Emerald Embraceby Shannon Drake, Yevgeniya Yeretskaya
After a friend's untimely death, Martise St. James journeys to the brooding Scottish castle of the late Mrs. Creegan to find her mystifying widower. Lord Bruce Creegan's presence arouses more than just Martise's suspicions. Original.See more details below
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After a friend's untimely death, Martise St. James journeys to the brooding Scottish castle of the late Mrs. Creegan to find her mystifying widower. Lord Bruce Creegan's presence arouses more than just Martise's suspicions. Original.
"This is definitely a thrilling read, one that will have you guessing until the very end." Coffee Time Romance & More
"Ms. Drake seduces her readers and captivates them in this fast-paced, intriguing, and passionate romance." Affaire de Coeur
"Fast paced and packed with steamy love scenes." Historical Novels Review
"Filled with many twists and turns, passion, and danger." Night Owl Reviews
"It goes in my special keeper box . . . the one I would grab in case of fire or flood . . . Shannon Drake's best ever and a perfect 10." Romance Reviews Today
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By Shannon Drake
Medallion Press, Inc.Copyright © 2010 Shannon Drake
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSeptember 1865 Castle Creeghan The Highlands
It was a cold, windswept, storming night when Martise first saw Castle Creeghan. As the horses' hooves and the carriage wheels clattered over the cobblestones of the drive, it seemed fitting to her that the night should be as volatile as the passions that had driven her here.
The castle stood atop a high tor, like a monster rising from the rugged and craggy earth. Lightning cracked and sizzled around the lofty turrets. The sky lit up again after each thunder crack, and the castle became a glowing silhouette against the sky, forbidding and evil, an ancient fortress in unyielding stone. The lights in the slit windows were like Satanic, glowing eyes that watched for the unwary and waited. The drawbridge over the chasm looked like a gaping mouth, waiting to consume the innocent, and when the sound of thunder ceased, the rage of the surf, far below the rocks, could be heard slashing against the stone, railing in tempest and fury.
Castle Creeghan ...
Tremors seized Martise as she watched the castle from the carriage window. The sound of the horses' hooves was always with her, like the nervous beating of her heart.
She should not have come. There was time left, still, to halt the driver. To demand that he turn the horses and carriage,and carry her swiftly southward once again. There was time, still, to end her charade ... and run.
The carriage jumped and twisted, causing her teeth to jolt hard and her to bounce and nearly hit the roof. Martise touched her head and rubbed it, clenching her teeth. Then she screamed out loud as the carriage veered wickedly, seemed to teeter, and came precariously to a halt.
White and frightened, she gripped the seat. The rain plummeted and the wind screeched as the driver nearly ripped off the door in his attempt to open it. "The wheel, milady, we've broke a wheel!"
As he spoke, the rain suddenly lessened. The wind, though, picked up to a more violent fury. Martise nodded, still clenching her teeth. The castle seemed far away now, while the darkness of the night and the ferocity of the storm seemed great and very near. Struggling with the door, the driver sought his leave to repair the wheel. She did not want to be alone.
"Wait!" she cried, and he hesitated. "I'll come out."
"But milady, it is wet, and wretched-"
"The rain does not beat so hard," she replied quickly.
He was probably irritated, for his task would be compounded by her presence, but he did not refuse her. He paused just briefly, then brought down the stepladder and helped herto the ground. She pulled the hood of her cloak over her head against the soft spill of the subdued rain and the fervor of the wind.
She stared up at the castle again. High within a turret window she saw a shadow. It seemed that the shadow stared downward, watching the distressed carriage. She didn't know why, but the shadow seemed as evil and malignant as the glow of the house.
Something warned her of a presence. She didn't know what, for she heard nothing in the rain, nor did she see movement. She spun around quickly and cried out, startled, for a man stood not ten feet away from her. He had come in absolute silence, as if set before her by the eerie power of the night.
"Do not be afraid," he said, in what seemed like a whisper, carried upon the tempestuous air of the stormy night.
"I am not afraid," she lied firmly, and yet she was, for her reply was only a whisper, and her heart beat with a startling furor. For in that very instant she was haunted by the sight of him.
He was tall, very tall, towering over her in a black cape that whipped with the wind, draping over tight black riding breeches, brocade shirt, and black vest.
His hair, too, was as dark as his garments, darker than the night, spilling over his forehead when the wind did not lift it. His features might have been cast of stone in those first minutes, for he did not smile. He assessed her grimly, eyes of green and gold fire blazing from a face with a hard, squared jaw, long, aristocratic nose, high broad cheekbones, and dark arched brows. His age was indeterminate except that he was in his prime, for he was straight as an arrow, powerful in his stance, and striking in his appearance. His mouth was tight in a stern line, but it hinted at fullness, at a sensuality that struck at her heart.
It seemed that they were alone on earth as they stared at one another then. There was no moon, for the dark clouds obscured it. There were no stars, just the eerie glow emitted from Castle Creeghan and the meager light of the lantern at the front of the carriage.
