Jennet Graeme has witnessed terrible tragedy during the many years of strife between the Scots and the English. As Scottish invaders plunder her convent sanctuary, she defiantly resists the blond warrior who claims her as his prize. But his brute strength is overpowering and Jennet is forced to ride with him through the lawless lands, tending to the wounded, protected and desired by a man she wants to hate . . . but cannot . . .
Sir Hacon Gillard is moved by Jennet's compassion and mercy. As a loyal knight, he's pledged fealty to his king's command, even as he loses his heart to this remarkable woman. Merciless in combat . . . yet there burns within him a spark for something far beyond the heat of battle . . .
|Product dimensions:||4.10(w) x 6.70(h) x 1.20(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Allison Pike is a voice talent based on the West Coast. Her work includes audiobooks as well as live performance. Her favorite titles are those about finding love in surprising or unexpected places.
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By Hannah Howell
Kensington Publishing Corp.Copyright © 1991 Hannah Howell
All right reserved.
Chapter OneApril 2, 1318-Berwick, Scotland
Quiet humming did little to stifle the grumbling of Jennet's stomach. Her constant hunger was somewhat easier to bear in the convent, where each woman within the thick, gray walls suffered equally. Unlike the greedy Lady de Tournay and her swinish family, Jennet mused, then hurriedly began her morning ablutions, hoping the icy water would push such uncharitable thoughts from her mind. She had fled to the convent to find peace. That would remain elusive if she did not shake free of her bitterness, born of six years in servitude to the ill-tempered de Tournays.
Again her stomach loudly protested its emptiness. She cursed, then swiftly begged the Lord's pardon. It was such lapses that kept her from succumbing to the abbess's constant urgings to take vows and begin working toward becoming a nun. Jennet was not sure she had the character to be a nun. She had too much bitterness, was too cynical, too angry and unforgiving. A year in the seclusion of the convent had done little to ease those feelings.
"And," she muttered as she donned her plain brown gown, "I dinnae rush to prayer each morn."
She shook her head, then began to braid her long raven hair. The abbess must have seen how tossled she was, proof that she had rushed toprayers straight from bed early that morning. As she donned her headdress she frowned, listening carefully. It was difficult to be certain, but there did seem to be a dull but rising roar of many loud male voices.
"Mayhaps the Scots have finally given up their siege," she murmured as she sat on her cot to begin the mending she had been given to do. "They have certainly been harrying the town for months. Or"-she froze, needle in hand, and felt a swift rush of terror-"they have scaled the protective walls and finally retaken the border fortress from the English."
Jennet forced herself to remain calm, to ignore the muffled sounds. She was safe. Despite the tales the abbess told, Jennet could not believe the Scots would defile a convent. Even eighteen years of war under the Bruce could not have made her people so ungodly. A battle might well rage outside, but here she was free of that at last. This time she would not have to face the violence and destruction directly.
The wimple she mended was barely done when she realized the sounds she sought to ignore were much closer now. Even as she wondered if she should chance a look into the hall, the door to her tiny room burst open, splintering slightly as it slammed against the stone wall. The sight that filled the doorway caused her to drive her needle into her hand. Only partly aware of that self-inflicted wound, she extracted the needle, absently put her wounded palm to her mouth to ease the sting, and stared at the man who had invaded her refuge.
He leaned indolently against the door frame, his strong arms encased in greaves and crossed over his broad mail-covered chest. His helmet, with its noseguard, hid so much of his face that she could see little but his smile. That indolent grin turned her shock and fear to rage. She was facing certain death, and he was laughing at her. Hissing a curse, she pulled her dagger from a hidden pocket in her skirts. Her fury was reinforced by the terrified cries of the nuns that began to echo through the halls.
"And what do ye mean to do with that wee needle, lass?" he drawled in a soft, deep voice.
"Cut ye a new smile, ye godless heathen," she cried, and lunged at him.
He caught her with ease, one large gauntleted hand curled tightly around her thin wrist, the mail cutting into her skin. "So fierce for a nun." As they struggled, he turned slightly so that her back faced the hallway.
There was no way she could break his grip, but the amusement in his voice kept her struggling to push her dagger down until it might pierce his flesh. "I am no nun," she cried, "but a seeker of refuge, and I mean to send ye straight into hell's fires for defiling this holy place!"
"'Tis a petty threat to hurl at a mon who is already excommunicated."
"So the abbess spoke true. The Bruce's men are naught but the devil's minions, cast off by the Pope." She saw a look of cool amusement on what was visible of his hard face, then, without warning, a blinding pain filled the back of her head.
Hacon caught the too-slim girl as she collapsed, rendered unconscious by his comrade's blow to her head. "I wondered if ye meant to act, Dugald, or stand by and watch me being slaughtered."
Dugald grunted. He frowned down at the heavy silver chalice with which he had struck the girl, then dropped it back into the sack he held. "She had no chance. 'Twill be a woeful shame to kill her. The wee lass has spirit."
"Kill her? Now, why should I kill her?"
"We were told to show as little mercy as the English king did when he took this place in Baliol's Rebellion. Kill all we can and plunder the place."
