Our Story Begins: After consolidating his gains against the enemy English, King Robert the Bruce of Scotland sends his best soldiers to fortify the lawless borders. These legendary warriors of the Highland Guard let nothing come before king and country—except the calling of their heart.
An Excerpt from the Prologue . . .
Kildrummy Castle, Scottish Highlands, October 1306
Killed? Rosalin nearly choked on a bit of beef.
“Are you all right?” her brother asked, leaning over to pat her on the back.
After a burst of coughing, she took a sip of sweetened wine and nodded. “I’m fine.” Seeing his concern, she managed a smile. “Really. I’m sorry, for the disturbance. You were saying something about the prisoners?”
Her attempt at nonchalance didn’t fool him. He frowned. He’d been speaking in a low voice to her guardian, Sir Humphrey, on his other side, and the conversation obviously hadn’t been meant for her ears. She blinked up at him innocently, but Robert, the first Baron de Clifford, hadn’t become one of the most important commanders in the war against the rebel Scots because of his rank and handsome face―although he certainly possessed both. Nay, he’d risen so high in King Edward’s estimation because he was smart, loyal, and determined. He was also one of the greatest knights in England, and she was fiercely proud of him.
Even if he was entirely too perceptive.
“An unfortunate accident, that is all. Part of the wall collapsed when the prisoners were dismantling it. Two of the rebels were crushed by the stone and killed.”
Her heart jumped to her throat and a small cry of distress escaped before she could help it. Oh God, please don’t let it be him!
Aware of her brother’s watchful gaze, she attempted to cover her too-concerned reaction with a maidenly, “That’s horrible!”
He studied her a little longer, and then patted her hand. “Do not let it distress you.”
But she was distressed. Deeply distressed. Although she certainly couldn’t tell her brother why. If he learned about her fascination with one of the rebel prisoners, he would send her back to London on the first ship, as he’d threatened to do when she’d arrived unexpectedly a week ago with her new guardian, Sir Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford.
“Christ’s Cross, Rosalin! This is the last place in Christendom suitable for a young girl.”
But the opportunity to see Cliff had been too tempting to resist. With her in London and her brother fighting the Scottish rebels in the North, it had been nearly two years since she’d seen him, and she missed him desperately. He, Maud (Cliff's wife of eight years), and the children were all the family she had left, and if she had to venture into Hades to see them, she would. Maud would have made the journey with Rosalin and the earl’s party, but she'd just discovered she was with child again.
“I don’t understand why the wall is being dismantled in the first place,” Rosalin said. “I thought we won the war?”
Her distraction worked. Cliff loved nothing more than to talk about England’s great victory. Robert Bruce’s bid for the crown had failed. The outlaw king had been forced to flee Scotland, and the English were now occupying most of Scotland’s important castles, including this one, the former stronghold of the Scottish Earls of Mar.
“We did. Robert Bruce’s short-lived rebellion is at an end. He might have escaped the noose set for him at Dunaverty Castle, but he won’t find refuge in the Western Isles for long. Our fleet will find him.” He shrugged. “Even if they don’t, he only has a handful of men left under his command.”
She lowered her voice to a whisper. “But aren’t they Highlanders?”
Her brother laughed and tweaked her nose. Though sixteen―nearly seventeen―was much too old for tweaking, she didn’t mind. She knew just how fortunate she was to have a brother who cared for her so deeply. Not many fourteen-year-old boys would have bothered themselves with a four-year-old sister on the death of their parents, but Cliff had always watched out for her. Even when they were both made wards of the king, he always made sure she knew she was not alone. If he sometimes acted like more of an overprotective father than a brother, she didn’t mind. To her, he was both.
“They aren’t bogeymen, little one. Or super men, no matter what you might hear at court. They might fight like barbarians, but when they meet the steel of an English knight’s sword, their blood runs as red as any other.”
As she wasn’t supposed to be watching the prisoners, she refrained from asking why they were kept so heavily guarded then.
Her brother turned back to Sir Humphrey, and Rosalin bided her time, waiting for the long midday meal to come to an end before racing up to her chamber in the Snow Tower.
