Authors: Juliana Garnett
“Be careful, milady, that you do not confuse lust with love. Both are dangerous to the inexperienced.”
Catherine drew in a shaky breath. “As I have little experience with either emotion, I shall have to trust in you to guide me.”
Alex looked stunned. Then he gave a soft, amazed laugh. “Is that not too like trusting the wolf in the sheep pen, milady?”
“Perhaps. But ’tis all I can do.…”
As her words trailed into a whisper, he shook his head. “You have undone me, my lady. I am confounded.”
“Are you?” She dragged a fingertip across the smooth expanse of his lower lip. “Yet you look like a man very certain, and very much in control.”
In a swift motion, he bent to cover her lips with his in a searing kiss that stole her breath and left her clinging to him weakly. It consumed her.…
ALSO BY JULUNA GARNETT
In memory of Dolly Kinnison Gibson, who lent a
fourteen-year-old girl the courage to spread her wings.
A cold, fierce wind as foul as a demon’s breath sucked the clouds from the western sky and spat gray sheets of rain toward the distant bristled spires of Kielder Forest across the border. Alexander Fraser reined in his lathered mount atop a rocky summit where the wind was the fiercest, and watched in angry disbelief as the riders vanished over the crest of a bare knoll. Sassenach, though they were too far away for him to see the pennant that identified them. They would be well across the border into England before he could reach them. Curse them. He was too late … too late.
A crackling boom split the heavens, drowning out the relentless drum of futility resounding in his ears, and Alex looked up into the blackness overhead. Thunder rumbled in the skies, an ominous pounding like the English hooves on Scottish soil. Rain fell harder. Rivulets streamed over his face, plastering his long black hair to his head like a monk’s cap, clumping his eyelashes together and blurring his vision as he stared at the distant border. He huffed a
long breath that formed frost clouds in front of his face, but the demon wind whipped them away.
He curbed both his restive mount and the temptation to follow the enemy across that invisible line between Scotland and England. It had been overlong that he had bided his time as Robert Bruce bade him do, and now he was weary of engaging the English only in swift skirmishes or lightning raids that availed them heavy tributes from the villagers but not their freedom. Would a decisive battle ever come? Too many Scots lay among English dead strewn about the summit in boneless sprawls, waning steam slowly rising from their lifeless forms. He nudged his horse forward to survey the dead with dread anticipation, but did not see his own men among the fallen. Nor did he see Adam de Brus, dead or alive. Bitterness rose. Curse Robert Bruce’s cousin for confronting the English with too few men at his side. Aye, even after Alex had warned him. Now Scots lay dead on their own turf, testament to foolish de Brus pride and hot temper.
A savage flick of rain-thick wind curled the edge of his plaid and knifed through the jagged rips in his sherte. Alex barely felt it. The stench of death was too strong, defying even the wind, seeping into him with powerful premonition. It was all much too familiar, the moans of the dying, the peculiar sickly sweet smell that pervaded even his dreams—had he ever had a day without it? It did not seem so now. All he could remember was struggle and battle and the screams of those hurled into eternity in the blink of an eye and the flash of a sword—Alex drew in a deep breath to clear his head and sweep away the images that haunted him.
The metallic clink of harness was muffled by the relentless keening of the wind as Robbie MacLeod rode up
beside him. Robbie’s horse snorted, crimson nostrils flared and blowing frost clouds like dragon-smoke.
“It was the Earl of Warfield. He has Adam de Brus.”
Robbie’s rough announcement only confirmed what Alex already suspected, and he nodded tersely.
“Aye, curse him. Doubtless, ’tis vengeance for the Bruce’s raids over the Solway two years ago, his burning of Haltwhistle and most of Tynedale. Bruce will not be pleased to hear the English have yet another of his kin captive.”
“Alex—they have Jamie as well.”
A splinter of shock pierced Alex, sharp and suffocating in its intensity as the Gaelic words were whipped away by a gust of wind. “I left Jamie behind at Castle Rock.”
“He did not stay behind.” Robbie jerked his head to indicate a bloody form being wrapped in a wool plaid and borne to a litter. “One of de Brus’s men just said that your brother joined them late last eve, and was taken captive with de Brus.”
Alex did not move, for it would betray the tension that rendered him almost immobile. “Christ above! I gave Jamie strict orders to stay where I left him.”
