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Scotland Early 1200s
"Be not afraid."
The words slid past her ear, cold as a loch in the midst of a wintry freeze. Hearing it, Meredith Munro felt a chill that reached the very depths of her soul...a chill she'd known but once before.
Her prayer beads slipped to the floor. Be not afraid, the voice had intoned. Alas, but she was afraid! Indeed, she was terrified, for within her tiny cell stood three men -- two hulking figures she'd caught a glimpse of from the comer of her eye ...
And the one whose hand clamped tight about her mouth.
Men did not belong here at Connyridge Priory. Father Marcus was the only man who came here, and that was in order to say Mass and hear the transgressions of the nuns and novices who resided within these ancient stone walls.
Her mind reeled. Dear Lord, she was on her feetsnatched from her knees as she prayed at her bedside! The one who held her ... his hand was immense. It covered her nose and mouth so that she could scarcely breathe; all she could hear was the pounding of her own blood in her ears.
Fear pumped through her with every beat of her heart, a fear nourished by the dire certainty that these men meant her harm. A dozen questions tumbled through her mind. Where was Mother Gwynn? Sister Amelia? How was it possible they had invaded these hallowed walls? There were three of them...three! Had no one heard a sound? An awful thought reared high in her mind. Perhaps the others had heard nothing, for they were already dead!
Nay. Nay! She could not think thusly, for she could not bear it!
As if to remind her, the arm about her waist tightened ever soslightly.
Warm breath rushed past her ear. "A word of warning," came the grating male whisper anew. "Do not scream, for 'twill do no good, I promise you. Do you understand?"
His tone was almost pleasant, yet Meredith sensed that such was not his intent. Scream, she thought faintly. Shock and terror held her motionless. Why, the very notion was laughable! The muscles of her throat were so constricted, nary a sound could have passed had she tried!
"Nod if you understand."
Somehow she managed to raise and lower her chin.
"Excellent," he murmured. "Now, Meredith Munro, let's have a look at you."
The world whirled all about her. He knew her. He knew her by name! How could that be?
Slowly, the man who held her lifted his hand. Meredith felt herself turned bodily so that she faced him.
As if to oblige him, the light of a full moon trickled through the narrow window set high in the outer wall.
Meredith felt the full force of his gaze dwell long and hard upon her. Though she still wore her coarse gray robe, she flushed, for she had neither wimple nor veil to cover the length of her hair. No man had seen her thus since the day she'd said good-bye to her father those many months ago.
No longer did he touch her, though they stood nearly toe to toe. She knew instinctively that this man was their leader. Gathering her courage, Meredith inched her gaze a long way upward to his face. In the frenzied brew of her mind, he embodied all manner of evil. His features were indistinct and blurred in the darkness, yet never had she seen such intense, glittering eyes, like chips of stone. Her insides turned to ice. Was this the face of death?
Her gaze dropped to the sword at his side. On the other side hung a dirk which looked just as deadly. A shudder coursed through her, for she was suddenly quite certain...
If there would be blood spilled this night, it would be hers.
One of the other men lit the stub of candle at the wooden table. "She is the one?" he asked.
Those eyes never left her. Indeed, they seemed to pierce through her very skin. "She is," was all the leader said.
"Aye," the man replied. "She's the look of a Munro."
Her mouth had gone dry, yet she forced herself to speak. "What do you here? I do not know you, yet you know me."
He neither agreed nor disagreed.
"You mean to kill me, don't you?"
He did not deny it. Instead he asked, "Are you deserving of death?"
Nay, she longed to cry. Instead her fingertips crept to the small silver crucifix which hung about her throat-it had been a gift from her father the day he'd brought her here. She fingered the finely etched surface, as if to draw both comfort and strength from it. Once again she heard his parting words to her: Remember, daughter, God will always be with you...as will.
She gave a tiny shake of her head. "That is not for me to judge."
His smile did not reach his eyes. "Mayhap 'tis for me to judge."
Meredith gasped. Did the man have no respect for the Lord? Oh, silly question, that! a voice within her chided. His very presence here dictated the answer.
"'Tis for no man to judge, only God himself." She sought hard to keep the quaver from her voice.
"Yet such is hardly the case, is it not? How many of God's creatures die from sickness?" He did not ponder, nor seek an answer from her. "Children and the aged, mayhap. But men ... ah, well, men kill other men ... and sometimes women, too."
A chill went down her spine, for this time there was no mistaking the threat implicit in his tone. Meredith could not help it-she felt herself go pale.
"The others." Her voice quavered. "Mother Gwynn. Sister Amelia. Are they-"
"They are alive and well, and snug in their beds...His Wicked Ways. Copyright © by Samantha James. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.