in God’s forgotten forest this early in the morning.’
Rhain snorted, but pulled his horse closer.
Teague forced his ears to listen for any sounds above the frozen ground crunching beneath the horses’ hooves. The late autumn air was heavy with the smells of pine and damp earth and the fluttering sounds of small creatures. If there was someone in the forest, they weren’t nearby.
Dismissing the sound as a bird’s cry, he growled. ‘You know why we are here. It’s the only place left to hide.’
‘We hold no chance of finding anyone here,’ Rhain said. ‘It’s been hours since we received the threat and the enemy is gone by now. We search for only a trace.’
Teague’s frustration mounted as he urged his horse forward. ‘Then we search for a trace.’
It was too early in the morning for this search and too cold with a storm threatening. If the enemy was in the forest, they were more foolish than he thought. But it had to be a fool who threatened a Marcher Lord. One who retained and gained more power and land through the wars between Wales and England over a decade ago. One who could request aid from King Edward himself.
But Teague didn’t want aid, didn’t want to call attention to what threatened his home. So he and his brother searched alone. But so far had found no trace of an enemy. An enemy who, without provocation, left him hostile messages.
At first, he dismissed the messages. After all, he’d never been liked by his own countrymen, the Welsh, and certainly not by the English. Still, he earned the right to both sides’ respect. Though his countrymen continued to roll with hatred toward the English, the war was over. It was just a matter of the Welsh accepting their fate. He’d certainly accepted his fate as a traitor when he sided with the English. When he helped win King Edward’s war and kept Gwalchdu as his home.
No, he wasn’t well liked by his countrymen and he could dismiss petty threats. However, now the messages no longer just threatened his own life, but those of Gwalchdu’s inhabitants. When the enemy attached bloodied carcasses of animals he protected within Gwalchdu’s stone walls and showed that his fortress’s defences could be breached, Teague could no longer dismiss the threats.
He didn’t understand why the messages began so long after the war and didn’t understand the purpose of them, since the enemy demanded nothing. But Teague understood that he would put an end to them.
‘It’s uncannily quiet here.’ Rhain slowed his horse to follow him through the narrow passages between the trees. ‘What I wonder, dear Brother, is why you are risking your precious neck for this purpose? If your enemy hides here, you disadvantage yourself by going blindly into his lair.’
Teague leaned to avoid a branch. The skittish horse sidestepped and he pulled the reins sharply to avoid slicing his leg against bark. ‘The coward will not show his face to me, but by God’s breath, I will find him.’
He would find the enemy, and when he did… But it would not happen with words. And it would not happen while he discussed his safety with his brother. ‘I have no patience for this conversation. We will separate until the sun reaches midday.’
His sword ready and hidden by dense foliage, Teague stood awestruck. At any moment Rhain could rejoin him, but he couldn’t clear his thoughts. His blood, coursing hotly through his body, pooled lower. Whatever he was expecting when he heard the harsh creaking of shaken branches, this woodland nymph was not it.
She stood on the branch of an enormous oak tree. Her back was to him and her arms were wrapped around the trunk. Her blonde loose hair fell far down her back as she gazed upwards.
But it was not her standing in a tree that riveted him. It was the fact she was almost…naked. The grey chemise she wore was so threadbare he could see the rosiness of her rear and the large holes gave him glimpses of pure soft skin underneath.
She pulled herself over a higher branch and straddled it. When she grasped it between her hands, her chemise pulled tight and the position outlined the generous curves of her body.
By necessity, he leaned forward to get a better view. It was not enough; he stepped forward. He was less quiet, less hidden, but he did not care. She wore the most tantalising outfit ever conjured in his fantasies.
‘And there I’ll be, trapped in purgatory!’
He paused mid-step and adjusted his sword. Her husky voice was not that of a woodland nymph, but vengeful harpy. Someone was with her. And that cracked through his desire like the tip of a cold sword pricking his neck.
‘If it wasn’t for the food you hunt…’ she stood clumsily, her feet and hands finding little purchase until she braced herself against the tree ‘…food we desperately need, I might risk my hand with the false King Edward.’
Crouching back into the shadows, but not out of sight, Teague listened to her treasonous talk.
Her movements were abrupt, shaky, as she pulled herself up to the next branch. ‘It’s the Traitor’s fault I’m climbing this tree.’
Whoever was with her remained silent. She not only spoke of treason, she talked like his enemy. Higher and higher she climbed, to the slenderest branches, and still she did not stop.
