Read an Excerpt
’Twixt Wigtown and the town of Ayr,
Portpatrick and the Cruives o’ Cree,
No man needs think for tae bide there
Unless he court wi’ Kennedy!
Valentina Kennedy, so named because she had been born on Saint Valentine’s day, was more often called Firebrand or Flaming Tina because of her glorious red-gold hair, all molten flames and fire.
She brushed it back with a nervous gesture as she approached the tower room of Castle Doon. Her expressive golden eyes, usually so dreamy or sparkling with challenge, were now liquid with apprehension.
She straightened her shoulders and pushed open the door with a bravado she did not feel. Simply stepping over the threshold was an act of courage, for ever since she was a child this room had been dubbed the torture chamber. She had always played roughhouse with her older brothers, sometimes showing more daring and recklessness than they did and she felt quite cocky when she heard the servants call her a plucky little lass. But her mettle had deserted her the day they dragged her up to the torture chamber and showed her the crude instruments one by one, describing in grisly detail how Butcher Bothwick cut out a tongue or plucked out an eyeball. They had gleefully pointed out the red-stained flagstones and reached for a jar of black leeches they said would suck out her blood. Valentina flushed remembering what she had done when she saw Butcher Bothwick, the hairy giant who wielded these instruments of torture. She had fainted.
It was years later before she understood that Bothwick was the castle surgeon who staunched Kennedy wounds, lanced boils or pulled rotten teeth. A toothache was the reason for her being here today. She had never had a tooth pulled before, never even seen a tooth extracted from anyone else, but common sense told her there would be pain and there would be blood.
“Come in, lass. I’ve been expectin’ ye,” said the big man in a thick Scots brogue, flexing his muscles with pride, eager to show his finesse.
Tina was quite literally terrified, yet she had so much stiff Scots pride, she would rather die than allow this man to know her total fear of him.
“I ha’ all in readiness,” he said, taking up a pair of torturous-looking pincers in hands whose size made her tremble, for she knew with a certainty that they were too large to be capable of gentleness. Tina seemed rooted to the spot, unable to move, until Bothwick encouraged her, “I’m no’ a monster, I’ll no’ hurt ye!”
She took a deep breath to steady herself, and his promise made her fear recede a little. She shrugged one pretty shoulder and walked boldly forward. He towered above her, so close she could smell the whisky on his breath. His bare biceps bulged above hairy forearms, clearly displaying his strength, and she knew he could easily overpower her if she resisted.
His fingers brushed her lips and he coaxed roughly, “Open for me, there’s a good lass.”
An inborn instinct for self-preservation made her shrink from him, backing away slowly and imperceptibly, but with dismay she saw him advance upon her with determination. She broke away from him and retreated hastily, no longer able to bear his touch. The couch was now between them. “Lie doon here fer a minute, an’ it’ll be over an’ done wi’,” he urged, but every instinct told her she would then be completely at his mercy.
Tina’s mind seethed with uncharitable thoughts of her family. Her young sister had cast her a look that told her plainly Beth was most thankful she was not the one to suffer such a dreadful fate. Her loutish brothers slapped their thighs, hilarious that for once fate was being unkind to the willful beauty of the family.
“I’ve hardly complained at all! ’Tis not fair!” she’d cried, and they’d laughed all the harder at her predicament, winking at each other and demanding, “Who the hell ever said life was fair?” But it was her father she blamed the most at this moment. He’d issued his orders and none dared disobey him. Even her timid mother had blanched when Rob Kennedy, Lord of Galloway, had said, “She goes to Bothwick!”
“B-Butcher Bothwick? Oh Rob, must she?”
“Aye, ye heard me, woman–yer no’ deaf, and I’ll have no weepin’ and wailin’.” His fierce glance swept over all with a challenge. “Is there any in this room dares tae hint I dinna ken what’s best fer ma ain family?”
Valentina’s throat constricted, and her lovely full breasts rose and fell with her growing apprehension as the powerful man vaulted across the couch to trap her. When he slipped a thickly muscled arm about her shoulders to prevent a second escape, fear swept over her in a great wave. She squeezed her eyes closed as she felt the rough stone wall against her bottom, and she knew she could retreat no further.
He took her chin in his hand, forcing back her head. Her pleading eyes sought his. “Please, no. Can’t we wait until tomorrow?”
“Dinna be a coward, lass–the longer ye wait, the more affeared ye’ll be. We’ll do it now!” he said decisively. “I’ll be quick as I can aboot it.”
To be called a coward was anathema to Tina. She gathered every ounce of courage and swayed toward him. His fingers touched her lips gently as he whispered, “Open fer me.”
She did as she was bidden, and he slipped his fingers into her mouth. Her dark lashes swept to her cheeks, a low moan built in her throat, and as she felt him probing, she could not speak–she could not even breathe. Suddenly something inside her snapped.
