Excerpt: The Templar’s Seduction

The Templar's Seduction: Book THREE of the Templar Knights Trilogy, originally released in 2007 and re-released in 2012“The Templar Order had banished me, but that had not stopped my Inquisitors from exacting their due through endless, mindless torment. Aye, they made me pay for thwarting them, excusing their cruelty as necessary recompense for the sin of recanting my confession, given so glibly after the mass arrests in France.
When I was rescued from the hell of their dungeons and brought back to health through the efforts of my brother Damien and loyal friends Richard and John, I felt no comfort in it. Nay, I was a man without purpose. A man without hope, cut off from feelings of nobility and honor.
A man running, perhaps, from life itself…”
                     —The letters of Sir Alexander de Ashby, the year of our Lord, 1315
 

Prologue

June, 1309
Dunleavy Castle, the Lowlands of Scotland

“The western wall is weakening milady and may not withstand another assault of the trebuchet.”

Muttering a curse under her breath, Lady Elizabeth of Selkirk stood to face Edwin, the castle steward who had spoken. She had not been bent in a position of prayer. Nay, she had been kneeling on the floor next to the pallet of one of Dunleavy’s nearly three score of wounded men, doing her part to try to make him and the others here in the great hall more comfortable.

So many men, along with some lads now and a few women, too. The siege had gone on too long to expect anything less, coming as it had on the heels of the English army’s offensive against them last month. But their adversary this time was Archibald Drummond, the Earl of Lennox. He was a Scot and a neighbor to the north, and she had not expected him to attack.

“Shall I summon the captain of the guard for consultation?’

She shifted her gaze to Edwin’s. “Nay, I would not call him away from his duty to tend to my questions, when you might be able to answer them as well.”

Edwin tipped his chin, indicating he would oblige her if he could.

“Why do we not return fire with our own catapult to force him back?”

“It was smashed during Lennox’s latest volley and will take until nightfall, at least, to be repaired.” Edwin’s voice was tight, though as always he wore his usual exterior of calm restraint. “The outer yard is in shambles; the wooden frame of the weapon is in splinters, and the stones used for ammunition scattered.”

Elizabeth tried to hide her reaction to the news. Her gaze swept around the great hall, filled with men suffering burns, broken bones, cuts, and battered skulls. Men who had done everything she had asked of them during the past four years, ten months, and five days since her newly-wed husband and lord of this castle, Robert Kincaid, had joined in the war against his own English countrymen and been captured for his troubles.

They had had but infrequent word of him since. He was still alive, so far as she knew, kept in miserable confinement in an English dungeon while the king’s minions brought siege after siege against Dunleavy. They would not succeed, by heaven. She had sworn it to herself, her kin, and in her own mind at least, to Rob.

“My lady?”

Startled from her thoughts back to the here and now, Elizabeth shivered, gesturing for Edwin to move away from the rows of pallets with her, even as she nodded for Mariah to come and take her place tending to those in the makeshift infirmary. When she and Edwin had reached the corridor, she breathed in the slightly fresher air there.

“Something will need to be done, and quickly. We cannot wait until dark to return fire.” She glanced away for a moment, frowning. “I will need to send word to Robert the Bruce, asking for his aid against this outrage. He will not look kindly upon Lennox for his siege against a Scottish castle whose lord suffers in English captivity.”

“Lady, forgive me, but Lord Lennox asserted in his missive that he had received word of your husband’s death at the hands of his English captors.”

“It is a lie, else the English would have used it against us during their most recent assault against Dunleavy. They would not have remained silent if they had had such an emotional weapon to wield.”

Edwin bowed his head in silence, though she could see he was holding back something more. Pompous and irritating as he could sometimes be, the steward was among her most loyal followers, and whether or not she would have done so in other circumstances, she felt it necessary to hear anything he had to say in this desperate moment.

“Speak, Edwin, if there is aught else.”

He paused before tilting his head in deference and murmuring, “I could not help thinking that if Lord Lennox genuinely believes your husband to be dead, he may perceive this siege as more than a stock conquest. He may consider it in truth an act of loyalty to Scotland.”

“How so?” she scoffed.

“Pardon, milady, but some believe your loyalties…uncertain. Having a Scot for a father does not alter the fact that your mother was of English blood. There are those who think it nigh impossible for you to remain firm in the face of continual attack by your mother’s countrymen. Some fear you might choose a truce with the enemy over constant siege, and Lennox likely believes that reason enough for this aggression, even in Robert the Bruce’s eyes.”

“How convenient, then, that the earl never questioned my loyalty to Scotland when my very English husband fought by his side in the war for freedom five years past,” she answered tightly. “Nay, the arrogant cur strikes now only because we are weakened by the previous assaults against us. The Bruce will take my side in this.”

Edwin kept his eyes lowered, but his voice was sharp as he asked, “What do you suggest we do in the meantime, then? As you said, we cannot wait until nightfall to retaliate further, and Lord Lennox shows no sign of pulling his forces back.” He lifted his gaze to her then, and the steeliness she saw there startled her. It was the first time she could remember seeing that look in her usually placid steward’s eyes. “Might it not be better to at least consider forming an alliance with him, my lady, so that the next time the English—”

“I will not yield, Edwin, to him or to any man who comes with intent to beat down the walls of Dunleavy.”

After a long, tension-filled silence, Edwin offered her a stiff bow, inclining his head in a manner that made it clear he disagreed and thought her foolhardy to continue as they were. But she was his lady, and in absence of her husband, she was in charge. He knew it and would not refute her outright.

She gritted her teeth. “We must do something, however, and it must be unexpected,” she murmured, wrapping her arms around her middle. “Something we have never done before. It will be a risk, to be sure, but perhaps…” She let her voice trail off, lost in thought as this new plan began forming in her mind. Pushing herself away from the wall, she strode forward, unwinding her thick, honey-gold hair from its plait as she went.

“Where are you going Lady Elizabeth?” Edwin called, exasperation coloring his voice as he hurried to catch up with her.

“To my chamber, to exchange this gown for one that is fresh and far more appealing.”

What?”

She glanced sideways at the steward as they strode onward. “I have not lost my wits, Edwin. The change of garments is part of the plan I am considering. But first I must ask another question of you. Have we a ready supply of pitch, still, in the storage chamber beneath the great hall?”

“Aye, my lady, but—”

“I want it brought up and heated in large vats. In the meantime, order a dozen men to dig a shallow trench the length of the outer yard, twenty paces inside the gate and curving forward to connect with the stone wall.”

Edwin’s brow furrowed, and in an uncharacteristic move, he grabbed her wrist, pulling her to a stop in the corridor.

She gave him a sharp look, and he dropped his hand.

“Pardon, milady. I am only surprised by the order. Lord Lennox has never approached near enough to the gate to make pouring hot pitch effective against him or his men.”

“Nay, he has not. But I am about to make it worth his while.” Elizabeth clenched her jaw, welcoming the burning sensation. “I want the pitch spread along the bottom of the trench, not spilled atop Lennox and his men. I will be standing at the summit of the steps at the entrance to the great hall and visible to the earl and his men, when we raise the outer gate’s portcullis. He will think himself the victor of this siege. Our archers will be hidden with bolts afire when the preening buffoon comes marching through the outer gate with his warriors in tow, expecting a pretty welcome from the lady he has defeated…”

“And we will ignite the pitch in the trench, giving them instead a wall of flame,” Edwin finished for her, looking more than a little startled. “It will take them by surprise, for none would expect us to light such a fire within our own gates.”

“Aye. It is a calculated risk, but the castle is unlikely to be in any real danger, for the stones of the outer yard will keep the flames from spreading to the masonry within the inner yard.”