Martise did not know what to do as she stood there watching the stranger. He stood, feet well apart, a riding crop held between his hands. The wind shifted his cloak again, and her eyes fell upon the tight fit of his riding breeches and boots, and she noted the hard muscles of his calves and thighs, the leanness of his hips, and then the breadth of his shoulders and chest. If such a man wished to offer her harm, then she was dead, for she could not seek to fight him.
He had not come to harm her! she thought quickly, determinedly. No man would be such a fool to come out in the night to do murder before a hired coachman!
But still, the fear of murder was why she had come ...
"I am glad, for this can be a fearsome place. A man or woman must be of good courage to come here. Well, then, if you are not afraid, I say good evening, milady," the man said at last, bowing gravely to her. His voice was deep and resonant. It rose with no strain above the roar of the wind and surf. He continued to survey her, and she wondered what he saw.
A slim young woman, encased in a cape and a blue gown with lace about the throat and sleeves. The wind had blown away her hood, and her hair, her crowning glory, a thick, rich burnished copper, spilled from beneath it and was taken by the wind in wild and lusty abandon. Seeking to subdue it, reaching for her hood against the whimsy of the wind, she saw his smile of amusement, and her eyes, the blue of a summer's day, flashed with sudden anger.
"Good evening, sir! And the situation is not amusing," she assured him.
He nodded. His eyes moved upward along the craggy rocks leading to the high tor and Castle Creeghan. Then they fell upon her. He moved forward and spoke curtly. "You are on your way to the castle?"
"And you are ...?"
"Lady St. James."
His dark brows shot up with surprise, and Martise thought nervously that he studied her with an ever more penetrating stare. Indeed, his eyes traveled the length of her, and with such a burning intent that she felt stripped of her layers of clothing. She braced herself against the onslaught, and assured herself that it was her own fear that caused her to believe he doubted her words. "You are Lady St. James?"
"I am, sir, and who are you?"
He ignored the question. Behind them, Martise heard the sound of the hammer as the coachman worked upon the wheel.
"You shouldn't have come here," he told her suddenly, fiercely, and with such confidence and supreme authority that she nearly jumped away, frightened and dismayed. She was Lady St. James, she reminded herself, and not to be intimidated.
"Well, I am sorry you feel that way. But I am here, and as Lord Creeghan is expecting me ..."
He cocked his head, studying her again as her voice trailed away with the touch of an imperious note.
"Look up at the castle, milady." He came even closer to her. Though a stranger, he touched her shoulders and turned her around to stare up at the rock and the towers and turrets. "Tell me, milady, do you see anything welcoming here? Do you feel welcome?" His voice came velvet and soft. It brushed down her spine and reached into her soul. She felt his heat and a tension beneath the civilized demeanor, strong, masculine. She trembled silently. Yet she was aware, too, of the pleasant smell of pipe tobacco about him, of leather and fine brandy, and of an attractively masculine soap or cologne. He compelled and repelled her in one, and though she was afraid, she was also fascinated.
She pulled away from him, spinning around, and she stared into his eyes. They were green, deep, vividly green, with specks of gold, and flashing now with humor, and perhaps some darker emotion, too.
"Have you heard nothing about Castle Creeghan, milady? Have you not heard that ghosts scream through the halls, that maidens were once sacrificed to Druid gods upon the rocks, that the Creeghan wives have been known to leap from the highest towers? Milady ..." He shook his head as if in wonderment. "My dear, dear Lady St. James, I think that you must reconsider before traveling up these rocks to this place!"
His eyes flashed, and his lips curled into a devilishly wicked smile. He was like a handsome satyr who had caught an unwary innocent within a glen. Except that he was no satyr, but a man, strikingly handsome, powerful, and she was trembling despite herself.
"I am not one to fear ghosts," she stated. Nor, she vowed, would she fear him.
"Then come, and I will hasten you on your journey."
"What?" She frowned. "Sir, my carriage has broken a wheel, and I am afraid that-"
"I am afraid that the rain will come again, milady, and that you may well drown upon the road ere Castle Creeghan has a chance to offer its own brand of danger. I will take you onward, and then your coachman may bring your valises and portmanteau."
"But sir, I do not see-"
He whistled suddenly, a clear sound that cut through the wail of the wind. From the trees there appeared a great, sleek, bay horse, seventeen hands tall at least, shiny and magnificent with a huge head and fine dark eyes. The man did not turn around as the animal came to stand behind him. Together, Martise thought, they were splendid, large and muscled and beautifully lean and toned. They exuded the same hypnotic energy.
Who was he? she wondered anew.
"Come, milady, for the rain will begin."
"Sir, you must realize that I cannot-"
"Pardon, milady?" he interrupted in a shout, for it was as if the very elements conspired with the man. The wind rose again, howling with the vengeance of a horde of banshees. The rain was beginning again, bringing with it a startling cold.
"I shall tell the coachman of my intent!" he shouted.
