The Border Hostageby Virginia Henley
Raven Carleton is every inch the English lady. But on this glorious morning, as she gallops/i>
New York Times bestselling author Virginia Henley brings her trademark passion, power, and steamy sensuality to this dazzling work of romance fiction–an unforgettable tale of a headstrong Englishwoman abducted by a Scotsman seeking passionate revenge....
Raven Carleton is every inch the English lady. But on this glorious morning, as she gallops along the seacoast, Raven is thinking about her freedom, not her imminent betrothal to aristocratic Christopher Dacre. Suddenly Raven is forced to draw rein when a man appears directly in her path. Silhouetted against the predawn sky, he is magnificent–a darkly powerful stranger who will alter the course of her life.
When Scotsman Heath Kennedy first glimpses Raven Carleton, he sees a creature of such infinite loveliness, she takes his breath away. But in a land divided, Raven is about to become a pawn in the bitter border wars between England and Scotland. Abducted by Heath and held for ransom, Raven finds herself attracted to him in ways she never could have imagined...and Heath is utterly beguiled by his headstrong captive. Risking the wrath of two realms, the Scotsman does the unthinkable: He offers Raven her freedom. He asks only one thing in return.
“Political intrigue. . .perilous escapes...tempestuous romance. . .”
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Read an Excerpt
Eskdale Castle, Scottish Borders
"You stole my heart the first time I ever laid eyes on you!" Heath Kennedy murmured low. Concealed behind a high stone wall, the tall, dark figure watched the lovely female as she stood in the deepening shadows of twilight. Her beauty was enhanced by her regal bearing as she lifted her head with pride. She was darkly beautiful, her skin smooth as satin. It was not just her face that was exquisite; her body too was perfection. Her slender legs were the longest he had ever seen. When she turned her head and gazed in his direction, Heath wondered if she sensed the presence of a male.
Heath knew she would put up a fight once she realized what was about to happen. But it would avail her naught; he had planned the mating for a sennight, carefully watching her, following her, stalking her as she frequented her favorite haunts. At twilight she always wandered down to the River Esk, dallying pensively until the moon rose. This meadow was a perfect place; high stone walls on three sides, the river on the fourth, made escape impossible.
Heath rode slowly through the gate and quietly locked it behind him. She saw him immediately, but his presence was familiar and she trusted him implicitly. As he cantered toward her she tossed her head in a gesture that was both playful and enticing. She watched him intently as he slid from the stallion's back.
"Tonight is the night, my proud beauty." His white teeth flashed in his darkly tanned face.
The moment he slapped his stallion's rump, she knew what would follow. She began to flee like the wind, intent upon escape. Her pursuer followed, steadily closing the distance between them. Fear washed over her, making her shudder uncontrollably. Too late, she realized that he had her cornered, and she screamed.
Heath felt a moment's regret that she must suffer fear and pain, but he ruthlessly crushed the emotion. The end justified the means. The male must dominate, the female must submit; it was the law of nature. Cornered and trembling, she was still ready to fight. The moment he lunged at her, she bit him savagely.
Wild with the instinct to copulate, the black stallion reared its powerful forelegs, sank its teeth into the mare's satin neck, and mounted her with brute force. As the stud thrust into her, the lovely Barbary suddenly yielded to his mastery and her scream modulated to a soft feral cry of need. She quivered as the dominant male buried himself deep inside her, surging in and out with a furious rhythm that unleashed his fierce sexual energy.
As the black stallion drove relentlessly toward his goal, he nipped her roughly on the neck and buried himself hard in her sleek heat. Then, finally, a scream was torn from his throat as his body went taut and he spent his seed. The viscid semen erupted into the fecund mare like white-hot lava, and she tightened on him painfully, ensuring that not one drop would be lost.
The stallion, glistening with sweat, released the mare and almost went down to his knees, robbed of his powerful strength. The female Barbary, however, had been invigorated. She brushed against him playfully, nudging him with her nose. They stood together, their bodies touching. She blew temptingly through her nostrils, while his heaving breath ruffled her mane.