Edwin nodded in silence.

“They will be trapped as well,” Beth added, “for the portcullis will be lowered at the moment the trench is lit.” She allowed herself a grim smile. “It will be a welcome the likes of which Lennox has never experienced before, I will warrant.”

“That it will, my lady,” Edwin said, still sounding somewhat shocked at the boldness of her plan. But the sharpness came back into his expression as he added, “Pray God naught goes awry, else we will have opened our gates willingly to the enemy.”

“I have faith in Him and the good soldiers of Dunleavy to see this through without falter.” Elizabeth shifted the intensity of her stare to Edwin again, almost smiling to see him flinch a bit in response. “And I will trust you to begin the process of readying all, while I change into a gown that might help lull the earl more aptly to his doom.”

“Aye, milady,” Edwin murmured, lowering his gaze in the guise of another short bow, before he turned and set off to do as she had asked of him.

“We must be ready within this half hour,” she called after him.

He made acknowledgement of her command, but after he had disappeared from sight, she paused for another moment, even knowing there was no time to waste in her preparations for what was to come. Taking a deep breath, she offered up a prayer. A solicitation to the Almighty for the success of her plan – and a swift conclusion to the deadly confrontation she was about to instigate with her new enemy by carrying it out.

 

Chapter One

Inglewood Forest, near Carlisle, northern England
Two weeks later

 

He was going to hang at dawn.

Sir Alexander de Ashby tipped his head back against the oak to which his arms were secured and lifted his face to the afternoon sky. Squinting through the glare and trying to ignore the sting of the oozing cut on his brow, he looked to see whether or not this sturdy fellow had branches large enough to bear the rope that would end his miserable life once and for all.

Just then a puff of hot breeze ruffled the leaves overhead. It swirled through the treetops, dying away almost as soon as it began, but its action allowed the sun to stab into his eyes. It cut a direct path to the throbbing lump on the back of his skull – a parting gift from one of the half-dozen or so English soldiers who had beset him here a few hours ago.

The only soldier he had left standing, damn it.

Tipping his chin back down, Alex closed his eyes and made an effort to think past the pounding in his head. He supposed the outcome of that little scuffle with the king’s finest was why he would be hanging come the morrow. He’d killed at least two of them, he knew, and the other three hadn’t looked likely to get up for quite some time. But that sixth one…

A sharp pain suddenly streaked from his shoulders down his arms, as his bonds were yanked from behind.

“At attention, you mangy son of a mongrel bitch!”

Ah, yes, that sixth one…

Alex opened his eyes again to meet the hostile gaze of the one soldier who had somehow gotten beneath his defenses. Instinctively he tightened the muscles of his stomach in preparation for the fist he expected to land there next. But this time the man did not follow through with his usual blow. Nay, he was standing with his spine stiff as a blade, and his face, which was nicely marred with its own arrays of cuts and bruises Alex noted with satisfaction, controlled. The soldier had shifted his gaze to a point just past Alex’s shoulder, his entire demeanor professional.

In the next moment, Alex realized why.

Another man stepped into view from behind the tree. He was clearly the guard’s superior, and by the quality of his clothing he was also a man of title. Walking with slow, measured steps, he came around to face Alex. Then he just stood still. He did not speak as he perused Alex, from the tip of his scuffed boots, up his legs and torso, covered by a shirt ripped in several places, to the top of his head. As his chill blue gaze locked with Alex’s own, his face remained impassive – all but for the slight flare of his nostrils and the glimmer of something that filled the expressionless depth of his eyes for but an instant before he mastered it.

Alex met that stare with cool insolence, allowing his lip to curl up on one side in mockery. The action was instinctive and the kind of thing that had landed him in trouble on many occasions before. But he did not attempt to quell it. If he was being honest with himself, he knew he wouldn’t have anyway, even if he had still had something to lose.

The locked stare lasted for a count of eight or ten before the nobleman moved. Turning sharply on his heel, he stalked away a few yards to say something to the guard. Far enough that Alex could not make out his words. After a moment’s hesitation, the younger man favored Alex with another biting glare before striding past him, his boots crunching on the accumulated twigs blanketing the forest floor.

And then the nobleman swung his gaze back to Alex and spoke directly to him.

“You seem to have cut quite a path of destruction through my men this morn, Sir—?”

“Alexander de Ashby,” Alex answered without hesitation. It would serve no purpose to be hanged in anonymity, after all. There was always the chance that Damien might hear of the matter someday and have the peace of knowing what had become of him.

His jaw tightened as that thought of his younger brother swept through his mind; he forced himself to quash it, not wanting any inkling of weakness to be apparent in his expression as he faced this pompous English lord. Nay, he would save any thoughts he might have of Damien and their difficult past for the lonely hours tonight, as he prepared for what would come at dawn.

“Sir Alexander,” the nobleman intoned. His hands were laced behind his back, and he rocked back a bit on his heels, tipping his head to the side and giving a brief nod.

“And you are?” Alex asked, his disrespectful tone begging for reprisal, he knew. But to hell with it. That he faced death on the morrow did not mean he had to cower like a dog in the meantime. There was naught this lord could do to him that the French Inquisitors had not already put him through during the nearly two years they had held him as a Templar Knight in the hell of their prisons, except to hang him of course. But even that would be over with soon enough.

The nobleman looked taken aback at first, but he recovered to answer in a clipped voice, “I am Roger de Gravelin, the Earl of Exford.”

Alex felt a stab of shock go through him. The Earl of Exford? Even absent as he had been from England during his time of service with the Brotherhood, Alex knew that name. The Gravelins had curried favor from the king and a good deal of power in the north for their commitment to England in her longstanding battles against the Scots. Lord Exford was likely the most powerful border lord in the realm.

That realization sank like a stone in his gut. Of course. He should have expected no less. It was his usual good fortune and a repeating cycle he could not seem to break, attracting the unfavorable attention of formidable English noblemen. Aye, he seemed to have a knack for flirting with danger, thumbing his nose at trouble by stepping directly into it…and then finding himself facing the far-reaching and usually painful wrath of some mighty lord for his efforts.

“Sir Stephen tells me that when you were apprehended, you were in possession of something quite valuable,” Exford continued, clearly intent on gleaning information. “Something you attempted to sell to a goldsmith in Carlisle.”

Stephen. Alex silently thanked Lord Exford for supplying him with the name of his guard, though it seemed unlikely that he would have opportunity to repay Sir Stephen for his less than hospitable treatment these past few hours.

“Something formerly protected by the Brotherhood of Templars,” Lord Exford continued smoothly, bringing Alex’s attention back to him with a gut-wrenching snap.

“Ah, yes,” Exford murmured, a cold smile hovering on his lips, “I thought that might reclaim your wandering interest.”

Alex did not answer at first, instead taking a few beats to consider how anyone but another Templar Knight of the inner circle could know by sight alone the connection between the Brotherhood and the golden bowl he had tried to sell at Carlisle…the bowl he’d stolen from his Templar brother-in-arms Sir John de Clifton several months ago, after John and their friend Sir Richard de Cantor had risked their own necks to rescue him from the Inquisition in France.

Bolstered by the knowledge that bitter thought inspired, Alex put on a show of innocent surprise. “And how, exactly, would I or any other mercenary knight in England be in possession of Templar treasure?”

“That is better answered by my captain of the guard, I think.”

Alex did not have much time to weigh Lord Exford’s enigmatic response; the still air seemed to waver as someone else approached, bringing with him a whiff of pomander – nutmeg chief among the scents combined in the hollow ball pendant. The punch of recognition that slammed into Alex as he caught sight of the man sporting it set him back on his heels for a moment, long enough for the new arrival to come to a halt next to Lord Exford, his brow lifted expectantly.