Usually she delayed her return to her chamber as long as possible. Cliff had permitted her to stay in Scotland at Kildrummy only under the condition that she keep to her room except for during meals and chapel (he didn’t want there to be any chance of her coming into contact with one of them), and the small chamber had begun to feel like a prison. (When she protested that it wasn’t fair, the other ladies in Sir Humphrey’s party weren’t being confined, he replied that the other ladies were not his sixteen-year-old sister!) But right now all she could think about was the window that looked over the courtyard and shield-shaped curtain wall. The same curtain wall that had collapsed and killed the two prisoners.
Her heart raced as fast as her feet, as she climbed the seven—seven!—flights of stairs to the top level of the luxurious tower. The Scots might be “rebellious barbarians,” but they certainly knew how to build castles, which was one of the reasons King Edward was so anxious to have Kildrummy destroyed. The “Hammer of the Scots,” as King Edward was known, was making sure no other rebels could use the formidable stronghold as a refuge in the future.
Bright sunlight filled the room as she drew open the heavy door of the lord’s chamber and tore past the enormous wooden bed, the half-unpacked trunks carrying her belongings, and the small table that held a pitcher and basin for washing. Heart now in her throat, she knelt on the bench under the window, leaned on the thick stone sill, and peered through the fine glazed window to the courtyard below.
She knew it was wrong, and her brother would be furious to discover her fascination with the rebel prisoner, but she couldn’t help it. There was something about him that stood out. And it wasn’t just his formidable size or his handsome face, although she had to admit that was what had attracted her initially. Nay, he was . . . kind. And noble. Even if he was a rebel. How many times had she watched him take the blame (and thus the punishment) for one of the weaker men? Or shoulder more than his share of the work?
He couldn’t be . . .
She refused to finish the thought and scanned the cobble courtyard and wall area between the southeast tower and newly constructed Gatehouse where the prisoners were working.
In the crowd of men near the wall there were no more than a handful of the rebels, but they were being guarded by at least a score of her brother’s men. Given the state of the prisoners, it seemed an overabundance of caution. Perhaps when the castle was first taken over a month ago such a show of force might have been warranted, but stripped of their crude leather warcoats and weapons, after weeks of imprisonment with barely enough food and water to keep them alive, and being worked nearly to death all day, the raggedy-looking prisoners appeared ill-equipped to mount much of a resistance.
Except for one.
She looked and looked, the panic rising in her chest. Where was he? Had he been one of the men crushed?
Hot tears prickled her eyes, and she told herself she was being ridiculous. He was a prisoner. A Scot. One of Robert the Bruce’s rebels.
But he was also . . .
Her heart slammed, and she let out a small cry of relief, when the powerfully built warrior stepped out from behind the wall.
Thank God! He was all right. More than all right actually, he was spectacular.
She sighed with every bit of her almost-seventeen-year-old heart. The women at court teased her mercilessly about her naivety and innocence. “You’re such a child, Rosie-lin,” they’d say with a roll of the eyes, when she dared to venture into their conversations (the nickname sounded much nicer coming from her brother than from them).
Well, she certainly wasn’t feeling like a child now. For the first time in her life, she was feeling like a woman utterly entranced by a man.
And what a man! He was the fodder of legend and bard’s tales. Tall and broad-shouldered, his dark hair hanging in long tangled waves around a brutishly handsome face, he was one of the strongest, most imposing looking-warriors she’d ever seen.
As if to prove her point, he bent down to pick up an enormous stone. Her breath caught and her heart started to flutter wildly in her chest. Despite the coolness in the room, her skin warmed with a flush. The damp linen shirt stretched across his broad chest with the effort, revealing every ridge, every bulge, every sharply defined muscle straining underneath―of which there were an abundance. Even weakened by imprisonment, he looked strong enough to tear apart a garrison of soldiers with his bare hands.
She revised her earlier opinion: Perhaps the large number of soldiers keeping watch was prudent after all.
Only when he disappeared around the other side of the wall did she remember to breathe again. A few minutes later, he reappeared and it would start all over again. Every now and then, he would exchange a word or two with one of the prisoners, before one of the guards broke it up―usually with the flick of a switch.
He spoke most often to a tall, blond-haired man, though he wasn’t as friendly to him as he was with the third red-haired man. He was also tall, but that was where the similarities ended. More than any of the other prisoners, the red-haired man was showing the effects of the hard labor. He was gaunt and pale, and every day he seemed to grow more stooped.
