Read an Excerpt
A Highland Romance
By Hannah Howell
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1999 Hannah Howell
All rights reserved.
A deep groan escaped Nigel Murray as he awkwardly sat up. He clutched his head, wincing at the thick coat of filth caking his brown hair, and squinted painfully in the faint light of dawn as he looked around. It took him a moment to recognize where he was. Then he grimaced in self-disgust. He had not even made it inside his small tent, having fallen asleep in the mud just in front of it.
"I am fortunate I didnae drown in the muck," he grumbled as he staggered to his feet, the pounding in his head adding to his unsteadiness.
Slowly, he became aware of a rancid smell. His disgust with himself increased tenfold when he realized that the unpleasant smell was emanating from him. Nigel cursed and started toward the small river the army had camped near. He needed to scrub the stench away and clear his head. The cold water would do both adequately.
Matters had gotten completely out of hand, he decided as he wended his way through the trees. When a man woke up sprawled in the mud, not sure where he was or how he had gotten there, that man needed to take a long, hard look at himself. Nigel had thought that of several of his compatriots during the seven long years he had been fighting for the French. Now he had to apply his own advice to himself. He knew he had reached the point where he either changed or he died.
Once at the river he located a shallow spot, yanked off his boots, unbuckled his sword and scabbard, and stepped into the water. After briefly immersing his head in the almost too cold water he lay down in it, resting his head on the softly grassed, gently sloping bank. He sprawled there, eyes closed, letting the chill of the water push aside the wine-induced clouds in his mind and the current take away the stench clinging to his clothes and his body.
Since he had come to France he had increasingly immersed himself in drinking and a multitude of faceless, nameless women. The occasional battles with the English or the French enemies of whichever French lordling was paying for his sword at the time were the only things that caused any break in his continuous round of dissipation. Nigel knew he was lucky that he was still alive after seven years of such stupidity. He could have fallen face down in the mud last night, too drunk to keep himself from drowning in the mire. He could have staggered into the enemy's camp and been cut down before he even recognized his error. He could have had his throat cut and been robbed by one of the many shadowy figures that lurked close to the army, or even one of his fellow soldiers. He had slipped into a strange madness that could easily cost him his life in any one of a hundred ways.
And why? That was the question he had to ask himself. At first he had turned to wine and women to ease the ache in his heart, to try to end the pain that had driven him from his home, from Scotland and Donncoill. Now he suspected it had become a habit. The wine offered a tempting numbness, a welcome inability to think, and the women gave his body a temporary relief. That, he decided firmly, was not enough to put his life at risk. When he had left Scotland he had assured his brothers that he was not coming to France to try to die in battle. He certainly did not want to die in a drunken stupor.
Voices reached his ears, pulling him free of his dark thoughts and uncomfortable self-examination. Nigel dragged himself into a sitting position and listened carefully. Once sure of the direction the voices came from, he grabbed his boots and sword and stealthily approached. Curiosity drove him. So did the temptation of some diversion from looking at how low he had sunk in the last seven years.
Nigel barely stopped himself from walking right up to the pair he was tracking. They were nearer than he had realized, and were standing in a clearing that was not easily seen until one stepped right into it. He quickly ducked behind a clump of low-growing berry bushes. It was a poor hiding place, but the two people standing in the clearing were so intent upon what they were saying and doing that Nigel was sure they would never see him as long as he made no noise.
The young man was someone Nigel recognized, but it took him a moment to recall the man's name. It was the smaller one of the pair that caught and held Nigel's interest. Why was Guy Lucette talking so intently to a tiny, black-haired woman dressed in ill-fitting boy's clothing? A quick glance at the pile of thick, raven locks on the ground told Nigel that the woman's cap of curls was a very recent change. He felt an odd pang of regret when he looked at the discarded hair, and wondered why. Nigel decided that any man would regret seeing such long, beautiful hair shorn and cast away. Such hair was a woman's glory. That made him wonder why the little lady would do such a drastic thing. He forced himself to stop thinking and listen to what was being said, struggling to follow the fast pace of their French.
"This is madness, Gisele," Guy muttered as he helped her lace up her stained, deerhide leggings and worn, padded jupon. "We are soon to face the English in battle. That is no place for a woman."
"DeVeau's lands are no place for a woman, either. Especially this woman," snapped the young lady as she touched her new, very short curls with long, unsteady fingers. "I could kill the man for this alone."
"The man is already dead."
"That does not stop me from wanting to kill him."
"Why? He did not slash off your hair, nor did he ask you to do so."
"The bastard pushed me to it, rather, his cursed family did. I had no idea that the DeVeaux were such prolific breeders. It seems that there is one at every corner I turn, under every bush I walk past."