“In the middle of another scrape I see, Alex. It has been a long time since last I looked upon you, old friend, but coming upon you bound and awaiting judgment like this brings back many memories of our time together.”

By the Holy Rood, this just kept getting better and better.

Alex pulled himself together to offer what would pass as a sardonic nod of acknowledgment. “Luc. I seem to recall that you sported chains as well during our last meeting.”

“So I did.” Luc’s dark eyes hardened to granite. “Thanks to you.” But without warning his expression shifted again, and a sarcastic glint came into his gaze once more. “Of course, I suppose I should be grateful for your part in my liberation from the Brotherhood. I did not know it then, but now…”

His voice trailed off, and Alex watched his former comrade’s mouth curve into a tight smile. He would not call him ‘friend’. Nay, Sir Lucas de Compton had never been that. A cohort in crime, perhaps. Aye, and a damn fine warrior. They had both been members of the Brotherhood’s inner circle of knights, along with several others, including Damien, John, and Richard. But as impossible as it seemed, Luc had been even less suited for the holy vows of the Templars than Alex had been.

Both of them had chafed at the restraints imposed upon all who were part of the Order, relishing the fighting aspects of being a Templar while resenting the other rules they were charged to abide by. The Templars were the most elite and feared warriors in the world, it was true; they served under authority of the pope alone in the effort to defend Christianity, not only in the Holy Land before it had been lost to the Saracens at Acre, but also in every other part of the known world as well. Yet the key to that power, many believed, came in the willingness of those accepted into the Brotherhood to cast off the temptations of the flesh. To join the Order one was compelled to take the same vows, in essence, as those of a priest: Poverty, obedience…and chastity.

Eventually, Alex and Luc had both rebelled against that last requirement, aiding each other by keeping quiet their secret dalliances with women, mostly low-born, who were only too happy to steal a few moments of pleasure with such famed knights.

It had gone on for a goodly time, for no matter where they traveled willing women were always plentiful, drawn to such powerful warriors, be they sworn to celibacy or nay. But when Luc had crossed the line to taking his pleasure with a female who was unwilling, it had all stopped for Alex; he had barely been able to keep himself from exacting a permanent vengeance when he’d stumbled upon the scene, though he had enjoyed throttling Luc to within an inch of his life.

However, the scandal of it all had exposed their sins to the world. They had been thrown into chains for their transgressions against the Brotherhood. Luc had been punished and expelled from the Order a mere two weeks before the details of Alex’s own crimes and suitable punishment was finalized. John, Damien, and Richard had been ordered to bring Alex in custody from Cyprus into France, to face questioning and sentencing by the Grand Master of the Templars himself, Jacques de Molay.

And that is exactly what would have happened, had not the mass arrests in France intervened and the whole world descended, it seemed, into madness, with the call for the dissolution of the entire Brotherhood.

“What, then – are you so different from me in your feelings about our service in the Order?” Luc asked lightly in the face of Alex’s continued silence. His tone of gentle mockery sounded, as it always had, somehow refined coming from his lips. “After all you experienced as a Templar, I would think—”

“I am different from you, Luc,” Alex interjected sharply, “a truth for which I am profoundly grateful.”

Without another word, Luc lunged forward to grip Alex’s throat, while at the same time lifting his other fist with clear intent to answer the insult with violence, regardless of the fact that Alex was bound and could not retaliate. But Lord Exford yanked him back.

“Peace, man. If his face is marred further it will do my cause no good.”

Luc let go. “What cause?”

Coughing to restore the flow of his breath, Alex watched Luc scowl, his eyes still sparking with anger. But he pulled his gaze away from Alex to look at Lord Exford. “I thought you wished only to know before the hanging how the man your patrol apprehended had come into possession of Templar treasure. That has been answered. What has not been answered, however, is the account between Ashby and me.

“You forget your place, Compton! This prisoner is mine, to do with as I see fit,” Lord Exford ground out, his entire body thrumming with annoyance. “I need him untouched for what I have planned for him. Is that understood?”

Luc snapped to attention with a mumbled apology.

Alex shook his head, clucking his tongue. “I am surprised. Taking orders was never one of your strong points, Luc.”

“Rest assured that I will be quick in obeying the command to hoist you by the neck come dawn,” Luc muttered, still at attention.

Ignoring that comment, a decision he knew would only madden his former comrade further, Alex swung his gaze to Lord Exford again, continuing, “I confess that patience has never been one of mine. So to pick up on Luc’s question…what the devil are you talking about?”

Exford arched his brow. “Your hanging on the morrow is not a foregone conclusion, Ashby. I am prepared to offer you a choice.”

What?”

The question was uttered simultaneously by both Alex and Luc; their gazes snapped to Lord Exford, incredulity tingeing Alex’s exclamation, and angry disbelief filling Luc’s.

“What I propose will seem unorthodox, I do not deny, but I can do no less now that I have seen you.”

Luc looked as confused as Alex felt, an emotion that swelled ten-fold when Lord Exford continued.

“Stephen alerted me of it when he reported your arrest. You bear an uncanny resemblance in face and form to one of my most prized prisoners from the Scottish wars. Had my own eyes not confirmed it, I might never have believed, but it is irrefutable – and the key to your salvation, should you be bold enough to accept my offer.”

Alex shook his head, still frowning. He had never possessed the most gifted of intellects, but he wasn’t stupid either; yet this man might as well have been speaking a foreign tongue for all he was following him.

Exford must have read his expression, for he finished his statement slowly, as if to be sure Alex caught every word, “Implausible as it may seem, Ashby, you appear the veritable twin of Robert Kincaid, the disgraced Earl of Marston…lord of the formerly English-held Dunleavy Castle in the Scottish Lowlands.”

From the corner of his eye, Alex saw Luc start and felt the tension ripple from him.

But neither Luc nor Lord Exford said more, and though Alex felt foolish, his survivor’s nature would not allow this or any other potential bid for freedom to go by without knowing what the hell it might mean for him. Raising his brows, he asked, “And my unfortunate likeness with this Lord Marston involves me how, exactly?”

“Marston is dead,” Luc finally supplied in a tight voice. “He died in English captivity three months ago, after several years of questioning authorized by King Edward and undertaken by Lord Exford’s best interrogators.”

Alex felt a tingle of unease. This was not sounding good. Nay, not at all. A man had died under torture instigated by the English Crown, and he shared an apparent likeness with him. That alone boded ill for his future travels in the realm…if indeed he had any future at all.

“Marston was not supposed to die,” Lord Exford continued. “It was a miscalculation, for he was very near to giving us the information we needed to successfully retake Dunleavy.”

“How unfortunate for you.”

Alex had recovered his wits somewhat, and his softly delivered sarcasm earned him a glare from both Luc and Exford.

“His death may serve you well, Ashby. I would not mock it were I you,” Exford grated.

“I do not mock the man’s death, but rather your—” Alex shook his head and scowled, trying to dispel the bitter taste this was all leaving in his mouth. “Never mind,” he muttered before looking up to meet the earl’s gaze again, deliberately provoking. “What is more pressing at the moment is that I do not understand, still, what part you think I play in any of this. Kindly spit it out and get on with it.”

Whatever Exford planned was important, Alex decided, for even after such impudence, the earl did not abandon the conversation, but actually did as he was asked. “We are under direct command from King Edward himself to see Dunleavy brought to heel,” Exford continued. “Several times I have attempted traditional means of gaining access to the stronghold, leading sieges and assaults, but all our efforts to overwhelm the castle’s defenses have failed.”