The Scot―that is how she thought of the impressive warrior―did what he could to help him when the guards were not looking, by shouldering some of his rocks or taking his place in line to wield the hammer. She’d even seen the Scot pass the other man the precious few ladles of water they were allowed during their brief breaks. But the man was fading before her eyes.
She turned away from the window. She had to stop. She couldn’t do this. It made her feel so helpless. She knew they were rebels and deserved to be punished, but the man was going to die. That he would probably be executed anyway when the work was done, didn’t matter. No one should suffer like that.
She picked up her needlework, but she put it down a few minutes later and returned her gaze to the window.
She couldn’t look away. She had to do something. But what? Her brother had warned her not to interfere.
The answer came to her the next morning after church. As she was leaving morning prayers, she caught sight of a serving woman carrying a large bowl and a few pieces of bread toward the prison―a paltry amount for so many men.
That was it! She would leave them extra food.
It took her a few days to come up with a plan, but eventually she was ready to put it in motion.
Sneaking extra bits of beef was the easy part. She wrapped them in the cloth she kept at her lap while she ate, and then tucked the bundle in the purse at her waist before she left. Getting the food to the prisoners, however, was the challenge.
She’d watched the prisoners enough to know their routine. Every morning the guards led them out through the small courtyard between the chapel and the damaged Great Hall to the main courtyard. They were lined up and given instructions, before being permitted to collect the carts, which were stored on the side of the bakehouse. The carts were what she was aiming for.
That night, when the castle was quiet, she donned a dark cloak and snuck out of the tower. Keeping to the shadows, she worked her way around the yard, careful to avoid any guards who might be on patrol. But it was remarkably quiet. With the rebel forces crushed, there was little threat of an attack. She quickly deposited her bundle in one of the carts and made her way back up to her chamber.
The next morning she watched from her window as one of the men returned with the cart, immediately went to the Scot, and surreptitiously passed him the bundle. The Scot looked around, as if suspecting a trick, but when one of the guards barked an order at him―presumably to get to work―she saw the faint twist of a smile.
That smile was all the encouragement she needed. Her nighttime excursions continued for a week, and she swore the dark red-haired man grew stronger. Many of the men seemed to walk a little taller.
She knew her brother would be furious if he discovered what she was doing―and she hated the idea of a secret between them―but she told herself it was but a small gesture and could do no harm.
But she was wrong. Terribly wrong.
Rosalin yawned as one of the attendants who’d accompanied her from London finished twisting her long plaits under the veil and circlet. “You look tired, m’lady,” the older woman said, a concerned look in her eye. “Are you not feeling well?”
After eight nights the loss of sleep was catching up with her, but Rosalin managed a smile. “Well enough, Lenore. Nothing a few extra hours of sleep won’t cure. I fear I’ve been staying up with my brother and the earl―”
A shout from the courtyard below made her stop what she’d been about to say.
“I wonder what that is all about.” Lenore said.
But Rosalin had already jumped from the chair and raced to the window. Her heart stopped, a strangled cry escaping from between her lips before she could smother it with her hand. The red-haired rebel was kneeling in the dirt, holding his side where one of the soldiers must have struck him. The cloth and pieces of beef and bread that she’d smuggled out to them last night were strewn on the ground in front of him. The soldier was shouting at him, using his fists and the back of his hand to punctuate his words.
It wasn’t hard to guess what he was asking.
The red-haired man shook his head and the soldier hit him again―this time with so much force his head snapped back and blood sprayed around him like a bubble that had popped.
He crumpled to the ground.
She cried out in horror, and Lenore tried to pull her away. “Come away, my lady. Those vile beasts are not fit for your eyes. Brigands and barbarians, that’s what they are. I hope your brother draws and quarters every one of them!”
Rosalin barely heard her words. She shook her off, crying out again as she sensed—she knew—what the Scot would do. He roared forward, tossing off the two soldiers who’d been holding him as if they were poppets. His fist slammed into the jaw of the soldier who’d beaten his friend. The soldier had barely hit the ground when the Scot was over him, driving his powerful fist into him again and again like a battering ram, until the soldier lay motionless on the ground.
It seemed there was a stunned pause before the courtyard erupted in chaos.
Lenore gasped in horror from behind her. “The prisoners are attacking!”
“No. Oh God, no,” Rosalin groaned softly as the melee ensued. What have I done?
