Read an Excerpt
English West March,
Lord Ridley Graham searched Graham Keep for his stepmother, growing increasingly frustrated at his fruitless efforts. She was supposed to be watched at all times, but the man he'd set on her had only trembled and whispered that she'd escaped him hours ago and he'd yet to locate her. She was making this too difficult. He'd finally managed to rid himself of his brother and sisters, however temporarily. He'd hoped that without their interference he could finally convince Mona that she truly was better off with him.
Stepmother. He nearly sneered at the thought. She was five years younger than his three and thirty and the most exquisite creature he'd ever laid eyes on. He'd never accepted her as his stepmother. Ridley had found her first. He'd wanted her first. But his father had staked his claim, and like everything else, Ridley had been powerless to do aught but stand aside and watch.
But his father was dead and he was no longer powerless.
He stepped into the cook's garden, the sight of Mona settling his agitated soul. He stood back, wanting only to watch her for now. She'd always shunned the finery Hugh Graham had tried to bestow on her. Even now, when she should be in mourning, she disdained Hugh still. Ridley loved her for it.
She wore a dun-colored kirtle smudged with green stains and a forest bodice. The long, creamy sleeves of her shift were rolled to the elbow, and her fine hands encased in leather gloves as she dug industriously in the garden.
Her hair, a silken ebony so dark it shone nearly blue in candlelight, was piled on top of her head, fat curls spilling down to nuzzle her cheeks and nestle against her neck. Ridley longed to run a hand over the smooth soft skin of her nape. It called to him and he stepped forward. But he stopped, hands clasped hard behind his back.
She would not welcome his touch. She never did. He didn't understand it, though he tried very hard. Part of him wanted to blame it on his father. Hugh had ruined her for all men with his violent lusts. But he knew that wasn't entirely true, for even before Hugh had met Mona, she'd rejected Ridley. And she did not fear his displeasure -- in spite of all Hugh had put her through. She had the heart of a lion and yet she was nothing. A commoner, a widow, a healer. Ridley had lifted her out of her common life and tried to give her something better, and she resented him for it.
He was young, handsome, and a lord. Why could she not return his love? He'd given her everything, with promises of more. He worshipped her, treated her like a queen. How could she reject such a life? A life sought after by the daughters of lords, dreamed of by lesser women.
As he watched her, she seemed to sense his growing enmity. She turned hesitantly, enormous black eyes resting on him. Pools of deep water at midnight. The long black lashes that framed her eyes made her look innocent, a startled doe, not fully aware of the danger he posed. Her full pink lips tightened imperceptibly. Most wouldn't notice, she guarded her feelings so well, but Ridley had studied her for many years, openly and covertly. Hiding in her chambers to see her naked body. Following her wherever she went. He knew every expression, every blemish, every scar on her body intimately, and yet her heart was closed to him.
She didn't rise as respect demanded. Instead, she rubbed her gloves together. Dirt sprinkled to the ground. She removed the gloves methodically, still kneeling in the dirt and herbs, and laid them purposely on her lap.
"What is it, Ridley?" she asked, not looking at him. She caressed the leaf of a plant with her bare fingers. He would give anything for her to touch him in such a manner.
"You're hiding from me."
He watched her profile for some reaction, but her eyes never left the plant. Her nose was small and straight, her delicate features ethereal in their beauty.
"How is tending my herbs considered hiding?" She stood and faced him. The air was chill but she wore no cloak. The odd beads she wore about her neck peeped out from the embroidered neckline of her shift. They were important to her, these beads. They belonged to someone she once cared for a great deal. Ridley hated them, wished he could destroy them. But he wasn't a fool. She'd not just disdain him then, she'd hate him.
She wasn't far from hate now, he feared. She loved Ridley's brother and sisters deeply. She'd tried to mother them all after being forced to marry their father -- and she'd succeeded with Caroline, Wesley, and Fayth. She'd even tried to befriend Ridley. But Ridley hadn't wanted her friendship -- not unless it came with her body and her heart and soul. He'd scorned the scraps she'd thrown him, and so she'd stopped trying.