Alex said nothing, but Luc’s jaw looked clenched tightly enough to crack his teeth.

“I feel compelled now to consider a more…unorthodox route to victory, since the opportunity has been placed before me.”

“You cannot be in earnest, my lord,” Luc ground out at last, his burning gaze glancing from Exford to Alex, and then back again. “This man is little more than a cutpurse. A tarnished former Templar Knight who felt no qualm about stealing from his own brother-in-arms. He cannot be trusted, or—”

“He is an exquisite swordsman,” Lord Exford broke in, “more skilled perhaps than Marston himself, not to mention that his arrest and questioning in France has left him with the kind of lasting marks that will make his identity less questionable, once he miraculously reappears to his people, alive and well.” As he spoke the last, Exford nodded to the scars that were the parting gifts of his torture by the Inquisition, visible here and there through Alex’s torn shirt.

Alex frowned, the tingle of unease rising like a choking tide with every word out of the earl’s mouth.

“Of course there are the other irrefutable points,” Exford continued. “You never saw Kincaid in the flesh, Luc, but none who did could deny the resemblance. I was damned startled, I can tell you that. Ashby stands as tall and shares an astonishing likeness in coloring and form. It has been five years since any at Dunleavy have seen Rob Kincaid.” He shook his head, letting his gaze drift over to Alex again, satisfaction evident in his eyes as he added, “The man’s own wife will not be able to tell them apart, once we have given Ashby the proper instruction in his mannerisms and habits.”

And with that, Exford’s entire plan came crashing down on Alex, undeniable. By all the fires of hell…

“I trust this is some kind of depraved jest,” Alex growled.

“Oh, it is no jest,” Exford said smoothly. “And the choice for you is simple. If you desire to avoid the hangman’s noose come dawn tomorrow, you will agree to impersonate Robert Kincaid, the Earl of Marston, and reclaim Dunleavy Castle as its rightful owner.”

“You have lost your mind.”

“And you will lose your life, unless you comply,” Exford retorted with quiet and deadly conviction. “We need to infiltrate that castle. We must learn firsthand about her garrison, the inner fortress, and its weaknesses. We need men behind her walls to glean that information. Only then can I risk leading my forces again in another strike for King Edward.”

Alex went silent, every muscle screaming for the release of punching something – or someone. Even if the entire idea was not asinine, it stuck in his craw, choking him with bitterness. The thought of being used again by powerful men for their own greedy purposes sickened him. He had been down that path before, most recently when the French Inquisitors had forced him to become their battle champion, compelling him even to fight against his own best friend in a death duel by using his brother Damien’s torture at their hands as his incentive not to disobey their commands. After that experience, he’d sworn never to yield to anyone’s authority so again.

And yet he had no wish to die, either.

He gritted his teeth. It meant he would likely have to at least consider the possibility of what Exford proposed. But he would be damned if he’d sit passively by and accept the deal as if it was manna from heaven.

“So?” Exford demanded none too patiently. “What is your answer?”

Quirking his brow with even more insolence than he’d managed to muster thus far, Alex straightened against his bonds. “That depends.”

“On what?” Exford asked, incredulous.

“On whether or not you are willing to offer additional compensation for my trouble.”

This time there was no mistaking the earl’s shock. His mouth actually gaped, and even Luc couldn’t hide an appreciative smirk at Alex’s daring. But Alex was in no mood to acknowledge any of it; nay, he was feeling more reckless than ever, and he cared not what anyone thought of him.

“I am offering you your life, man!” Exford finally managed to sputter. “Is that not enough?”

“Nay.” Alex kept his gaze cold and even, feeling a surge of dark satisfaction as the earl recoiled even further in response to the danger he apparently read there. “I think it only fair to demand something more, for let us be honest here. My participation in your scheme is apt to do naught but postpone my execution. I will be hanged regardless, swung from the nearest battlement once the people of Dunleavy realize they have been played a farce.”

“That rests upon you and how well you assume your role,” Lord Exford said after another moment’s silence, his imperious tone restored, along with his apparent calm.

“Even so, I will have terms, or I will not comply.”

The earl looked as if he would like nothing better than to throw Alex’s demands back in his face – but he clearly wanted his plot to go forward, and he could not do so without complete cooperation.

“What are they, then?” he snapped.

“For a start, return of the leather sack taken from me by your soldiers when they brought me into custody. The remaining contents have sentimental meaning to me.”

“Are there other Templar riches in the bag?” Exford demanded, shifting his glare to Sir Stephen, who had by now rejoined them.

“A few small parchments rolled and tied. Naught like the golden bowl’s worth in coin.”

Alex forced himself to remain as impassive as he could while he waited for Lord Exford to make up his mind. He felt Luc’s steady gaze upon him, but he gave naught away. Luc might remember the bowl from their time in the Brotherhood, thanks to the worth if it in coin, but Alex knew he had never seen the parchments. They were in truth priceless, part of the famed Templar treasure from the Holy Land that, unbeknownst to Alex when he had stolen the sack from John’s keeping, had been tucked into a pocket beneath the golden vessel he had thought was the limit of what he had lifted from his old friend.

At last Exford scowled. “Very well. Let us finish with this business, then, and begin preparations. Release him, Sir Stephen, and—”

“Return of the parchments and sack is not all,” Alex broke in, feeling that old, familiar rush that always came from deliberately placing himself on the edge of the blade. “In the unlikely event that I am successful in this plot you are arranging for me, I will need some means of sustaining myself when it is over and you have what you seek at Dunleavy.”

“You wish to be paid for the privilege of avoiding the noose?”

Alex allowed a half-smile. “In coin. Before your men apprehended me, I had intended to use the funds gained from the goldsmith in Carlisle to seek a life of seclusion in some remoter part of Scotland. But with that option gone…” He let his voice drift off and raised his brow.

Lord Exford’s tone was flat. “How much?”

“Five hundred pounds.” Alex paused for but an instant after announcing that outrageous sum, adding, “And I want half of it paid up front.”

As he had expected, silence greeted him. But to his surprise Lord Exford seemed to be actually considering his demand, by God.

Still, Alex knew the man could not help but bear in mind all the reasons that allowing this would be more than unwise. After all, what would there be to stop Alex from taking the two hundred and fifty pounds once he was freed and escaping off to the north of Scotland, leaving Dunleavy entirely out of his plans?

Unless, of course, Exford believed he could extract some kind of heart-felt oath from him, to bind him to this ridiculous plot.

And if he was counting on that, then he was a bigger fool by far.

Lord Exford turned on his heel and moved out of earshot to speak with Luc, likely to get his reaction to Alex’s audacious proposal. The intervening silence gave Alex time to think further on the unflattering truth he had just been compelled to acknowledge about himself…that unfortunate quirk of nature that had plagued him for as long as he could remember.

His word meant next to nothing.

Aye, the sad fact was that he was not like his brother Damien, or even his friends Richard or John when it came to matters of honor. Self-preservation drove his actions more than any other impulse.

A long time ago he had realized that flaw in his character. It had come to the fore when he had been a year or two past twenty and a new knight at court; then, he had foolishly allowed himself to fall in love with a high-born woman and daughter of an earl – the beautiful and gentle Lady Margaret Newcomb. When she had discovered herself with child, her furious sire had given Alex the choice of remaining by her side and suffering the kind of dishonor and pain a blooded earl could bring down on the head of a common knight who had wronged him, or joining the Templar Brotherhood and leaving England for good.