‘All I wanted to do was give you a little training, purchase some fine jesses and return home.’ Adjusting her weight, she stretched out far from the trunk and the branch creaked loudly until she grabbed one above her. ‘I didn’t want to get stuck in this rotten forest. And I certainly didn’t want to have to purchase your jesses from my tanner that the Traitor stole.’
He edged closer, now confident she was alone. It was then he saw her goal: a bird caught by the leather straps around its legs. She talked to the bird and was spouting foolhardy words he was sure she’d want no one to hear.
‘Just like the Traitor stole everything else when he sided with the English vermin.’ Her hands sliding above her, she shuffled away from the trunk until she stood beneath the bird’s branch. With one hand she tore at the thin strips of leather until the bird rose free. ‘Wales should have won the war. Would have, too, if the almighty Lord of Gwalchdu hadn’t switched sides. And why? So he could feed his fat belly!’
His enemy was here. And not a man, but a mere woman, who was neatly trapped in a tree.
Teague slashed the brown dried undergrowth with his sword and strode out underneath the oak’s branches.
Startled, the woman’s hand slipped off the upper limb of the tree. The thin branch she stood on swayed as it took her entire weight. ‘You!’
Even from this distance, he saw her incredulity, then recognition, then a look so full of venom, he knew it mirrored his own.
‘Yes, me.’ Teague’s satisfaction was so complete, he felt like a fox sinking fangs deep into prey. ‘And you will come down to pay your due.’
‘My due?’ she spat, her body tight with ferocity. ‘My due!’ she repeated, as the branch she stood on protested with sickening snaps.
She spun towards the trunk. Too late.
‘Catch me!’ she demanded as the branch cracked. Surging out from the broken tumbling limb, she swung her arms wildly, but it was not enough.
Her arm, her body, her head glanced against unforgiving branches before her landing in his arms forced the breath from his lungs. Then he couldn’t breathe at all when he lowered her seemingly lifeless form to the ground.
She breathed, but blood coursed from her left temple. He laid her down, tore a strip off his outer tunic and wrapped the fabric around her head. Avoiding the deep gashes on her arms and legs, he felt for broken bones. She was intact, but for her head, and she desperately needed a healer.
She was his enemy, but she was alone. Her golden hair was matting with blood. With her paling complexion, she looked ready for the grave. If he left her here she would die.
Cradling her head within the crook of his arm, he lifted her to his chest and whistled for his horse. It would take precious time to reach Gwalchdu on foot, but he could not risk jarring her head.
This wasn’t how he felled his enemies. His enemies died by his own hand, not by some tree.
‘What has happened?’
Teague veered to his right. With several miles to go before he reached Gwalchdu, he hadn’t expected to see anyone. It took a moment to realise his brother’s presence did not represent a threat.
‘Where the hell have you been?’ Teague demanded.
Rhain dismounted. ‘The way you ordered me away, I would not have guessed my presence was so desired. I could have told you how wasteful it was to separate for our search. If I didn’t know better, I would think you thought little of my sword skills.’
‘I have no time to mend your hurt feelings. She is wounded.’
‘Let me help you mount and then I’ll go ahead to notify Sister Ffion.’
‘She’s not dead!’
Rhain stretched out his arms. ‘I can see that, dear Brother. Ffion may have the necessary herbs to help heal her.’
Teague placed the woman in Rhain’s arms, before mounting his own horse and gathering her close to him again. Edward’s wars trained them well in handling the injured. But this was no soldier’s body, heavy with armour. This was a woman: one so slight it was like holding nothing at all.
‘Ffion will not be pleased that you bring someone home at this time,’ Rhain said.
Ffion would not be pleased when she knew whom he brought home. ‘When has our aunt ever been pleased? It appears her God was not listening when He deemed me this woman’s only protection.’
‘You could always leave her with one of the villagers.’
‘No!’ Teague said, surprised at his reaction. He did not want to leave her in the care of someone else. ‘We waste time. Ready my room.’
Teague didn’t wait to see his brother go. His attention was pulled to the woman in his arms. Limp, she moulded against him and he could feel each shallow breath filling her body. His white tunic wrapped around her head was soaked bright red with blood, her hair was tangled with leaves and bark, and her face was almost translucent. He had the horse but even so, the journey to his home would be slow.
He only hoped he wouldn’t be too late.
Publication: June 2016 by Harlequin Historical
At the gates of a Scottish keep...
