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By Diana Cosby
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2011 Diana Cosby
All rights reserved.
Scotland, July 1297
A woman's terrified scream rent the air.
Sir Patrik Cleary MacGruder whirled. Sweat from his grueling pace this summer morning soaked his skin as he scanned the gnarl of elm, ash, and fir.
"No, do not touch me! Please!" a woman begged.
Men's crude laughter echoed nearby, rough, ugly, and thick with menace.
A muscle worked in Patrik's jaw as he touched the writ secured beneath his tunic. He must reach Bishop Wishart without delay.
Her next scream, raw with the terror of the brutality yet to come, pierced him as if a well-aimed sword. Nae, it struck deeper, into the pit of his soul.
Silence sheathed his steps as he wove through the woods toward the woman's desperate pleas. With Scottish soil crawling with the English bastards, only a fool would rush in alone to aid the lass. Yet, here he was.
"Look at her, she would be wanting us," a gruff English voice stated.
Another man's harsh laughter sounded nearby.
Bloody bastards! Patrik tamped down his fury and edged closer, scanning the forest for any sign of a trap.
Shadows flickered ahead.
He ducked behind a fallen tree. Pulse racing, he peered around the mossy tangle of weathered bark.
Caught between two English knights, a slender woman kicked and twisted to break free. Her chestnut hair, wild with the struggle, obscured her face.
Patrik's anger shoved up a notch.
"A fighter she is," a burly Englishman laughed. "And a good bedding she will be."
She lunged forward in an attempt to break free. "No!"
With a lewd smile, another knight reached out, ripped her gown. Bare flesh rippled beneath the flutter of cloth. He jerked the ruined garment free.
Naked, the woman fought harder. "No, I beg of you!"
Memories of watching his mother being raped scalded Patrik's mind. Darkness consumed him, a blackness so thick it smothered his soul. Hand trembling, he withdrew his blade, edged forward. They'd not touch the lass, or draw another breath. He scoured the area for any other men, then refocused on the knights.
Four of the bastards.
Odds he'd take.
Sword raised, Patrik shoved to his feet, sprang into the clearing. "Release the lass!"
The tattered dress sank to the ground as her closest attacker whirled, drawing his blade.
At the English knights' distraction, the woman tugged a hand free. Without hesitation, she whirled and kneed the other knight in the groin.
Face distorted in agony, the man dropped.
The woman clawed at him as Patrik charged, drove his sword to meet the closest knight's blade.
At the blow, the Englishman stumbled back.
Patrik slashed the knight's throat. At the spurt of blood, he spun to face the three remaining warriors. Fury pounding hot, he withdrew his dagger, hurled it at the nearest knight. His blade sank into the knight's chest.
Shock widened the man's eyes. Blood spewed from the wound. The man stepped toward him, crumpled.
The knight the woman had attacked cursed, staggered to his feet, outrage carved upon his face.
Nostrils flared, Patrik drove his sword into the Englishman's chest, then spun to face the final warrior. "The odds are even. As they were not for the woman you tried to rape."
"You will die for this," the Englishman spat.
Patrik arched a brow, scanned the knights sprawled around them. "'Tis English blood that stains the earth."
"Once I carve your worthless arse, I will find the Scottish whore. Scum, the lot of you." The English knight angled his blade. "If she pleases me, mayhap I will allow her to live the night."
Patrik tamped down his fury. His opponent wanted him angry, wanted his thoughts blurred with reckless emotion. Nay, too many battles lay behind him to make such a critical error.
With a roar, his aggressor drove forward.
Patrik dropped and rolled. Steel whooshed a hairsbreadth above his head.
Shock that he'd missed twisted to outrage upon the knight's face as he whirled.
Patrik shoved to his feet and swung. His blade met flesh, slashing the man's throat, the spurt of crimson satisfying.
Knees trembling, the knight sank to the ground, his words mutilated within a gurgle of blood.
"Die, you bastard," Patrik hissed. "Rot in Hades where one day your English king will lie!" Chest heaving, he ignored the groans of the dying men as he scoured the thick of green for the lass. She'd run. Curse it!
Steel hissed against leather as Patrik secured his blade. He jerked his dagger free of the dying man, scooped up her tattered garment and followed the soft indents of earth that betrayed her passing.
With her screams of terror, the clash of blades and the woods cluttered with the English, 'twould be but a matter of time before more of the bastards arrived. He had to find the lass before they did. Given the graveness of his mission, the thought of abandoning her flickered to mind, a thought he abandoned as quick. As long as he breathed, never would English scum touch a Scottish woman he could protect.
Leaves rustled in the dense thicket ahead.
Patrik halted. He scanned his garb, grimaced. His tunic and trews splattered with the Englishmen's blood would far from ease her fear.
"Lass," he called, keeping his voice soft as he listened for any sign of approaching men. "I know you are in there. And afraid."
He stepped closer. "You know me not, but the woods are thick with English. With the scuffle, more knights will come. We must go. Now."