She gathered all her strength and pushed the huge man away from her with a suddenness that sent him sprawling across the flagstones.
“Judas Iscariot!” he cursed.
Valentina was immediately contrite. “Oh Bothwick, I’m sorry.” She reached down to help the burly man to his feet. “It’s just that I changed my mind. Suddenly the pain disappeared and my tooth doesn’t hurt anymore. There’s no point pulling a perfectly good tooth.”
“Liar!” he accused gruffly, rubbing a skinned elbow.
Suddenly she grinned and the older man thought he’d never seen such a radiant lass in his life. “I don’t care if you call me a liar, so long as you don’t call me coward. Don’t tell them I was afraid, for I certainly wasn’t. When you put your fingers in my mouth, the pain vanished. You have the healing touch, Bothwick.”
He grinned back at her reluctantly and put away the primitive-looking instrument he’d been holding. “Yer a liar, but yer a bonnie liar!”
“I’ll go and see Mr. Burque. He’ll give me something to help.”
“Wheesht, lass, ’tis his muck give ye the toothache tae start with. Yon prancin’ fop will rot every tooth in yer haid afore he’s done.”
Mr. Burque was the elegant French chef who had accompanied her mother to Scotland when she had married Lord Kennedy. When Bothwick saw the forlorn look on her face, he relented. “Away with ye tae the kitchens then. Nae doot his chocolate will cosset ye a wee.”
Down in the castle kitchen Tina couldn’t help comparing Mr. Burque’s attractive hands with the thick, hairy ones of Bothwick. He was fluting the edges of a gigantic mutton pie, his long, slim fingers transforming the hearty fare into an artistic masterpiece. Tina sat upon his worktable, her foot propped upon a kitchen stool.
“Chérie, I’ll bee putting flour on your pretty gown,” he warned.
You’ll be putting flowers on my grave if you don’t give me something for this toothache,” she said dramatically.
Mr. Burque was all sympathetic concern at her cri de coeur. He rolled his eyes and wrung his hands at her plight. Valentina laughed up into his attractive expressive face, thoroughly enjoying his company. He was better looking than most women, and the two had shared a rapport since she was a child. Mr. Burque lifted the lid of his precious spice box, selected a tiny treasure from it, and, holding it between elegant thumb and first finger, uttered a fanfare: “Ta-da!”
Tina sniffed the minuscule object and decided it was a clove. She opened her mouth for this man as trustingly as a baby bird, and he popped it against the offending tooth.
They were both startled by the loud, grating voice of Rob Kennedy as his imposing bulk filled the entranceway to the kitchen. He saw the two heads close together but had no fears for his daughter’s chastity with yon prinking, prancing ninny of a Frenchman. “Did ye attend Bothwick as ye were bidden?”
Lady Valentina jumped down from the table and faced her father squarely. “I did, my lord. I took your advice and faced right up to it.”
His florid face softened a mite. “Was there pain?”
“Hardly any,” she assured him.
“Blood?” he commiserated.
“Not a drop,” she said truthfully.
He shook his head in admiration. “There’s a brave lass. God’s passion, but ye get more like me every day.”
She fervently hoped not.
Mr. Burque made a choking noise behind her, and Rob Kennedy’s baleful eye fell upon him. “How much more time afore we sup?” he demanded.
“A mere soupçon, my lord,” came the reply.
“Soups on? Aye, a good thick broth’ll stick tae the ribs. None of yer French muck, mind ye!” he admonished.
“Peste!” swore Mr. Burque as the Lord of Galloway took himself off.
Unexpectedly, Kennedy’s bulk again shadowed the doorway. “Tell yon pest we ha’ guests fer dinner,” he told his daughter.
“Take heart, Mr. Burque,” she murmured. “He sails tomorrow, praise Heaven.”
Her father’s words made no impact upon Tina. They always had guests. Doon Castle was a warm, welcoming place atop the headlands above the busy seaport of Ayr. Kennedy hospitality was legendary but only for the invited. The Lord of Galloway was affluent and set the best table in Scotland. Kennedy captains dined alongside the young lairds and masters of the ruling clans.
The bachelor quarters of Doon Castle overflowed at the moment with red-haired young men from no fewer than four different branches of the clan. They had brought the wool from the first shearing to be exported via Kennedy vessels.
The racket that assaulted Tina’s ears as she entered the dining hall was loud enough to raise the rafters. She liked nothing better than mingling with her brothers and first, second, and third cousins. She loved men’s company, their laughter, their boisterous camaraderie, their coarse language. She secretly longed to be one of the lads. At her approach the young lairds abandoned their shoving match. She parted them like the Red Sea, then they closed about her, making her the center of attention.
From the Paperback edition.