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By Diana Cosby
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2007 Diana J. Cosby
All right reserved.
Chapter OneNorthern England, Northumberland, 1296
"Where are you going?" Lady Nichola Westcott asked, her voice not as steady as she would have liked.
Her older brother, Griffin, Baron of Monceaux jerked on his mantle without looking at her. "I will be gone for several days."
At his curt dismissal, a chill ran through her. "You came in but moments ago." Long enough to change out of his fouled garb from another day of drinking, whoring, and God knew what else. Unkempt brown hair made him appear more rogue than King Edward's advisor to Scottish affairs.
"There are household issues we must discuss, merchants who are demanding to be paid."
His hazel eyes, blurred by ale, turned on her and narrowed. "I will address them on my return."
She banked her frustration as she stepped toward her brother. To lose her temper now would make an already desperate situation worse. Ever since the seamstress had whispered that Lord James had been murdered at dawn, a man to whom Griffin owed a huge amount of money, she'd thought of little else.
Had Griffin killed him?
She wanted to believe the gossip, that her brother and Lord James had brawled mere hours before his death, was a lie. A rumor surely started by one of Griffin's many enemies to further discredit her brother.
As if he needed any assistance in that regard. Over the past year, with the amount he drank and questionable men he kept company with, Griffin had seemed intent on self-destruction. During her brother's many unexplained absences, she'd reviewed their household ledgers and knew their financial state.
Or lack of.
Confront him now.
Her breath caught in her throat. What if he'd finally crossed a boundary she couldn't repair? What if her greatest fear had come true, that he'd slipped from drunkard to criminal?
Across the room Griffin watched her in silence. For a moment, the hard angles of his face softened, a tender look that brought back the warmth of their past.
An ache built in her chest. She almost ran to him then, desperately needing the sibling who'd comforted her after their parents' death, the brother who'd always kept her world from going awry.
Then his mouth hardened into a thin line. And the cold, callous man, who now drowned his grief in drink, returned.
Her brother adjusted his mantle. "While I am away, stay within the castle walls."
"I will not do your bidding."
But he was already turning away. In a deft move that surprised her, he opened the secret door that led from the solar. He slipped into the beckoning darkness. Before she could react, the stone-coated panel shut behind him. The stale rushes scattered onto the floor, spiraled into stillness in his wake.
Why had her brother used the secret passage? They both knew of its existence, but until now, they'd never used it.
Or needed to.
Nichola raced to the door. She slid her fingers along the near invisible indentation. It didn't budge. "Griffin!"
"I need to speak to you!" She tugged, but the panel held. He'd secured the door.
Fear crept through her with destructive precision, wrapping into a tight ball in her gut. Had their dismal finances made her brother desperate? Desperate enough to murder?
Why else would he use the secret passage to escape the castle unseen?
"Stop it!" Even as her voice echoed throughout the solar, doubts of her brother's innocence remained.
Crossing her arms over her chest, Nichola turned and paced the chamber. With a heavy heart, she halted before the colored panes of glass. Dust particles shimmering with reds and golds sifted through the fractured evening light.
She pressed her fingers against a cool panel, remembering the pride on her mother's face as she'd overseen the installation of each crafted pane. The windows were one of the last of the many treasures her family had brought with them when they'd moved to this northern stronghold twelve summers ago.
Now, the beautifully designed panes were but a solemn reminder of how much she'd lost.
She withdrew her hand and curled it into a fist. With their bleak financial situation, how could she have hesitated in demanding answers from Griffin? Hadn't the past few months tested her fortitude many times over?
Upon learning of Rothfield Castle's monetary distress, she'd made her decision. Without her brother's knowledge or consent, she'd discreetly sold several expensive rugs, gems, and pieces of furniture that had belonged to their family.
Her brother would be furious when he found out, but he would have to reconcile with her decisions. If he didn't run with braggarts, spending the last of their money without thought, they wouldn't be in this quandary.
Until now she'd upheld the facade. The Baron of Monceaux's wealth knew no bounds, and their family tie was strong. But with family heirlooms dwindling and creditors demanding payment, a month-two at best-was the most she could hope for before their shattered lives became fodder for gossip.
She shuddered. Unless Griffin was officially charged with Lord James' murder. Then the time remaining before their peers learned the truth might be hours. King Edward would sever his ties with Griffin, their home and any remaining possessions would be sold and they would be left in disgrace.
What would happen to her then?
A discreet cough behind Nichola interrupted her thoughts. She turned and forced herself not to panic.
A stranger stood near the far wall, his feet braced shoulder width apart, his muscled body drawn to its full height. His hair, black as midnight, disappeared behind broad, well-muscled shoulders. A scar slashed down his left cheek; an aged line adding to his daunting presence.