Though not easy, his choice had seemed clear. At least he had convinced himself that it was the best for everyone involved, including Margaret, but in his heart, he had known it was the coward’s way. That inner awareness was what had spurred him to excel as a knight for the Brotherhood, his lack of sincere dedication to the holiness of the Order notwithstanding. He had had one thing to offer, at least: He was gifted on the field of battle. He might not be the truest of the Templars, but he could fight and kill with a level of excellence that had earned him a place within the ranks of the Brotherhood’s inner circle. Damien had joined him there shortly after, and he had forged his friendships with John and Richard then as well.

But that was where his similarities with them had ended. His brother and his friends lived, breathed, and slept decency and integrity. That he fervently wished he possessed a similar sense of conviction had not mattered. Over the course of the past six years, he had discovered that he was rarely capable of living up to his word, regardless of how important the matter or how good his intentions.

The only time he had managed to follow through on a noble deed for someone else’s sake had been a year and a half ago, with Richard, when they had faced the wrath of the French Inquisition together in their ordeal by battle. But that moment of self-sacrifice had been a single oddity in the long list of ignoble actions that had comprised the miserable life he had led both before and since. And he had paid dearly for that unusual act of self-sacrifice, rewarded for it with agonizing torture at the hands of men more skilled in the infliction of human pain than any other beings on earth.

It had been worth it for what Richard had gained in the process, he supposed. And that Richard had met and fallen in love with Margaret in the time since Alex had left England had seemed fitting, even. He had been happy for them. But he could not deny that a part of him had hoped his friend would return the favor he’d done him by finding a way to free him from his hellish imprisonment with the Inquisition. Fair payback, a perverse voice deep inside Alex had asserted at the time.

It had appalled him to realize that his internal self sought such petty recompense for having done a good deed, but he could not refute it. It was who he was: a mere shadow of the honor-bound man his brother and his brothers-in-arms were…a man bound by his own selfish instincts above all else.

That realization was the main reason he had stolen the bowl and headed for the north; he had wanted to sell it and use the funds gained to disappear somewhere up in the Highlands. To get away from all the reminders of his faults and his moral weaknesses.

Aye, unless the life of someone close to him was quite literally hanging in the balance, Alex could not be trusted in matters of friendship, loyalty, or love, and he knew it.

He just hoped Lord Exford didn’t.

There was no time to think further on the matter. Exford had turned back to Alex, while Luc strode without a backward glance, off in the direction from which he had come. Stephen was left standing guard as the earl spoke once more.

“I have considered your terms, Ashby, and I accept.”

The impossibility of the earl’s answer rocked through Alex, though he managed to keep his expression schooled. Either this man and Luc were both suffering from brain fever, or there was going to be more to this little bargain than he could see at the moment. Since neither looked particularly ill, and since he knew Luc, at least, was no imbecile, he would have to bide his time to find out what the catch was going to be.

“Have you nothing to say, then?” Exford asked smoothly.

“How about ‘untie me’,” Alex drawled.

Smirking, Exford nodded to Stephen, and the guard reluctantly stepped behind the tree to release Alex’s bonds. When his arms were free, Alex spent a few moments stretching and shaking the numbness from his limbs, all the while glaring at Stephen, before complying with Lord Exford’s murmured command to follow him back to the small encampment where approximately two dozen of the regiment’s soldier’s had gathered.

“The initial coin you have requested will take some time to procure, as will arrangements to bring into our company the men who knew Marston best, to school you in his history and habits,” Exford said, as they reached the circle of fires. He paused then, stopping near one of the cook-fires and fixing a critical gaze on Alex. “And there is something else as well. This is likely pointless to ask considering that you’re of the knightly class, but are you schooled in reading and letters?”

Alex did not answer, unwilling to admit the truth of his ignorance aloud, even though few men of his status ever had reason or opportunity to learn such skills. The sight of his tightened jaw, though, prompted Lord Exford to nod and glance away, continuing, “I thought as much. That will need to be addressed as well, in the limited time we have. Marston was an earl of the realm, after all, and he was educated as such.”

Alex remained silent as he waited to see what else he needed to learn about the deal he had struck with this powerful English lord.

He knew he was about to find out, when Luc came striding back toward them, from a place beyond the edge of trees in the clearing. He gave Lord Exford a short nod, and the earl acknowledged it before turning his attention to Alex and murmuring, “And now we have one final bit of business to conclude, before our terms of agreement are complete. Come with me. There is something I want you to see.”

The prickling sensation Alex had experienced up the back of his neck from the moment he had first sensed the direction of this ridiculous scheme returned full force – magnified when he caught sight of Luc’s expression, both grim and self-satisfied all at once. Luc and Stephen fell into place beside them as they approached the edge of the clearing, and though it was dramatically dimmer within the cover of the trees, thanks to the thick leaves, Alex’s eyes adjusted quickly enough to make out an area twenty paces or so in where the ground growth seemed tamped down. There was a man lying prone in the center of it, and there were two English guards posted nearby.

A shock lanced through Alex, and he squinted to see better, almost at the same time as the identity of the figure burst upon him, and he lunged forward.

“John!” he called, jerked back in his progress by strong hands gripping his arms. He looked wildly around, noting that Lord Exford watched, unaffected, as Luc and Stephen kept him from going to his friend. John did not react except to moan slightly, his head rolling to the side and his brow furrowing with pain.

“Christ, what did you do to him?” Alex grated, ceasing his struggles as he shifted a burning gaze to Luc.

“Nothing he was not commanded to do.”

That implacable answer had come from Lord Exford, who continued to watch Alex closely. “A friend of yours, I take it?”

Alex did not answer, his mouth twisting with bitterness. Luc had provided him already with all the pertinent details about John and their history together, it was clear. He glowered at Luc, mentally reviewing the ways he would enjoy getting even for this latest act of treachery against yet another comrade to whom they had both once sworn allegiance until death.

“Sir John de Clifton was apprehended shortly after you yourself were subdued,” Exford continued, undeterred by Alex’s silence. “A loyal ally to you, by all accounts, for he leapt from hiding and into the fray when it appeared you might be bested by my men. The only way he could be made to surrender his sword and submit to arrest was under threat of your immediate demise.” Exford made a clicking sound of false commiseration, and it was all Alex could do not to yank free from Luc’s grasp and plant his fist in the earl’s face.

Instead, Alex shifted his gaze to Luc and said through grated teeth, “If he has suffered mortal injury at your hands, I promise you will pay for his death.”

“I am terrified by the threat, Ashby,” Luc clipped back, “but you need not fear. John has a few bruises, and his head will undoubtedly beat like a drum when he awakens. But he will recover in time. This is but a warning of what could be, that is all.”

Even before Lord Exford finished what Luc had begun to explain, Alex closed his eyes, feeling the sickening drop of awareness about what was going on here – knowing it was going to be the one cursed thing they could have chosen that would bind him to this godforsaken plot and force him to see it through to the end. Resignation swept through him in pounding waves as he heard Lord Exford voice the words that proclaimed his doom and cast away in a single swoop any bid for freedom he might have hoped to make.

“You see, Ashby, Sir John de Clifton is going to be my personal pledge for your full cooperation. Several of my men, including Luc, will accompany you to Dunleavy Castle and report back to me regularly on your activities there. Deviate from our plan, fail to be successful in the ruse you have agreed to play, and I assure you, your friend will suffer greatly for it…and then he will die.”

 

Chapter Two

Dunleavy Castle, two months later

 

The sun was dipping toward earth, casting a rich golden sheen over the land, as Elizabeth peered out from the battlements just above the outer gate. Her gaze tracked a dark speck on the horizon. With every moment that passed, the speck got bigger, close enough now to make out the number of riders. There were three. Fingers clenching against the cool stone of the castle wall, she watched dust sift up in a kind of cloud around them as they approached Dunleavy’s main gate. The message she had received but a few hours ago had said that one of those men would be Rob.