Lioslath of Clan Fergusson has defended her clan and her orphaned siblings against countless enemies. So when Laird Colquhoun, the man responsible for the death of her father, arrives at the gates of her crumbling keep, she’ll fight him all the way!
It’s soon clear Bram’s famed tactics of seduction and negotiation won’t work on this guarded, beautiful woman. But when the sparks between them turn to passion, and they’re forced to wed, Bram must do whatever it takes to win over his new bride…
Scotland — 1296
‘You were expecting me.’
Lioslath of Clan Fergusson stopped pacing the darkness of her bedroom and adjusted the knife in her hand. From years of training, she knew simply on the utterance of his four words where Bram, Laird Colquhoun, stood in the room, and the precise location of his beating heart.
She knew it, even though her back was to him and she’d been caught pacing. Defenceless. Or so he thought.
The laird was right; she had been expecting him. Expecting him as one views a storm on the horizon. Ever since he and his clansmen, like black clouds, crested a nearby hill. Since he alerted her young brothers, who raced to the keep, giving them precious moments to lock the gates. All the while the storm of Laird Colquhoun and his clansmen gathered strength and lined up outside the keep with arrows and swords like lightning about to strike.
But they hadn’t struck. And it had been almost a month. Which meant weeks of her climbing the haphazardly rebuilt platform to look over the gates; weeks of hearing the Colquhoun men below her even before she climbed the rickety steps.
It had been almost a month, and still they didn’t strike. Although she barred the gates, though the villagers shunned him, Laird Colquhoun hadn’t struck like the harshest of Scottish storms. Rather, he and his clansmen enclosed the keep. Surrounded, she felt choked by his stormy presence, suffocated by the battering wait.
But this morning, she knew the wait was over when she spied the carefully placed food at the outside entrance of the secret passage. Her captor had discovered her tunnel. She knew, despite the fact she locked the gates, the storm would get inside.
When he hadn’t come during the day, Lioslath expected Bram of Clan Colquhoun this night. She was no fool.
But she hadn’t been expecting his voice. Deep, melodious, a tenor that sent an immediate awareness skittering up the backs of her legs and wrapping warmth around her centre.
So she didn’t immediately turn to see him, even though a man was in her bedroom. Forbidden and unwanted. She didn’t pretend maidenly outrage as she had carefully planned, to provide a necessary distraction and give her an advantage before her attack.
It was his voice. It was...unexpected.
It didn’t fit here, in the dark, in the intimacy of her bedroom. It didn’t fit with what she’d seen of him so far.
Arrogant, proud, superior, Bram rode through her broken village to her weather-worn gates thinking himself a welcome benefactor with his carts of overstocked gifts. Or worse, as laird of the keep bestowing treasures to his people.
Since Laird Colquhoun began the siege, he’d been an abrasive force, from his vibrant red hair to the length of his strides as he walked amongst his men. His voice booming orders; his demands to open the gates. His constant laughter. Everything about him she instinctively rejected.
But not now.
Now his voice reverberated with some power, some seductive tone she’d never heard before. She felt his voice. And it shouldn’t have felt like this. Not to her. She calmed her wavering heart.
Never to her.
Allowing the cool night air into her lungs, she turned and immediately wished she stood elsewhere.
The full moon cast light through the window and holes in the roof, but his back was to the light and Bram remained in darkness.
She knew the darkness would give his voice an advantage. She adjusted the knife, careful to keep it close and ready. Her plan might have changed, but not her intent. Bram of Clan Colquhoun was expected, but he was not wanted. He had arrived too late for that.
‘Get out,’ she said, without menace. Dog hid in a corner. She needed not to alert him to her tumultuous feelings; she needed to remain calm and keep to their routine. For years they’d hunted together. Dog knew what the knife in her hand meant: for him to lie in wait for her signal—and surprise their prey. ‘Get out of my room and away from the keep. Weren’t the closed gates and the hurtled dung enough deterrent? Leave, Laird Colquhoun. You never should have come.’
* * *
Bram could only stare.
Weeks of being barred entrance to the keep of Clan Fergusson, of wasting time while determining the layout of the keep and the village. Of glimpsing the woman who, without schedule, would appear at the top of the gates. Visible, but never near enough to truly see her.
But now, as shafts of moonlight illuminated her form, he did see her. It was as if the night created another star. One brighter than those poised in the sky above this tiny room.
