—Cathy Maxwell, New York Times bestselling author
Bound by revenge, a woman turned outlaw and a knight sworn to reclaim his birthright band together to vanquish an enemy of Scotland …
After her family is slain and her home seized, Elspet McReynolds flees into the forests surrounding Tiran Castle, where she resorts to thievery to survive and save her sole remaining kin. There she finds an unexpected protector and ally in Sir Cailin MacHugh, rightful heir to the earldom of Dalkirk—a noble rumored to have perished at sea . . .
Sir Cailin owes his life to the Brotherhood for saving him from a murderous plot. But what is the Knight Templar to do about the fearless, sword-wielding beauty who has enlisted his aid--and awakened his desire? In the face of devastating betrayals and traitorous enemies closing in, can Cailin and Elspet dare claim a love that makes no promises—for a future they may not live to see?
Praise for the novels of Diana Cosby
“Cosby gives you it all—passion, danger, lush history and a touch of magic. Excellent reading.”
—Hannah Howell, New York Times bestselling author
“A sexy new voice in historical romance. Scottish historicals have a bright new star.”
—Sandra Hill, USA Today bestselling author
“Diana Cosby writes wonderful historical romance!”
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Scotland, November 1308
Snow pelted Elspet McReynolds as she clutched her dagger, her gaze riveted on the two roughly dressed men paces away.
"Hand over the sack!" the stocky one with a jagged scar across his cheek demanded.
His partner, with a scraggly beard, narrowed his eyes.
Heart pounding, she tightened her grip. God in heaven, how had her simple plan gone so horribly wrong? She'd despised robbing these strangers. An action she'd never have done if not for the Earl of Dalkirk's treachery.
Horrific images of the day before stormed her mind. The grizzly death of her mother and stepfather, her stepbrother Blar's screams as he was dragged away by the murdering cur's men, and how the earl had hauled her to his chamber.
Nausea choked her at memories of her struggle for freedom. How dare the arrogant bastard believe she'd ever willingly share his bed? Had he not deflected her dagger, she would have driven the sgian dubh deep into his vile heart. She found grim satisfaction that her blade had left a long gash across his cheek.
With the noble howling in pain and demanding that she be captured and killed, she'd fled Tiran Castle. However much she yearned to leave Dalkirk land, she couldn't allow her stepbrother to die in the earl's dungeon.
Terrified for Blar's life, she'd begged her family's friends to help her discover whether he was alive. They'd agreed. Except once they'd believed her asleep, she'd overheard them planning to turn her in to gain favor with the noble.
Devastated by their betrayal, after they'd found their beds, she'd crept to the door and, with painful slowness, opened the hewn entry and fled.
Earlier today she'd found a castle guard out on his rounds, a man she'd met several times before, who'd sworn that her stepbrother still lived. For a pound he'd agreed to help Blar escape. That had been on her mind when she'd stumbled across the camp in the woods and had seen both strangers at the river, propelling her to foolishly try to rob them.
A brief search had revealed where the travelers kept their coin. Except, before she could slip away, they'd spotted her and given chase.
Body trembling, she glared at the angry faces of the furious men, damned that she hadn't stolen one of their horses and ridden away. With the earl calling for her death, she had naught to lose.
Another snow-drenched gust whipped past, blinding her from her ill-chosen victims. Too aware of the steep slope behind her, and the harsh landscape of the Highlands, she edged to her left. If she could only reach the trees a short sprint away, she might lose them in the dense woods.
The man with the scraggly beard stepped closer. "Hand it over!"
Elspet's blade trembled in her hand. Somehow, she must distract them. "Stay back."
"Nay one steals from me!" Teeth bared, the scarred man moved to the side and cornered her against the dangerous incline.
Fear a bitter slide in her throat, the icy ground crunched beneath her as she edged back. "I am sorry. I needed but a few coins, I —"
The scarred man lunged.
With a scream, she slashed out with her blade.
A thin line of blood streaked his chin. "You bloody bitch!"
Snarling, he caught her arms. After twisting both wrists behind her back, he seized the bag of coins.
