The Rebel of Clan Kincaid
By Lily Blackwood
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2016 Lily Blackwood
All rights reserved.
Near about the same time.
"Awaken, child," said a woman's voice, low with urgency. The dim light of a lantern washed over the stone walls of Tara Iverach's small chamber. "Your guardian sends word that he travels near and wishes an audience."
Tara pushed up on the narrow bed. The drab blanket fell away, exposing her skin to the chill. She shivered and seized the wool back against her neck and shoulders. Sister Agnes's words echoed in her ears.
Her guardian ... Alexander Stewart, the powerful Earl of Buchan ... here, in this humble place?
To see her?
"You must be mistaken," she said, her voice thick with sleep.
She had never even met him. Her "guardian" had shown no interest in her in the five years since her parents' deaths, when he had become responsible for her and her older sister, Arabel. Almost immediately he had summoned Arabel to be presented at court, while Tara had been delivered to Duncroft Priory where she had remained ever since, with only a rare letter from Arabel — once, perhaps twice a year — to remind her she had not been completely forgotten.
"I wish that I were mistaken," Sister Agnes replied with a peevish lift of her brows. "I would much rather be sleeping than tending to you. Now hurry. You must be ready before sixth hour prayers."
Tara's heart jumped, beating faster. At long last, she would meet Buchan ... the man who controlled her destiny. But what did his visit mean? Would she be taken away from Duncroft? Would her life change somehow, from this day on? Or did the earl simply pass by in his travels, and seek to lay eyes on her for a brief moment before continuing on?
Sister Agnes took hold of her braid. Deftly unfastening it, she combed out Tara's hair with quick, brusque strokes.
Tara gasped, wincing, and rubbing at her temple.
Others entered then, two sleepy-eyed sisters carrying a small hip tub and novices with steaming buckets of water. Oh ... a real bath — a rare luxury here. Most certainly she would be rushed through, and not allowed to enjoy it. Tara had learned early on that the sisters of Duncroft were not ones to waste time on indulgent pleasures, and she very much doubted her early-morning, harried bath would be the exception. After five years of living among them, each day very much a mirror of the day before, she'd learned not to expect special attention or coddling of any sort.
In less than an hour, she stood in the chapel along with the other inhabitants of the priory reciting prayers, her skin scrubbed pink and her hair tightly braided — and covered, as it was always covered with a veil. She dutifully murmured the words, but her thoughts wandered elsewhere.
She could not subdue her feelings of optimism. Might this be the last time she stood here? The last time she would wear this shapeless gray gown? It was almost too much to hope for. After years of the cloister's quiet, uneventful existence, she had come to believe she would be confined here forevermore, forgotten by all, her life unlived — her heart never having loved.
Not that the other women who resided at the priory served an unimportant or unfulfilled purpose. They had chosen to devote themselves to the Lord, striving each day to center their thoughts and energies on Him.
Well, most of them had chosen to be here. Some were here, not precisely by choice. There was Lady Gavina, a lively and intriguing gentlewoman who had been deposited here around the same time as Tara, but by a husband who claimed she was mad in order to repudiate her so that he could marry her prettier and much younger cousin.
Lady Gavina was not the only "mad" wife at Duncroft Priory. Indeed, there was a row of rooms, just beside Tara's, each one occupied by a raving lunatic who never raved, never lunaticked. Scattered among them were a few accused adulteresses.
Some of the sequestered ladies seemed completely content to exist in the peace and quiet, away from the turmoil that had committed them here. Indeed, some only left their chambers for prayers.
Others ached to return to at least some aspects of the life they had left behind — as did Tara. She remembered happy scenes of life as it had been when her parents were alive. Now, no longer a child, she wanted to attend festivals and tournaments, as her sister described in her letters. She wanted to gossip with friends, and dance and laugh, and be introduced to — and flirt — with young men, the sort of creature she'd not caught a single glimpse of in her five long years here. Her chest tightened with wistful hope.
She wanted to live.
And now Buchan was coming. Perhaps now that she was twenty, he would present her at court, as he had Arabel, and she and her sister could spend their days together in happy coexistence, as they had when they were younger. Maybe not every day, because Arabel would be married soon, if she was not already, as the last letter she'd written several months before had shared the news the earl had betrothed her to the eldest son of a powerful ally.
Alwyn. It was a name she had never heard, but she heard very little within these quiet walls. Unfortunately, Arabel had always been a disappointing writer of letters and as usual, her letter was maddeningly devoid of the details Tara craved. Was Buchan a kind and considerate guardian who acted with Arabel's happiness in mind? Was she pleased with his choice of husband for her? Would she have a new gown for the occasion. If yes, was it threaded with glass beads or pearls — or both? Instead, Tara was left knowing very little about the earl's temperament, and what she might expect from him as a guardian, and whether Arabel was even happy ...
