Highland Angelby Hannah Howell
New York Times bestselling author Hannah Howell presents a captivating tale of vengeance and passion set in the wilds of Scotland. Contains mature themes.See more details below
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New York Times bestselling author Hannah Howell presents a captivating tale of vengeance and passion set in the wilds of Scotland. Contains mature themes.
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By Hannah Howell
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2003 Hannah Howell
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Are ye Sir Payton Murray?"
The fact that the voice coming from behind him was female stilled Payton's initial fear that he had been caught by the husband he was planning to cuckold. Then it occurred to him that anyone catching him lurking beneath Lady Fraser's bedchamber window could cause him trouble. Well, he mused as he tamped down the desire he had begun to feel at the thought of spending a few hours in the fulsome Lady Fraser's arms, he had developed a skill for talking himself out of trouble. It was time to use it.
As he turned to face this possible nemesis, he opened his mouth to begin his explanations, only to leave it open, gaping at the vision before him. The woman was very small and very wet. Her hair hung in long, dripping ropes over her equally wet gown. He suspected it was not just the moonlight which made her delicate, heart-shaped face look so pale. The dark gown clung to an almost too-slender body, but the hint of womanly curves was there. He wondered if she knew that she had more mud than slipper on her small feet. And, if he was not mistaken, that was marsh grass sticking out of one sleeve.
"Weel? Are ye Sir Payton Murray? The bonny Sir Payton?"
"Aye," he replied, then wondered if that had been wise.
"The gallant, brave Sir Payton?"
"Aye, I-" he began, wishing she would leave off the accolades, as they always made him uncomfortable.
"The bane-of-all-husbands Sir Payton? The lightning-quick and lethal-with-a-sword Sir Payton? The Sir Payton the ladies sigh o'er and the minstrels warble about?"
There was the distinct bite of mockery behind her words. "What do ye want?"
"So, ye are Sir Payton?"
"Aye, the bonny Sir Payton."
"Actually, I dinnae care if ye are as ugly as a toad's arse. I want the honorable, gallant, lethal-with-a-sword, and willing-to-leap-to-the-aid-of-those-in-need Sir Payton."
"The minstrels exaggerate," he snapped, then felt guilty as he saw her slender shoulders slump a little.
"I see. Ye did notice I was a wee bit damp, didnae ye?" she asked as she wrung out a handful of her skirts.
"Aye, I did notice that." He bit back the urge to smile.
"Didnae ye wonder why? 'Tis nay raining."
"I concede that I am a wee bit curious. Why are ye wet?"
"My husband tried to drown me. The idiot forgot that I can swim."
Although Payton was shocked, he forced himself to be wary. He had suffered from far too many women trying all sorts of tricks to get close to him, to entrap him in situations that could force him to the altar. Yet, Payton thought as he looked her over again, no one had ever tried dipping themselves in a murky river before. Nor, he mused as he recalled her words, had such a bucket of sarcasm been poured over him before. If she was trying to lure him into a trap, she was using some very peculiar bait.
"Why did your husband try to drown you?" Payton asked.
"Payton, my sweet courtier, is that you?" called Lady Fraser softly as she peered out her window.
Inwardly cursing, Payton looked up to see Lady Fraser's sweet face looking down at him, her long, fair hair spilling over the edge of the window. He glanced toward the other woman, only to find her gone. She had left as quietly as she had arrived.
"Aye, 'tis me, my dove," he replied, wondering why he felt so disappointed that the girl had left.
"Come to me, my bonny knight. The warmth of my chamber eagerly awaits ye."
"And a sweet temptation that is, my beauty."
Even as Payton stepped toward a cleverly arranged set of kegs, he heard a soft, gagging sound. He looked around, expecting to see that sadly bedraggled girl, but saw nothing. Uneasy, he turned back to the kegs, musing that Lady Fraser was clearly no novice to the intrigues of cuckoldry. There was before him a cleverly disguised stairway consisting of the kegs and several thick boards artfully nailed to the wall of the house.
"Are ye planning to just leave me here?"
That husky whisper startled him so much he stumbled a little as he again looked around for the girl. "I have an appointment," he whispered, hoping her reply would help him locate her.
A heavy sigh escaped the ivy on the wall to his left. Looking closely, he was finally able to make out her shape tucked neatly, and very still, within the shadows and foliage by the wall of the house. It was unsettling how well she used the shadows and how quickly and silently she had done so. Payton did not really want to contemplate the reasons a woman would learn such a trick.
