"Set me free. Say I escaped, or that you never found me."
Kidnapped heiress Lady Aline of Leavingham has surrendered any hope of rescue when a mysterious figure casts her assailant aside. But it's soon clear Aline's savior has no intention of setting her freehe's sworn to deliver her to the Duke of Roxholm, her family's enemy!
Sir Hugh of Eardham has never seen anything quite like Aline's beauty and fighting spirit. There's no doubt he's tempted more to protect her than keep her bound. But could this loyal knight ever break his oath of allegiance for Aline's sake?
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About the Author
She achieved her dream of becoming an author after finishing third in Harlequin's SYTYCW contest 2013 and being offered a two-book contract. When she isn’t writing, she spends her time reading and is a pro at cooking while holding a book!
Elisabeth lives in Cheshire with her husband, two children and two cats with ridiculous names.
Read an Excerpt
'This is the third proposal you have rejected this year, Aline, and the fifth in total. When are you going to do your duty and choose a husband as you are required to do?'
The Duke of Leavingham and High Lord of the Five Provinces settled back in his chair with a frown. Lady Aline returned his stare, ignoring the muttering of the assembled knights and nobles. Her eyes fell again on the ornately decorated parchment lying on the table.
'My lord, if the offer was from the Count himself I would consider it. On behalf of his son, however, my answer is no. The boy is only nine years old!'
'Most women would consider themselves honoured to be allied with such a wealthy and respected family,' replied the Duke sternly.
Aline's cheeks reddened. The room felt much warmer. 'My lord, the terms of the proposal are generous, indeed, but there are those here who believe rule of Leavingham should not pass to a woman. Would you prefer it to pass to a child instead?'
A shaft of watery sunlight broke through the clouds and Aline's eyes drifted to the window as she half listened to the murmurs of agreement. She straightened her shoulders and brushed back a strand of ash-blond hair.
'My lords,' Aline said, addressing the assembled council, 'I know I must marry, and I will. If my brother had lived to be heir the husband you chose for me would barely have matteredhowever, the man I marry will rule not only Leavingham, but also the whole of the Five Provinces. I will not make that choice lightly.' Silence hung in the air. Aline walked round the table and knelt. She took hold of her grandfather's hands and raised her face modestly. 'Please, Grandfather, don't force me to accept him.'
The old man peered at her with his lips pursed. Aline held her breath as she stared into the grey eyes so like her own.
'No, you need not accept this proposal,' the High Lord said finally. 'But you are running out of time. You are my last living descendant. When I named you heir I pledged you would be wed by your twentieth birthday. Remember that is barely six months away. I suggest you find any future offers more appealing or I will make the choice for you. You may leave us.'
Aline curtseyed to the assembled men and left the room, her heart beating rapidly at her narrow escape. The atmosphere in the council chamber had been stifling and the unexpected summons had made Aline more agitated than she had expected. She ran up the winding staircase to her chamber and rapidly changed into her riding gown. In the stable yard her groom would be waiting patiently with horses. The prospect of missing one of the few chances for freedom before autumn turned to winter was almost unbearable.
She sped down the stairs and through the smaller of the castle's two halls, fastening the clasp of her riding cloak around her neck as she went. Rounding a corner, she almost collided bodily with a large man coming in the other direction. She jumped back with a gasp of surprise as his hands reached out to steady her. Sir Godfrey, her friend since childhood, grinned down at her.
'Very decorous behaviour, Aline! But I doubt your grandfather would approve,' he remarked.
Usually Aline would respond with a light-hearted retort, but after the morning's audience she found she could not summon the energy.
'You know I give him no cause for disapproval,' she replied defensively. 'I read all the dusty old histories and treatises on diplomacy I am tasked with learning. I am a gracious hostess and a dutiful, modest lady of court. I play every part he expects. There is nothing he has asked of me that I have not done!'
'Apart from accept a suitor.' Godfrey smiled.
'Men whose proposals speak only of the power they will gain, or the dowry I will provide' Aline snorted 'and today a child! Would you be so eager in my place?'
The young knight held his hands out in mock supplication. 'Aline, I'm only teasing. I'm sorry. You're right to wait for the right man, for you and for Leavingham. Your parents would have been proud of youyour brother, too.'