A leaf shook. "How do I know I can trust you?" Her soft, trembling words held courage.
He held out her tattered gown. "I give you my word, that of a Scottish knight."
Long moments passed. He sensed her silent scrutiny, struggled to bank his impatience. His mission was crucial; the sooner he saw to her safety, the faster he could deliver the writ.
"Place the gown near the bush."
With slow steps, Patrik moved forward, laid the battered garment into the shadows as she'd asked.
He eased back.
A slender arm reached out, snatched the torn garb, then disappeared. Leaves shook. Hints of creamy skin against shadows slipped into view as she dressed.
He scanned their surroundings. "We must hurry."
The leaves stilled.
A fresh wind stirred, etched with the warmth of the oncoming day, thick with the tension infusing the moment.
The woman stood.
Patrik's breath left him in a rush. Though garbed in a torn gown tied in hurried knots, her face marred by bruises from the knight's rough handling, caressed within the fractured light she appeared as if crafted by the fey.
Nay, a paltry description for the beautiful woman who stood before him.
Thick chestnut hair with hints of bronze framed softly carved cheeks, a full mouth that would tempt a saint and emerald eyes that held naught but distrust. Her eyes. As if a spell cast, he couldn't look away. They held him, mesmerized him, drew him as no other.
Embarrassed to catch himself staring, he cleared his throat. "Lass, I will not harm you," he said, keeping his words soft. "I swear it."
The soft sweep of her burr wrapped around him like a dangerous luxury. He gave a brief bow. "Sir Patrik Cleary at your service." Regret touched him. Not Sir Patrik Cleary MacGruder, the latter a name he'd lost the right to speak.
In a nervous sweep, she took in his garb. "You are loyal to Scotland?"
The doubt in her voice he understood. "Aye."
"The English knights?" She shot a glance toward where her captors had stripped her a short time before.
"They are dead."
If possible, her face paled further.
"They chose their fate," he stated, unapologetic.
She rubbed her thumb over her fingertips in a hesitant slide. "They did." Her breath trembled. "I thank you for rescuing me. Had you not ..."
"Our present worry is to leave. We must be as far away as possible before the English find their comrades slain."
"Of course." Nervous fingers tugged on a ragged tie as she assessed him.
What did she see? With the Englishman's blood staining his tunic, did she wonder if he was as merciless as the men who had tried to rape her? Did doubts crawl through her as to why he would come to her rescue?
"My name is Cristina Moffat."
Her soft words erased his dark thoughts. A strange warmth touched him that after the violence of this day, she offered a sliver of trust. In this war-ravaged country, a name wrongly given could mean death.
He extended his hand toward her. "Come."
With hesitant steps, she moved from the bush. Dirt clung to her gown, the knots far from shielding the luxurious sweep of creamy skin, nor the bruises left by brutal hands. She stared at Patrik's hand, then looked away.
He dropped his hand. "Never feel embarrassed. The shame is theirs. May they rot in Hades."
Thick chestnut lashes lifted. "They did not rape me."
Given moments more they would have accomplished the deed, a fact they both knew. He remained silent, understood her battle against the terror clawing her mind, allowed the lass to focus on her innocence retained.
"They have been slaughtered!" a man's voice roared nearby.
"Blast it!" Patrik caught her hand and pulled her with him. Sticks cracked beneath their feet, limbs whipped his body as he pushed her before him, then followed at a run.
"Their blood still runs," another man called. "Whoever killed them is nearby. Find them!"
A horse whinnied.
"They have mounts," Cristina gasped as she leapt over a tumble of low brush.
He cleared the thicket, close on her heels. "Aye." And would easily catch up to them. Familiarity with the land was their only hope. Turning to the right, he led her through the tangle. "Hurry."
The leather of their flat-soled shoes slapped against the earth as they ran. After several moments, the dense foliage of the forest gave way to a field dotted with tufts of fresh grass, brave buds of flowers, and sweeps of heather.
Cristina jerked her hand free.
Patrik whirled, his breath coming fast. "We cannot stop."
She stared at the roll of hills leading to the formidable ben, the mountain but one of many to the north. "The brambles before us would not hide a field mouse."
"And what the English will be thinking as well," he agreed. "But I know of a place to hide. Trust me."
Sir Patrik's piercing hazel eyes held hers. He was a warrior, from his muscled arms to his carved cheekbones and deep baritone voice. A man used to giving commands. A man many feared.
A man she, too, would be a fool to dismiss.
She turned in the direction they'd come and scoured the concealing woods. Shadows littered the dense foliage, numerous places where they could hide.
A shiver crept through her. Why was he exposing them? If anyone scanned the field, they would be seen. No, it was too late to question her decision. She'd committed herself to the journey long before this day.