He glanced around. A single bed, a small table at the opposite wall. Something large, like a trunk, in the dark corner nearest her. A simple room and too meagre for her beauty, but at least they were alone.
‘You were expecting me,’ Bram repeated, now realising the meaning of finding this woman fully dressed and pacing. ‘You received my gift this morning. You observed us today. You knew I was coming.’
‘The deer and vegetables by the entrance,’ he said. ‘I didn’t know if you would take them.’
She frowned, a darkness marring her eyes.
He knew she’d been stealing their food for the past week. Until yesterday, he hadn’t known how. When he discovered the tunnel, he knew he had to let her know his intentions. So this morning, he placed the food at the entrance. He only meant it as part of his negotiations.
But now he knew, instantly, he failed.
‘You didn’t want to take them,’ he answered for her. He was a master at diplomacy, but his gift hadn’t softened her towards him. She locked the gates against him and his clansmen. The food was only a reminder.
‘Why aren’t you leaving?’ she said instead.
Because what he came to do wasn’t done. He had to be here. Tonight. While he’d been waiting for the gates to open, danger came to his clan. His duty as laird necessitated he end this stalemate, but it wasn’t duty he thought of now.
Lioslath’s short black hair curled and spiked defiantly. It highlighted her sharp cheekbones and softly angled chin. Her skin was pale in the moonlight, and it emphasised the size and brightness of her eyes. And the colour...
They were blue, intense and startling against the blackness of her hair and thick eyelashes. It was as if under her finely arched brows shone the brightest of summer skies.
In the moonlight, he couldn’t fully see the outline of her body, but he didn’t need to now. Every time she stood on the platform, the wind plastered her paltry clothing to curves that made beggars of men. Including himself.
His reaction to her wasn’t in the plan he and his brothers devised: for him to make amends to the Fergussons, to wait out the winter and to hide from a certain English king.
A complicated plan made simple by the fact that all of it could be done on Fergusson land and that Lioslath needed to know only one of those reasons for his being here. The one he explained in the letter he wrote last April. To remedy the wrongs that had been done to her clan and family by lending aid and comfort to the Fergussons’ orphaned children.
After all, he’d tried to ally the Colquhoun clan with theirs, when he had married his sister Gaira to Fergussons’ laird and Lioslath’s father. When Gaira had refused such a marriage and fled to their sister at Doonhill, Lioslath’s father had been killed.
Unfortunately, the Battle of Dunbar had delayed Bram’s arrival by summer. It would soon be winter, and his intent to help this clan would prove more difficult. Yet he was here now.
Here, now, and in her room. It had been a simple act to arrive here by a cleverly hidden passage. He’d been surprised the tunnel led to under her bedroom. When he found her here, he’d been pleased. After the political and personal turmoil of the past year, his brothers’ fateful arrival and portentous messages, he needed something to be simple.
But there was nothing simple about Lioslath. A woman who was created as if the moon and sun deemed her beauty worthy of them both. Had he known the quality, the sheer magnificence of her beauty, he would have breached the weak defences a fortnight ago. Any man would have.
He cursed himself at his use of reasonable diplomacy. The food he tried offering failed because he’d been laying siege to a decrepit keep instead of laying siege to the beautiful female inside.
Suddenly, everything became clear to him on how easy it would be to get her cooperation. And he needed her cooperation if his plan to remain here for the winter were to work.
‘You want me to leave? After all, we need to…negotiate. This is your first meeting with Laird Colquhoun,’ he said. Self-assured, he knew who he was, what his power meant to any lass. ‘You couldn’t desire this to be so brief.’
She was beautiful and probably used to men and flirting. He’d been a fool to stay outside the gates. A fool thinking not to frighten the children and families with force. All he had to do was to coax, to flirt, to please.
‘Brief? I desire—’ she put emphasis on the word ‘—for it not to happen at all.’
He liked the word ‘desire’ coming from her mouth. He liked the shape of her full lower lip, the deep dip on her upper one. Her lips were shaped like a bow, as if an angel had pressed its fingers there to keep a secret.
‘But it has.’ He shrugged, pretending a nonchalance his body didn’t feel. ‘I’m here to get past our introduction. You are Lioslath, after all,’ he murmured. ‘The eldest daughter?’ He’d introduced himself when he came to the gates, but she hadn’t. Maybe some sense of propriety was needed, even here, in her bedroom.
In her bedroom, where she stood waiting for him. His anticipation tightened. Maybe she knew this game as well as he.