An ache clawed Aline's heart at the mention of her family. Six years after the influenza that had claimed them she still missed them dreadfully. Her fingers moved instinctively to the necklace she always wore: a smooth amethyst set into a filigree of silverthe legacy of the mother who had followed her husband and son to the grave after barely a year.
'You do want to marry, don't you?' Godfrey asked, linking his arm in Aline's as they strolled into the chilly morning air.
Aline shrugged. 'Whether I want to or not is immaterial. I have no choice. You heard what my grandfather said: I am running out of time. I lost any chance of marrying for love when I became heir. Now all I can hope for is to at least like my husband!'
Godfrey laughed. 'My wife was not my first choice, but we are happy. You will be, too.'
Aline said nothing, though the prospect seemed increasingly unlikely.
They had reached the archway leading to the stable yard and said their farewells. Aline watched as Godfrey returned to the castle, only slightly regretting that when she had been his first choice she had said no.
The sky had lightened as Aline made her way round the inner wall to the stable yard and stopped in surprise. Instead of her usual groom, a younger man held the reins of two horses.
'Greetings, my lady,' he said with a sweeping bow.
'Where is Robert?' Aline asked him cautiously.
The man raised his eyes to Aline's, pushing a lock of sandy-coloured hair from his face. Now that she had time to study him she saw his face was familiar, and Aline recalled that she had seen him around the stables once or twice over the past few weeks.
'My name is Dickon, my lady. Robert apologises that he cannot attend you today but an unexpected malady of how shall I say it? a delicate nature has left him unable to move far from the privy.'
Aline laughed, instinctively liking him, though doubt crept into her mind. Robert had been her escort for as long as she remembered; he had been the person who'd lifted her onto her first childhood pony and was well trusted to accompany her alone. Riding in the company of this young man would be highly improper. Her grandfather would have plenty to say if he ever found out.
'I'm not sure Perhaps we had better not ride today,' Aline began.
The groom tipped his head to one side and his lips twitched into a half smile. 'If you wishthough I for one would be sad to miss such a fine day. Especially when I had thought my only company was to be horseflies and the saddle-grease pot!'
A well brought up and respectable lady would send for a maid to accompany them, but none rode as swiftly as Aline did and she so wanted an exciting day. Dickon's steady brown eyes were watching her earnestly. The memory of the morning's audience with the council sped through her mind and a spark of rebellion that had been growing since Godfrey's teasing flared inside her.
'We'll go,' she announced.
Dickon helped Aline onto her grey mare, a broad smile on his tanned face as he put his hand out to steady her. Side by side they trotted through the wide streets of the city to the main gate, talking idly of their plans for the day.
Aline was used to riding far and fast, and she was delighted to discover Dickon well matched and equally fearless. They galloped far across the moorland, daring each other on to greater speeds. By late morning they had come upon a small village, where an alewife stood at her gate, broadcasting her wares. In unspoken agreement the riders dismounted and bought a flagon, drinking down the cool liquid gladly.
Wiping his mouth on his sleeve, Dickon spoke. 'If you would care to wait here and finish your drink, my lady, I will buy lunch in the market.'
Aline watched him depart. There was a swagger in his step that caused her pulse to quicken. Unbidden, her mind drifted back to her conversation with Godfrey. Like all highborn women, she knew her husband would be the first man to bed her. In moments of honesty she admitted that she was curious. Sometimes, watching other couples in the court laughing and dancing, she longed so much for someone to seize her up in an embrace that the sensation was almost painful.
She spotted Dickon as he appeared from behind a hut, his saddlebag slung carelessly over his shoulder. Bowing again, he held out an arm for Aline. They walked together through the village, Aline acutely aware of the nearness of Dickon's body. She was glad when they returned to the horses and she could push such inappropriate thoughts away.
The sun had started to descend before they stopped again. The purple heather had begun to thin and clusters of trees appeared, providing some welcome shade from the sun. Aline had been happy for Dickon to choose the route and they had ridden close to the borders of the province. Now, as she dismounted, Aline's stomach fluttered uneasily at being so far from the castle with only one groom for security.
After tethering the horses to a tree she scratched them between their eyes while Dickon unloaded his pannier. He handed Aline a goblet of cool wine and she drained it thirstily, pushing her worries to the back of her mind. The day was unexpectedly warm, so they removed their cloaks and sat lazily against the trunk of a tree, sipping the wine and picking at bread and cheese.
