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By Diana Cosby
Copyright © 2008
All right reserved.
Chapter One Southern Scotland, 1297
He thought her a whore.
As if his opinion of her mattered now. But it did. Three years hadn't begun to diminish Lady Isabel Adair's love for Duncan MacGruder.
From the riverbank, she stared at the rush of water that cut through dense forest, the river a sanctuary she and Duncan had visited many times over. Where he'd drawn her into his arms and while his own hands had trembled with youthful nerves, he had claimed his first kiss.
Tears blurred her vision. No, Duncan hadn't forgiven her or forgotten. Fate hadn't been that kind. Except his loathing was but a pittance of what she had already served herself.
A stick cracked behind her.
Isabel whirled, her heart pounding. Had Frasyer followed her? Or had one of his knights? Shielding her hand over her eyes, she searched the tangle of elm, ash, and fir, straining to see through the strangled overgrowth and the shadows for the faintest sign of anyone.
A gust of wind swirled around her, thick with the scent of the oncoming spring, tainted with the last dregs of winter. She willed herself to calm. The self-serving Earl of Frasyer could not have seen her leave Moncreiffe Castle. He had ridden off a short while ago with a contingent of knights to investigate a rumor that William Wallace, the Scottish rebel leader, had been sighted to the south.
A lie. One she had ensured reached his ears.
She needed this afternoon to meet in secret with her brother, Symon. By nightfall she would be snug within her bed and Frasyer none the wiser.
After making the sign of the cross, she spared one final glance toward the river of her dreams, then turned and hurried through the woods along an overgrown path. A thrill shot through her as she caught sight of the neglected crofter's hut, framed by the aged boughs of a fallen birch.
Fragments of pottery lay strewn near the door, tattered strips of cloth covered the sagging windows, and the nearby stable sat in shambles. Not even a wisp of smoke swirled from the hovel's half-fallen chimney. To anyone passing by, it would appear abandoned.
Isabel scanned her surroundings one last time before stepping past the ruins to enter the dim, candlelit room. Warmth and relief rushed her as she saw her brother standing facing her father, his back to her.
Steel hissed against leather, and Isabel found herself with a tip of a claymore pressed against her neck.
The tall, weapon-clad man sporting a full beard had spun toward her in a trice, his stance fierce, made more so by the shadows carved upon his face.
A smile, as quick as it was tender, curved his mouth. His body relaxed. "Isabel." Symon Adair's red hair shifted on his shoulders as he slid his weapon into a leather sheath secured on his back. He stepped forward and caught her in a fierce hug.
"You should not have come. It is too dangerous."
"I had to see you." Isabel glanced at her father, who shifted uncomfortably several paces away. "When Da told me of your visit-"
Symon shot their father a harsh look. "You should not have mentioned my coming. It is risky enough for us to meet on my way to pick up coin for the rebels. You know well it is death for anyone caught within my presence."
Lord Angus Adair stiffened. "Blast it, lad, I-"
"I pestered him," Isabel interrupted, not wanting to spend their precious time together arguing, especially if Symon discovered that their father had been drunk again at the time of the telling.
"It is no excuse." Her brother caught her chin and scanned her face. "You have circles under your eyes. Is that bastard Frasyer treating you poorly?"
She winced. "Symon-"
"No," she lied, afraid if she admitted the truth Symon would endanger himself defending her honor.
"You would be deserving better. Duncan would have-"
"Leave the lass be," Angus blustered as he stepped forward, his bushy brows at odds with his balding head.
Symon scowled at his father. "Aye, it is not Isabel who is at fault, is it? But your gambling that is the cause of all this."
At Isabel's sharp tone, her brother's eyes dulled with self-recrimination. "I know. I cannot change his losing our home to Frasyer on a bet any more than your decision to become Frasyer's mistress in place of payment."
"Nor would I be wanting you to." Liar. If she could, she would change everything. She would take back the three years of living a lie-a series of lies-and follow the abandoned dictates of her heart. But she may as well lie upon a faerie hill and cast wishes into the wind for all it would help her. She'd already lost Duncan's love. She refused to endanger the lives of her father and brother.
Symon brushed a strand of her hair behind her ear. "I had not meant to be badgering you. I love you, lass. My words are born of naught but worry."
"If Frasyer treats you less than you are deserving, tell me, do you hear?"
"Aye, my bonny lad. You would be the first to know." With a lightness she didn't feel, Isabel gave him a sound kiss on his cheek, then walked over and hugged her father. "It is good to see you again, Da."
He returned the embrace, the tiredness in his brown eyes warming to pleasure. "And you, daughter."
She stepped away and dug out an aged leather sack from beneath her cloak. "It is the wild thyme and chamomile I promised you. Brew a tea with them in the morning. They will ease your headaches." Aches he wouldn't have to contend with if he drank less.
Aye, the drink brought on his pounding head, but his shame for her choice to become Frasyer's mistress to cover his gambling away their home had aged him a decade over the last three years.
