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Near Carlisle, 1093
A lovers' tryst. Mary could not help smiling to herself as she hurried away from the keep, careful not to be seen. It would be her very first such rendezvous, and excitement filled her.
She was in disguise. She had shed her fine outer tunic with its long, jewel-encrusted sleeves for a peasant's coarse woolen shift. Her gold girdle had been exchanged for a braided leather belt, her pointy silk shoes for wooden clogs, She had even been clever enough to borrow a pair of rough wool socks from the dairymaid, and an old linen veil covered her blond hair. Although her lover was her betrothed, a clandestine meeting was out of the question for any lady, much less herself, and she was determined not to get caught.
Mary's smile broadened. She was immersed in visions of her handsome laird sweeping her into his arms for her very first kiss. Her marriage had been arranged for political reasons, of course, so she knew very well how lucky she was to have fallen in love with Doug Mackinnon, a young man who had been her friend since childhood.
The sound of voices slowed Mary. For an instant she thought that Doug must have company, but then she realized that the voices were not speaking in Gaelic or English. With a gasp of fright she scrambled behind a big oak tree, crouching down in the grass. She peeped around it. For an instant she could not move, frozen with disbelief.
Norman soldiers filled the small glade in front of her.
Abruptly Mary haunched down even more, her heart slamming against her ribs. All thoughts of her tryst with Doug fled. Had she taken just one more step out of the woods and into the sunnyglade she wouldhave walked fight into their camp!
Mary was afraid to move. She had been teased by her father many times that she was far too clever for a girl, and now her mind was already spinning out its own conclusions, Why were Norman soldiers there, on Scottish soil? Did they know of the wedding of the Liddel heir that would take place on the morrow? Liddel was an important outpost for her father, Malcolm, holding Carlisle and this part of the border for Scotland against the marauding, treacherous Normans. A fragile peace had reigned in the past two years since Malcolm had sworn fealty again to their Norman king, Rufus the Red, at Abernathy. Had the Normans been so clever, then, knowing that Liddel would be so preoccupied with the wedding festivities that they could camp under its very nose and spy-or do worse? Outrage swept through Mary. They were up to no good; she most relay this information immediately to Malcolm.
Her knees began to ache from squatting behind the tree. She raised herself slightly to take another peck at the Normans. They were making camp despite the fact that it was still sev eral hours before dark. Scanning the group of men in front of her, she instantly saw why. Her eyes widened. One of the Normans was hurt. Two of the knights were helping a huge man dismount from his destrier, blood pouring down one of his powerful legs. Mary hated the sight of blood. but she did not took away. She could not. For she was looking at a man she had seen just once before, but had been unable to forget.
Suddenly it was hard to breathe-her lungs felt crushed and her mouth had gone dry. If only she had been able to forget him. Two years ago at Abernathy he had stood behind his rotten King, William Rufus, towering over the King's head of flaming red hair, his face a hard mask, while Rufus was openly smug. And beneath Rufus, on his knees in the dirt, had been her father, Malcolm, the King of Scotland, forced at the point of a sword to swear allegiance to the King of England.
Mary had been the only maiden present-women were not welcome at such events-and she had come in disguise. It had been a gathering of armies, after another attempt by Malcolm to invade and conquer Northumberland. She had been surrounded by much of the Scot army, all loyal to her father. Yet their numbers had been pitiful in comparison to the forces facing them-the most brutal in the landthat of the Earl of Northumberland. The man she could not remove her gaze from was bastard heir to the earl, Stephen de Warenne.
He had not noticed her then. She had been standing behind her brother, dressed as Edgar's page, careful not to draw any attention to herself, she certainly did not want her own family to recognize her, for more than a scolding would come. Edgar had been an unwilling participant in her escapade, for be, too, knew how angry their father would be for this.
Mary had been mesmerized by the bastard heir, staring at him from around her brother's shoulder. Once his gaze had connected with hers, a mere coincidence. The moment had lasted less than a heartbeat.
As she stared at Northumberland's bastard now, Mary's fists clenched. Her gaze was riveted on the man. He was one of her father's worst enemies. She prayed his wound would cause him to die.
He did not appear to be at death's door. Although he had to be weak from loss of blood and in great pain, he wore an expression similar to the one he had worn at Abernathyhard and inscrutable. She knew he was ruthless; never had he showed the Scots any mercy. Was he incapable of feeling? Was he even immune to physical pain?
One large black tent had been erected in the open field, and the Northumberland banner already flew beside it. It was a striking flag, its field divided into three diagonal bands...Promise of the Rose. Copyright © by Brenda Joyce. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.