"Go, then," she said in that same soft whisper. "I will wait here. Enjoy your conquest. I hope I dinnae catch the ague."
"I doubt ye will."
"Of course," she continued as if he had not spoken, "my deep, wracking coughs will no doubt disguise your cries of illicit passion and thus keep ye safe from discovery. I am ever ready to be helpful. If her husband should return, shall I just hurl my weak, shuddering self upon him to allow ye time to escape?"
"I am beginning to see why your husband should wish to drown ye," Payton muttered.
"Oh, nay, ye could ne'er guess that."
"Payton, my beau chevalier, are ye coming?" called Lady Fraser.
"I worked hard for this." Payton looked up at the window and knew he would not be climbing through it tonight.
"Oh, I doubt that, although she does like to play coy," said the girl. "Go on. I will just huddle here, though I doubt ye will be much help to me when ye crawl out of there later. 'Tis said she is insatiable, fair wrings a mon dry."
Payton had not heard that. Although he had not thought he was the first to coax Lady Fraser into breaking her vows, he had not realized she had become so well known for doing so. Insatiable sounded intriguing, he mused, then sighed. Payton hoped Lady Fraser would not be too offended when he forced himself to leave without partaking of her favors.
"Are ye talking to someone, my brave heart?" asked Lady Fraser, leaning out of the window a little to look around.
"Just my page, my sweet," Payton replied. "I fear I must leave."
"Leave?" Lady Fraser's voice held a distinct shrillness. "Tell the boy to say he could nay find ye."
"I fear the lad is an abysmal liar. The truth would soon be told to all and ye wouldnae wish your husband to learn where the lad found me, would ye?"
"Nay. I dinnae suppose ye will return later, will ye?"
"It fair breaks my heart, my little dove, but nay. This problem could take hours, e'en days, to solve."
"I see. Weel, mayhap I will allow ye to make amends. Mayhap. Later."
Payton winced as she slammed the shutters closed on her window;, then he turned to the shadowed figure near the wall. "Let us go and get ye dry and warm. 'Twould please me if ye wouldst stay to the shadows until we are weel beyond her sight."
It was not easy, but Payton fought down the unease he felt as he walked away from Lady Fraser, knowing the girl was with him, yet unable to see or hear her. There was a part of him that began to ponder on ghosts and other creatures that could hide in the night, but he wrestled it into silence. The girl was simply very adept at hiding, he assured himself.
Once on the narrow street which led to the house his family owned, he stopped and looked for her, picking a spot where the light from a house would aid him in seeing her. "Ye can come out now."
The first thing he noticed was that she was pale and shivering with the cold. Payton quickly took his cloak off and felt a twinge of relief as he wrapped it around. her. She was real. He could touch her. Placing his arm around her slender shoulders, he hurried her along toward his house, deciding that he could get a good look at her once he got her warm. He noticed with a twitch of amusement that she had to hold his cloak up to keep from tripping over it, for she barely reached his armpit.
Payton ignored the astonishment on the scarred face of his man, Strong Ian, when he entered his home. The condition of the woman he had brought was intriguing enough, but Payton suspected the man was more startled by the fact that Payton had brought her into the house at all. None of his women were allowed across his threshold, in any of his homes. It was an old rule, one he clung to faithfully. When asked about it by family or friends, he glibly excused it by claiming he did not want to soil his own nest. Payton strongly suspected there was more truth to that than he cared to acknowledge.
"But, I need to talk to ye," protested the girl when Payton ordered Strong Ian and his wife, Wee Alice, to see to a fire, a hot bath, and dry clothes for his guest.
"When ye are clean and warm, ye can meet with me in the great hall," Payton assured her. "What is your name?"
"Kirstie, but my brothers call me Shadow."
Thinking of how silently she moved and how easily she could hide herself, Payton was not surprised. He nudged her toward Wee Alice then went to find himself some ale and food. Payton felt a surge of curiosity, both about her tale and how she would look when clean and dry. He hoped it would be worth what he had given up, for Lady Fraser would have allowed him to end a rather lengthy period of celibacy.
Kirstie winced as Wee Alice worked to unsnarl her still-damp hair. Clean, mostly dry, and well warmed by the hot bath and fire, she did feel better. It was easier to ignore the bruises and scrapes caused by the fight to stay alive, many of them soothed by the hot bath and a pleasant-smelling salve applied by a softly tsking Wee Alice. She did wonder where the clean, dry gown had come from, but sternly suppressed her curiosity. Kirstie even felt relatively calm about the approaching confrontation with Sir Payton.