Deep lines sagged his clean-shaven face. Too much worry stifled his once carefree expression. And his once thick, unruly whisky-colored hair, so like her own, now gave way to baldness with only fringes of a white halo gracing his head.
"Thanks, lass." With a nod, her father accepted the pouch and shoved the herbs in his pocket.
She glanced at her brother. Stern lines dug deep furrows across his handsome face. "You and the rest of the rebels will have moved from Selkirk Forest."
Symon stroked his fingers through his mustache, then down through his beard. "Aye. The bastard Longshanks is determined to have Wallace's head on a pike or any other who dares defy him in his bid to claim Scotland. We have moved into the bogs to the west." Devilment sparked his eyes. "I am not sure who are more hesitant to enter, the hounds or the bloody Sassenachs."
Isabel chuckled at her brother's use of the English king's nickname given to him for his height. She could easily imagine King Edward's knights' ear-blistering curses as they struggled to navigate through the soggy tract of land only to come up empty-handed.
"I bet you give them a fine run," she said. "If there is anything I can do-"
Blue eyes clouded with anger. "There is not."
On a broken sigh, she withdrew the gift she'd stowed within her cloak. She handed it to Symon.
"What is it?"
"Open it and you will see."
With nimble fingers, her brother unfolded the cloth. "Wallace's arms," he whispered in appreciation. He withdrew the delicate swath of fabric, smoothed it flat across his palm and traced a finger around the edge of the embroidered lion sewn in silver and complemented by a background of deep red.
Isabel touched the chain around her neck holding the finely crafted pendant hidden beneath. "The design matches my necklace."
His expression melted into pleasure. "It is a fine hand you have," he whispered, "like our mother."
Tears misted her eyes. No compliment could have touched her more. "I had meant to give it to you months ago. But this ... this is the first I have seen you since I finished it."
With care, he folded the cloth over the delicate embroidery. "It is beautiful. And dangerous if you had been caught making it."
"You are worth any risk."
Symon drew her into a tender hug. "My thanks."
Isabel leaned into him, cherishing this moment.
The scuff of boots echoed from outside.
Stiffening in her brother's arms, Isabel whirled toward the entry. Please, God, let me be wrong!
The door crashed open. With their swords raised, knights charged the confines. Their leader stepped before his men.
Symon withdrew his claymore and moved before Isabel.
With a curse, her father unsheathed his sword as well and moved beside his son.
The earl shoved his woolen hood away from his face. Brown hair tightly bound behind his neck accented gray eyes as caustic as a winter storm. He turned toward Symon and his nostrils flared with malignant satisfaction.
Isabel started forward. "No!"
Symon caught her arm and shoved her behind him. "Stay there!" He pointed his claymore toward the earl.
"How touching. It appears I have interrupted a family reunion," Frasyer drawled, as his knights spread out in the limited space behind him. His jaw tightened as he glared at Isabel. "And you. How dare you defy my orders to meet with this rebel!"
"Symon is family."
"Your brother is a traitor and will be dealt with accordingly." Frasyer nodded toward her father. "As will Lord Caelin."
"Let them go. Please." She fought for calm, but fear trembled through her voice.
Frasyer gestured toward the door. "Return to Moncreiffe Castle. I will deal with your betrayal later."
She'd seen him use this calm tone when his fury peaked. In the past, she'd always thanked God it was never directed at her. Except she doubted even God could help her now.
"And you," he said to Symon, his placid tone at odds with the fury burning in his eyes. "Tell me where Wallace is hiding and I may choose to spare your worthless life."
Symon spat on the floor. "I would die before I would tell anything to vermin such as yourself."
Outrage mottled Frasyer's cheeks. His gaze sliced toward Isabel. "Do not defy me. Leave!"
She swallowed hard. "And allow you to kill them?"
Frasyer's eyes narrowed on her. Comprehension flickered in his gaze, then a slow, mean smile edged his mouth. "You know where Wallace is hiding."
"Tell the bastard naught," Symon growled.
Her throat tightened. Why had her brother spoken? His claim had undermined any argument she might have used to deny her knowledge of the rebel leader's hideout.
Isabel touched the dagger hidden beneath the folds of her cloak. If she could move close enough to Frasyer, mayhap she could catch him by surprise and buy her brother and father time to make their escape.
"I wish to speak with you in private," Isabel said.
Frasyer arched a brow. "Speak."
She turned sideways and tried to step between her father and brother; they didn't budge. "Let me pass."
"Frasyer will not take you," Symon stated.
The earl's gaze flicked to where her hand had paused over her weapon. "Do not be a fool and challenge me, Isabel. I have twenty-two of my best knights in company." At her silence, the earl's lips curled into a nasty expression. "I see you have made your choice. An unwise one that your father will pay for as well. Not with his home, but with his life."
"No!" She shoved at Symon's shoulder; he blocked her as Frasyer and his men charged him.
