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By Diana Cosby
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2010 Diana Cosby
All right reserved.
Chapter OneScotland, 1297
The cold, moor-swept air hummed with the ominous warning. Stark. Foreboding. Like the captive rebel who prowled in his cell only paces away from where Lady Linet Dancort hid. His each step predatory. His each breath cast out in a ragged hiss.
Though hidden in the shadows, with distance and iron separating them, like the storm howling outside Breac Castle this night, the threat exuded by this man was very real.
Draped within her thick wool cape, she regarded Seathan MacGruder, Earl of Grey. Only a fool would dare cross her brother's prisoner.
And she was far from a fool.
An ache built in her chest that her life had crumbled to this moment. She wished the years back, wished her father and mother still lived and that her brother, Fulke Dancort, Viscount of Tearlach, had not betrayed her. But as the cool, storm-fed wind rattled across her skin in a macabre caress, her wishes crumbled one by one.
Linet swallowed hard. Hopes, like fairy tales, were for the innocent. For those who had something left to believe in.
How dare her brother betray his promise of allowing her to choose her husband? This night, Fulke would regret the arrangements he'd made for her to marry a neighboring earl to strengthen his ties, an earl known for his abuse, an earl whose brutality had left his last wife dead.
At the rattle of bars, she focused on the Scot who stalked his cell like an animal caged. Here was a man who represented truth, not lies wielded for a self-serving purpose.
Thunder smothered the bells of matins.
Through the carved window, she scanned the midnight sky battered by hard, spring-fed rain. She must hurry. With a steadying breath, Linet pushed back her hood and stepped into the torchlight. A slight scrape sounded as her slipper touched the stone floor.
The Scottish rebel whirled to face her.
Lightning split the sky. Thunder snarled in its wake. Through a tangle of black hair, Lord Grey's eyes, feral like a wolf's, locked on hers.
A tremor rocked her as potent as the next blast of thunder. Her mind commanded she retreat.
Like the air pulsing with energy, her every sense grew charged with awareness. The urge to shield her face from his unapologetic glare stunned her. Throughout her life, her father had given her the freedom to study alongside her peers, and he'd encouraged her to speak her mind.
Never had a man's presence, much less his gaze, incited her interest to a mind-spinning degree. It was illogical this prisoner could make her feel anything with a mere look.
But standing paces away, with his warrior's dark gaze burning into hers, her body trembled. She owed her reaction to nerves. And rightly so. By the rebel's formidable height, scathing look, and arrogant stance, there was little safe about the Scot. And with orders for him to be hanged at first light, he must be desperate.
As was she.
Fulke's demand that she cede to his dictates and marry the neighboring earl echoed through her mind. She welcomed the anger, embraced the emotion that for the last month since her brother's return had kept her sanity intact.
Enough pondering the past. She would ensure that her brother paid for his greed. He would lose not only the powerful alliance her arranged marriage would have brought, but also this prized Scottish rebel, a noble high in William Wallace's ranks. A loss that would earn her brother naught but King Edward's wrath.
Head held high, she stepped within a hand's length of the cell door.
Lightning illuminated the chamber.
He'd shifted, hands on hips, his feet now braced in an aggressive stance.
"I have come to set you free." Thunder rumbled, this time closer, an ominous backdrop to her quiet offer.
The earl remained silent, his expression raw with distrust.
The rebel doubted her. She'd expected as much. God forbid if he discovered that Lord Tearlach, his sworn enemy, was her brother.
At the jangle of keys, his eyes narrowed.
Linet lifted the heavy iron ring into the windswept torchlight. "I will set you free. In return, you must agree to escort me to my mother's clan in the Highlands."
In silence, Lord Grey scanned the corridor to where the guards lay slumped against the wall.
"I have drugged them."
Eyes as black as the devil's own sliced to her. "You do not fear me, lass?" His voice, dark and deep with threat, curled around her like a fist.
"No," she lied.
"Then you are a fool."
"Nay, determined." She drew in a slow breath, refusing to betray how his presence unnerved her. She'd dealt with his type of arrogance before, warriors who appraised their enemy, then used their opponent's weakness to attack.
In this confrontation, she would decide her own fate.
And in this instance, his.
Linet lifted the key that would unlock his cell. Torchlight caressed the hammered length of iron. "Have I your agreement?"
"How do I know this is not a trick?"
"You do not," she replied. "You know nothing about me except that I hold the key to your freedom."
In silence, shrewd eyes assessed her as he debated her offer.
The Scot's arrogance amazed her. He was imprisoned inside her brother's dungeon without hope of escape, his hanging set for dawn, yet he hesitated.
Again the image of a wolf flashed through her mind. A predator. A man who protected his own, whatever the cost. What he didn't understand, and never could, was that she had as much to lose as he, including her life.