“Och, you know Jamie’s a braw lad with not a dram of caution in him.” Robbie spat onto chewed turf that was rife with battle litter. Rain molded his thin sherte to his body and dragged his woolen plaid down with its weight. His light hair was dark from it, and water streamed over features as sharp as an ax blade as he regarded Alex with glum resignation. “He was angry because you said he was too young to fight the English. Now he has fought his first battle.”
“So it seems.” Alex drew in a breath saturated with the smell of fresh blood, wet earth, and grim despair. “By God, I will have his hide for this!”
“Aye,” Robbie said soberly, “but Warfield will have his head.”
Alex sucked in another sharp breath. “Yea, ’tis true. This feckless decision will cost Jamie his life.”
“Alex, you cannot mean we will do nothing about it.” Robbie’s tone was angry, amazed. “The bloody Sassenach have your brother … do we not go after him? Christ above, Alex, you know what will happen once Warfield gets Jamie to England.”
Numbly, Alex swung his gray gaze to Robbie. A light of desperation glinted in Robbie’s eyes and made his decision more difficult, yet no less resolute. “Yea, I know well what is like to happen. I am not willing to let Jamie die, but I am not willing to defy the Bruce. He bade me stay my hand and arms for the moment, and until I confer with him, I must abide by my oath.”
Robbie groaned. “May God help Jamie then. Warfield is a ruthless man, and boon companion of King Edward. Though Longshanks’s spawn may not be the hard king his father was, he is still as dangerous as a snapping cur.”
“I will negotiate with Warfield—”
“The bloody earl holds the English king’s ear, and will not listen to you,” Robbie growled.
“But he does want money.” Alex regarded him grimly. “My coffers are near empty, but I am worth more as hostage than Jamie.”
Flames of real fear leaped high in Robbie’s dark eyes, and his ruddy complexion turned scarlet as he searched Alex’s face for a long moment. “Do you think Warfield will pass up the chance to slay you both? He will not. We have ravaged his lands and exacted too many tributes from him not to know he will seek vengeance where he can. Nor will Bruce want to risk your certain death.”
“I have fought fifteen years for Scotland’s freedom and have supported Robert Bruce well.” Alex’s jaw went
taut, and he shoved roughly at the wet loop of dark hair the wind dangled in front of his eyes. “The Bruce holds English prisoners for ransom. If he is loath to risk me, surely among that lot there are some important to War-field.” He drew in a deep breath. “Or to the English king.”
“More important than holding Bruce’s cousin?” Robbie shook his head dolefully. “’Tis doubtful, Alex.”
“You have met Warfield. What think you of him?”
Robbie spat on the ground again, and his lips curled. “He is a powerful lord, to be certain, but not a man I would trust with the life of my kin. He backs King Edward, just as he backed his father, and ’tis said he would deliver his own mother to the king if ’twas asked of him.”
Alex was quiet. The wind howled around his head and his horse pranced restively beneath him. At last he said, “Think you that if negotiation fails, you could remember the lay of Warfield keep, Robbie?”
A grin split Robbie’s craggy face. “Aye, ’tis more what I wanted to hear from you, by God! I have been to the earl’s keep, and can recall well the lay of it. We should call up our men and ride hotfoot to England now—”
“Nay, first I will counsel with the Bruce.”
Wrenching his mount around, Alex spurred the lathered animal down the steep, rock-studded hill. A forked lightning tongue speared the darkening sky, briefly bringing noonday brightness to the rocky summit. The air shimmered with the pungent scent of wet turf and blood. Behind him, he heard Robbie following at a reckless pace.
Despite his words, Alex had more doubts than he would allow Robbie to see. Would Bruce allow him to negotiate for Jamie’s release? Of late, the Scottish king had avoided direct battle with the English, preferring to raid towns and lay waste to the English countryside, exacting
heavy tributes for his protection. Those who did not resist were spared, but those who turned to fight met swift ends. Noble English hostages were a valuable commodity, ransomed for hefty sums.
But if Warfield demanded ransom instead of an exchange of hostages, Scottish coffers could not bear the fine. The coin paid by the northern counties of England to purchase truce was spent too swiftly in the provisioning of an army.
With a sick heart, Alex feared Robert Bruce’s reply. Jamie’s future seemed grimly short.
Lady Catherine Worth braced herself against the wind. Her fingers curled into the rough stone of the high curtain wall that encircled Warfield keep as she gazed over crenellated parapets into the distance. A heavy mist dampened the air and curled her unruly mane of coppery hair around her face in dark-fire ringlets that tickled her cheek. An impatient flick of one hand brushed them aside; violet-blue eyes narrowed against the moisture that obscured her vision.