"You're angry at me," he said.
"What you're doing is wrong." She tried to walk past him, into the keep, but he caught her arm, reveling in the feel of her soft flesh beneath his hand. This close he could smell her hair. Rosewater. The faint scent of herbs clung to her clothes. Even in the weak sunlight her hair shone like a polished stone. He touched a curl that nestled against her neck, letting it twine about his finger.
"Leave off, Ridley."
She always said that. She always denied him what should be his right. His father had taken it from him. But Hugh was gone and she should be his. He refused to release her. They were alone. The servants knew better than to disturb him when he was with his stepmother. Only his siblings dared, under some mistaken idea they were protecting Mona from him. As if she needed protecting. He would never harm her, would never allow anyone else to harm her. He loved her. Why could no one see that? Understand it?
"I thought you agreed with my decision to marry Caroline to Lord Annan."
She'd been the only one who had. It had been an ugly time at Graham Keep. The Eden Grahams had been in a blood feud with the Annan Maxwells for centuries -- since the disappearance of a disputed family jewel, the Clachan Fala. Hugh Graham had kept the feud thriving in his lifetime. But when Hugh passed on, Ridley proposed a peace to the new laird, Robert Maxwell. They sealed the peace with a marriage, Ridley's sister Caroline to Lord Annan. Caroline had been opposed; she'd always planned to enter a convent. Fayth and Wesley had fought him as well for defying Father's wishes.
But Ridley was their lord and his will was done.
Mona's lush black lashes rose until she pinned him with an accusing stare. "I agreed because I knew Caroline would find happiness with Lord Annan. But I don't agree with your reasons. You care nothing for Caroline's happiness or peace. You only want one thing."
She was not entirely wrong. It was true he'd not married off his sister for peace. He'd married her because according to legend, it was a condition that must be met. A Graham of the Eden grayne must wed a Maxwell of the Annan grayne. Only then would the Keeper bring the Bloodstone forth. And like his father before him, Ridley believed Mona was the Keeper.
But the Clachan Fala was not the only thing he wanted.
"You're wrong," he said, pulling her in front of him and placing his hands firmly on her shoulders. "I want you."
"I am your stepmother. What you propose is a sin." It was the same response she always tossed at him. Meaningless.
"My father forced you to marry him. You never loved him, nor he you. You bore him no children. I think that was God's judgement on the union. It was wrong." He pulled her closer, forcing her against him, pressing his cheek against her fragrant hair. "What we could have is right. God would bless us with many strong children."
"Bastards, you mean. You cannot wed me."
"I would defy the king and the church if you would have me."
She planted her palms firmly against his chest and pushed, putting a few inches between them.
"I am a widow and I mean to remain one. Forever." Her mouth was set in a firm line, but it was still beautiful and he wanted to kiss her. He lowered his head, halting when she grabbed his ear and twisted.
He released her abruptly and stepped back, yanking his throbbing ear from her fingers. He scowled down at her, but her sternness disappeared.
"Ridley, I beseech you, let me go. I cannot help you. I cannot give you what you want." She took a step toward him, palms out in supplication. "Be the brother I know you could be. It's hidden somewhere in your heart. Do not force Fayth to wed Lord Carlisle, he will abuse her. She will never be the same."
"Good!" Ridley's youngest sister was the most unruly, contentious little harridan ever born -- and Father had adored her. Ridley hated her for that alone.
Mona shook her head emphatically. "No, not good! You already hurt her heart by forcing her to deceive her sister -- and the reward you promise is naught but a castle in the air."
Ridley grabbed his stepmother and shook her. "Did you tell her this?"
Too much of his plans rested on Fayth trusting him and doing her job. If she even suspected Ridley had lied to her, it could ruin everything.
"I tried, but she wants to believe you. I want to believe you."
The disappointment in her eyes and voice struck him to the heart. "I will honor my promise if you give me the Clachan Fala. I will let her marry the stable boy if that's her fancy. It's within your power to make that happen."
She shook her head, averting her eyes as if she couldn't bear the sight of him. "I have no power. I wish you could understand that."