"Your vow," she demanded, wincing inwardly at the desperation that slipped into her voice. "I hardly think you have an option."
He drew himself to his full height. "You have my vow, the vow of a Scotsman."
Unease rippled through her. His declaration echoed as more of a threat than a promise. As if she had time to debate the wisdom of freeing the rebel. They must leave before another guard appeared.
Before she could convince herself her ill-conceived plan was indeed foolish, she motioned the dangerous Scot back. "Move away from the door."
Seathan MacGruder held still, intrigued by this mere slip of a woman who dared issue him orders. A muscle worked in his jaw as he studied his unlikely rescuer. She was beautiful. Like a fairy forbidden to leave the Otherworld, she stood before him with proud defiance.
Her amber-gold hair secured behind her head in a harsh knot served to frame the fine curve of her face, a mouth that promised passion and confident eyes shadowed by secrets.
Why would this lass dare free him to escort her to the Highlands? Did she not realize he was Lord Tearlach's prize prisoner? Was she unaware that if the viscount learned of her scheme, she would be hanged?
God's teeth. Something was amiss. But whoever she was, he would sell his soul for a chance at freedom.
Dauid's image burned his soul. His most trusted friend, a man whom he'd grown up with, a man who'd been knighted at his side-and his betrayer.
Had he not witnessed Dauid standing alongside Lord Tearlach as the viscount's men had hauled Seathan away, he would have defended Dauid's honor against any accuser.
As well, Seathan had witnessed the viscount's knights mercilessly slaughtering the Scots who hadn't a chance to escape. Then the English had left them to rot.
Fury rippled through Seathan. He could forgive Dauid of many things, but not this. Once free of Breac Castle, he would warn William Wallace and his clan of Dauid's treachery.
Then, he would find Dauid.
And kill him.
Shaking off the dizziness from the torture served to him by Tearlach's men to discover where William Wallace hid, Seathan pressed his face against the bars and scanned the corridor for any sign of a trap.
The guards, as this mysterious woman claimed, remained slumped against the wall.
Seathan withdrew into the shadows and gave the cloaked woman a distance he believed she would consider safe.
For a split second, the woman hesitated, as if debating the wisdom of her decision. Only the slight tremble of her breath belied her outward calm.
Unlock the door, he willed.
Hesitant eyes flicked to him. On an exhale, she focused on the door.
As the forged key scraped in the lock, the room began to blur. He fought to clear his vision.
She pushed open the door.
Seathan lunged forward.
On a cry, the woman shoved the door back.
He ripped the iron bars from her hands, hauled her inside, and pinned her body with his own against the stone wall. Before she realized his intent, he jerked her dagger from its sheath.
Outrage cloaked her face. "You gave me your word!"
"Quiet!" he growled, working to catch his breath and ward off the throbbing wound in his right side. A sticky warmth oozed down his flesh. Bedamned. The gash he had staunched with cloth had broken open. Seathan scanned their surroundings.
The corridor remained empty.
Though she was clad in a thick cloak, it couldn't hide her slender frame or her tempting curves beneath. His fevered body stirred with interest.
"I said quiet," Seathan warned, owing his body's response to exhaustion. Well he understood the turmoil incited by desires of the flesh. Needs clouded one's keen judgment and left rational men with the common sense of an ass. Once lust cleared, a man's emotions lay ravaged and the woman was gone.
Many years had passed since a lass had stirred this depth of awareness within him. And with each, a cold reminder of the penance for poor decisions made.
As if she sensed his wayward thoughts, fear flickered in her eyes. "I said release me!"
She dug her nails into his arms as she fought to break free.
Seathan caught her hands and pressed them above her head against the wall, his body trembling from the effort. "I will not harm you," he ground out, silently damning her actions, which left their bodies splayed in an intimate press.
"If you do not let me go, I will scream!"
He clasped her wrists with one hand, moved his other to muffle her, but at her partial freedom, she jammed her elbow into his bruised rib. On a curse, he recaptured her wrist and held it back, his face inches from her own.
She opened her mouth to scream.
Bedamned. In a purely tactical decision, he covered her mouth with his own.
The shot of lust inside him was immediate.
The lass froze as if stunned by his boldness, then she twisted to break free.
He held her tight. By God, she'd not raise the guard. Seathan angled his mouth and deepened the kiss.
Her struggles weakened. She held, not kissing him back, but not resisting.
He touched his tongue to hers, soft, seducing, wanting her totally lost to sensation. And he'd guessed correctly. Her mouth was sin itself. Her taste, a softness that lured a man back for more.
He rolled with the tide of sensations, a mixture of heat, of his own desperation and need. The cell around him faded, the aches pounding through him fell away as he sank into the kiss. On a soft moan, she leaned against him and began kissing him back, hesitant, unsure, as if a flower daring to open beneath the first rays of the sun.