It had been a magnificent mating. Heath was momentarily awestruck by its primal beauty. He walked slowly toward the mare and gentled her with his hand. His warm brown eyes clearly showed the deep affection he felt toward this particular horse. "Softly, my beauty. You were more than a match for him. You have got him staggering on his legs. If it did not take, he can serve you again, but I warrant he did his job right the first time."
A month ago, when Heath Kennedy and Ramsay Douglas had ridden north to the Grampian Mountains to bring back the wild, unbroken horses that were allowed to run free in the northern forests to ensure they could withstand cold and severe weather, Heath had seen the black stallion for the first time. He had known immediately that the animal was capable of siring magnificent progeny, especially with the right dams. Ram had laughed and told Heath he could have the horse, if he could capture him. It had not been easy, but when the two men left with the herd, the young stud stallion had a new master, who named him Blackadder.
Heath had worked with him and the rest of the wild horses from dawn till dark, every day for a month, and his efforts were beginning to pay off. He was training the surefooted garrons for Douglas moss-troopers who had to patrol the endless miles of wild, wide-open, rugged carse and moors of the Borders between Scotland and England. Borderers' horses must have strength, wind, and endurance or they were next to useless.
Heath Kennedy stretched an arm above his head as he lay naked in the wide bed. The ache in his muscles was deeply satisfying, for it came from doing work he loved. Heath's passion was horses; he had bought, sold, and traded them all his life, aye and stolen his fair share too, but he had never been able to breed them, because he had never owned any land. This year, for the first time, he would achieve his ambition, thanks to his powerful brother-in-law, Lord Ramsay Douglas. Heath had helped Ram escape from the Tower of London, where the English king, Henry Tudor, had been about to hang him, and in gratitude Ram had offered him the use of the vast Douglas lands to start his horse breeding. With hard work and clever trading, Heath now owned a dozen good breeding mares, and with any luck his new stud stallion would double the size of his herd within a year.
Heath's smile flashed in the darkness as he absently massaged the rock-hard saddle muscle in his thigh. His cock stirred slightly at the arousing memory of the mating, but he willed himself to relax and soon it lay quiet enough in its nest of thick black curls. He could not wait to see the colt his sister Valentina's lovely Barbary mare, Indigo, would produce. At long last, perhaps Fate had suddenly decided to favor him. Branding Heath Kennedy with the bar sinister of bastardy had not been enough for that wicked jade known as Fate. With cruel delight, she also had bestowed Gypsy blood upon him, doubly dooming him from the day he was born. But Heath Kennedy had laughed in the jade's face and thumbed his nose at the world. His proud bearing deceived all into believing he had been blessed rather than cursed.
He felt a sudden premonition of danger. He forced himself to breathe deeply, slowly, focusing on where the menace was centered. Heath could read minds easily and sense things that threatened about him. He had more physical and psychic power at his command than ordinary men. Valentina ... His sister Tina was the only being he loved in the entire world, and suddenly he felt her fear flood over him like a tidal wave.
He slipped from the bed and quickly donned calfskin breeches, then took time to pull on his soft, thigh-high boots that concealed a deadly blade. With the stealth and speed of a predator, guided by instinct alone, Heath stalked through the castle chambers until he reached the Master Tower. When he heard Tina's terrified scream, he took the stone stairs three at a time.
Heath paused at the bedchamber door only long enough to hear a male demand, "Where is Black Ram Douglas?" He kicked open the door savagely and it crashed back against the wall, revealing his beautiful sister with the raider's hands about her throat. It took only three seconds for Heath to take the blade from his boot and use it to separate the man's backbone and pierce his heart. The hulking brute gurgled, and a froth of blood spattered Tina's white night rail.
"Are you all right, sweeting?" Heath's gut was knotted with apprehension for his beloved sister, and for the child she carried beneath her heart. The back of his neck prickled at the thought of what Ram would have done to him had he not protected the wife and unborn child Douglas loved more than life.
"Ye took the bait, laddie; we've got ye now!"
Heath whirled to face the door as six thickset Borderers shouldered their way into the spacious tower room.