The Scot fought like a man possessed, like one of those berserkers of Norse legend. Using nothing but his hands, he fended off half-a-dozen of her brother’s men. Each time one of them tried to get ahold of him, he made some kind of quick maneuver and twisted out of the man’s grasp. Usually the soldiers ended up on their backs. The blond-haired prisoner had managed to grab one of the hammers used to take down the wall and had taken a position at the Scots flank. Together they were a two-man army.
One by one the other prisoners were subdued, but the two men seemed as if they could hold off capture forever.
But of course they couldn’t. Without armor and proper weaponry, all it took was one well-placed pike in the side of the blond-haired warrior, and one powerful hit of the hammer on the ribs of the Scot, and the English had regained the upper hand.
Her heart was pounding. Tears were streaming from her eyes as her brother’s soldiers surrounded the two men.
God in Heaven, they are going to kill them!
Without thinking of what she was doing, only knowing she had to put a stop to the fighting, she raced down the stairs, heedless of Lenore’s worried cries behind her. She reached the yard only moments after her brother and his men, two of whom prevented her from going farther than a few feet beyond the tower door. “You shouldn’t be here, my lady,” one of the men said. “Go back to the tower. This will all be over soon.”
That was exactly what she feared.
“I need to see my brother.” She tried to look around one of the men, but with the crowd of people who’d flooded the courtyard she couldn’t see anything.
She heard her brother’s voice from up ahead. “What is the meaning of this?”
A series of English voices responded with “stealing food,” “find out,” and “Scots attacked.”
“Your man was beating a man to death for something he could not answer. He would have killed him had I not stopped him.”
The sound of the deep, powerful voice reverberated through her like a clap of thunder, jolting in its intensity. It was her Scot; she knew it.
Her brother said something she couldn’t hear and a few more English voices went back and forth.
Then her brother spoke again. “Take him to the pit, where he won’t incite a damned riot.”
“Is this your English justice, Clifford?” that deep voice sneered. “Killing a man for defending someone who could not fight back? I could have taken a dozen of your men with me—next time I will.”
Rosalin tried to push through again, but one of the men―a knight who she thought was named Thomas―forcibly held her back. “Your brother won’t like you being here, my lady. You need to get back to the tower.”
“But what will happen to them?”
He gave her a quizzical look. “Why, they’ll be executed, of course.”
The blood drained from her face. She must have looked like she was going to faint, because he called another one of the soldiers over and together they steered her back into the tower.
Rosalin waited for what seemed like hours for her brother to return to his solar. Her hands twisted anxiously in her lap. The glass of wine that she’d drunk for courage tossed in her stomach.
She dreaded the conversation ahead of her but knew it could not be avoided. She couldn’t let those men be killed because of what she’d done.
It was dark when her brother finally entered the room. He looked surprised to see her. “What are you doing here, Rosie-lin? I thought you’d be readying for the evening meal.” He frowned, seeing the distress on her face. “Is something wrong?”
She blinked up at him, feeling the heat gather in her throat and behind her eyes. “It’s all my fault!” Unable to hold back, the tears and emotion came pouring out. “I gave them the food. I didn’t think there would be any harm and they looked so hungry. I was only trying to help.” She latched onto his arm, tears streaming down her cheeks. “You can’t punish them.”
The jumbled confession took him a moment to sort through, but when he did, his face darkened. It wasn’t often that her brother was angry with her, and she hated it. “Damn it, Rosalin, I told you to stay away from them! Do you have any idea how dangerous those men are?”
“I do. I swear I didn’t go anywhere near them.” She explained how she took the scraps of food to the cart at night. He seemed to relax a little, and his expression wasn’t quite as thunderous. “I only wanted to ease their suffering. I didn’t mean for this to happen.”
He gave her a long, steady look. “You never meant for things like this to happen, which is exactly why you don’t belong here. Your heart is too soft for war. These men are not one of your scullery maids with blistered hands or a serving wench who needs to spend more time with her sick baby rather than tend her duties.”
“But Katie’s hands were so chapped they were bleeding, and it wasn’t fair that Meggie lost a week’s pay because she missed a few hours—”
Her brother held up his hand, stopping her. “That’s what I’m trying to say. These men are hardened killers―they are not deserving of your kindness.”
She bowed her head, unable to meet his gaze. “I had to do something.”