She had more power over him than she knew, more than he would ever admit to her. If she had shown him a shred of the love he felt for her, he'd fall at her feet and give her anything she wanted. But she couldn't even do that.
"When Hugh died, I promised to take care of his children -- that was the last thing he asked of me." She met Ridley's gaze again. "And that includes you. I want nothing more than your happiness. Fayth's happiness. Caroline and Wesley's happiness." Her hands came up to grip his forearms. "You don't know what you seek. The Clachan Fala will not bring you happiness. It will not fill the hole inside you. Only you can fill it, through kindness to others."
"I have always been kind to you."
She rolled her eyes and spun away from him. He let her go.
"No, what you show me is not kindness. It is obsession. Manipulation. It is selfish."
He couldn't argue that. He'd first discovered her seven years ago. Hugh had always had a keen interest in the legend of the Clachan Fala. He loathed the Annan Maxwells -- especially the then-laird, Red Rowan. He'd wanted to find the Bloodstone and flaunt it in his enemy's face. He'd been collecting tales over the years, which had led them to a small village that the Keeper was said to frequent.
Hugh had sent Ridley to investigate. It had been Ridley's lucky day. He'd only had to ask a few people before he was directed to the bakers, where Mona had been speaking to the baker's daughter. There had been women before Mona, but none after. She was all he wanted. He'd tried to court her, but she'd wanted nothing to do with him. He'd finally taken her to Hugh. It had shocked no one more than Ridley when Hugh raped her and forced her to the altar. And he hadn't even loved her. All he'd wanted was the Clachan Fala, and he'd believed that as his wife she would eventually give it to him.
Ridley had never loved his father, but Hugh had lost his respect that day. Seven years later, his feelings for Mona had only grown. And now she was free and he was Lord Graham. And still it changed nothing.
This time, when she passed him, he let her go. He stared blankly at the herb garden for a long while, his mind filled with thoughts of Mona, thoughts of the Bloodstone. She was wrong, it could bring him happiness. According to legend, the stone protected all who possessed it. He would be fearless and undefeated in battle. He would be honored by the king and grow rich in lands and titles. Then she would not refuse him. He would keep her as his mistress -- refuse to marry her as punishment for her rejection.
It was slow in coming, but his calm was finally restored. Someone cleared his throat behind him, and Ridley turned. The man he'd set on Mona stood beside him, wringing his hands, sweating in the cold.
"M-my lord? I found her. She's in her chambers."
The man's head bobbed hopefully.
"You're removed from that duty. I will find someone more competent."
The man's face paled, his eyes filling with tears. What a weak piece of dung.
"I have a new task for you." Ridley turned to the herb garden and gestured to it. "Rip up all the plants and trample them."
Escape. Mona had to escape somehow -- but not alone. A woman alone would never survive where she must journey. She needed protection. She needed a man. The irony was not wasted on Mona. She prided herself on being needed -- not needful, and certainly never needful of a man.
But this was an extraordinary circumstance and it called for unusual -- and perhaps repellent -- tactics. She toyed with the beads around her neck, her mind turning back to the enormous Scotsman rotting in the bowels of Graham Keep. Sir Patrick Maxwell. He was a great knight, she'd been told. She'd visited him on a few occasions, to assess him. He seemed worthy enough. But Ridley had set a new spy on her, and he was more diligent than the last.
Mona left her chambers. She passed the empty chambers of her stepchildren, and her heart ached. How she missed them. She'd come to them seven years ago, one and twenty and fresh from the loss of her own mother figure. She'd needed them as much as they'd needed her. And now they were gone. She would see Caroline again, of that she was certain, but she might never again see Fayth and Wesley, and it broke her heart.
Mona hurried on to the highest point in the castle, a high turret, and waited until she saw Ridley ride through the gates with a host of men. Gone to work off his aggression. Just like his father, though both men would be loath to admit it. It was why Hugh had despised his son. He'd believed that Ridley contained all his faults and none of his virtues. Her heart ached for the poor boy deprived of his father's love. Hugh had been wrong about his son, but it was too late to change anything. Hugh was dead, and Ridley refused the comfort of friendship.