Her frown increased. ‘You came to this room not knowing who I am?’
Satisfaction coursed through him. She did know the game. She was coyly, if not suggestively, asking him to guess who she was. Flirting would be easier than he thought.
‘I know exactly who you are.’ He stepped towards her as she held still. The room was small; it wouldn’t take much to be right against her. ‘The lass I will soon kiss.’
Her lips parted as her brows drew in. She shook her head once as if answering a question inside.
Did she think he wouldn’t kiss her? Then she didn’t know him very well. Another regret for his delay. She would soon learn that he kept his word.
‘I am not fond of jests,’ she said. ‘Nor those who try my patience.’
She stepped outside the shafts of light and he felt the loss of vision. He might be within the gates now, but she continued to bar him with her sparring words. A game she clearly played well.
But it was late, and although he was known for his game playing, he knew when to steal forward, especially when he had the advantage. She was a woman, after all. He always knew how to get his way with women. She would be no different.
‘Come now, enough of this game,’ he said. ‘It is night and we are alone. Isn’t there something else you’d rather play?’
Lioslath didn’t understand this man.
At first she blamed the lateness of the night, the way his voice seemed to reach into her. Blamed her continual hunger and thirst for her addled mind. She knew she was addled, because when he mentioned game, her mouth watered with the wanting of succulent meat. But that wasn’t the type of game he meant.
‘I never play games.’ She found the very word offensive.
He waved and she followed the gesture. His hands were finely tapered, with a strength and eloquence that was as unexpected as his voice.
‘Come, I’ve seen this ploy before,’ he said. ‘In the past, it has made the reward sweet. But we have waited long enough, love. Trust that my willingness to participate in this game you play could not be any truer.’
Was this man flirting with her? Since childhood, and until only recently, she’d been ignored. She slept in stable lofts and no man flirted with her. Ever. They wouldn’t dare.
No, it couldn’t be flirting. It was merely his abrasive ease with words, with manners, with everything. A man who thought himself charming as he used words like ‘lass’ and ‘love’.
He didn’t charm her, yet he didn’t seem to be leaving. She had a choice to make. The knife or Dog? It was late, a knife would make a mess she’d have to clean and she needed her sleep.
‘You need to leave now,’ she ordered.
With a wave of her hand, Dog rose. Bram’s eyes widened, not with fear, but with surprise.
‘That’s a dog? I thought it was a trunk.’ His grin changed. ‘Hardly welcoming having a—is that a wolf?—in your room, since you were expecting me.’
He took his eyes off Dog, which was foolish, or arrogant.
It didn’t matter. His time with her was over. It had gone on too long. She blamed her hunger, his voice, the fine movement of his hands. She blamed him for everything. It was time to remind him of it.
‘Aye, I was expecting you,’ she said, with as much scorn as she could paint the words. ‘Expecting as one does a plague, or a pestilence. And I welcome you just as much.’ She shifted her stance, getting ready to throw the dagger. ‘You need to leave. I’ve warned you.’
‘We haven’t begun, Lioslath. Why would I leave?’
He was arrogant. Vibrant. Too full of life. She made another signal and Dog, with a noise deep in his throat, came to her heels.
The sound always raised the hairs on her neck and she had no doubt it did the same to Bram. But he did not take his eyes from hers, did not see Dog as a threat, and so he forced her hand.
‘You need to leave because I was expecting you, Bram, Laird of Colquhoun.’ Lioslath stepped into the light, lifted the dagger, made sure it glinted so he’d know what she intended. ‘But I do not think you were expecting me.’
Publication: 1 September 2015 by Harlequin Historical
In the wilds of Scotland...
Impulsive Mairead Buchanan’s only goal is to track down the man responsible for her brother’s death. Until a shameful encounter with Caird of enemy clan Colquhoun proves a distraction she can’t ignore...
Nothing could prepare Mairead for the path she’s thrown onto when the secrets of a jeweled dagger are revealed and she finds herself kidnapped by this sexy highlander! With Mairead’s recklessness a perfect foil to Caird’s cool command, can these two enemies set their clans’ differences aside and surrender to the desire that rages between them?
Mairead Buchanan tried to calm her heart and failed. She didn’t even know why she tried. She knew it wasn’t possible. It had been pounding like this for over a fortnight and now it was only worse. Inside her thumping heart, grief clawed sharp.