"He isn't Lord Douglas!" Tina denied desperately.
"Liar!" The barrel-chested leader bared rotting, blackened teeth in a hideous leer. "None but firkin' Black Ram Douglas would dare enter yer bedchamber -- it would mean his death warrant."
"This is my brother, Heath Kennedy!" she cried.
"Liar!" The burly Borderer was enjoying himself. "All the firkin' Kennedys have flaming red hair, like yerself, lass."
"Hush, Tina!" Heath warned before her blazing temper ignited. If they thought they had Ramsay Douglas, they would take him and mayhap leave Tina unharmed. The resemblance between Heath and Ram was marked, and it was not the first time that one had been mistaken for the other.
"Och, the laddie's in luv, begod! Willin' tae sacrifice hisself fer a bloody woman." The Borderer shook his shaggy head in disbelief. "Take him," he ordered.
Two brawny men with fists the size of hams grabbed Heath Kennedy and began to drag him from the tower room. Heath cursed himself for an impetuous fool. If he had still been in possession of his blade, he would have taken on all six.
"I'll fetch the knife," a third said with avidity.
"Ye'll fetch more than the firkin' knife; ye'll fetch the corpse too. We can no' leave one of our clan behind, ye thick-skulled clodpole ... it would identify us, do ye ken?"
Heath's mind flashed about like mercury as he tried to identify the raiders and their intent. Their blunt, heavy features, dark complexions, and burly bodies stamped them as Borderers. Most probably penniless English Borderers, since they had no weapons save their brawn. Kidnapping the powerful Lord Ramsay Douglas would bring them a large ransom, but thick-skulled and lack-witted they must be to risk bringing down the mighty wrath of Douglas upon their entire clan.
One of the raiders threw the corpse over his shoulder while the other five forced the swarthy Kennedy down the castle stairs. Heath did not fight them; he wanted them away from Tina, and decided to preserve his strength and energy rather than squander it here and now. He was wildly curious about who was behind this kidnapping and assumed he would soon learn the man's identity. Whoever it was would be sadly disappointed when he learned there would be no money forthcoming. Though Heath's father was the wealthy Lord of Galloway, Rob Kennedy would not pay one silver penny to ransom his Gypsy bastard. The irony of it made Heath smile.
The chaos outside Eskdale Castle, however, turned his face grim. Douglas guards and grooms littered the bailey, beaten unconscious or dead by the marauders, a dozen of whom were reviving the horses. To a man they were mounted on shabby ponies, and his captors shoved him toward one they had tethered.
"Tie his hands behind him," the leader ordered.
"Have ye a bit o' rope, Mangey?"
"Rope costs money," came the terse reply.
Heath thought the nickname most apt; their leader looked as if he had a dose of mange. Then Heath felt the leather thong that secured his shoulder-length hair being ripped from his head, and his wrists were bound tightly behind his back. The thought of these swine stealing Douglas horses, along with his own precious mares, made him want to cut off their balls, and he swore he would do it, given half a chance. He gripped the pony with his knees and leaned his body low over its neck. Years of riding bareback enabled him to keep his balance and prevent him from falling. Though it was early May, the night was briskly cold against Heath's naked chest and back, but years of sleeping outdoors had weathered him, just like the horses he had brought south.
The raiders halted at Langholm, where Eskdale joined Ewesdale. Heath Kennedy watched helplessly as the horses were driven east. His six captors, however, stayed with him, heading south. As they urged their ponies across the River Esk, one of them suggested, "Why don't we drown 'im here?"
"Ye brainless sod! We have tae take him across the Border; we'll use an English river."
Drown? The whoresons are going to drown me? Suddenly jolted to the marrow of his bones, Heath Kennedy quickly reassessed his captors. They were the lowest of the low, the dregs of the earth, driven by grinding poverty to commit the foulest deeds no others would undertake. Someone was paying them to murder Ramsay Douglas and make it look like a drowning accident. Since the dreadful defeat of King James Stewart at Flodden, the power of Scotland was held by Clan Douglas. So these orders came from England, Heath reasoned. Yet something at the back of his mind kept pricking him.