She reminded herself to breathe, as she had had to so often it seemed, since she had opened that unexpected parchment.

Rob was coming home.

After all this time of needing to be strong, of having to lead this castle alone and protect those within it, she would know the blessed relief of sharing the burden of it with the man who had brought her here as his bride more than five years ago. The man who had been captured by the English only a few short months after that. She would no longer be alone fighting battles that exhausted her as much as they enraged her for the needless suffering they caused.

Rob was a gentle, peace-loving man, aye, but he would want to defend the home that had been passed down to him by his sire. He could do naught else and still be true to himself. For this and other reasons, she knew she had been more than fortunate in her own sire’s choice of him as her husband. Rob had been attentive and thoughtful throughout their brief courtship and even briefer union, calm, reserved, and kind in all of his dealings with her.

She had missed him. Aye, she had…in many ways. Glancing down for a moment, she felt a flush warm her cheeks in the wake of her wanton thoughts.

But she could not deny it; along with all the rest, she had missed the intimacies her husband had shown her – the physical aspect of their union as man and wife. The act of joining with him had not been at all what she’d been led to fear by her elder sister, wed these seven years to laird Ian MacGavin of Inverness. Susan had warned Elizabeth of the pain that must be tolerated as one’s wifely duty.

But to Elizabeth’s surprise, her coupling with Rob had not been painful or unpleasant, except for the very first time. Nay, it had been more than tolerable. Sometimes even enjoyable. In truth, she had begun to look forward to those intimate moments with him before he had been taken from her.

Elizabeth bit the inside of her cheeks, glancing quickly to see that none of the others who stood with her awaiting the return of their lord had surmised the wayward direction of her musings. None seemed to be paying her any mind, and so she shifted her gaze forward again, fixing it as well on the now discernable riders who had slowed a bit in their approach as they came within clear sight of Dunleavy.

Just then, a stiff breeze gusted through the battlements, whipping into her face a few strands of her hair, which was unbound and adorned with naught but a circlet for the first time in longer than she could remember. Impatiently, she brushed them away with her fingertips.

But for an instant, that movement caused her attention to stray from the riders to the roughened area on the back of her hand; her constant toiling around the castle had done little for the state of her skin, it was clear. Pausing, she examined both hands with a critical eye. With a frown she rubbed at the dryness, reaching up next to test her cheeks for any similar quality. Hmmmm…not as bad, but not altogether pleasing, either.

It was not a surprise, really; her precious gilt-encircled mirror had told her of the tiny lines encroaching around her mouth and eyes. But they had not mattered much until now. Not until she considered that Rob would see them and perhaps be disappointed in her appearance since he last he looked upon her…

“You have naught to fear, my lady,” Annabel murmured next to her.

Elizabeth glanced at her lady’s maid in surprise.

Annabel was unsuccessful at stifling her knowing smile as she gestured toward Elizabeth. “You are still more than lovely, Lady Elizabeth. Lord Marston will be hard-pressed to keep from gazing upon your beauty, I warrant, once he is safely at home again.”

Elizabeth offered a nervous laugh. “My husband was never one to spend idle time just gazing at anything – or anyone – for very long,” she mused, swinging her stare back to the men who had come close enough now for her to discern that the middle one looked most like Rob. “He would need to be a very changed man to undertake such now. Either that or else he will be studying the disappointing results time has wrought.”

“Time has been kind to you, my lady,” Annabel countered, leaning her forearms onto the lower portion of the jutting saw-tooth shapes that composed the battlement where they stood. “And as for Lord Marston seeming changed, it is very like he will be, in some ways. Five years of harsh imprisonment is bound to have an affect on any man.”

“We shall see,” Elizabeth murmured. The men were within thirty lengths of the gate now, and she realized there was no more time to dawdle about, watching their approach. She needed to retreat to the top of the steps that led to the great hall and ready herself to give her long-absent husband the proper welcome he deserved. “Come,” she said, nodding to Annabel. “Call to the servants and villagers to arrange themselves into columns on either side of the inner yard, while I await my lord’s entrance at the portal of the great hall.”

With a nod, Annabel slipped off to do as she was bid, and Elizabeth was left to make her way to the spot where she would greet her husband again for the first time in five years – the place where he would perhaps allow her to offer him an embrace or a chaste kiss, for she knew he favored propriety almost above all else.

The rest she would save until they shared some private time immediately after the feast she’d ordered prepared in celebration of his return.

Biting back a secret smile at the thought, Elizabeth pressed her palms to her stomach to calm its fluttering and strode into the cool, darkened corridor that led down from the battlements to the castle yard below.

#

As Alex rode closer and closer to the stately, imposing castle that would serve as both his home and his prison in the coming weeks, he reminded himself to remain outwardly at ease. To avoid letting the seething resentment that had invaded and spread through him these past two months spent under Exford’s control show on his face or in the way he held his body. He could not afford to slip, lest John pay the price for his failure.

He had been reminded of that bitter truth often enough recently. Aye, for as long as he had made sufficient effort to learn his new role as the returning Earl of Marston, John was kept relatively comfortable. However, the few times he had let his temper fly, especially in his dealings with Luc, John had suffered accordingly. It made his jaw ache even now in remembering it.

Of course he had not been allowed to actually speak with John, and he had only rarely seen him, and then from a distance. But the connection between his actions and his old friend’s condition had been made more than clear. And so in order to ease John’s sufferings as much as he was able, he’d done his best to cooperate, though he had made a silent vow that if he ever had the opportunity to exact vengeance for all this on Luc, Lord Exford, or anyone else involved, he would do so, and with great pleasure.

“We are here.”

Casting Luc a sardonic glance for pointing out that quite obvious fact, Alex looked forward again and continued riding.

“You would be wise to put a more pleasant expression on your face,” Luc said, “else the game will be up before it begins.”

Though Alex was not looking at Stephen, who rode to his left, he sensed the man’s frown at this latest flare up of continuously simmering animosity between himself and Luc. Still, it wasn’t enough to keep Alex from making answer and perhaps providing himself with a bit of satisfaction in the process.

“Never fear, Luc, I am well aware of what is at stake here.” Alex glanced to his nemesis again. “However, I will remind you in turn that, so far as you are concerned, I am an earl now – a nobleman who was generous enough to bring you with me out of our captivity in England. Rather than schooling me further, you would be wise to follow your own advice and practice the fawning expression I will expect you to wear around me from now on.”

Luc choked back his laugh but could say nothing further, for they had reached the first opened gate of Dunleavy Castle. They guided their mounts through the entrance. Except for a few sentries, this outer yard of Dunleavy was empty, and as Alex acknowledged the guards’ salute and walked his gelding toward the second gate, he could not help but notice the arched patch of scorched grass and earth that curved out toward the outer wall.

“Interesting,” he murmured. “What do you make of that?”

Stephen kept silent, but that did not surprise Alex. The man rarely spoke. Yet Luc also did not make answer, riding onward as unmoving as one of the statues in St. Jasper’s garden back in Cyprus, with his gaze fixed on something ahead of them. Alex glanced to see what had him so distracted.

And it was then that he saw her. The woman who had so captivated Luc’s attention. She stood at the far end of the second, inner courtyard, at the top of the main steps, looking every inch the lady of the castle. It only took that one glance, and he knew he was going to be in trouble. Enormous trouble.

Lady Elizabeth of Selkirk was of average height, perhaps, but the delicate lines of her form seemed at odds with the impression of steely resolve she exuded. The late-day sun accentuated the rich, golden color of her hair, and as she gazed at Alex with the edge of a smile softening her expression, he thought he caught a glimmer of something hopeful in her eyes. That shadow of emotion set off an unaccountable twisting sensation inside of him. A kind of guilty twinge he was not used to feeling.