Mona strode back to her own chambers and retrieved a key, hoping she wouldn't need it. Let the prisoner be honorable. Hidden beneath a floorboard with the key were a clean set of clothes, a loaf of fresh bread, a fat candle, a blanket, and a book. She placed them in a canvas sack and threw on her hooded cloak. The new man followed her, but no more skillfully than the last. She lost him in the kitchens and took the secret ways through the castle until she reached the entrance to the dungeons. She waited in the shadows until she was certain her new shadow was truly gone.
A man-at-arms guarded the door, alert, lance held at his side.
Mona stepped out of the shadows. "Greetings, Ned."
"Good evening, my lady," Ned said, bowing and blushing beneath the shag of his dark beard. "'Ere to see the prisoner again?"
"Yes, may I?" She always asked, though she knew he wouldn't refuse her. His wife was pregnant now after years of a barren womb, and Ned attributed it solely to a philter Mona had given them to partake of together. He felt he owed her a great debt.
"For you, anything."
Mona smiled though she knew that for a lie, even if he didn't. His gratitude had limits. He might let her see the prisoner, but he would not aid her in releasing him. He opened the door.
As she passed him, she placed a hand on his sleeve. "You'll tell no one I was here?"
"On my honor."
Mona descended the stone steps. Torches placed at intervals lighted the stairs. Mona removed the bottom torch and took it to the nearest cell, fitting it in the sconce beside the door. Sir Patrick was currently the sole prisoner in the dungeons. Others came and went, but he remained.
As she expected, by the time she turned, the Scotsman's dirty bearded face was pressed to the bars.
"You again," he said, his voice cracking and raw. "Why do ye keep coming?"
"I brought you this." She held up the sack.
The eyes narrowed, their color clear even in the dim torchlight. The finest cerulean, like a gemstone. Misty as a morning sky. The eyes of an angel. The kind of eyes Arlana had always warned her about.
"He's different," Mona assured her mentor, long dead now, but always with her in memory.
"Who's different?" the prisoner demanded. His beautiful eyes were at such odds with his face -- masked by a wild curling beard that must have once been blond but was now brown with filth. If he proved to be the one, she would have to clean him up.
Mona flushed, embarrassed she had spoken aloud and glad for the hooded cloak that shadowed her face. "There is food in here and a book -- are you lettered?"
"Why do you keep bringing me things?" he growled, ignoring her question.
He was very suspicious, though she knew that if she turned to leave, he would beg her to return and be very civil. He was always like this in the beginning. The solitude made him difficult.
"I need something from you."
"Oh, aye?" He cocked a brow wickedly.
"Sir Patrick Maxwell," she said sternly, attempting to remind him of who he was and his place in the world. His knightly title impacted him not at all -- the lascivious gleam didn't disappear. "I need a lock of your hair."
He frowned. "My hair?"
"And nail parings, too, if you please."
"What? Why?" His big fists released the bars as he stepped back, receding into the darkness of his cell. She could no longer see his face through the bars.
No doubt he considered her the worst of witches and thought she meant to cast a spell on him. Well, there was no help for it. She did not intend to explain herself. If he did indeed prove to be the one, she would reveal much to him. But she wouldn't know until she got his hair and nails.
She opened the sack and began to pull the items out, holding them up for his inspection. "I brought many things to ease you."
He still didn't return to the bars. She replaced the items in the sack.
"If you come to the door, I will cut your hair and nails, then pass the sack to you."
There was a long silence, then he said, "If you want my hair, lassie, you'll have to come and get it."
So he would make a game of this? She tried not be annoyed. He'd been a prisoner of the Grahams for nearly a year and kept in the dungeon for six months of it. He was bored and angry. And yet something told her he could not hurt her. Still, this was nothing more than a bid for freedom.
"I'm not a dolt. If I go into your cell, you will incapacitate me -- perhaps even kill me and try to escape." She cocked her head, listening to his silence. "But you won't get far. I've friends here who know what I plan. They wait."
"Then why didn't you bring them -- to help you take my hair?" His voice was sarcastic. He knew she bluffed.