She heard him sigh and a moment later, he wrapped his arm around her and drew her to his side. Relief that he’d forgiven her only made her sob harder. “I’m so sorry.”
He murmured soothing words and rocked her against him until she quieted. It reminded her of the night her father had died, and the night less than a year later when their mother had followed. “You can’t stay here, little one. I should have sent you home right away, but I was selfish. I missed you, and seeing your face was like a breath of spring air in this cesspit.”
She looked up at him, eyes burning. “You are sending me away?”
Please, not that. Anything but that.
He nodded solemnly. “Aye, but only for a while. I will come see you in London as soon as I am done here. The king will wish a report, and I can give it to him personally. I will bring Maud and the children. You’d like that wouldn’t you?” She nodded, he knew she would. He smiled teasingly. “Besides, I want to see all these suitors Hereford has been telling me about.”
Heat crawled up her cheeks. That was one of the reasons she’d come. The attention at court had become impossible and none of the men interested her. No man had interested her until . . .
“Does that mean you will spare them?”
It took him a moment to follow her leap in conversation. His mouth tightened, whether from anger or the unpleasantness of the topic, she didn’t know.
“Your misguided charity changes nothing.”
“But it isn’t fair—”
He cut her off in a voice that brokered no argument. “This is war, Rosalin. Fair doesn’t enter into it. They nearly killed three of my men. Whatever the provocation, prisoners cannot be allowed to fight back. Ever. Especially these prisoners. They are not worth your tears.”
He cut her off again, his face getting that implacable, we’re-done-talking-about-it look. “I will hear no more on the subject. These men have been given only a temporary reprieve from the executioner’s axe. But they have proved too dangerous even for that. They are brigands who fight without chivalry and honor. Their leader is a vicious scourge who would slit your pretty neck without thinking twice. Do you understand?”
Her eyes widened. Her brother spoke with such conviction, but his words did not jibe with the man she’d watched the past couple weeks. Knowing that Cliff would not be gainsaid, all she could do was nod.
He smiled. “Good, then we will hear no more of this. What’s this I hear about your taking after our illustrious ancestor?”
Rosalin blushed at the gentle teasing about her embarrassing nickname. Their infamous great-great-great-aunt Rosamund Clifford had captured the heart of King Henry II and had gone down in history as “The Fair Rosamund.” Apparently, the men at court had taken to calling her “The Fair Rosalin.”
She tried to play along with her brother’s teasing, but she could not forget the horrible fate awaiting the men in the prison, especially the one languishing in the pit prison, who’d been forced to defend his friend because of her.
All through the evening meal and the long hours of the night it stayed with her. She could think of nothing else.
It was wrong. The word echoed over and over in her head no matter what she tried to do. Eventually the voice grew too loud to ignore. Sometime in the small hours of the night, she rose from bed, donned a pair of slippers and a dark hooded cloak, and slipped out of her chamber. She didn’t know whether she could do anything, but she knew she had to try.
This was her partially her fault, and rightly or wrongly, if she didn’t do something, she would feel responsible for the deaths of those men for the rest of her life.
But it was one man’s death that would haunt her. The man she’d watched for over two weeks, the man who’d sacrificed himself, who had selflessly given his food and shouldered more of the burden for his friend did not deserve to die. She knew it deep in her soul with a certainty that could not be ignored. War or not, it was wrong, and she had to try to make it right, even if . . . even if it meant letting him go free.
Once the treacherous thought was out, it felt as if an enormous weight had been lifted from her shoulders. She knew what she had to do―or try to do, if it were possible.
Exiting the Snow Tower, she paused in the shadows to get her bearings. She didn’t have a plan. All she knew was that the Scot had been moved to the pit prison, which was located below the old keep next to the burned-down Great Hall. She’d walked past it every night on making her deliveries―quickly, as the forbidding old stone building hadn’t been used in some time and seemed very dark. But there was a torch there now, burning from its iron perch beside the doorway. Drawing a little closer, she kept tight to the shadows of the wall and watched.
Dear God, what was she doing? She couldn’t help but feel the impossibility of her plight. How was a sixteen-year-old girl going to break anyone out of a pit prison without help? Without a plan? She couldn’t very well just walk in there, open the door, and pull him out.
What about the guards? Even though she couldn’t see anyone right now, and the pit prison offered little chance of escape, there had to be at least one.