But she didn’t have time for grief, didn’t have time to be reasonable, or to think. She was about to break; she just needed to do.
This nightmare had to end. And here, tonight, where she stood observing the shadows of a disreputable inn and freezing in the night’s damp cold, it would.
The candles on the inn’s ground floor were finally extinguished. The windows were black; the main shutters were closed. Not even a woman laughing in the distance marred the soft rustling of the night breeze. It was late; it was time.
Yet even now she fought what she had to do. Even now, she wanted to shake herself, to run in circles like a madwoman trying to escape what she had seen, what she had done. What she could not ever repair. Her brother, Ailbert, collapsing to the ground. His eyes going vacant, losing their sight. She clenched her eyes shut. Grief clawed. She clawed back.
It wouldn’t do to think of Ailbert now. Her anger or her pain. She must still her heart and retrieve what was stolen from him. It was the only way to save her family from Ailbert’s recklessness. If she didn’t retrieve the priceless dagger, the laird would certainly punish her family.
Scotland was being ravaged by war and conflict. Her mother and sisters would never survive the humiliation or the certain banishment from the clan. Without the clan, there was nothing to protect them from the English. They had nowhere else to go. No other family to turn to.
For her family’s sake, she followed Ailbert’s murderer to the inn. The man had actually paid for a room. Had probably eaten his fill and was now sleeping soundly. Ordinary actions her brother would never do again. Fury swamped Mairead’s grief and she welcomed it. Grief and desperation consumed her, but only anger would get her through this night.
Looking over her shoulder and into the gloom of the evening, she took a big breath. There was no one behind her and she had had enough of waiting.
Silencing her breath, she opened the door and let herself in. It was darker than she imagined; the shadows blanketed furniture and walls. It was unnaturally quiet and she concentrated on the sounds she could hear. The hammering of her heart, the air as it left her body, the creak of the boards as the night wind buffeted the old building.
Swiftly and nimbly, she weaved through the benches and trestles on her way to the stairs. She wasn’t certain which room the murderer occupied, but she’d give herself no more than an hour to search the rooms for the stolen dagger. Any more time and travellers would be likely to stir.
She had to have—no, needed that dagger. She’d lie and steal if she had to. She’d even go into strangers’ rooms and risk her life. The dagger’s large handle was made of finely decorated polished silver and was inset with two rubies. If she could sell it, like Ailbert had intended, the debt he’d incurred could be repaid. Everything would not be lost by his reckless gambling and then, only then, could she grieve.
Walking down the small hallway, she stopped at the first door and eased the heavy iron latch open, only to find the room empty. Gently closing the door, she peered over her shoulder. She was alone.
Mairead crept to the next room and winced as the door clicked loudly. A narrow window on the opposite wall provided the light needed to illuminate an occupied bed.
From the size and shape of the lump, it looked to be a man. Her brother’s murderer was large and this man looked large, but she couldn’t tell whether the bed linens gave him the breadth or if it was the man himself.
Reminding herself she needed the bed occupied, she released her breath and entered the room. Clothes were strewn over a stool at the foot of the bed. A pair of boots sat nearby. Perhaps the dagger was here. Grateful that the floorboards did not squeak, she knelt on the floor.
The dim embers in the fireplace provided little light, but the unshuttered window gave plenty. His clothing consisted of a cloak, braies, dark leggings, a whitish tunic, boots and a pouch.
The man in the bed was naked.
The bed creaked as the man shifted and gave out a heavy breath. Mairead tensed, ready to run, until he stilled.
Her heart wasn’t so accommodating and continued to hammer in her chest. Trying to steady her nerves, she continued her search, but her fingers trembled as she felt along his boots. There was no dagger placed deep in the feet. Careful of the attached belt, she pulled the pouch off the stool and on to her lap. A slight jangle of coins made her jump, but the man remained still. The bed linens continued to rise and fall with each steady breath.
Not bothering to open the pouch, she felt along the fine leather. No dagger. She felt the tunic, the braies and the thin leather leggings. Nothing. That left the cloak.
Gathering it in both hands, she was instantly aware of the fine soft wool. Never having felt such a cloth before she reveled in its feel as she pulled on the immense amount of fabric. The stool upended, and she made a grab for it. Too late. It fell with a dull thud to the floor. The man’s deep breathing stopped abruptly.
His rough voice commanded the little room. She didn’t answer. Maybe it was too dark for him to see. Maybe if she didn’t make a noise he’d go back to sleep.