She turned toward the handsome Scot, a man as intriguing as he was dangerous. A man who, if he learned the truth — that her real name was Emma Astyn, a woman acclaimed as one of England's top mercenaries — would kill her.CHAPTER 2
Rebellious sandy hair framed the eyes of a warrior as Sir Patrik watched her, those of a man confident in his decisions, those of a man who killed without hesitation. The beard shadowing the rebel's face lent another layer to his dangerous aura, that of a man unbending, a man served many an injustice, and a man who had sent many an opponent to Hades. The blood spilled upon his sword this day but a pittance to the legendary Scot.
A dark hero indeed if half of the legends detailing Sir Patrik's exploits proved to be true. Emma shuddered at the stories told, at the tales of his complete ruthlessness when he set out to achieve a goal.
Dubh Duer's real name had eluded the English, but the man who had hired her, Sir Hugh de Cressingham, King Edward's treasurer of the English administration in Scotland, was a man as determined as viciously inventive in achieving his goals.
After losing many a knight to Dubh Duer's blade, Sir Cressingham had publicly declared he would catch, torture, then kill his Scottish foe, a man other Scots admired, a man whose name was sparking rebellion in addition to that of another formidable Scot, Sir William Wallace.
On an attack against another powerful Scot, Sir Andrew de Moray, English knights had captured several followers of the rebellious Highland leader. To Sir Cressingham's delight, one of the rebels had broken beneath his cruel torture. On the promise of sparing the man's family, he had revealed with his dying breath that Dubh Duer was Sir Patrik Cleary. Dubh Duer — a Scot who hid in the shadows, a rebel who had integrated himself with Sir Andrew de Moray and the Bishop of Wishart.
Distrustful of the bishop's loyalty to England from the start, a man who was one of the original Guardians of Scotland, Sir Cressingham had made it his personal task to catch Sir Patrik, as well as unveil proof of Wishart's perfidy.
King Edward believed Scotland's resistance was but mindless spurts of resentment, easily quelled, and had turned his attention toward the war with France and the development of the Flemish alliance. The king offered little response to Sir Cressingham's warnings of Scotland's growing unrest.
Furious with the English king's dismissal and learning someone close to the king was smuggling military information to Wishart, Sir Cressingham had employed Emma. Then, he'd learned that the runner used for the covert messages was Dubh Duer.
With gleeful malice, Sir Cressingham had ordered her to befriend Sir Patrik, retrieve the writ he carried as well as discover who was sending traitorous information to the bishop. Once she'd gained the information, she was to ensure the rebel's capture.
Confident in her abilities, lured by the amount of coin offered, Emma had credited the viciousness of Dubh Duer to fable and accepted the mission. She had learned the hard way never to let emotion sway her. After crafting the Scottish name of Cristina Moffat along with her character's tattered past, she'd used her secret contacts to discover Patrik's whereabouts. Now, faced with the daunting man whose life she'd chosen to infiltrate, the enormity of Emma's task slammed home.
A challenge, but not an impossibility.
She nodded. "You lead, I will follow." Never must he learn that Sir Hugh de Cressingham had hired her or her true identity. Once Sir Patrik lowered his guard, she could discover where he hid the writ, and with cloaked questions, the name of the traitor to England who'd spawned the missive.
With confidence, the dangerous Scot turned and led her up the steep incline at a brisk pace. They topped the crest; then he guided them toward a large rock jutting from the wash of green.
She stared in disbelief. "We are to hide behind this boulder?"
Sounds of the English knights moving through the forest grew closer.
The man was mad. "Then where? We will never make it across the field without being seen."
"We will." The rebel knelt and parted the sturdy tufts of grass edging the massive stone. A narrow slit appeared. Shadows fell into blackness.
No, not blackness, but a hole large enough for a man to crawl inside. Surprised, Emma looked up. "An entry?"
"Aye, to a cairn."
A grave site. She swallowed hard. Darkness, enclosed space, weathered bones, and decaying flesh.
"I do not see anyone," a man's voice boomed from the edge of the forest.
Sir Patrik caught her shoulder. "Go!"
Emma half climbed, half tumbled into the darkness, the ancient steps having long since eroded into a slide of stone. She refused to think of the uneven narrow walls on either side, blackness so dark it smothered any light, or the press of the earth, a cold welcome for the bodies within.
"Use your hands to guide you and keep moving forward," he urged from above.
As if it was that easy. Dirt trickled over her. Behind her, in the spew of broken sunlight, she made out Sir Patrik's halfbent frame.
"Keep moving," he said. "I will be right behind you."
Half crawling, she edged forward. When the light eroded, Sir Patrik's steady voice guided her; her each step into the vat of blackness a major victory. The walls on either side fell away. Emma shoved down her fear as she entered the cavern that held the graves.
The thrum of hooves grew closer, and the ground above began to tremble. Loose rock clattered to the floor.
A whinny echoed nearby.
She whirled, opened her mouth to scream.
Sir Patrik clasped his hand over her mouth. "'Tis the knights approaching."
With effort, she nodded.
The rebel released his hand.
"They are scouring the field."
Excerpted from His Destiny by Diana Cosby. Copyright © 2011 Diana Cosby. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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