Heath took a deep breath and allowed his mind to expand, invoking his sixth sense, which seldom let him down. From the deep recesses of his memory he recalled terrible tales of a Scottish clan so bereft of morals that they drowned their victims because it was the most frugal method of murder. Every instinct told him these were Scots Borderers, being paid by England, yet cunning enough to commit the foul deed in the enemy's country, so the finger could never be pointed at them.
Though the actual Border was invisible, Heath knew the moment they crossed it. The land had been marked by violence for four centuries. Feuds between and among the Scots and English here were long-standing; the people along the Border lived by despoiling each other. Robbery, raiding, kidnapping, blackmail, and extortion were a way of life. But when Scot murdered Scot for English money, Heath Kennedy realized the lowest point of degradation had been reached.
Heath was familiar with the landmarks as they passed by a peel tower, and knew the first English river they would encounter would be the River Eden. His hands were completely numb from the tight ligature of his own leather thong, and his upper body had been robbed of most of its feeling by the cold night air. When they drew rein and hauled him from the pony, Heath lashed out with a booted foot, kicking the first man full in the groin, then when he bent double with a scream, Heath brought his knee up sharply beneath the lout's chin, making him bite off the end of his tongue.
Two hulking brutes jumped him and felled him to the ground, where he could clearly hear the river was in spate. The threat of the water made Heath double his efforts to free himself. He butted his head into one man's gut, knocking the wind from him, but the other one picked up a small boulder and crashed it down on Heath's skull. The force of the blow drove him to his knees, and the pain shot all the way down his spine.
"Stop playin' aboot -- get 'im in the bloody water." The leader was losing all patience. It took three of them to haul Heath Kennedy into the river, but still they couldn't hold him down long enough to drown him. "Help us, fer Christ's sake!" they admonished their companions.
Heath wrapped his iron-hard thighs about one of the men and dragged him beneath the water. Then he wrapped his legs about the swine's throat and clung to him doggedly. If they were going to drown him, he vowed to take one of them with him. In the end it took four of them to hold him down while their hulking leader stomped brutally on the captive's back with the heel of his boot, then sat on him until the thrashing quietened. Even then Heath Kennedy did not release the man he held underwater.
Gradually, Heath's strength ebbed away into the flowing river. He held his breath until he felt his lungs would burst. Slowly a feeling of euphoria stole over him and he began to relive events from his childhood. He saw his beautiful Gypsy mother, Lily Rose, and recognized her instantly, even though she had died giving birth to him. Although it was the middle of the night, he was suddenly enveloped in a brilliant white light and he experienced a feeling of joy. So this is Death, then, he thought with wonder, and then there was nothing.
When the five Borderers finally released their victim, his body rose to the surface. Another body bobbed up beside him, and the two floaters were taken by the current. The murderers splashed after them and hauled them up onto the riverbank. The leader removed the thong from Heath Kennedy's bound wrists, then turned him face up with his boot. He shook his head in disbelief, "Christ, they said Black Ram Douglas was tougher than boiled owl an' they were bloody well right." He cast a baleful glance over the other drowned body and cursed, "Another firkin' corpse tae carry home."
Raven Carleton entered the stables silently in the predawn darkness, yet the hunting birds in the mews above immediately sensed her presence and set up their raucous welcome.
"Pests," she muttered, trying her best to ignore them as she stroked the nose of her pony, Sully, and led him from the stable without a saddle. She felt a stab of guilt as she pictured the hawks moving restlessly on their perches, some wearing their little hoods. Raven, however, resolutely cast away the guilt, knowing she must ride away her feelings of resentment that had banished sleep, before she attended her birds. Training raptors required patience, coupled with an inner calm, and Raven hoped that a ride along the shore at sunrise would restore her tranquility.