Long-legged, he strode from her in his tall black boots. Had the bay not remained, she would have thought she had imagined him. She shivered violently and drew her cloak about her as rain spattered cold and frosty upon her face. She could not allow this man to come too near her. There were strange things happening at Creeghan Castle, and he could very well be the cause of them. A man so striking, so powerful, so handsome, so alluring. She must avoid him at all cost.
He came back around the carriage, his crop tapping against his leg. "Milady," he invited, lifting his free hand to her as he stood by the bay.
"Sir, I cannot-"
Once again, the weather conspired against her. Lightning zigzagged across the sky in an evil slash, and behind it, thunder hammered like the beat of a thousand drums. Inadvertently, Martise screamed, bringing her hand to her mouth, for the lightning raged again and struck upon a nearby tree. It burst into flames, so near her that she could feel the heat of the fire against the wet chill of the night.
His arms came around her, whisking her tight against the protection of his chest. "Milady, we will ride!"
He set his hands upon her waist and lifted her effortlessly upon the back of the massive horse. "Lucian will take us like the wind!" he promised her, and leapt up behind her. His arms encircled her as he reached for the reins. He nudged his heels against the animal, and they were instantly off, racing the very forces of nature.
Behind them, the tree burned even in the rain. With the wind whipping her hair in disarray about her, Martise turned, and she saw the distressed coach in the glow of fire. Then she closed her eyes, for the rain was suddenly fierce. She lowered her head, and felt the power of the beast beneath her, and that of the man behind her.
She was not cold, despite the rain. She was not cold, for his arms were warm and encompassing. The horse moved with fluid, pounding grace, and the man moved with the horse, the heat of his thighs strong against her.
The castle loomed ever closer as the great bay snorted and churned away at the cobblestoned path. Martise gripped its mane as they rode, though she had no fear of falling. The man behind her was an excellent horseman; she sensed that he moved as one with the animal, and that she was safe.
Safe upon the animal ...
But with the man ...?
She started to shiver, but then there was so little that she knew. She had come for answers, and perhaps there was no way to discover answers without seeking out danger. Perhaps the master of Creeghan could give her the answers that she craved, and she might sleep in peace again.
And if not ... then she had cast herself to hell.
She gritted her teeth as the rain continued, and the horse's hooves thundered over the wood of the drawbridge. The lights from dozens of lanterns spilled down upon them, and as he slowed the magnificent bay, Martise thought that at least the man had delivered her unto the castle as he had promised, and he offered her no threat this hour. Yet as they rode beneath the archway of the drawbridge and the rain ceased, he spoke again, and she was not so sure.
"Castle Creeghan, milady, begun by Robert the Bold when the Vikings threatened this shore. He stole his bride from his very enemy, and she bore him ten children before leaping to her death from yonder parapet. Rebuilt by the sinner Caleb Creeghan upon the marriage of Her Royal Highness Mary of Scotland to the earl of Bothwell, and held firm until the ascension of the young James upon the throne of England, when peace was made. Dozens of men shed their blood here, for the castle was held again when the English chased the Jacobites, until even they tired of assailing the castle. Indeed, the stones are rich in their legacy of blood."
"I told you, I do not fear ghosts."
"Ah, a wise young woman. What do you fear, milady?"
"The living, sir."
She would have slid from the bay herself, but he dismounted with an agile flourish and reached for her. His hands encircled her waist as he set her down upon the ground.
"Yonder lies the door, milady. Enter this world at your own risk!"
"You speak in riddles! You speak as if you're trying to scare me!"
"Alas, no, milady!" he said in mock horror. In the glow of the lanterns she studied him seriously. He was a very handsome man, she determined, with his noble features and fierce green-gold eyes. He smiled now, yet she felt that he was not so amused as he scrutinized her in return. She felt herself begin to tremble again, for he looked as if he could see through her. As if he knew all of her secrets, and was, for that, all the more dangerous.
He touched her cheek with his knuckle. She wanted to back away from him, to protest indignantly, but she was rendered speechless. "You are very beautiful, milady. The castle, so the rumor goes, is brutal to beautiful women. You must take heed. You must take great heed."
"Are you threatening me?"
"I gave you a history lesson, milady, and nothing more."
"Does evil really happen here, then?"
"Death happens oft enough," he said. "You should know that well. Your sister came here, an innocent bride, and soon enough joined the ranks of the dead in the crypt. That's why you've come, isn't it?" He was so very close to her. She breathed in the fascinating aroma of him, the masculine scent of leather and good brandy and tobacco.
"I have come because-"
"You have come to delve your nose into places where it does not belong. Perhaps you have come for even more. Beware."
"You are deliberately trying to frighten me!"
"I am trying to keep you alive."
"Why? Do you threaten my life?"
He did not answer her. His eyes penetrated hers with a brooding, simmering anger, and then he turned from her abruptly.
He remounted the bay with the same flash and verve with which he had dismounted. She wondered where he had learned such horsemanship.
"Milady!" He brought his hand to his forehead, saluting her quickly. "Good eve to you, Lady-er-St. James!"
Excerpted from Emerald Embrace by Shannon Drake Copyright © 2010 by Shannon Drake . Excerpted by permission.
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