—Cathy Maxwell, New York Times bestselling author
In battle-torn Scotland, a castle’s mistress awaits her groom, a warrior she has never met . . .
Lady Gwendolyn Murphy’s fiancé has finally arrived at Latharn Castle, but she expects no joy in their introduction. Gwendolyn is well aware of Bróccín MacRaith’s cold reputation. Yet from first glance, she is drawn to the intimidating stranger. Impossible! How could she be dazzled by such a callous man?
Little does she know, Bróccín is dead. The man Gwendolyn believes to be her intended is actually Sir Aiden MacConnell, a member of the Knights Templar and her enemy, masquerading as the earl to gain access to the castle. His soul is dedicated to God and war; he has no time for luxuries of the flesh. But Gwendolyn’s intoxicating beauty, intellect, and fortitude lures him to want the forbidden.
With the wedding date quickly approaching and the future of Scotland at stake, Aiden gathers critical intelligence and steels himself for his departure, vowing to avoid an illicit liaison. But a twist of fate forces him to choose—move forward with a life built on a lie, or risk everything for the heart of one woman?
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, August 1308
A hawk screeched overhead as Sir Aiden MacConnell strode past several large oaks. He wiped the sweat from his brow, noted his men's positions, and then scoured the uneven ground thick with summer dried grass, clumps of brush, and rocks that littered the forest's edge.
Still no sign of the enemy who'd ridden into view moments before. Considering how the warrior's eyes had widened and the way he'd whirled his mount and fled, Aiden was sure he'd identified him and his men as a threat.
Aiden cursed. All his bloody fault. Before he had waved his men into the clearing, he had double checked their surroundings and had seen naught to alert him that the enemy lurked nearby.
They must stop the bastard before he could warn Lord Comyn of their presence. Their mission, to evaluate Latharn Castle's weaknesses, discover the number of knights in residence, and uncover potential points of entry, was paramount. Given the stronghold's treacherous cliffside location, the information he and his men provided to Robert Bruce would play a crucial role in the king's upcoming attack.
A cool breeze rich with the scent of rain buffeted him. He glanced north, grimaced at the darkening clouds. Blast it, they had to find the lone rider before a downpour washed away his tracks.
Nor was the knight in full health. As the man had galloped away, Aiden had noted the blood-smeared armor, the way his body wove in the saddle, and the panic in the warrior's eyes. He grimaced. No, the man hadn't traveled far.
He scoured the rough slide of land for further signs of the enemy. With Scotland at war, only a lackwit rode without an escort.
At no sign of danger, he continued on. As he stepped past a clump of trees, his gaze narrowed on several large boulders. Red stained the jagged edge of the closest rock.
Aiden waved his two friends over, pointed to where the land cut away. "He must be hiding down the brae," he whispered. "Rónán, circle around to the right. Cailin, you come in from the left. Once in place, await my command."
His men nodded and then slipped into the dense foliage.
Dagger in hand, Aiden crept through the brush. Below, between a break in the rocks, a bay munched on sun-bleached grass, his reins dragging on the ground.
A moan sounded farther down the embankment.
Aiden motioned for his warriors to hold. Weapon readied, he edged around the shield of stone. As the bank began a steep decline, he squatted, his gaze centering on the prone form.
Through the summer-burned shafts swaying in the breeze, the armored knight gasped for air. Blood smeared his mail, and one of his legs lay twisted in an awkward position.
Aiden caught a glimpse of his face. High browed, with blond hair now sticky with blood, and his lips thinned by pain. Nor did he miss that the bastard wore Comyn's colors.
After another meticulous scan of the clearing, confident the warrior rode alone, Aiden stood. He frowned. The dying man looked familiar. A foolish thought. Too many years had passed since he'd lived in the Highlands for him to recognize anyone now.
Eyes dark with pain focused on him, grew wary. "To whom do you swear your loyalty?" the man rasped.
"Lord Comyn," Aiden replied, his gut tightening around the lie. With the injured man wearing the noble's colors, he'd be a fool to state otherwise.
"Thank God. W-when I saw you, I thought you were with the Bruce." The stranger gave a rough cough and then sagged back. "Early this morning, my c-contingent was attacked by his forces."
"God's sword, are they near?" Aiden spat, needing the man to believe him not a threat.
"I think I lost them, but I canna be sure." Wracking coughs again shook his body, and a drizzle of blood slid from his mouth.
Aiden knelt beside him, took in the deep sword slashes along his neck. 'Twas incredible he still lived.
Face ashen, the stranger grabbed Aiden's arm. "Y-you must swear to help me."
Help him? With the knight's allegiance to Comyn, he would rather drive a dirk into his heart and end his miserable life. Aiden took in his finely crafted armor, stilled. Few could afford mail of such quality. Whoever this man was, he wasn't a simple knight. Mayhap the warrior held sensitive information valuable to King Robert?
"Of course I will assist you," Aiden replied. "How?"
Fingers trembling, the man withdrew a sealed writ, handed it to Aiden. "D-deliver this to Lady Gwendolyn Murphy of Latharn Castle. 'Tis a decree from Lord Comyn, commanding us to marry. Warn her that the enemy is near." Grief-stricken eyes held his. "Let her know I regret having failed her."