Cobalt eyes, half shielded by long, thick black lashes studied her with unapologetic interest. Eyes of a man who'd seen too much devastation.
Unease slid through her. 'Twas easy to envision him locked in battle, wielding his sword with sheer brute force, sweat clinging to his skin.
As she continued to stare at him, a scowl carved the man's strong-boned face, an expression as unwelcoming as it was dangerous.
Instinct urged her to take a step back, but Nichola held firm. Why was he here? She'd left explicit instructions with her servants to turn away anyone seeking her or Lord Monceaux. Fear scraped her throat like dried rushes against stone. Please let him not be here to bring formal charges against Griffin.
"You startled me," she said.
"My regrets," the stranger replied, but little in his tone supported the sentiment.
She struggled for calm. Mayhap he was an acquaintance of Griffin's? No, the sharp intelligence in his eyes boasted naught of drink. Only determination. A man who savored war as he would a woman's flesh.
Mary's name, what was she thinking? Never would she allow a man into her life again. "What is your purpose here?"
"Lord Monceaux. We have business."
Business. She released a slow breath. He wasn't here to arrest Griffin. "My brother is away."
The intruder's eyes darkened.
Nichola tried to ignore the predatory quality about him. He was a man who wouldn't tolerate being crossed. Was that why he'd come? Somewhere along Griffin's ill-gotten path, her brother had deceived this man?
"If you will tell me the reason you are here, I will inform my brother. Upon his return, he will be in contact with you." Or once alone, she would sell another heirloom to resolve whatever financial matter existed with this man. Even if she told her brother of the stranger's visit, she doubted Griffin would search this unnerving man out or any other he owed money to, whatever the threat.
His jaw tightened. "I was told he was in residence. In the solar to be exact."
Whatever servant had ignored her request for privacy would regret their actions. "I am sorry, you have been misinformed."
The stranger drummed his fingers over the hilt of his dagger sheathed at his waist. A fury lurking beneath his calm facade flickered into his eyes, clear and intense.
"Sir, I do not recall your name."
"As I have not given it, you would not."
His rich velvet voice swept through her like a silken rain, warm and smooth upon her skin. Irritated she'd noticed, Nichola stiffened. She'd learned to be wary of men, more so of those who wielded their words with soft precision.
"Why are you here?" she demanded.
"When will Lord Monceaux return?"
She angled her chin and shot him a withering look, raising her voice deliberately. "Now I understand, it is a problem hearing that caused your rudeness in answering my query."
His eyes narrowed.
Enough of this foolery. "If you have nothing more to say, you will leave."
He didn't move.
A fresh wave of anxiety swept over her. What if her brother owed this dangerous stranger nothing, and he was touched in the head? Whatever reason brought him here, for her own safety, she must convince him to go.
Nichola gestured toward the door. "Sir, I have entertained your poor manners long enough."
"Lass." The faintest burr caressed his voice.
Every nerve in her body went on alert, aware of exactly how much separated England and Scotland. Though King John had abdicated the Scottish throne to King Edward, bands of Scottish rebels continued to attack English troops. She doubted the rebels loyal to William Wallace would ever cease in their quest for freedom and give way to England's dictates.
Nichola studied the stranger. Relief poured through her as she noted the Stanford weave of his tunic. The cut and fabric of his clothes marked him unmistakably English. She was worrying for naught.
Her confrontation with Griffin along with news of the murder of Lord James had left her overwrought. This man's brazen manner put her further on edge. All she needed was time to sort things out.
He took a step toward her. Slow. Precise. With intent.
This was her home. She refused to allow him to intimidate her. Nichola held up her hand. "You will leave and-"
"It is no time for debate." He lunged forward. His arm caught her around her waist.
She tried to scream, but he clasped a hand over her mouth and muffled her cry. She bit. Hard.
"By my sword!" the intruder cursed, this time his burr rich and thick.
He was a Scot! Nichola dug her elbow into his chest only to come up against honed muscle. "Release me!"
He caught her arms, then again covered her mouth, this time keeping his hand cupped. "Be still."
While he raped or murdered her? She twisted hard in his grasp.
With ease he backed her up and pinned her body against the wall, his hard frame trapping hers. "Do not fight me," he warned.
Beyond the cold determination, she caught a flash of desire. Hysteria welled up in her. God, no! She struggled harder.
Unable to break free, she stilled, conscious of every muscle pressed against her, and the power within his honed frame. What was she going to do? She couldn't overpower him. Neither could she allow him to go unchallenged.
"Do not bite me again. And if you try to scream, I will be forced to resort to drastic measures. Do you understand?"