The fumbling inexperience of her efforts, the tiny gasps of pleasure as she moved her lips against his own, seduced him as effectively as if she were a seasoned courtesan. His mind blurred as his body took full control. Wanting to touch her, to savor the velvet sweep of her skin beneath his fingers, to drive her over the edge before he sank deep into her silken depths, he released one of her wrists.
A guard's call echoed in the distance.
Seathan broke free, his pulse racing, his blood pounding hot, and recaptured her hand. He stared at the beguiling woman, stunned, amazed, and still wanting her.
What in bloody hell? He'd meant to silence her. To keep her from bringing every knight within the castle from rushing to the dungeon. But need had poured through him in a blistering wash, smothering even his pain, and for a moment he had willingly drowned.
Neither did he miss the desire still burning in her eyes, flames that ate at his control and invited him back.
The pulse at the base of her neck raced. "Our bargain," she hissed, "was for you to escort me to the Highlands, nothing more."
If the situation weren't so dire, he would have laughed. Here she stood trapped by an armed warrior twice her size and she dared to argue?
But in this she was correct. He had given his word. To her good fortune, he was a man of principles.
Gritting his teeth against the pain and willing his body to calm, Seathan released her and stepped back. He wasn't sure what reaction to expect from her, but her wiping her mouth with the back of her hand as if she found his taste foul wasn't one that suited his pride.
He caught her shoulders and dragged her to within a hand's breadth of his chest. The male in him demanded she acknowledge the heat that had surged between them. Regardless of her initial rebuke, if he touched her now, with her willing response of moments before, he might seduce her.
Another guard called in the distance.
Eyes wide, she glanced down the corridor. Her worried expression convinced him his instincts proved right; she was involved with something more than a simple plot to ensure their escape.
The last of his desire fled.
"Who are you?" Though softly spoken, his words were laced with menace.
"Tell me or I swear I will secure you within the cell and depart."
Panic flashed in her eyes. "Your honor rests on your word."
"Aye, to take you to the Highlands, but not to be used as prey for one of Lord Tearlach's twisted games. Your name!"
At the mention of the viscount, her face paled. "Linet." She shot another nervous glance down the dungeon. "If we are discovered ..."
Another guard called out, this time closer.
"'Twould seem he is searching for his drugged counterparts." Seathan caught her hand. "Come."
He tightened his grip and hauled her down the eastern corridor.
The lass fought him. "Not that way! We must use the secret passage."
Seathan rounded on her, winced at the pull on his wound. "If you value your life, this had best not be a trap."
She shook her head. "I want my freedom as much as you."
And for an unexplainable reason, be it the stubborn lift of her chin, or the desperation in her voice, Seathan believed her. Not that he would tell her. Or let down his guard.
"Which way?" he demanded.
"Toward the stairs."
He looked past the unmoving guards and the steps leading to the keep, to the remainder of the dungeon beyond. Then he pinned her with a skeptical glare. "There is naught but the dungeon's end."
"The passageway is known to but a few."
"There is no time for debate."
"Or treachery." The lass held his harsh glare. She had brawn, he'd give her that. Seathan nodded. "Lead the way."
She tried to pull her hand free.
He held tight.
"Not until we are safe."
Frustration flashed on her face. "I am helping you escape."
"Aye, for reasons you withhold."
She shot him a cold look, then turned and started forward.
The cool breeze melded with the stench of the dungeon, providing a hint of fresh air. But to him it was heaven, cutting through the nausea threatening his every breath. He pushed forward. Adrenaline kept him upright as did his thoughts of revenge.
They kept to the shadows as they moved along the corridor. Errant flickers of torchlight cut through the murky gray, periodically illuminated by another slash of lightning.
They moved past unconscious guards slumped in the narrowed hall, the men's breathing even, their bodies tangled in haphazard positions. The lass had claimed she'd drugged them. In this, she'd told the truth. Still, a nagging doubt of her intentions persisted. Why did the lass flee the castle in the dark of the night?
Several paces farther she stopped. "Here."
Sweat covered his body as he braced his legs to steady himself. He scanned the wall. Illuminated by a torch set within a sconce, each crafted stone lay wedged into place with expertise, not a crack or any fault to suggest an entry.
"I see no door."
At Lord Grey's gruff claim, Linet laid her hand upon a nondescript stone about waist high. With a slight push, the hidden stone panel swung inward.
Stale air rushed out. The candle she'd left burning inside sputtered in a mad dance. Then the flame steadied and embraced the opening within its soft glow.
Excerpted from His Conquest by Diana Cosby Copyright © 2010 by Diana Cosby. Excerpted by permission.
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