"Very well," she said, sighing. She gathered up the sack and returned to the steps. She was halfway up the stairs before she turned, angry he wasn't calling her back. The window of his cell was dark.
Her heart beat wildly with fear, but something deep inside didn't believe he was capable of hurting her. He was a knight. He was honorable. So he had debauched a servant? He was only a man after all, incapable of controlling his lusts. So he had nearly killed the woman's husband? The man had tried to kill him first. It was only instinct to defend oneself. Mona believed all these things, even though Ridley had condemned him as dangerous and stuck him in this hole. He was not dangerous.
She removed the key from her bodice and returned to the door. It was locked with a heavy chain and a padlock. Mona had made this key years ago in case she was ever locked down here.
"I'm coming in. If aught happens to me, Lord Graham will see you gutted like a pig."
"Think you I'd hurt a mere woman?"
Mona hesitated. "No. But I think you want freedom very badly. I can give it to you if you show patience. That's why I need your hair."
"You'll help me?"
"Soon, I vow it." And saying that, she knew she would free him even if he wasn't the one. She did not make promises lightly.
He came back to the door, eyeing her suspiciously. Relieved, Mona hid the key in the folds of her cloak. He would cooperate now. No need to enter his cell.
His eyes narrowed. "What are ye hiding, lass?"
Mona shook her head innocently.
His face closed up and he receded into the darkness again. "Go away."
Mona's shoulders sagged. He was too clever by far. "I'm coming in. Will you give me your word that I will come to no harm?"
"Aye," the voice drifted to her through the door.
"Then give it."
"You have my word I'll not harm you."
Mona slipped the key into the lock. When the chain and lock were on the floor, she pulled the heavy oak door open as wide as it would go.
"There's no way out of the dungeons," she called into the shadowy darkness, "but for the door at the top of the stairs, which is locked and guarded. If you will help me and be patient, I'll arrange your escape."
There was no answer from the prisoner. The skin on Mona's arms prickled, unwelcome memories of her first husband, Edwin, invading her thoughts. He used to hide like this. Just like Edwin, he is. They all are, Arlana's voice whispered in her head. Sir Patrick is not like Edwin, Mona insisted and stepped into the cell.
A hand seized her neck, another snaking around her waist. Her face and chest were crushed against the wall, a body solid as granite pinning her there. Her cheek pressed against the damp stone, her eyes staring wide into the dim light from the open door, breathing in the faint, metallic odor of the mold that coated the stones. The blood pounded in her head, a scream lodged in her throat. Just like Edwin.
"You're verra trusting, my lady," Sir Patrick's smug voice whispered in her ear.
"You gave me your word!" she choked out. She tried to control her fear. Boldness and courage disarmed most men.
"I'm a desperate man."
"You are a knight! Have you no code of honor?"
That made him laugh. "Oh aye -- my code is the ends justify the means. The end is freedom and you, my sweet lassie, are the means."
"I will help you escape. I gave you my word."
"Then help me now."
Mona shook her head. "I can't. The guard will never help me...but I can arrange it if you'll just let me."
He was quiet behind her, his muscles quivering with violence. Mona closed her eyes, praying he would do the right thing. She must assert her authority before this went any further. She forced herself to speak.
"Give me the hair and nails."
He laughed, his breath stirring the hair beside her ear, the sound rumbling through his chest and into her back. "And do ye plan to rip it from my head?"
No, she'd brought a knife, strapped to her thigh. But he was wise to her, his hands already rucking up her skirt, one large hand sliding up her knee. She grabbed at his wrist, trying to stop him, but he found the knife.
She trembled now, truly afraid. He slid the knife slowly from the sheath on her thigh, his fingers trailing unnecessarily against her bare skin. She shuddered, unused to being touched so intimately. The silver blade glittered before her face, orange in the torchlight spilling through the open door.
"Are ye afraid?" he asked.
"No," she said, pleased her voice was steady and clear.
"Ye should be."
"You gave your word I would not be harmed."