Metal clanged as Symon intercepted a blow from Frasyer's master-at-arms. Two knights caught her father and slammed him against the wall. The knight closest to Lord Caelin bashed the hilt of his sword against her father's head.
Isabel withdrew her dagger as her father staggered, blood seeping from a narrow gash in his head. "Da!"
Symon's strangled curse caught her attention. Air exploded from her chest as Frasyer shoved his blade deeper in Symon's side. "Symon!"
With a rough pull, Frasyer freed his weapon.
Clutching his side, his face blanching, her brother crumpled to the floor. His claymore jangled to silence by his side.
The room spun. Isabel dropped next to her brother and gathered him into her arms. "Oh, Symon!"
"Isa-" A cough staggered from his lips.
"Stay quiet," she whispered, horrified at the bright red beginning to stain his side. Oh, God, please don't let him die. Not Symon. He was her only hold on sanity in her fractured life. No matter what, she could come to him. Always.
He couldn't die.
Frasyer caught her shoulders and hauled Isabel to her feet. "Where is Wallace?"
"Damn you!" She shoved against his chest and broke free. Isabel drove her dagger toward Frasyer.
The earl caught her wrist and squeezed. Pain ripped through her arm, and the knife clattered to the floor.
"You are a fool," the earl seethed.
A few feet away, Symon gasped for his every breath. Sprawled within his left hand lay the delicate embroidery of Wallace's arms.
"Let me go to him," she pleaded. "Symon needs me."
Frasyer's fingers bit deeper into her flesh. Cruel, determined lines scored his face. "Tell me."
"Do not," her father yelled.
Like a wolf sensing its prey, Frasyer's gaze settled on her father, pinned against the wall by two of his knights. "Mayhap he knows."
Fresh fear ripped through her veins. Isabel's entire body trembled. "No!" Frasyer's brand of questioning would cripple her father. And her brother, her dear brother, who lay dying, she had to protect him as well. "He knows nothing. I swear it."
Frasyer glanced at Lord Caelin with disdain.
She strained against his hold. "He is no threat to you."
"No?" Frasyer watched her with a calculating expression. "He had a rendezvous with a known outlaw."
The bastard. "He met his son!"
"As Earl of Frasyer and magistrate of these lands, I view his presence differently." He tugged her closer, his mouth curling into a sneer. "Give me what I want or I will charge your father with aiding the rebels and he will hang."
Stricken, she stared at the man to whom she'd already sold her soul, loathing him more than she'd ever thought possible to loathe another human being.
"He knows nothing," she whispered. "You know that. All that interests his mind is gambling and drink." Isabel cringed inwardly at the truth. If it would save him, she would admit anything.
"Is that so?" He leaned closer until their faces were inches apart. "I am not so sure. Lord Caelin is known for his, let us say, questionable associations."
Her brother's moans from several feet away, dragged her gaze toward him. She needed to tend to Symon. "Please, do not do this."
"Whatever happens now is your decision. Will your father live or die?"
"Too late for him. It is your father's life that we speak of."
Fear clawed at her chest. Desperately, she searched for another option to save her father and caught sight of her dagger on the floor. Isabel tore her hand free and dove for her weapon.
With a grunt of disgust, Frasyer planted his boot upon the blade. He stared down at her. "You may not be privy to the rebels' plans, but I would wager you know where they are hiding." He reached down and snatched the dagger. "It will take a fortnight to prepare and deliver the charges of your father's suspicious activity to King Edward's Scottish adviser, the Baron of Monceaux." His voice turned silky. "If you have not told me where Wallace's hideout is by then, your father will be found a traitor against England and hung. After, I will deal with you ... in private."
Isabel opened her mouth to respond, unsure what to say.
"The Bible," Lord Caelin hissed between rough breaths.
Isabel crawled closer to her father so she could hear him.
Lord Caelin lifted his head nearer to her. "In your mother's Bible. Search for the answer there."
At the knowing smile creeping over Frasyer's lips, she froze. He'd overheard!
The earl gestured toward her father as he spoke to his master-at-arms. "Take him to the Baron of Monceaux at Rothfield Castle. Notify him that Lord Caelin is to be charged with treason against the crown, and I will be sending a writ outlining the details of his offenses posthaste. King Edward will enjoy displaying his head on a pike for all to witness the penance if they dare to betray him."
"Yes, my lord." The master-at-arms motioned toward several knights. The men wrestled her father out the door.
"Da!" Isabel started to run after them, but Frasyer caught her.
Without taking his gaze from hers, the earl nodded toward another knight. "Travel to Lord Caelin's home and retrieve the family Bible. If anyone asks, tell them Isabel wishes to have it for prayers." He turned toward her with a smug look. "She will be needing each and every one."
The knight gave a brisk nod and left.
Excerpted from His Woman by Diana Cosby Copyright © 2008 by Diana Cosby. Excerpted by permission.
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