Panicking, she struggled to break free. "You have your money; release me!"
Scowling, the thickset man shoved the leather sack into a ragged, worn pocket. "Nay, lass, you have earned naught but punishment for your thievery." He wrenched open her cape. "Penance," he said, his eyes darkening with lust, "I shall enjoy delivering."
His friend gave a cruel laugh. "A comely wench indeed."
"Nay!" Fresh terror building in her chest, she drove her foot against her captor's thigh.
With a curse, the stocky man fisted his hand, swung.
Pain exploded in Elspet's head, and she collapsed onto the snow-covered ground.
* * *
A woman's scream had Sir Cailin MacHugh reining his warhorse to a stop. Gaze narrowed, he scanned the forest.
Another shriek rang out.
God's blade! He whirled his destrier toward the sound, kicked him into a gallop.
Through the break in the trees ahead, a burly man stood over a slender woman garbed in a torn, pale-green gown. At his side leered a man with a scraggly beard, as shabbily dressed as the other.
Fury exploded in Cailin's mind as memories of a woman he'd cared for deeply, had sought his protection after she'd been badly beaten. As he'd held her bruised and bloody body in his arms, prayed for her to live, she'd drawn her last breath. From that moment he'd sworn that never again would he allow a man to harm a lass.
Jaw clenched, he leaned low and urged his horse faster.
The attacker hauled her up, drawing his fist back to land another blow.
Cailin jumped his steed over a fallen log and into the clearing, drew his broadsword. "Release her!" he roared.
Her attacker whirled. Outraged eyes shifted to fear as they locked on his weapon. "You bloody want her," he snarled, "here!" He shoved the lass down the steep incline, nodded to his partner. "Run!"
Brush snapped as both men bolted to their horses.
Instinct urged Cailin to give chase as they galloped away but lost against his need to protect. He kicked his mount to the edge.
Like a broken doll, her fingers splayed against the snow-covered ground, the woman lay at the bottom of the hill.
An icy burst of wind howled past as he dismounted, then hurried down the slope.
Half-frozen rocks loosened, clattered ahead of him.
With a curse, he shifted to the right to avoid any falling debris hitting the unconscious woman.
Once he reached the bottom, he knelt by her side. Chestnut-brown hair dusted with the fall of snow framed her angelic face. A gash creased her right brow, and a bruise darkened her cheek, both in stark contrast to her pale skin.
Praying she was alive, Cailin gently touched her shoulder. Once, twice. "Lass."
Eyes the color of water-drenched moss flickered open, focused on him. Their depth, intensity stole his breath.
She gasped, rolled and stumbled to her feet. Favoring her right ankle, she backed away.
Cailin slowly stood. "Dinna be afraid," he said, keeping his voice gentle. "I am here to help you."
A shiver racked her body, then another. Her mouth tightened in pain as she tugged her cape together, then glanced toward the knoll where one of the attackers had seized her moments before. Her gaze narrowed on him. "W — who are you?"
"Sir Cailin." Though years had passed since he'd ridden on Dalkirk land, he couldn't risk her recognizing his surname and warning his uncle, let alone the rest of the earl's reprobates, of his return. "And your name?"
The beautiful woman hesitated, her eyes dark with distrust. "Kenzie."
By her proper speech and the quality of her torn green gown, he suspected she was a woman of noble birth. The lass's reason for keeping her nobility a secret could be endless and as worthy as his own. Nor would he seek an answer.
"Are you from around here?" he asked.
Wary eyes held his. "Are you?"
Blast it. Did her family live within Dalkirk, or had they given the earl their fealty?
"You know the men who attacked me?" she asked, suspicion raw in her words.
He shook his head. The combination of her physical struggle and swelling jaw made his gut twist. By God, he'd catch the scoundrels. He gestured to her leg. "'Twas a nasty fall. You are injured."
Face taut, she shrugged. "Bruised is all."
He grunted. "That I doubt. I will carry you. From how you are favoring your ankle, you canna climb back up on your own."