Luc made a low whistling sound before murmuring, “She is a beauty.” His gaze, when he shifted it from her, moved past Alex and on to Stephen, still on Alex’s other side. “You were not jesting when you claimed rumor painted her so.”

“I never jest,” Stephen replied, his voice low.

“Perhaps not. But you might have been more forthcoming to help me prepare,” Alex said lowly.

Luc made a scoffing sound in his throat. “You have never had trouble knowing exactly how to handle any woman in all the time I have known you. I do not suspect you will be stricken with an attack of ignorance now.”

“Enough,” Stephen warned. “Listen.”

Even had Stephen not uttered the softly-spoken command, Alex would have had no choice but to hear the resounding shout that went up as his steed crossed the threshold to the inner yard. People lined the walls here so thickly, nary a stone was visible between them, and they picked up the chorus of cries that spread from the gate back toward the keep, welcoming him – welcoming Robert Kincaid, the Earl of Marston – home from English captivity.

He lifted his arm in salute, his gaze taking in the throng, reminding himself to smile. To look as natural as he could in this feigned role. Ever so slowly, he allowed his stare to sift through the folk, old and young, drifting, drifting through the yard and up the steps. To the golden-haired sylph dressed in a gown of emerald hue who stood in wait for him.

Their stares locked…and he allowed his smile to deepen.

Such an expression had never been difficult for him to muster when looking upon an attractive woman. But that truth did naught to explain the sudden tightening in his chest at the welcoming expression that lit her face.

So this was Elizabeth of Selkirk. Beth, her husband had called her, according to men Lord Exford had brought in to tutor him for assuming Robert Kincaid’s identity. Along with Stephen, his instructors had commented in passing on her appearance. She was rumored to be fair enough, they had said, blessed with hair the color of harvested wheat, though her complexion was rosier than the milk-and-cream sort prized by English ladies. It was the fault of her Scottish blood, they had muttered, since many of the women hailing from this primitive and rough-shod land seemed to possess robust constitutions, favoring outdoor pursuits and even the occasional bout of swordplay.

Alex had not responded to their descriptions then, though he had been secretly intrigued. Aye, he had hoped that she would be as they had said, for an unpretentious, attractive wench might provide a bit of pleasant distraction, since he would be forced to spend several months in her company and in her bed.

Seeing her now, he realized he’d had no idea.

But the time for ruminating on that or any other detail vanished as his gelding reached its destination. The cheers ebbed away as he dismounted and made his way alone up the steps, feeling strangely distanced from himself, as if he was watching his own motions from afar.

At last he attained the top step and reached for Elizabeth’s outstretched hand, keeping his gaze fixed to hers. The seconds slowed as if they had spun into the unhurried cadence of some dream. He heard the even, deep rush of his own breathing, and felt the steady thump of his heartbeat…watching a myriad of emotions flicker in her eyes – pretty gray eyes, he noticed now that he stood so close. It was uncommon to see eyes of that shade in combination with fair hair, but the effect was striking.

Before another thought could take full form he touched her, his fingers sweeping across her palm before he clasped it. He bent to brush a kiss over the back of that hand, straightening again as the courtyard fell silent.

“Welcome home, my lord,” Elizabeth murmured at last. Her voice was mellow, making him think of sweet amber wine. “Will you come inside? I have ordered a feast prepared in your honor this night.”

“Aye, lady,” he said in reply, offering her a gentle smile. “And I thank you for your greeting.”

Though she nodded in response, her answering smile wobbled; in the next instant, she took a quick, almost panting breath and stiffened, her fingers clasping at his as if she teetered on the edge of a swoon.

Instinctively, he lunged forward, grasping both of her elbows in his palms and pulling her close to him for stability. A collective gasp rose from the crowd at his action, and he froze, recalling the care his tutors had taken to explain Robert Kincaid’s highly-developed sense of reserve, self-control, and propriety.

This was not good. Nay, not at all.

And yet…

A low rumble of stamping – the sound of rising approval – began to swell from the crowd again. The cheers bloomed to a crescendo, and with the sound came a tiny burst of relief that spread through Alex. It felt suspiciously like the ripples of warmth he used to feel when undertaking a new flirtation…aye, the old heat of the chase bubbling up inside him, damn it.

He gazed down at Elizabeth of Selkirk, still held in his steadying embrace. Her lips were slightly parted, her intriguing eyes holding an expression that was at once serious, and surprised, and damn it all…somehow yearning. Almost against his will, it seemed, he felt his mouth cock into that half-smile he had used with devastating affect on countless numbers of females in the past. And he knew then that he was going to take advantage of the ebullient atmosphere surrounding them to do what he had intended to save for later, when he was in private with this woman who was supposed to be his wife.

Leaning in so that his lips touched the soft waves of hair between her temple and her ear, he murmured only loudly enough so that she might hear him, “Are you quite well, now, lady – enough that I may release my grip upon your arms without fear of your stumbling?”

The cheers echoed around them so that he could not hear any reply, but he felt her nod.

“I am glad to know it,” he said. “For it frees me, then, to do this …”

Pulling back just a bit, he slid an arm around her waist, using the other hand to gently tip her chin up as he brushed his lips across hers in a tender kiss. Her mouth remained slack beneath his for only a moment before she returned the caress, her own mouth warm and searching. The unexpected pleasure of it sent a shock of desire shooting through him, and he realized two distinct yet vital truths in that blinding instant: First, that he had quite obviously been without a woman for far too long, to react to this kiss as he was, and second, that these next months might not prove to be as trying as he had feared, if the woman was this responsive to simple delights.

But his enjoyment was mitigated in the next instant by another sensation that caught him by surprise. It was a feeling he had experienced only on rare occasions in the past – a shadow of the same having come upon him just a few moments ago, as he had ridden into Dunleavy proper – and so he was unprepared for the stabbing flood of it now. By God, it was guilt, plain and unadorned. Aye, the very truth was that he was leading Elizabeth of Selkirk down a path of deception by pretending to be her husband, and that knowledge cast a pall over the moment, leading him to ease back from their kiss.

He was still trying to make sense of it when she finally pulled away. He stood still and silent next to her, watching those expressive, lovely eyes snap with heat.

They held that frozen tableau for the space of several heartbeats, before her expression shifted to something more guarded and she took another step back, placing some further distance between them. Then her brow rose and she said more loudly, so that he might hear her over the still-cheering crowd, “Well, my lord, you are clearly famished. Come inside, I pray, for the feast cannot begin without you.”

#

Something was very wrong.

Elizabeth knew it in her bones, though her eyes, and yes, curse it, her own desperate longings, asserted otherwise.

But she could not ignore the prick of instinct that told her the man sitting next to her at the feasting table of honor, upon the dais, was not Robert Kincaid, the Earl of Marston.

He was not her husband. She was almost certain of it.

He seemed to exude a kind of leashed power that her composed and even-tempered lord had never displayed. And yet she could not deny that he looked like her husband. He was tall and powerfully-built, with the same rich, dark hair and blue eyes. Yet these eyes held a hint of playfulness – of deviltry and masculine confidence that she could not remember ever seeing in Rob. And his smile…ah, but it was pure seduction. When he had kissed her, the play of his mouth over hers had been a tender torment that had set her blood to racing. Aye, he’d stolen her breath with that caress in a way she could never remember Rob having done.

And perhaps that was part of the problem. She could not remember much at all that might help her sort through this unexpected dilemma. She and Rob had been wed for so short a time before he was captured that many of the details about him, his quirks and his ways, had faded with the passing of these five years. She had never made any great effort to recall particulars during that time, had not thought it necessary or even wise, considering how much more deeply she felt his absence when she dwelled on the memories of their time together. She had simply waited for word, or praise God, his return.