Dickon was easy company, though the talk never moved much beyond horses and amusing snippets of gossip about the goings-on of the castle staff.
Dickon refilled Aline's goblet once more and she lay back in the warm heather, eyes closed, sleepily enjoying the chance to leave behind her duties and her lessons. Somewhere not too far away a horn sounded and she idly wondered who it might be. She tried to pull herself upright to see but found her body felt heavier than usual. Her head started to swim. She looked up to find Dickon staring at her.
'It didn't taste strange in the slightest, did it, my lady?' Dickon said, his mouth twisting into a smile but his eyes cold.
The look on his face terrified Aline more than anything she had ever experienced. Something was deeply wrong.
'What do you mean, "taste strange"?' she asked, alarmed to hear that her voice sounded a long way off and not her own. Dickon leaned over and picked up the goblet from Aline's side. She flinched as his hand brushed her arm.
'The wine, my lady. I put rock-poppy juice in your cup. Not the most sophisticated drug, but effective. It paralyses the drinker quickly and sleep follows soon after,' he explained.
'What do ?' Aline tried to make sense of what the man was saying but she was finding it hard to concentrate. 'What have you done?'
'I just told youI've drugged you,' Dickon explained matter-of-factly. 'The Duke of Roxholm has paid me very well to hand you over to him. In a short while a number of his guards will be here to take you to the Citadel of Roxholm.'
He sat back on his heels.
'I will, of course, try to defend you from their "surprise" attack, but unfortunately I will be no match. I will be found with some minor but alarming-looking injuries, wandering near Leavingham Keep, dazed and with a ransom letter, some time this evening.'
With growing alarm Aline tried again to sit up. 'You filthy traitor. You will hang for this ' she tried to snarl, though her voice barely broke the silence surrounding them.
Dickon's response was a smirk. 'Ah, my lady, so fierce! Do you think I would tell you any of this if I thought there was a chance that might happen? I shall be far overseas by the time your fool of a grandfather has negotiated your return.' He knelt down beside Aline and spoke softly in her ear. 'I'm sorry we have to part like this. But, as attractive as you are, the price I was paid is even more so.'
He started to run his fingers through Aline's hair, pulling the combs out and unwinding the long braid. Aline tried to push him away but her arms felt weighted and numb. She gave a scream that in her head sounded loud and piercing but which came out as half gasp, half sob.
'Still,' Dickon continued, as though he had heard nothing, 'I imagine we have some time before my associates arrive. We may as well say our goodbyes thoroughly. I've been longing to do this since I first saw you.'
With one hand pulling at the laces of Aline's bodice Dickon moved closer, so that his wine-scented breath was warm on her face. Aline had not thought she could be any more horrified, but at his touch she felt as though hot knives were being drawn across her skin. She tried again to scream, but before she could cry out his lips were crushing her own and his tongue was forcing them apart.
Instinctively Aline bit down hard. The groom pulled away with a cry of surprise, a trickle of blood leaking down his chin. He grabbed a handful of Aline's hair and jerked her head sharply to the side, then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
Aline cried out at the pain that shot through her head, but again found that her voice was no more than a mewl. She glared at him, her face full of hate but her eyes pleading with him to stop.
'Lady Aline,' Dickon reproached her, 'your modesty is charming but I know you find me desirable. I've seen it in your eyes so don't be coy. We must take our pleasure while we can.'
Dickon moved so swiftly he was astride her almost before Aline realised, one knee forcing its way between her legs, the weight of his body crushing the breath from her chest. His mouth worked roughly down her neck while his arms pinned her own to the ground. By now Aline's body felt leaden and the blood was pounding in her ears. She could no more fight his assault than she could prevent the wind from blowing.
She made one last futile effort to throw her assailant off, kicking her legs wildly, but the effort sent her head reeling. Her vision began to blur. From what seemed like a great distance she heard the sound of hooves, followed by raised voices. A shadowy figure loomed above them; a dagger glinted at Dickon's neck.
'Get off the lady now or I'll slit your worthless throat,' a harsh voice snarled.
The pressure of Dickon's body lifted from her and Aline drew a rasping breath. Two figures spun like puppets before Aline's heavy eyes: the groom in his rough brown jerkin and a black-clad man. Her last memory was of piercing blue eyes flashing in her direction, before darkness closed over her and she was lost to the world.
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