Defiance blazed in her eyes. "I can make it without your help."
Regardless of the pain, if he let her, no doubt she'd try. "Aye, but 'tis rest and a warm fire you would be needing, not climbing up the brae," Cailin said with emphasis, "in pain."
In a calmer setting he would have pondered her bold manner. But with her injury, the snow falling at an increasing rate, and the howl of the bitter wind, they needed to find shelter.
Scraping her teeth over her lower lip, she scoured the surroundings, then stilled
He followed her gaze.
A step to his left, half-buried in snow, lay her sgian dubh, a smear of blood across the blade.
Before she could move, he retrieved the knife and wiped it clean. Handle facing her, he offered her the dagger.
Wary eyes held his as she accepted her weapon. "Why are you helping me?"
"You were in danger."
She sheathed her blade. "As simple as that?"
"Aye." He held out his hand. "We must go before the weather makes travel impossible."
After a brief hesitation, during which her gaze seemed to pierce his and evaluate his trustworthiness, she placed her hand upon his open palm.
At the silkiness of her skin against his, Cailin smothered the flare of awareness. Irritated by the desire she stirred, he lifted her in his arms.
Snow crunched as he carried her up the steep, icy incline. He tried to ignore how good her body felt against him, failed. At the top of the cliff, more than ready to put distance between them, he gently set her on her feet.
Cheeks flushed, she moved back, clearly trying to shield that her ankle caused her pain. "I thank you, Sir Cailin. I owe you much. I —" Her face paled as she twisted around with a gasp. "My horse!"
Blast it, the thieves had circled back and taken her steed. "Do you know their names?"
She paused, then shook her head. "I have never seen them before today."
No doubt the robbers had believed her a lady, and easy prey. "Why are you riding without a proper guard?"
* * *
Dismayed by the turn of events, Elspet studied the handsome knight. Dark red hair framed blue eyes that no doubt had made many a woman desire. His muscle-hewn body and confident stance that of a man used to taking charge.
Was this warrior one of the Earl of Dalkirk's men out searching for her? She struggled for an explanation that would satisfy the formidable knight so she could leave before he recognized her.
"I was en route to my aunt's home in the Western Highlands when thieves attacked my guard. He was ..." She drew in a ragged breath, allowing the terror, the fear that at any moment she'd be caught haunting her since she'd fled Tiran Castle to fill her words. "H — he died. I escaped, or believed I had. But the men caught up to me and ..." Her breath hitched. "Thank God you arrived."
"They willna touch you again," he said, his voice somber. "That I swear."
A sense of rightness flowed from this man, a strength, an integrity that left her feeling vulnerable and exposed. Shaken, Elspet dragged in a steadying breath. "How I wish you could promise such."
Intense blue eyes held hers. "I mean what I say."
However foolish, more so after her neighbor's betrayal hours before and with him possibly one of the earl's men, she believed him. "Never have I seen you before."
The daunting knight's eyes grew unreadable. "I am but traveling through."
Tension in her body eased. Thank God, he was not in service to the noble. "You are a stranger to Dalkirk lands. What you witnessed today was but a pittance of the lawlessness the earl allows his men." Surprise flickered in Cailin's eyes. "Your attackers are men within his guard?"
She hesitated. Regardless if he was an outsider and ignorant that the earl had ordered his knights to catch and kill her, 'twas wisest to take care with what she revealed. Another shiver swept her. "Ignore my ramblings, 'tis exhaustion feeding my words."
A frown creased his brow. After a moment, he nodded. "'tis time to leave."
"Where are you going?"
"We," he said with emphasis, "are going to an inn where I have a room for tonight. You will have a meal, and a place to rest while your injury mends."
One she'd passed earlier this day. Though far enough away from where anyone would recognize her, without coin or time, she'd avoided the tavern. Neither did she wish to go with him.
She shook her head. "I canna —"
"While we sup," he continued, "we will discuss arrangements for you to reach your destination."
"You would accompany me to my aunt?"
"Nay. As you are without sufficient funds, I will arrange for an escort."