The man rose in a half incline. Though she willed her body to remain still, slight tremors began in her legs and arms. If possible, her breathing grew louder.
The bed linens did not make him look large. He was large. His chest was bare of any ornament. She could not see the texture of his skin, but could see the ripples and curves of deeply embedded muscles coursing from his wide shoulders down his arms. His long loose hair gave his dark face a wild and untamed look. The rest of him was partially concealed by the bed linens, but not the glint of steel he held in his hand. This was a man who slept with weapons.
‘If you...think I cannot see you, you forget you sit within the light of the window.’
This was not the murderer. His voice was too calmly masculine, too reverberating, too...slurred. He was drunk!
Relief skittered through her. Thinking only of slow responses from a drunken man, she leapt for the door.
Her eyes did not register the blade flying past her arm. But she heard the sharp slice it made in the oak door, mere inches from her outstretched hand.
Mairead’s hand froze along with the rest of her body. But her eyes blinked rapidly as she tried to focus and comprehend.
Had he thrown a dagger towards her? She peered closer. It was only a small boot blade, and not the dagger she wanted.
What kind of man slept with a small blade and a sword in his bed? Her hand could have been cut, or worse, sliced in two!
She whirled around. ‘How could you throw a dagger at me?’
‘You’re a woman?’
‘Ach, of course I’m a woman. Even in this dim light you must see I’m wearing a gown!’
He made a noise, somewhere between a huff and a groan, as he shoved the linens away and swung his legs over the side of the bed.
He was not just a large man, he was huge. He carried his sword loosely at his side. She didn’t care about his sword. She cared about his nakedness walking towards her.
‘Who are you?’ he demanded.
The dim light wasn’t going to hide him much longer. She could not only see the size and shape of him, but also—
He was magnificent. Just stunning. It was as if he reinterpreted everything she’d ever known about the opposite sex. There wasn’t a Buchanan man built like him. She didn’t even know men were made like this.
She couldn’t tell the colour of his hair or eyes, but the light did not hide the hard slant of sharp cheekbones, the bold line of a straight nose. And lips beautifully curved, shaped full underneath.
Her eyes didn’t want to blink. Her chest felt light and constricted at the same time. Her breath came in short gasps. Was she going to actually giggle?
He walked nearer. He was naked. Utterly naked.
Revealed to her were the defined curves of powerful shoulders and arms, the very masculine breadth of his chest, the fluid movement of muscles tapering slightly to a rippled stomach.
She should have turned away, but she couldn’t. Maybe it was the darkness making her bold. Maybe it was her impulsiveness, a trait her mother lamented, stopping any maidenly blushing. Or maybe she looked because she couldn’t help herself. Aye, that was it.
Her eyes dropped lower.
Her mouth became dry, her lips parched. Fearing her mouth hung open, she licked her lips, only to feel the moisture evaporate like all the thoughts in her head. Her legs suddenly felt like tall reeds of grass swaying in the wind. Try as she might, she could not lock her knees.
He growled, low, almost a purr except for the fact it was so masculine. So predatory. She didn’t know how to interpret the sound and couldn’t seem to look to his eyes for any help.
“Do you like what you see?’ He set the sword against the bed. Her eyes thankfully followed the movement. But averting her eyes did not give her balance and she looked back up.
“I like what I see.’ His eyes were too intense, too penetrating and held her immobile. ‘I like what I see very much.’
Publication: February 2015 by Harlequin Historical
Black Robert. The most feared of all King Edward's men....
When an English knight approaches the charred ruins of her sister’s Scottish village, Gaira of Clan Colquhoun knows better than to trust this fierce-looking man. Yet, struggling to set her war-shaken world to rights, she has little choice.
Robert of Dent will see her to safety. He can promise nothing more. Never again will he make a vow like the one he broke years ago, even though Gaira’s fierce resilience makes him long to protect her.
But what will happen when Gaira discovers exactly who Robert is?
‘Faster, you courageous, knock-kneed, light-footed bag of bones!’ Gaira of Clan Colquhoun hugged lower on the stolen horse.
How much time did she have before her betrothed or her brothers realised in which direction she had fled? Two days, maybe three? Barely enough time to get to the safety of her sister’s home.
She couldn’t push the horse any faster. Already its flanks held a film of sweat and its breath came in heavy pants with each rapid pound of its hooves. Each breath she took matched the same frantic rhythm.