Just as the prayers came to an end, from behind Tara there came a sudden, excited whispering of female voices. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw two dark-haired, angular-jawed young men in the doorway wearing fine leather hauberks belted with silver-studded scabbards, their boots splattered with mud. They peered inside, their cheeks ruddy, their hair ruffled as if from travel, smiling arrogantly, at least to her unpracticed eye, though she could not claim to be an expert on male expressions. Several of the younger ladies from the Mad and Adulterous Wives corridor smiled back at them.
An older man with a close-trimmed dark beard and imperious bearing joined them, shouldering between them, his features drawn with impatience. All three men had similar prominent noses and dark eyes that identified them as kin to one another. Tara's pulse tripped. It had to be Buchan. She had imagined someone older, and gray haired.
"Where is my ward?" he demanded testily, causing her heartbeat to ramp higher. "Come now, my time is important. Please don't waste it."
Sister Agnes approached him quickly, nodding and extended an arm toward Tara. "Mistress Iverach, this way."
Tara moved quickly as well, not wishing to be barked at for tarrying overlong. All along her way, the ladies stood back, watching the moment unfold. As she drew near, three pairs of male eyes latched onto her. It had been years since she had drawn the attention of anyone besides that of her fellow ladies. Her cheeks betrayed her self-consciousness, filling with heat.
Her gaze met the earl's for the briefest moment — and his eyes struck her through with their intensity.
"My lord," she murmured, bowing her head and curtsying as her mother had taught her to do so many years before, arms slightly extended.
"Mistress Iverach," he said in a low voice. "How ... lovely you are."
"This way," said Sister Agnes.
Tara held back, waiting for the men to follow, but they only stared at her in darkly amused silence.
The earl gestured that she should go before them. "I insist."
She lowered her gaze and followed Sister Agnes. The heavy fall of their boots sounded on the stones close behind her and she felt their stares on her back. Perhaps it was only her lack of familiarity with men, but there was something distinctly unnerving about the earl and his companions. Though handsome and clearly schooled in all manner of noble manners, they cast an intimidating ... predatory energy that put her on her guard. Was it intentional? Her instincts told her yes.
Her guardian was a powerful man — the king's youngest son. She realized that. Still, she had hoped to be meeting a different sort of man, someone warmer and kinder, who she might look upon as a fatherly sort of figure.
Yet ... wasn't it wrong of her, and more than a little foolish, to render judgment based on just a few moments spent together? She was only nervous, having never met them, and unused to the company of men. And most certainly Arabel would have warned her if the earl was anything less than honorable.
No doubt Buchan and those who accompanied him were simply travel-worn and hungry, and not at their best, just as she would not be under the same circumstance. She must express gratefulness that he had traveled out of his way to visit her, and more importantly, keep her heart and mind open. Her mother, if she were still alive, would insist upon it. Also, if she impressed him perhaps he would allow her to leave the cloister for a life outside the walls, if that was not already his intention.
Sister Agnes led them to a room, in which a large table had been laid out with an extensive breakfast. Only as Tara and the men went inside, the sister drew back, remaining near the door like a sentinel statue, silent and watching. The scent of baked bread, meat, and eggs hung in the air, driving a stab of hunger through her stomach as she had not yet eaten, but she assumed they would break their fast together after introductions. Tara moved toward the hearth until she felt its warmth through her clothing, and turned to face her visitors with what she hoped was a welcoming expression.
"Welcome, my lord," she said. "I am so pleased to finally meet you."
"Hmmm, yes," the earl answered. He approached her, coming to stand so close she smelled the scent of earth and mist carried on his garments. "And I, you."
He smiled, his mouth drawing back on one side, enough to show teeth ... something that struck her as a display of arrogance rather than a greeting of sincerity and warmth. His eyes, sharp and scrutinizing, moved over her face — and then her person — in a way that made her want to step away. To turn away. Instead, she forced herself to hold still, her arms at her sides, and her shoulders straight.
She heard one of the earl's companions chuckle, though she knew not which.
Inside, she bristled, for the laugh offended her. It was neither noble nor gentlemanly to make a young woman feel as she did now, as if she were the object of some private jest.
She looked at her guardian, with all hope and expectation that he would, in the next moment, redeem himself.
But Buchan's smile widened by a degree — as if he too were deeply amused by her — and then dropped from his lips completely. He peered down his nose at her as he removed his leather gloves, one by one.