Because Raven preferred the freedom of comfortable clothes for riding, she wore a divided skirt, topped by a loose shirt that belonged to her brother. The moment she mounted her sturdy Border pony he began to run. Sully needed little guidance to the River Eden, which emptied into Solway Firth. Raven never tired of riding along the shore of the Solway, for it divided England from Scotland and offered magnificent open vistas of the sea and the purple mountains beyond. When the constraints of Rockcliffe Manor and the strictures of her parents closed in to make her feel trapped, Raven's need for freedom was almost always restored by a gallop along the seacoast.
It had been the usual bone of contention that precipitated the argument between Raven and her mother. Breeding hunting birds, in Katherine Carleton's opinion, was downright unladylike. "In fact, it borders on scandalous!" she had told Raven last night.
"Then what would you like me to breed?" Raven challenged.
"That is precisely the problem -- a lady should not be involved in breeding anything whatsoever."
"Then how did you manage to have three children, Mother?" Raven asked with wide-eyed innocence.
"That is enough, young lady. Lancelot! Can you not hear the defiance and mockery in your daughter's voice? Mark my words, she will end up a spinster if she persists in her odd behavior."
"But my brother Heron breeds hunting dogs, and you never find fault with him," Raven pointed out.
"We have been over this a thousand times, Raven. If you had been born a male, you could breed whatever you wished."
A passel of bastards? Raven thought wickedly. "My gender should have nothing to do with it. If I did it badly, I could understand your objection, but I do it well."
"In theory, she is right, Katherine," Lance Carleton remarked.
"Lancelot, how can you continually undermine me? Raven should not be spending her days in Rockcliffe Marsh, flying those wretched hawks; she should be polishing her social skills and learning how to run a household. Why, she is like some wild creature!"
Sir Lance Carleton winked at his daughter. "In theory, she is right, Raven. Your mother wants me to clip your wings. When you go to Carlisle and visit the Dacres, you will have to pretend to be a lady, at least until we get you safely betrothed."
"Christopher Dacre likes me the way I am!" Raven declared.
I'll just bet he does, thought Carleton as he observed his beautiful, black-haired daughter.
"We do not want him to like you, we want him to marry you. No gentleman wants a wife with a sharp tongue, and a defiant, willful nature. If you do not change your ways -- and your attitude -- your sister Lark will make a good marriage long before you do."
"I love Lark; don't pit us against each other."
"What a wicked accusation. Seek your room!"
As dawn turned the sky to pale gold, Raven felt her spirits begin to lift. She breathed in the salt tang as if it were the elixir of life, as Sully's galloping hooves dug into the sandy shale along the shore. The pique she felt toward her mother melted away, and the corners of her generous mouth lifted. Raven knew she was willful, with a temper of fire, and admitted that her mother only wanted what was best for her. Her mother had been plain Kate Heron until she made a good marriage and became the wife of Sir Lancelot Carleton, the constable of Carlisle Castle. The Herons were an English Border clan, and it had been nothing short of a miracle to Kate when she had snared an English gentleman in the matrimonial trap. Now Katherine expected both of her daughters to "marry up" and elevate their social status, as she had done. She never tired of warning her girls about Borderers. "Look at my brother and male cousins, uncouth uncivilized louts the lot of them! All Borderers are alike: dark, dominant, overbold, swaggering swine, and a danger to every female they encounter!"
Raven knew her mother would be ecstatic if a marriage could be arranged with Christopher Dacre, son and heir of Lord Thomas Dacre, Head Border Warden of the English Marches. Christopher had been educated in London and had come north less than a year ago to fight with his regiment at Flodden, where the uncivilized Scots had been brought to their knees once and for all.
Raven smiled her secret smile. The union did not displease her; moreover, she would be in Carlisle next week as a guest of the Dacres. She lifted her head and exulted in the feel of the wind whipping her hair about her shoulders and her skirt about her bare legs. Anticipation bubbled up inside her -- she would lead Chris Dacre on a merry chase!
From the Hardcover edition.
Meet the Author
Virginia Henley is the author of seventeen romantic novels, including the New York Times bestsellers Seduced and Desired and the national bestsellers A Woman of Passion and The Marriage Prize. Her work has been translated into fourteen languages. A recipient of the Romantic Times Lifetime Achievement Award, she lives in St. Petersburg, Florida.
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