There it was! Just up the last hill and she would be safe. Safe. And there would be food, rest and the vast warmth of her sister’s comfort and counsel.
She turned her head. There was no sign of pursuit. Her heart released its fierce grip and she eased up on the reins.
‘We made it. Just a bit more and you can eat every last grain I can beg from Irvette.’
She smelled the fire before she crested the hill. The stench was a mixture of blackened smoke, heat, dried grass and rotting cow. The horse sidestepped and flicked its head, but she kept its nose forward until she reached the top.
Then she saw the horror in the valley below. Reeling, she fell upon the horse’s neck and slid down the saddle. Her left ankle twisted underneath her as it took the brunt of her descent. She didn’t feel the pain as she heaved her breakfast of oatcakes and water.
When she was emptied, she felt dry dirt under her hands, crunching grass under her knees. Her horse was no longer by her side.
She stood, took a deep breath and coughed. It wasn’t rotting cow she smelled, but burnt hair and charred human flesh.
The stench was all that remained of her sister’s village. The many crofters’ huts resembled giant empty and blackened ribcages. There were no roofs, no sides, just burnt frames glowing with the fire still consuming them.
The entire valley looked as if a huge flaming boulder had crashed through the kindling-like huts. Large twisted and gnarled swirls of black heat and smoke rose and faded into the morning sky.
She could no longer hear anything. There were no birds chirping, no rustling of tall grass or trees and no buzzing insects. All of Scotland’s sounds were sucked out of the air.
Her heart and lungs collapsed. Irvette. Her sister. Maybe she wasn’t down there. She wouldn’t think. Pushing herself forward, she stumbled as her ankle gave way. It would be useless for the sloped descent.
She looked over her shoulder. Her horse skittered at the base of the hill. He was spooked by the heat and smells; she could call, but he would not come.
Bending to her hands and knees, she crawled backward down to the meandering valley. Blasts of heat carried by the wind ruffled up her tunic and hose. She coughed as the smoke curled around her face. When she reached the bottom, she straightened and took off the brown hat upon her head to cover her mouth.
Her eyes scanned the area as she tried to comprehend, tried to understand what she saw. Thatch, planks of wood and furniture were strewn across the path between the huts and so were the villagers: men, women, dogs and children.
They were freshly made kills of hacked and charred bodies. The path was pounded by many horses’ hooves, but there weren’t any horses or pigs or even chickens.
Dragging her left foot through the ashes behind her, she stumbled through the burning village, which curved with the valley.
At the dead end of the devastation, the last of the crofters’ huts stood. More intact than the others, it was still badly scarred by the flames and its roof hung limply with pieces falling to the ground.
Near the doorway, she looked at the two burned and face down bodies of a man and a woman. The man was no more than a husk of burnt flesh with his head severed from his body.
But it was the woman’s she recognised: the flame-coloured hair burnt at the tips and the creamcoloured gown smeared with dirt. Blood spread along the gown in varying flows from the two deep sword-thrusts in the stomach. Irvette.
Her world twisted, sharpened. She suddenly heard the popping and hiss of water, the crash of brittle wood splintering into ashy dust and a high keening sound, which increased in volume until she realised the sound came from her.
She stopped, gathered her breath and then she heard it: a whisper, a cry, fragile and high-pitched.
She quickly limped into the hut and weaved before crashing to her knees.
‘Snakes and boars,’ she whispered. ‘Thank God, you’re alive.’
Nicole discovered her first romance novel in a closet, where her grandmother, the godmother in the romance black market, was hiding hundreds. Knowing her grandmother wouldn’t approve, Nicole hid in the closet to read them. It was only a matter of time before she was found out and given an offer she couldn’t refuse: enjoy them, but out in the living room please. Oh, and if she could go to the store and get a few more.... A few more? Nicole got two jobs.
Inexplicably, Nicole stopped reading romances (she blames her handsome university English professor, who she was trying and failing to impress). So she didn’t discover them again until, at work, where another black market book swap occurred. Instead of swapping for another forgettable book, Nicole chose a romance (which she still reads).
Needless to say, she didn’t return to work (good thing it was after 5:00 pm) and she didn’t immediately return home either. At that moment, she insists Etta James was singing “At Last”. It was only natural she’d start writing romances as well.
Currently, she lives in Seattle with her two completely opposite children, who if not for their birth certificates and their red hair, she’d argue they weren’t related, and her husband, who if not for his red hair, would have returned them.
Author photos by David Garfield.
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