Never in her worst imaginings had she expected that she would react as she had this day, with doubt seething through her like a wily serpent to invade all the hopeful places in her heart.

And yet here she sat, partaking of the feast next to a man she could not help but feel was a complete stranger to her.

At that moment, one of the soldiers of Dunleavy’s garrison lifted his cup from across the hall, standing and calling out, “To your health, my lord, and a curse upon the English dogs who kept you from us!”

Shouts of “Huzzah!” and other calls of drunken encouragement rang forth, though she noticed that with the toast a few of the garrison cast pointed stares at the table where sat the two men Rob had brought with him from England into Scotland. Elizabeth shifted her gaze to meet that of Dunleavey’s steward, Edwin Tamberlain, noting that his expression looked troubled as well. He sat at the end of the head table, close enough to be heard, should he decide to speak, and as soon as Rob had acknowledged the cheer and drunk from his own cup, Edwin called out, “My Lord Marston?”

“Aye, Edwin?” the man who claimed to be Rob answered, twisting to face him.

“Mayhap it would not be amiss to address the assembly regarding the Englishmen with whom you rode through Dunleavy’s gates.”

It was a bold comment for any steward to make to his master, yet all of the others seated nearby, including the esteemed castle reeve, several religious men fronted by her own beloved confessor Father Paul, and Dunleavy’s captain of the guard, remained silent, their expressions measured, watching, and waiting. All turned their eyes to the man seated next to her, to see how he would react and what he might say.

He did not answer for a goodly moment, his face revealing little. However, Elizabeth saw a glint of something hard in his eyes, just visible over the rim of his cup as he took another deep drink before setting it down. A kind of tightness twisted the smile he directed to the steward, as he replied, “I will overlook the audacity of your comment, Edwin, in light of the unusual circumstances of my return and my gratitude in your efforts to assist my lady in my absence. However I will remind you that it is not your place to question your lord. Ever.”

Edwin paled before flushing with anger, looking as if he would like to say something by way of retort to the chiding he had just received. But several of the others around them murmured with seeming approval at the master’s assertion of the proper order of things. Elizabeth chose to keep mute, simply watching.

After a strained pause, Edwin inclined his head stiffly. “My apologies, my lord. I only thought to diffuse the tension that seems to be arising amongst some of the men in regard to your…companions.”

“I know what you thought, and I assure you I had decided an action on the matter before you felt need to speak on it.” An uncomfortable silence settled over the table, but then, with a nod in Edwin’s direction, Rob stood up from his position next to her. Close as she was to him, she could not help but be reminded again of the power contained in every tall, muscular inch of him. Lifting his cup, he waited for the attention of the assembly, and the silence that would necessarily follow.

It descended swiftly over the gathering of four-score villagers, soldiers, clergymen, and servants, and when all eyes were upon him, he spoke. His voice was rich and deep, and it echoed through the chamber, large as it was.

“Good people of Dunleavy, I am fortunate to have returned to you in health and strength from my imprisonment in England. Yet I would not be standing here at all, I can assure you, were it not for those who entered Dunleavy with me: Sir Stephen of Cheltenham and Sir Lucas of Dover. I trust you will welcome them to Dunleavy as honored friends.”

Over the new rounds of “Aye!” and “We will, my lord!” that erupted at the end of his speech, Rob directed his attention to Dunleavy’s captain of the guard, Sir Gareth de Payton, instructing him to find berth for the two men in the garrison with the other soldiers, for as long as they wished to stay.

Elizabeth frowned. She watched the renewed raising of cups and cheers of welcome to the two men Rob had introduced, and she could not help but feel uneasy. If these knights he had brought into their midst were not what they appeared to be, then…

She shuddered to think of the possibility. The English strangers were being given full entry into the garrison…mingling with Dunleavy’s best soldiers, training with them, learning all the details of life here amongst the very men most integral to the castle’s protection. The thoughts whirled through her mind, settling a fist of nausea into her belly.

It was too much to consider all at once. But she could address one aspect of it. She need not – nay, she could not – sit here longer and be eaten alive by her suspicions. Aye, she could test the waters of it right now, and praise be to God, it would free her from the need to remain in the great hall, feeling the overwhelming confusion that the powerful, attractive man who sat beside her had inspired.

“My lord?”

At first, she was afraid that he had not heard her softly spoken question. But then he turned his gaze to her, nearly stealing her breath anew at the intensity of his stare upon her.

“Aye, lady?”

“It grows late, my lord. I – I wish to retire to our chamber.” Here she paused for a moment, swallowing hard and keeping her gaze steady upon him, trying to appear unaffected. “Should I expect you to join me there later?”

He looked startled for a moment, and she could not avert the fleeting thought that he had not previously considered the detail of where he would be sleeping. He paused, seeming to select his words carefully before he spoke, though a kind of warmth and teasing lit his eyes when he finally gave voice to his thoughts.

“Do you wish me to join you?”

Now it was her turn to be surprised, by the question itself, not to mention the intimacy inherent in it, and by the heated images that shot through her mind’s eye, unbidden, in accompaniment with a tingling flush of warmth. Damn him, be he her true husband or nay, for making her feel so unsteady after all this time. Annoyance followed fast upon that thought, giving her courage to raise her brow slightly and retort with a sense of control she did not feel, “My feelings concerning that matter not. You are master of this holding. You may choose to sleep when and where you wish…my lord.”

There was no mistaking the glint of humor and heat in his gaze then. He smiled at her, and she had to remind herself that the melting sensation it set off inside her likely had more to do with the cups of wine she had drunk than any true reaction to him.

“You seem to have forgotten something very important about me, wife,” he answered quietly at last, as he glanced down and reached out to take her hand in his. She tried not to let the soft gasp that came from her throat slip past. But she was unsuccessful, and his mesmerizing blue gaze slid up to hers again, keeping her still like a rabbit before the wolf, as he stroked his finger in a lazy, seductive pattern over her palm.

Resisting the urge to lick her lips and glance down at the sensual mischief he was playing upon her with his touch, she settled for a husky, “And what is that, pray tell?”

“That there has never been a time when your feelings have not mattered to me. Especially in regards to what might occur during our private time together.” His sensual mouth quirked again, and he leaned in closer, to murmur for her ears alone, “I shall consider your forgetfulness a challenge and do my best to remind you of that truth between us more properly in the future.”

Her breath caught in her throat, then. She made a slight choking sound, but thankfully, the need to reach for her cup and take a drink of her wine allowed her to disengage her hand from his without seeming overtly discourteous.

For a few, agonizing moments of silence that spread out between them, she thought he intended to wait for her to speak again…and she had no clear idea of what she should say next. But then he seemed to take pity on her, and he shifted that intense gaze from her face, murmuring, “However, in the meantime, if you wish to retire, lady, then by all means, do so. There are several others here I have yet to greet, and I intend to bathe the dust of my travels away as well before I retire to bed this night. I will join you ere long.”

He flicked a glance to her again, as she pushed back abruptly from the table and stood. She twisted away from the heat of his stare, somehow maintaining her composure even as she felt his gaze still hot upon her while she gestured to her lady’s maids to accompany her from the chamber.

But in the instant before she went, she could not keep from glancing back over her shoulder at him one last time. He took the opportunity to mouth something more to her, with that smile still playing in his eyes. Five words that sent the blood rushing through her anew…that sent her hurrying through the door and into the corridor beyond the great hall with his words pursuing her in relentless waves.

“Be ready for me, lady.”

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