"I ..." Elspet smothered another surge of guilt. "Your generosity is appreciated, but I refuse to disrupt your travels further. If you would kindly spare a pound, which will cover fare, meals, and lodgings for the remainder of my trip, I willna delay you further." Lowering her lashes a degree, she gave him a demure look. "Money I assure you, once I know where you are headed, that I will repay."
He shook his head. "I dinna carry such a large amount when I travel."
She smothered a burst of panic. Merciful saints, what was she going to do?
"I understand and appreciate your kindness," she forced out, "but I nay longer need your assistance."
A red brow lifted in stunned disbelief. "You want me to leave you here, injured and without a horse or protection?"
Straightening her shoulders, she limped back a step. "Aye. If I find the need to rest, as you said, there is an inn nearby."
He frowned. "With the way the storm is worsening, we will be fortunate to reach the tavern by horse, much less on foot. Or, in your case, hobbling. Nor, by your admission, can you pay for a room."
Blast it. She scowled at the thick flakes tumbling past, damned the throb in her ankle. All she needed was the coin, not more time spent with a man who made her notice the hard cut of his jaw, nor his eyes as blue as the ocean, not to mention the delay that may cost her stepbrother his life.
An errant ray of light broke through the clouds and shimmered off the knight's broadsword.
Elspet stilled. Atop a leather grip, a carved gold crest lay etched within the pommel, with intricate carvings on the guard. She'd believed him but a knight, though a warrior could far from afford such a superior weapon, garb of such quality, or a destrier of such caliber.
Unease rippled through her. God in heaven, who was he? If of nobility, why had he not proclaimed his title? Regardless, a sword of this quality would bring more than enough to pay the guard to free Blar.
She lifted her gaze to his, distaste swirling on her tongue. The last thing she wished to do was to steal this courageous man's weapon, nor did she wish to risk trying to rob an unsuspecting traveler. She brushed her fingers against the bruise on her cheek. Too well she understood the danger in such a foolish choice. Though she despised her decision, time to reach the guard was running out. "I agree."
A dry smile touched his mouth. "I thank you, my lady, for allowing me to offer you escort."
She didn't correct him. Let him think she was of noble birth, not the daughter of a farmer. 'Twould make it more difficult when he tried to find her.
The warrior swung into his saddle. With ease, he lifted her before him.
Elspet tried to ignore the hard ripple of his muscles against her body, his warmth, the strength of his arms as they circled around her to lift the reins, or how, for this moment, she felt safe. Given her predicament, she had no business noticing anything about this handsome knight.
Cailin draped his cloak around her. "I will protect you," he said, as if sensing her need for reassurance, then he kicked his steed into a gallop.
Protect her? If he knew what she had planned this night, he would have abandoned her to her fate.
* * *
A short while later, settled in their room at the inn, the savory scent of food filled the air and firelight from the hearth illuminated the chamber with a soft, golden glow and warmth. Elspet scowled at how the swelling in her ankle had grown steadily worse.
"I fear my aunt will be worried when I do not arrive," she said.
Cailin tore off a piece of bread, dipped it in the hearty stew, popped it in his mouth, then swallowed. "Given the ferocity of the storm, she will understand the delay."
As she ate her portion of the fare, she scanned their tiny room. Aside from the hearth, a bed with extra blankets folded atop stood in the corner, and nearby sat a small table holding a pitcher of water.
However sparse the furnishings, Cailin's presence seemed to fill the chamber, a potent reminder of her predicament. "'Tis unseemly for us to share this chamber."
"If another room were available, I would agree." He took a sip of ale, grimaced. "God's blade, they must have scraped the dredges of the barrel for this rot. Still, we were fortunate that I had already paid for a room. Given the steady flow of travelers seeking shelter since our arrival, by now even the stable is filled."
Indeed. With the throng of people below, they were lucky to have acquired a meal and drink.
He refilled his goblet. "Sleep in the bed. I will make a pallet beside the hearth."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Forbidden Alliance"
Copyright © 2019 Diana Cosby.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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