"And there are probably some DeVeaux within the army that is gathered here," Guy said quietly. "Did you not consider that when you devised this mad plan?"
"I did," she replied as she tugged at her jupon and then smoothed her small hands down the front to assure herself that her breasts were not shaping the front of her garment. "I also considered the fact that many of the DeVeaux know, or could easily discover, that you are my cousin. It all matters not. No man will think to look for me amongst the many pages scurrying about this camp."
"That may be true, but I still want you to stay close to me. Better, stay within my tent as much as you can without drawing any suspicion to yourself." Guy carefully studied their handiwork, then nodded in silent satisfaction. "Being seen by your enemy, being discovered here by them, could easily mean your death. The DeVeaux have put a hefty bounty on your pretty little head, and many men will hunger to fill their pockets with it."
Nigel idly wondered how much the DeVeaux would be willing to pay for the lady, then shrugged. It did not matter. He was intrigued, curiosity putting the spark of life back into his veins. He was interested in something besides his own misery and battle for the first time since he had fled Scotland, and he reveled in it. Questions crowded his mind, and he really did not care what the answers were. He just wanted to hear them.
Guy and the slender, young woman he had called Gisele buried her clothes and shorn hair in a shallow grave and then left. Nigel paused in following them only long enough to collect what they had tried to hide. He made a small sack out of her shawl, wrapped the hair and other clothes inside it, and hurriedly took it to his tent before making his way to Guy's small tent.
It was very easy to get near to Guy's tent without being seen. The young knight had lost his two compatriots in the last skirmish with the English and had yet to replace them. Guy and Gisele were clearly doing a very poor job of watching their backs. Any man who hunted the girl and discovered where she was would not even work up a sweat in the capture of her.
Staring at the opening of Guy's tent, Nigel wondered what to do next. He also wondered why he should care if the fools were cut down, then decided that anything which diverted him from the destructive path he had been walking was a good thing. And, he did not yet know if the pair had done anything that deserved a death sentence. It could all be a simple misunderstanding. His family knew well the cost of such errors. They had fought a long, bloody feud over a mistake. A lot of good men had died before the whole truth had come out. Nigel realized that it might be more than curiosity that drove him when he was chilled by the thought of any harm coming to Gisele. Telling himself that any man with blood in his veins would hate to see a lass as pretty as Gisele harmed, especially over some misunderstanding, did not fully explain away the intensity of his distaste.
"Cease your dawdling, Nigel," he scolded himself as he slowly paced back and forth in front of Guy's tent.
No clever way to approach the pair came to mind, and Nigel cursed. Either there was no simple way to do it or his mind was still too clouded with wine to form even the most meager of plans. The direct approach was the best way, he decided, and, yelling out a greeting, he strode into Guy's tent. The wide-eyed, agape looks the cousins gave him were so amusing Nigel had to smile. Guy's reaction was far too slow to have saved them if an enemy had just entered, but the youth finally acted, anyway. Nigel just smiled more widely when Guy drew his sword, even as he pushed Gisele behind him. The young man clearly did not realize that his actions toward Gisele gave away her identity as a woman far more quickly than any good, hard look would.
"There is no need of that," Nigel said in English, praying that they understood his language, for his French was so heavily accented that few could figure out what he was saying when he tried to use it. He held his hands out to the side slightly to show that he had no intention of drawing his weapon.
"No? Why have you thrust yourself into our presence if you mean no harm?" Guy demanded.
Pushing aside a brief pang of envy over the proof that Guy could speak English far better than he could speak French, Nigel looked at Gisele, who watched him closely from behind Guy's broad back. She had wide, beautiful eyes of a green so true that he had only seen it once before.
"'Tis most odd that your page doesnae draw a sword and stand at your side," Nigel drawled, laughing softly when Guy's dark eyes widened briefly and the youth softly cursed. "Ye can make a lass look like a laddie, at least to those who but glance quickly, but 'tis verra hard to remember to treat her as one."
Gisele felt the chill of fear, then grew confused. Her first thought had been that this handsome Scot had been hired by the DeVeaux, but there was no threat to see in his beguiling smile or relaxed stance. Although it took her a moment to see beyond the beauty of his dark, amber eyes, she could see only amusement and curiosity there. That look began to annoy her, for she could see no cause for amusement in her dire situation, nor was it something that some bored knight should be interfering in just to ease a sense of ennui. Her very life hung in the balance.