"And this"-Hacon neatly tossed the unconscious girl over his shoulder-"is plunder."
"Aye? Looks like a wee lass to me. And what need have we of a nun, forsaken by the Pope as we are?"
"She isnae a nun. Are ye so eager to spill her blood?"
"Nay. I have no stomach for killing a lass, and weel ye ken it. I have no stomach for angering the Black Douglas either. The Bruce chose a fierce, hard mon as his lieutenant, and 'tis unwise to cross him. Douglas doesnae mean to halt here but to go on. What will ye do with your plunder then? Ye cannae hide her from him."
"I willnae hide her. She is mine, and there is an end to it. Now, grab hold of her blanket and help me tie her onto my back." He nodded toward her cot.
Even as he did as he was told, Dugald grumbled, "And how do ye expect to fight with such a burden?"
"This slight lass is no burden, and I doubt much fighting will be done. The townsfolk flee if they are able. We but need to fill our coffers with plunder."
"If we dinnae get to the doing of it, the plunder will be all gone."
Hacon winked at his scowling cousin. "Dinnae wear yourself thin worrying. I ken weel where to look. Have I not given us a good beginning?" He nodded at the sack Dugald carried.
Dugald nodded grimly as he strode down the hall of the nunnery toward the main entrance. Hacon adjusted the weight of his captive more comfortably against his back and followed. He winced and increased his pace as a woman's high-pitched scream echoed through the dim hallways. He preferred the chaotic battle out in the streets between the victory-drunk Scots and the panicked, fleeing English to the rape and slaughter of the defenseless nuns going on in here.
For ten years he had been with Robert the Bruce, ever since the beard on his face had been but the light fluff of a boy. When the Bruce returned from exile in Arran, Scotland had been demoralized, the devastation widespread. Bruce's victory against the English at Loudon Hill had renewed the people's hope, and Hacon had joined many others in racing to aid the claimant to the Scottish throne.
But now he ached to go home to Dubheilrig. Instead, he found himself on yet another raid into England, another bloody foray over land that had been deeply scarred by war.
"Ye cannae stop fighting for the Bruce now," Dugald said as he started through the gates leading to the narrow, winding streets of Berwick.
"How do ye ken I was thinking about that?" Hacon asked as he strode beside his kinsman into the heart of the walled town.
"That black look upon your face. I have seen it before. Ye cannae walk away from it yet. Aye, ye got your knighthood at Bannockburn, but ye havenae won a square foot of land yet."
"Did my father send ye to be my conscience?"
"Nay. He trusts ye to do as ye ought. Aye, as ye must. 'Tis just that I feel I must speak the truth. The Bruce holds our lands. Only he can return them to us. 'Twas our weakness which lost them to the de Umfravilles. Weel, after being honed in this war we willnae be weak. 'Tis some comfort, kenning the de Umfravilles lost those lands to the Bruce, but even that comfort will wane if the Bruce gifts our lands elsewhere."
"That will ne'er happen," Hacon muttered as he stepped ahead of his cousin. "Come along. If I cannae win back our lands through faithful service and the strength of my sword, then I mean to have enough plunder to buy them back." He strode off into town, confident Dugald would watch his back, just as he had done for ten long, bloody years.
Hacon slouched in a rough, heavy chair before the fire, heartily approving of the new-style fireplace and chimney set in the wall. It was far better than the usual, a hearth in the center of the room with an inadequate venting hole in the roof. He wondered how Dugald always managed to find such fine quarters for them. This had to be one of the few houses in Berwick that still had an intact thatched roof, one untouched by the fires that even now scorched the town. After glancing at the plunder scattered on the table in the center of the room, he fixed his gaze upon the female plunder sprawled unconscious at his feet.
Twice the girl had come awake while strapped to his back. Twice she had wrapped her lovely slim hands about his throat. Twice Dugald had had to strike her unconscious again to save his cousin. Hacon grinned. She had spirit. Dugald could well be right-she was the devil's child, even though she had been hidden away in a convent. He would be sure to keep all weapons out of her reach. She could prove to be a very troublesome bounty.
But a bonnie one, he mused, leaning forward. She looked very tempting sprawled on the sheepskin with her thick raven hair splayed out around her. Her headdress had been an early victim of the battle in the streets. While he suspected her too-thin build was a result of the famine that had ravaged the area over the last two years, he found no fault in it. There were curves enough to please him. Her skin was the soft white of ivory touched with all the warmth of good health. He easily recalled her magnificent eyes, their vivid green enhanced by sparks of fury and defiance as she had faced him in the convent.
"Do ye think I have harmed her?"
Glancing up at Dugald, who stood on the other side of the girl, Hacon shook his head. "She breathes easily and there is a growing flickering in her eyelids. She will wake soon."
"Then ye had best guard your throat."
The way Dugald eyed the girl, as if she were as great a threat as any well-armed Englishman, made Hacon laugh softly. "She has more spirit than many another in this place."
"Aye, which will make her a muckle lot of trouble. Wouldnae it be wiser to leave her behind?"
"Much wiser, but I willnae do it."
"Why? She is naught but a skinny wee lass."