There was. A soldier appeared from the direction of the warden’s tower, where the prisoners were being held, walked back and forth a few times in front of the entry to the old keep, and then disappeared. About five minutes later he did it again. After two more times, she had to hope it was a pattern. The next time he left, she waited until he was around the corner, and then darted into the entrance of the keep.
It was pitch black and cold. Very cold. Chill-run-down-your-spine cold.
There are no such thing as ghosts . . . no such thing as ghosts.
But if the dead were ever inclined to walk the earth this would be the perfect place to do so.
After giving her eyes a few moments to adjust to the darkness, she moved around the room, looking for the entrance to the pit prison, finding it in a small stone antechamber off the main entry. The room was no more than three or four feet wide, with a small wooden door covering one corner of the stone floor. She heaved a sigh of relief, seeing that the door had a simple latch rather than a lock.
How many minutes had gone by? Two, maybe three? Very carefully she slid the iron latch, her heart stopping more than a few beats when it squeaked―loudly. She froze, but when no one came rushing in with a sword drawn, she slid the latch fully out of the way and grabbed the edge of the wooden door to lift.
It was heavier than it appeared, and she struggled, but finally managed to open it. A rush of cold, dank air pushed her back for a moment, but eventually she kneeled over the hole and peered down into the darkness. It was dead silent. At first she didn’t see anything, but then she saw the unmistakable glow of white gazing up at her.
“Morning already?” he sneered. “I was just getting comfortable.”
God, that voice! Deep and powerful, it seemed to reverberate through her bones. “Shhh,” she whispered. “The guard will be coming back.”
Thought she knew it was impossible, she swore she could see him stiffen with surprise.
“Who are you?”
“Shhh,” she pleaded again. “Please. The guard will hear you.”
Leaving the door open, she raced out of the small antechamber and plastered her back to the wall next to the entry. Holding her breath for what seemed like eternity, she waited for the guard to approach. With each footstep her heart stopped, starting only when she heard the fall of the next. When the footsteps finally moved away, she ran back to the room.
“We have to hurry,” she whispered. “He’ll be back in a few minutes.”
The Scot didn’t waste time questioning her, taking charge in the coolly efficient manner of a man accustomed to the role. “They lowered me down with a rope tied to a latch in the wall. See if it’s still there.”
His voice was closer now, and she realized he must be standing right below her. Probably only a few feet separated them. She shuddered or shivered, she didn’t know which, but turned around to do his bidding. She found the iron peg in the stone wall and sure enough, an old, frayed piece of rope was tied around it. Picking up the end, she moved back to the opening.
Seeing her shadow return, he asked, “Did you find it?”
“Throw it down.”
She hesitated; suddenly the full import of what she was doing hit her.
After a long pause he spoke. His voice was harder―with disappointment maybe? “Change your mind?”
Had she? No. She wasn’t wrong about him. But still, it was one thing to watch a man from a window and admire him and another to have him right next to you. “If I help you, you have to promise to leave without hurting anyone.”
“I will not leave my friends behind to die.”
She’d anticipated that. It was one of the reasons she was here―a noble leader would not leave his men. “But you will give me your word you will not hurt any of the guards?”
He made a sharp sound that might have been a laugh. “My word is good enough for you?”
He paused as if her answer surprised him. “Very well, you have my word that I will do my best to see that no one is killed.”
He spoke the words with the solemnity of a vow. She had no reason to trust him, and yet she did. Enough to drop the rope.
She moved back, and in a shockingly few moments he was standing in front of her. Looming in front of her actually. His large, muscular frame seemed to fill the entire room. Jesu, he was even taller and more formidably built than she’d realized! Instinctively, she shrank back, every one of her brother’s warnings suddenly running through her mind.
Cut your throat . . . Vile barbarian . . . Vicious brute . . .
He stilled. “You’ve nothing to fear, lass. I will not harm you. I owe you my life.”
Some of her fear dissipated. He might be built like a brute, but the man inside was noble of heart. She just wished it weren’t so dark. She wanted to see his face up close, but she couldn’t make out much more than shadows. Her other sense worked perfectly, however, and mingled with the dank air of the pit, she caught the musky edge of a well-worked body that was not as unpleasant as she would have expected.
“Who are you?” he asked.
She shook her head. “It’s not important.”
“Why are you doing this?”