He was quiet behind her, the even rise and fall of his chest against her back. He pushed away from the wall abruptly, freeing her. Mona turned cautiously only to find the knife offered to her, hilt first.
She looked from the knife to his eyes, but his expression was unreadable. Faced with him, she was intimidated. He was enormous -- nearly a head taller than her and broad and solid as a mountain. His hair was shoulder length and his beard a thick tangle. He wore a doublet, torn and stained, with no shirt beneath it. His breeches were in similar condition, and he had no shoes.
"It's a wonder you aren't ill," she said, accepting the knife and shaking her head. "One moment." She left the cell and returned with the sack. "Here are clothes -- please have them on when I return tomorrow to free you. It will make our escape easier."
He took the bag from her hesitantly, frowning all the while, eyes darting to the open door. She must be quick, before he changed his mind.
He became very still.
"You're too tall. Kneel so I may cut a lock of your hair."
He did as she bade, never taking his eyes from her face. She approached him, fear and resolve warring in her heart. She reached out and gently touched his hair, sifting through it for a lock that wasn't filthy. Beneath, near his nape, the hair was the color of golden sunlight. Mona cut it cleanly and slipped it into a pouch at her waist.
She held her hand out. He cocked a brow, looking from her hand to her face.
"Your hand, sir, so I may trim your nails."
He rubbed his hand self-consciously on his filthy breeches before placing it in hers. His hand swallowed hers, broad and muscular, the palm rough with calluses. She gently examined the nails. Dirty, but not unkempt. He'd apparently attempted to groom himself. She trimmed his nails and released his hand. When she gestured for his other hand, he frowned.
"How many do you need?"
"I have what I need, I just thought it would make you feel better."
He put his hands behind his back and rose to his feet, stepping away from her as if she were the dangerous one. He eyed her warily. "Why me?"
Mona placed the nails in her pouch and went to the door, shutting it behind her. She replaced the chain and the padlock. When she was finished, he was at the barred window, watching her.
"Because you are a great knight. Because you have honor. And...I trust you."
He stared at her incredulously. "Have ye gone soft in the head?"
She smiled, pleased all had gone well. "Perhaps."
He didn't return her smile.
"Until tomorrow, Sir Patrick," she said, and left him alone in the dungeons.
Mona sat cross-legged on her bed in her nightshift, bed curtains drawn and door locked. A single taper sat in its holder beside her. The curling lock of hair lay on the blanket before her, tied with a piece of string. She'd carefully washed it in the basin earlier and spent an absurd amount of time admiring the golden color in the fading sunlight. The nail parings had also been cleaned. She removed one of the beads from the iuchair, the string of beads passed on to her from Arlana. Though they did constitute a map to the Clachan Fala, they had other uses as well.
She held the items in her palm and asked for an answer to her dilemma. Could she survive without a protector? And was Sir Patrick Maxwell the one? It was such an important decision, not to be made lightly or without aid. How she wished for Arlana's counsel, though she knew they would only argue. According to the old witch, no man was to be trusted. She would advise Mona to do this alone. And yet Ridley's behavior toward her was proof she was not safe alone. He'd destroyed the herb garden today out of spite. She must have a man, however distasteful the prospect.
Mona put the objects in the pouch, held it tightly between her palms, and asked, Is Sir Patrick a match for Ridley? His reputation preceded him and was the reason Ridley had held him for so long. He was a great warrior. He'd served the French and Austrian kings. He'd fought the Turks and the Spanish. He'd even served in the king of France's personal guard. And on his infrequent returns to Scotland, he rode with the Annan Maxwells in many highly successful raids. In fact, when word was out that Sir Patrick was in the country, the Maxwells' enemies began madly fortifying their homes against attack, usually to little effect.
Such skill would be essential to stop Ridley. But was it enough? Ridley was cunning, moved in ways that were not clear. He was acquiring much land on the West March and arranging marriages for himself and his sisters. Mona knew this had to do with the war King Henry threatened to bring down on the Scots, that Ridley felt these things would help him accomplish something, but she didn't understand what.