"There, lass," murmured Wee Alice, the shadow of a smile lightening the dour expression on her round face. "Ye are ready to speak with Sir Payton now. I will just make sure that there is plenty of food set out."
The underlying implication that Kirstie was in sore need of fattening up was clear and Kirstie inwardly sighed as she followed Wee Alice to the great hall. She knew she was now more thin than slender, for her husband was very fond of seclusion and long, enforced fasts as a means of discipline. It just stung the few scraps of vanity Kirstie had clung to, to have her sad condition openly recognized. Since she was now facing a right for her very life, she doubted that would change much. Regular, filling meals might not only be rare, but could not take precedence over her own life or the lives of the innocents she sought to protect.
Even as Kirstie braced herself to face Sir Payton, Wee Alice gently but firmly shepherded her into the great hall and straight toward Sir Payton. He stood up, bowed slightly, and she was quickly seated at his side. Wee Alice set a large amount of food in front of her, then left. Kirstie felt almost dazed by how quickly she had gone from readying herself for this important confrontation to the confrontation itself.
She took a sip of ale and cautiously studied Sir Payton. Talk about the man was plentiful, but, although she had caught a glimpse or two of the man, she had never actually gotten a good, hard look at him. Following him through the shadowy streets to his tryst had not allowed her to study him, either. Now, looking him over as he sprawled so gracefully in a huge chair of carved oak, she could see why so many women sighed over him.
He was all grace and elegance, from his slender, long-fingered hands to his expensive boots. His dress was that of a courtier, an English or French gentleman, yet with none of the excesses too often seen. His jerkin was not too short, the toes of his boots not too pointed, and the colors of deep green and black nicely muted. And those clothes covered a form that made a maid's heart flutter, Kirstie thought, oddly annoyed by that realization. He was not particularly tall, but his figure held the lean, graceful strength of a finely bred animal. Or a predator, she mused, recalling his licentious reputation. Facially, he was beautiful yet unquestionably manly, all clean, perfect lines and temptation. Especially in the hint of fullness in his mouth, she decided, fighting not to stare at those lips. His eyes, an intriguing golden brown enlivened with shards of emerald green, were made to catch and hold a woman's gaze. Set beneath gently curved brown brows and thickly lashed, they were clearly a well-honed tool of seduction. His thick, reddish-gold hair, neatly tied back, looked so soft that her fingers actually twitched with the urge to touch it. Kirstie ruefully admitted to herself that his fabled licentiousness could well be more a matter of taking what was freely offered than of heartless seduction.
"So, m'lady," Payton said, "ye may now tell me why ye felt compelled to seek me out."
Payton waited as she finished the bread she had just filled her mouth with. Her looks made him think her name Shadow did not come only from her uncanny ability to become one. Thick, glossy raven hair, still damp from her bath, was held in a fat, loose braid that hung down to her slender hips. Her eyes were a grey that seemed to lighten or darken with every glance. They were beautiful eyes, vaguely slanted yet wide, mysterious in their changing hues, rimmed with long, thick black lashes and set beneath dark brows that perfectly followed their slight upward tilt. Nothing appeared to mar her lustrous, milk-white skin. The features gracing her slightly heart-shaped face were almost ethereal, from the hint of an upward tilt at the tip of her pretty nose to the vague point of her chin. Innocent and elfin described her looks, until one glanced at the full sensuality of her lips ...
Forcing his gaze away from a mouth that begged to be kissed, he subtly studied the rest of her. Her neck was a graceful length, slender enough to make him wonder how it could support such a wealth of hair without snapping. She was almost too thin, but the curve of her small breasts and her tiny waist were tempting enough. Although she displayed excellent manners, he could almost sense the long-endured hunger she sought to appease. Payton doubted she would ever be well-rounded, but he suspected she should be more lithe than thin.
He wanted her now and he wanted her badly. Payton suspected his friends would be surprised by his lust for such a tiny, delicate female. In the past, he had always reached for women with fuller curves. He doubted he could explain what made him ache to pull her into his arms, but he could not deny that the feeling was there.
"Ye say your husband tried to drown ye?" he pressed, hoping conversation would cool his blood.
"Aye. I was wed to Sir Roderick MacIye when I was but fifteen, near five years ago.
Excerpted from HIGHLAND ANGEL by Hannah Howell Copyright © 2003 by Hannah Howell
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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