She wasn’t sure she knew herself, but standing here with him she knew it was right. “It was my fault. I didn’t mean for anyone to get hurt, I was only trying to help.”
“You brought the food.” He said it as if the last piece of a puzzle had just been fit into place, and it still didn’t make sense.
“How old are you, lass?”
Something in his voice caused her to throw up her chin and straighten her spine. “Eighteen,” she lied.
She could almost hear him smile. He couldn’t be more than a handful of years older than she, but he made her feel so young. Even in the darkness it seemed as if he could see right through her. As if he knew her reason. He was probably used to women admiring him. Used to young, starry-eyed “lasses” who made themselves silly over him.
But it wasn’t like that. She was righting a wrong. Mostly.
“No matter what your age, what you are doing is a kindness, and I thank you for it. What happened is not your fault, though I won’t say I regret your thinking so, since otherwise I would still be in that pit.”
He stopped, hearing something.
Oh God, the guard! She’d been so distracted by him that she’d forgotten about the guard. The soldier must have heard something and was coming to investigate. Before she realized what was happening, the Scot grabbed her, pulled her against him, and put his hand over her mouth.
She gasped soundlessly, first with shock and then with ice-cold fear. She felt as if she’d been enveloped in steel. Every inch of him was hard and unyielding, from the chest plastered against her back to the rock-hard arm tucked under her breasts. She tried to squirm free, but he tightened his clamp-like hold, stopping her. When he enfolded her hand in his big, callused one, a strange warmth engulfed her. Not realizing what he was trying to do, she startled―at least she thought the shudder running through her was a startle. Capturing her fingers, he gently folded back four fingers and then three.
Suddenly, she understood. She pointed one finger. One guard. He nodded and slowly released his hand from around her mouth. She realized that he’d grabbed her only to prevent her from making any startled sound.
Her mind might know that, but her heart was still slamming against her chest with the aftereffects. Yet she knew that was not the only reason. She was suddenly aware of him. Aware of him in “a woman who’s being held by a man for the first time” kind of way. He might be made of steel, but he was warm. Very warm. And no man had ever held her so intimately. She had the sensation of being tucked in against him, every part of their bodies fitted in snug and tight. She was sure it was highly improper, and she would be shocked later, but right now all she could think was how incredible it felt. Like she was warm and safe and nothing would ever hurt her.
He inched them against the wall, turning her toward it to protect her with his body. She could feel the muscles in his body tense as torchlight flooded the main chamber of the keep. The light drew nearer and nearer. The guard was coming this way!
She couldn’t breathe. Both from fear and from being pressed up against a stone wall with a steel one behind her.
“What the hell?”
The soldier had noticed the open pit. He walked into the room, and held the torch over the pit. The Scot sprang into action. He moved so fast, the soldier never had a chance. A sharp blow to the soldier’s throat and a jab to the stomach pushed him back. He managed a cry of surprise before he fell into the hole. The torch went black and a moment later, the door was slammed shut.
The Scot spun her around to face him. “I have to go. They’ll come looking for him.”
She nodded wordlessly, still stunned by how fast it had happened.
“You will be all right?” he asked. “I will do what I can to make it seem as if we had no help.”
“I will be fine.” She paused, wanting to say something but not knowing what. “Please, you had best go quickly.”
But she didn’t want him to go. She wished . . . she wished she had a chance to know this man who’d captured her heart.
Perhaps he’d heard her hesitation―and guessed the reason for it. He turned to do as she bid, but then he too hesitated. Before she realized what he was going to do, he cupped her chin in his big hand, tipped her head back, and touched his lips to hers. She had the fleeting sense of warmth and surprising softness before it was gone.
“Thank you, lass. One day I hope we shall meet again, so I can repay you in full.”
She watched with her heart in her throat as he disappeared into the darkness. She brought her hand to her mouth as if she could keep the moment there forever.
It had been a kiss of gratitude. The barest brushing of mouths, with no intent of passion. Even brotherly―on his part, at least. But in that one instant, she felt a spark of something big and powerful and magical. Something extraordinary. Something wonderful.
She might have stood like that until morning, but a sound from the pit prison below roused her from her dreamlike state.
Rosalin raced out of the keep and back up the stairs to her chamber, knowing that she might live with the repercussions of this night forever, but she would never regret it.
End of Excerpt
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