More importantly, Ridley believed in the power of the Clachan Fala -- that it would protect him from all harm. Seduced by the legends, he was determined to have it at any cost. The uneasiness returned at the thought of the Bloodstone. Always it had been something distant, unattainable. Only one Keeper had ever been charged with fetching it, and she had almost immediately returned it to hiding. How could such an instrument not overcome even the purest heart?
And that brought Mona to her last question. When the Bloodstone was finally in her hands, what would Sir Patrick do? Would he be seduced by its power? Or could he be trusted to help her deliver it to his brother, Robert Maxwell, Lord Annan? A love match betwixt a Graham of the Eden grayne and a Maxwell of the Annan grayne will bring it from hiding. The iuchair had told her Caroline found love with Lord Annan. The time had come.
Mona blew out the candle and crawled beneath the blanket, sliding the pouch beneath her pillow. She lay her head upon the pillow and asked for her dreams to reveal her path.
Patrick spent the night alternately berating himself for being a softhearted fool and trying to convince himself the woman was sincere. He might be free now! She was insane -- or worse, evil. And he had let the opportunity to escape slip through his fingers.
Of course, if he'd attempted to escape, he might also be dead. He knew the dungeons were guarded at all times and that the men-at-arms were well trained and armed to the teeth. Though he'd done his best to keep his body exercised and ready for anything, the months in the dungeon had taken their toll. Some mornings the cold seeped into his knees and elbows, the now mended bones aching and stiff. Old wounds, long healed, were causing him discomfort. But he would be ready for anything if -- no, when -- she returned. He spent endless hours pacing his cell and pulling his body up on the bars until his arms trembled with fatigue. Tonight he worked himself to near collapse. It had been too long since he'd been with a woman, and the scent of Lady Graham, the silken feel of her thigh, had captured his imagination. Useless thoughts for a solitary prisoner.
When he finally fell asleep, the dreams came. It was the battle of Mohacs tonight.
The Hungarian king charged across the marshy bank of the Danube, splashing into its overflowing waters, lords and knights following. Patrick was certain taking warhorses onto boggy ground was a bad idea, but the melee confused him, having previously only fought in border skirmishes. Fighting the Turks turned out to be a different matter entirely and so, when his commander had fallen, he followed King Louis into the river.
The water was shocking, the current nearly sweeping him off his mount. The horse balked, trying to retreat back to the bank, but hands grasped at Patrick's legs, his saddle, pulling him off, into the rushing river. His armor was too heavy, dragging him under. He sunk to the bottom like a boulder, fear straining his lungs. He struggled to remove his mail shirt and swam for the surface.
Sunlight penetrated the water in shafts, but all Patrick could see was the churning of legs: horse hocks and booted, greaved legs, blocking his way to the surface. To air. To life. He fought his way upward, lungs close to bursting, but the hooves and feet kicked him back down. He saw the face of Isaac float by, bloated and blue, grabbing at him, forcing him down in the watery grave.
Patrick fought to wake himself. A dream! A dream! He was sitting up in the cold cell, bare-chested. The fat candle Lady Graham had brought him still burned. He'd shredded his doublet and flung it across the room in his sleep. His chest heaved, the bread and water he'd consumed hours ago threatening to make a reappearance.
Isaac. Bloody hell! He fought to put his old friend from his mind. Patrick couldn't think of Isaac without deep sadness and such feelings were pointless. They weakened him. He'd once had many friends, Scotsmen who'd come with him to fight the Good War against the Turks. But they were all dead. Trampled and drowned with King Louis in the Danube. He'd soon learned that was the way of things. It had been years since he'd had a friend.
He forced his mind away from Mohacs -- away from battle. He called forth the face of Rosemarie, the soft blond curls, the wide blue eyes, the smile like sunshine, and his heart calmed. It had been more than a year since he'd seen her, and yet his longing had grown. In his memory, she was all that was good and warm in the world. He must get out of here, if only to look upon her again.
He stood, reaching for the shirt the dowager Lady Graham had brought him, and shrugged into it. He went to his cell door and stared out into the dark corridor, praying the beautiful widow would not abandon him.
Copyright © 2003 by Jennifer Holling