She understood completely. He had the upper hand, and she despised the threat he represented. Nichola glared at him.
A brow quirked in surprise at her defiance. He watched her a moment. As if satisfied she'd obey him, he lowered his hand from her mouth.
"You are a Scot!"
A grudging smile tugged at his lips. "I am that."
"What do you want from me?"
"I am taking you hostage. Rest easy, lass."
The warrior smothered her cry again with his hand. "Be quiet!"
Nichola shook her head in an attempt to remove his hand and failed. His body felt like hewn stone against hers. She glanced toward the door, willing a servant to arrive. No, they wouldn't come. She'd informed them she wanted to be left alone.
"Give me your word you will not call out, then I will release you. You will come to no harm, that I promise you."
She narrowed her brows, her breaths coming hard. As if she believed him.
Furious she had no other choice, she nodded.
He withdrew his hand.
"You err in choosing to abduct me. My brother is a powerful man, a Scottish advisor to King Edward. Release me and I will say nothing."
The scar down his left cheek tightened. "I know well of Lord Monceaux's ties. But my decision is made. Once your brother has paid the ransom, I will see you are returned."
A wild sob built in her throat as he called her bluff. As if payment would ever be sent. Griffin was on the run and their coffers barren. "You cannot take me, I-"
He put his finger over her lips, forestalling further protest. "I can. Not a word," he warned. "If you care about your brother's life, you will not scream."
Her heart slammed against her chest. He'd kill Griffin? She had to do something. But what? If she screamed, he'd tie a gag around her mouth and end any chance to cry for help.
At her silence, he lifted her against his chest and strode toward the door.
Nichola fought to pry free. The blackguard would soon learn his outlandish abduction would fail. Before he could make it outside the castle, her guards would seize him and toss him into the dungeon where he belonged.
Except her abductor didn't head toward the main entry. He strode toward the secret door.
Saint's breath! How did he know about this passageway? It mattered not. Griffin had secured the exit when he'd left.
With arrogant confidence, her abductor pressed his fingers against the almost invisible indentation and pulled.
With smug satisfaction, Nichola awaited his frustrated curse.
The door swung open.
And she understood. Her servants hadn't escorted the Scot to the solar. When she'd stood by the panels of glass, lost in thought, he must have slipped into the chamber through the secret door.
No, her brother was safe. Why else would the Scot have asked his whereabouts? By some miracle, as her brother had made his hasty departure, in the labyrinth of tunnels woven within Rothfield Castle, he must have missed the Scot.
Her abductor stepped toward the entry.
She couldn't let him enter. If he made it inside the tunnel with her and closed the door, little hope existed for her escape. Nichola planted her foot against the wall and shoved hard.
The Scot caught her legs and pried them free.
He clamped a hand over her mouth as he glared at her with a scowl as fierce as the devil's own. "Cease! I gave my word you will not be harmed."
Images of the violence a man of such build could bestow upon her terrorized her mind.
"I do not lie," he said. "Do not scream again."
She shot him a furious glare. Most men lie. 'Twas their reasons for doing so that varied.
With her caught in his grasp, he stepped through the opening and secured the panel behind them.
Stale air enveloped Nichola and a sense of doom settled over her. Her captor removed his hand from her mouth. Why wouldn't he? His unorthodox arrival into the solar proved him familiar with the maze of tunnels woven throughout Rothfield Castle. He would know the interconnected passageways had been built to ensure a safe and quiet escape.
If she screamed, no one would hear her.
The Scot removed a torch from a nearby sconce and held it before them. Wavering light illuminated the dismal, but sturdily built tunnel. Cobwebs cluttered the shadows, dust coated the hewn stones and agedoak beams lay overhead. Somewhere in the distance the steady drip of water echoed with a somber plop.
Nichola remained still against her captor's solid chest, but beneath her lashes, she searched for anything to use as a weapon. Not even a loose stone was within reach. She drew in a slow breath, at odds with her pounding heart. To panic now would only make the situation worse.
As the Scot strode down the torch-lit tunnel, she peered through half-open lashes at his face; the hard slash of his cheekbones as unforgiving as his mouth. The cleft in his chin as if carved by an angry god. The scar running down the left side of his face giving his appearance a dangerous edge. She wouldn't call it a cruel face, but that of a man seasoned by war. A man who, when he gave an order, would expect to be obeyed.
How long would her captor allow her to live when he discovered the truth-that they were impoverished? She shuddered. The answer was simple.
The irony of the situation wasn't lost on her. Because of her efforts to keep the myth of a happy and prosperous home alive, her abductor believed he would be well paid.
Excerpted from His Captive by Diana Cosby Copyright © 2007 by Diana J. Cosby. Excerpted by permission.
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