"Ah, now there is a puzzle." Hacon shrugged. "I just willnae."
Jennet had grasped consciousness in time to hear the one man's disparaging description of her and the other's response. Her head ached and she knew it was their fault. She had made no move to reveal that she was now awake; her captor's answer had interested her since it might reveal her fate.
Now, however, deciding their talk was of little help, Jennet released the groan she had held back. She propped herself up on one elbow and tentatively touched the back of her head. The man had clearly curbed the strength of his blows, for she could find no serious injury, but her head was pounding. Slowly she gazed up at her captor.
He still looked big, a tall, lean, battle-hardened man. Now that his helmet and mail hood were gone, she saw that he had thick blond hair reaching to his broad shoulders. She doubted it would lessen the breadth of his chest by much if he took off his padded jupon and the snug, bloodstained leather jerkin he wore. He had long muscular legs encased in a better quality hose and cuarans of excellent waxed rawhide tied closely about his calves. She remembered the flint of armor on his forearms earlier, but suspected that had long been discarded. His clothes gave her little hint as to his station. Even the armor she recalled could simply be pieces he had stolen from dead knights upon the battlefield.
As she carefully sat up, she lifted her gaze to his face. He had the finest pair of eyes she had ever seen on a man, a clear rich blue. His lean face, high cheekbones, and a long straight nose bespoke a better birth. In fact, his looks reminded her very strongly of a Dane or a Norseman, and she frowned.
"Ye are a Scot?" she demanded. "We havenae got the twice-cursed Danes rampaging about to add to our grief, have we?" The man smiled too much, she thought crossly as he grinned at her.
"Aye, I am a Scot. I have my mother's looks, and she is a distant cousin to the king of Norway, so I should watch how I speak of those people." He thrust his hand toward her. "I am Hacon Gillard of Dubheilrig."
She took his hand and found herself firmly propelled to her feet. "Jennet."
"Jennet? No other name, no kinsmen? Ye are no one's daughter and from no place?"
"Of course I am someone's daughter." She sighed and rubbed her forehead with her left hand since Hacon was slow to release her right one. "I am Jennet, daughter of Artair, a Graeme, who wed Moira, an Armstrong. I can be from Liddesdale, for those are my mother's lands. More often than not, I am from no place in particular, dragged hither and yon by my father."
"Neither name is connected with much wealth."
She glared at him. "Aye, so ye will gain no ransom for me. The Bruce's fine soldiers have already slaughtered my mother. Aye and mayhaps my father as weel. I have naught left. Best to let me slip free. I can only be a trouble to you."
"Of that I have little doubt." He stood up, placed his hands on his trim hips, and looked down at her. "Howbeit, I will keep you with me."
"Now, why should ye wish to do that?" She had a very good idea of why but wondered if he would tell her the truth.
Reaching out, Hacon took a thick lock of her hair in his hand, idly caressing it with his long fingers. "Ye Jennet, who can be from Liddesdale, are my plunder."
That was an answer in itself, she supposed. She told herself that anger would gain her nothing; nevertheless she clenched her hands into tight fists at her sides. Escape was still possible if she did not act too rashly, did not give in to the fear that threatened to conquer her anger. From the corner of her eye she saw the other man stealthily move to flank her. She had to be certain the move she finally made was unexpected.
"I am plunder, am I?"
"Wee and skinny though I am?"
"Och, weel, one cannae always have the pick of the litter."
There was a tone in his voice that told her he thought he was being funny. He was grinning, and a soft chuckle came from his companion. A guffaw from behind them told her that other men were enjoying her predicament as well. That knowledge sent her temper soaring. The rape of Berwick and her own undoubtedly impending ravishment were not laughing matters.
Muttering a curse on all men, she struck out with both fists, neatly and forcefully hitting each man who flanked her square in the groin. Both howled with pain and cursed roundly as they bent over, clutching themselves. She raced for the door-and ran straight into a tall, armored man who blocked the long, narrow opening.
Staggering backward, she was roughly grasped at the shoulder by Hacon, who had stumbled after her. Still dazed, rubbing her nose, which had collided with the man's mail-clad chest, she found herself swiftly yanked behind Hacon. Curious as to why, she took a good look at the man who had ended her attempt to escape, and tensed, fear gripping her. It could be none other than Sir James Douglas, the one some called "the Good Sir James" but many another called "the Black Douglas."
And not simply because of his swarthy coloring, she thought with a shiver, her gaze fixed upon the bloodied sword in his hand. The nuns had told her many a chilling tale about this man whom they had dubbed "the Bruce's godless lieutenant." There was something about the colors he and his men wore that added to her fear, but that flicker of a memory was doused when Douglas spoke. As the words came from his mouth, she hid herself more completely behind Hacon, terrified that she would reveal her astonishment. The Black Douglas, the scourge of the North, the man who made many an English soldier tremble, spoke with a lisp.
"You are having some difficulty, Sir Gillard?" asked Douglas.
"Nay, only a brief quarrel."
Excerpted from Conqueror's Kiss by Hannah Howell Copyright © 1991 by Hannah Howell. Excerpted by permission.
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