"As you have surmised, I am your guardian, Buchan. These are my sons ... Duncan Stewart, my elder —" With the hand that held the gloves, he gestured to one, with a wider face and a lock of hair that fell across his forehead, who nodded solemnly — and then to the other, who boldly held her gaze like a sharp-eyed, overconfident wolf. "And that is Robert."
They were indeed related, then, as she had surmised. Although she had already decided she did not like either of them very much, Tara acknowledged each of Buchan's sons with a nod.
He tucked his gloves into a wide belt at his waist — but his eyes ... his eyes consumed her.
"And you, Mistress Iverach are ... a child no more," he murmured. The earl moved closer to her, slowly circling her, coming so near she could feel his breath against her cheek and the heat of his body through the leather he wore. So close the skin at the back of her neck pricked in alarm. "A woman full grown."
He stood too close. And the way he looked at her ...
"A woman full grown indeed," he growled, low in his throat.
He made her very uncomfortable. She looked to Sister Agnes for reassurance, but the woman stood motionless and stone faced, watching in silence.
All of a sudden, his arm came up behind her, and he caught her by the shoulder. She gasped, startled.
"Don't be frightened," he murmured intimately.
"I am not frightened," she answered, between clenched teeth.
Should she be?
At the moment she was merely appalled. She just did not like his touch — a forceful half-embrace, which joined her to his shoulder and his hip. It was too abrupt and intimate, and clearly intended as proof of his power over her.
But he was her guardian, and she must submit ... mustn't she? It was what she had been taught, since birth, as a well-bred young woman. To respect her father, and those men her father respected, and her father had chosen this man to be her and Arabel's guardian.
"What do I see here?" he said, as his other hand came up.
She flinched, knowing he intended to touch her again.
"Sir," she protested softly, but firmly.
"Be still," he commanded.
He caught her chin, and forced her to look into his eyes, their faces so close she tasted his breath ... smoke tangled up with ale, and night. Yet then he released her face and with a turn of his wrist deftly removed her veil.
She stood rigid and unmoving as his gaze moved from her face — to her hair.
His eyebrows rose, as he looked.
"How very ... uncommon," he breathed, nostrils flaring. His grip tightened on her arm. "The color ... so unlike your sister's."
It was often remarked upon that she and Arabel looked nothing alike, but that wasn't true. Their features were similar. It was only that her hair was red, like their father's, while her sister's was brown. Red hair was common enough, but she had been told more than once that her particular shade —
The earl's voice grew husky. "Hair like that puts wicked thoughts into a man's mind."
Her stomach clenched. The sisters of the cloister had expressed similarly mortifying opinions.
Still held in his powerful vise, Tara's cheeks flamed as the earl's gaze raked over her with far more interest than proper, given that he was her guardian and, last she knew, a married man. Her head pounded with the wrongness of the moment.
Yes, he did frighten her.
She wrenched free from his grip, and stepped back several steps, turning toward the fire. She breathed deep, trying to calm herself. Trying to think of how she must speak to him, to instill a proper space and manner between them. Respect. She must command his respect.
She turned toward him, imposing a placid expression on her face.
"My lord, tell me, how does my sister fare?" she asked, her voice only slightly unsteady. "Arabel. What news can you share of her?"
Perhaps she ought not to have met his gaze again — for what she found there sent a strike of dread through her bones. Something beastly and cruel stared back at her, from the nether reaches of his dark eyes.
Behind him, his sons observed in sharp-eyed silence.
The earl's attention shifted over her shoulder, to Sister Agnes. "Could you ... leave us alone, please? So that we might speak privately?"
Tara rarely prayed outside of morning, midday, and evening prayers, but she prayed now, and fervently. Under no circumstance did she wish to be left alone with this man and his wolfish sons.
Sister Agnes responded unwaveringly. "Forgive me, my lord, but I cannot. It is not convent practice to leave a young lady alone with any man who is not her father or her husband."
Tara held in her sigh of relief.
A sour expression flickered across the earl's face. His nostrils flared, further conveying his displeasure.
"I am her guardian," he answered imperiously.
Her relief evaporated. Would he demand and argue until he had his way?
The nun answered, with complete composure. "Which is not ... her father or her husband."
Tara decided, in that moment, that she loved Sister Agnes.
Buchan squinted his eyes menacingly, and scowled. "Must I remind you of the generous support I provide to the sisters of this abbey, in exchange for the care of my ward?"
Tara's pulse rose as he continued to insist.
"No, my lord," Sister Agnes replied, her expression unchanged. "You need not."
The earl smirked in triumph. "Then —" (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Rebel of Clan Kincaid by Lily Blackwood. Copyright © 2016 Lily Blackwood. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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