Despite her growing anger and the Scot's untidy appearance, she was unable to ignore his fine looks. He was tall, and built with a lean, graceful strength, something revealed very clearly by the way his wet clothes clung to his powerful body. His hair was also wet, hanging in curling tendrils past his broad shoulders, but enough of it had dried to show that the golden color in his eyes was carried through into his hair. His face held her gaze for a long time. He looked exhausted and had not scraped the beard from his face for several days, but he was still one of the most handsome men she had ever set eyes on. He had high cheekbones, a long, straight nose that had somehow escaped the battering most knights suffered from, a strong chin, and a temptingly shaped mouth that Gisele was certain had lured many a woman to taste its soft warmth. She was surprised at how saddened she was to see the beginning signs of dissipation, the lines drawn by too much wine and quite probably an overindulgence in the pleasures of the flesh. She had seen such lines on her husband's face. What troubles could this strong, handsome Scot have which caused him to wallow in wine and women?
His gaze met hers, and Gisele flushed. She had been staring at him too hard and too long, and he had finally noticed. Gisele quickly looked away, embarrassed. It took her a moment to compose herself and revive her anger over his ill-placed amusement. When she looked back at him he was smiling crookedly, and Gisele had to fight to hold onto her annoyance.
"Since I have only now assumed this guise, might you tell me how you know about it?" she demanded.
"I was also down at the river."
"Merde," she muttered, and glared at him when he laughed. "So, you are a spy."
"Nay. I am but a mon who occasionally likes to be clean."
She decided to ignore that piece of levity and stepped out from behind Guy. "If you are not hunting me, men of what interest is it to you how I dress or what I might try to be?"
"Curiosity is a strong force."
"And you are a big, strong knight. Fight it."
"Gisele," Guy hissed, elbowing his cousin in the side. "We should find out what he wants before you hone your tongue on his hide," he said in French.
"I can speak French," Nigel murmured in French, and grinned when both the cousins glared at him.
"Appallingly," Gisele said, then cursed when Guy nudged her again.
"I know you, do I not?" Guy asked, frowning at Nigel.
"Only by sight." Nigel bowed slightly. "Sir Nigel Murray."
"Sir Guy Lucette. My cousin, Gisele DeVeau. Do you mean to expose our deception? Or do you seek some recompense to hold fast to our secret?"
"How ye wound me." Nigel was not insulted, understanding that his actions invited suspicion. "I swear upon my clan's honor 'tis only curiosity which prompts me to intrude."
"Such blind obedience to curiosity could easily get you killed," Guy said even as he sheathed his sword. "I fear it must go unsated this time."
"Yes," snapped Gisele. "This is not your concern. Not your business at all."
"And ye feel no need for help? For another sword protecting your backs?" Nigel noticed that Guy frowned, obviously considering his words, but Gisele showed no such hesitation.
"This is a family matter, sir," she said. "We need no help."
"Nay? Your deception has only just begun, yet I have discovered it."
"Only because you were spying on us."
"Mayhap I was not the only one," he said softly, trying to make her understand the import of his discovery and his presence.
Guy paled and Nigel nodded, glad that the young man understood. Gisele looked an intriguing mixture of nervous and angry. Good sense should tell them that they were sorely in need of some help, but Nigel knew a lot of things could stand in the way of doing what good sense dictated. They did not know him except by sight, and thus had no reason to trust in him. There was also the problem of pride, something he suspected the cousins had a hefty dose of. Pride would stop them from admitting that they needed any help. Nigel could only hope that neither caution nor pride held them captive for too long.
"I believe we would have noticed if the wood around us teemed with spies," muttered Gisele, and she grimaced when Guy yet again gently nudged her in a punitive manner.
"Sir Murray, I understand what you are trying to tell us," Guy said, hastily glaring Gisele into silence when she started to speak. "We shall certainly be much more careful, watch our backs more closely."
"But ye refuse my help."
"I must. This is not your trouble. It would be discourteous to pull you into the midst of our difficulties."
"Even if I am willing to be pulled into the midst of them?"
Nigel shrugged. "As ye wish."
"We do thank you most heartily for your kind concern."
"We?" said Gisele, but Nigel just smiled and Guy ignored her interruption.
"Despite your courteous refusal of my aid," Nigel said, "be assured that it still stands. Ye ken where to find me if you change your mind."
Nigel bowed slightly and left. Only feet from Guy's tent he stopped and looked back. He briefly considered sneaking back and lurking around the tent to listen to what was said, then shook his head. They would be more cautious now, would whisper and guard their words, making eavesdropping impossible. He could only wait and pray that they sought his aid before whatever threat they feared caught up with them.
"That may have been a mistake," Guy said softly as he secured the flaps of his tent.
Excerpted from Highland Honor by Hannah Howell. Copyright © 1999 Hannah Howell. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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