Aiden's throat tightened as he glanced at the rolled parchment, the importance of the man's disclosure pounding in his chest. He refocused on the wounded knight. "I would need your name to tell your betrothed."
"B-Bróccín MacRaith, Earl of Balfour."
Aiden stared at him in disbelief. "Of Gilcrest Castle?" His question sliced out between tensed lips.
Memories from his youth rolled through Aiden: how he and Bróccín had sparred, hunted, the first time they'd tasted mead. A friendship of long ago.
No longer was he an innocent lad with dreams of war and victory in his head. Over the years, with his service to the Knights Templar, he'd seen enough bloodshed, and had witnessed the deaths of too many of his friends.
"I will have your name," Bróccín forced out.
"Aiden MacConnell, Earl of Lenox." He swallowed hard. That he'd long lost his title mattered little now.
Recognition flared in the nobleman's eyes, replaced by a fleeting sadness. "After the death of your family, I-I never thought to see you again."
Ice slid through Aiden's veins at the mention of his horrific loss. He shoved aside the painful memories that however much he tried haunted him still. Neither could he forget how the English had seized his legacy. "Nor I you." He nodded to the writ. "I give my word I will deliver your missive to Lady Gwendolyn."
"I thank you. 'Twas a b-blessing that 'twas you who found me." A shudder raked his body. "After all these years, I canna believe we meet again. W-we had so many dreams, didna we?"
He forced a smile. "Aye, foolish ones."
"They were." Bróccín coughed. His face twisted in pain, he settled back.
"I will tend to you as best —"
"'Tis too late; my fate is sealed."
However much he wished to assure the man otherwise, he wouldn't lie. Aiden offered him a sip of water from his pouch. "Take a drink, 'twill cool your throat."
"My comfort matters little now." A wry smile touched Bróccín's mouth. "In truth," he rasped, "I have never met my betrothed, but 'tis rumored the lass is a beauty. With the stories I have heard —" Pain dredged his face, and for a moment he closed his eyes. On a rough exhale, he lifted his lids. "I was anxious to bed her."
Coldness seeped through Aiden at the thought of any woman weakening him to where he'd think of little else. His life was dedicated to God and war, not the luxuries of the flesh. He rested his hand on the earl's shoulder. "I will tell her that you were a fine man."
"I thank you." More blood oozed from Bróccín's mouth. The noble shuddered and then gasped. His eyes grew fixed.
With the images of his youth fading, Aiden stood, waited as his men approached.
"Is he dead?" Cailin asked.
Aiden nodded. "His name is Bróccín MacRaith, Earl of Balfour. Incredibly, we were friends in my youth. Except, 'twould seem now, unknown to him, we are mortal enemies."
"A Comyn supporter," Rónán said with a grimace, "a bloody shame."
"'Tis the way of war." Aiden shoved his sadness behind his carefully built wall of indifference, having lost too many friends through the years to allow the hurt to burrow deeper. "Yet he has presented us with an unexpected opportunity." He lifted the writ. "'Twould seem by Comyn's dictate, the earl was betrothed to Lady Gwendolyn Murphy. He was on his way to marry her."
Cailin arched a doubtful brow. "What does a wedding have to do with our gaining information for the Bruce's upcoming attack on Latharn Castle?"
"The lady in question," Aiden replied, "is the stronghold's mistress."
Rónán frowned. "'Tis a surprising coincidence, but knowing the woman's name or Lord Balfour's reason for riding to the castle far from aids us."
"It wouldna," Aiden agreed, "except before Lord Balfour died, he admitted he had never met the lass."
Cailin's eyes widened. "God's blade, you are not thinking of taking his place?"
The thrill of the unknown filled Aiden, and he clung to the thoughts of danger, to a way of life on which he thrived. "I am. I swore to deliver this decree, a promise I shall keep. 'Twill be a simple enough task to play the part of her suitor for a day or two. Once we have the information we need, we shall slip away and report to the Bruce all that we have learned."
"We?" Rónán asked.
"Aye," Aiden said with a flourish, enjoying crafting the story. "The Earl of Balfour and two of his stalwart knights escaped the ruthless attack of King Robert's men."
A frown deepened on Rónán's brow. "A brilliant plan, but your memories of the earl were those of a lad. Nor do you know if his intended was accepting of the betrothal, not to mention that someone in the castle might know him."
"I have heard the earl was a warrior to fear, a strict leader, and a man who refused to compromise, knowledge that will suffice for the meager time we remain within the stronghold." Aiden shrugged. "Weighed against the vital details we shall learn, any other concerns are insignificant.
"What of the lass?" Cailin asked. "Even if she is in agreement, with her anticipating marriage, however brief, she will expect a courtship."
"A minor distraction," Aiden said. "Before Bróccín died, he confessed she was fair to look upon."
Rónán chuckled. "Wooing her might be a pleasant diversion, more so taking her to your bed."
Far from amused by the jest, Aiden stowed the writ. "My intent is to gain information for our king, naught more. Though the Knights Templar are secretly dissolved, my allegiance remains with the Brotherhood."
The humor in his men's eyes fled. "Never will I forgive King Philip's treachery," Cailin hissed.
"Nor I," Rónán spat.
France's sovereign had betrayed the Brotherhood, knights who had guarded him over the years, loyalty the bastard had rewarded with deceit. Almost a year had passed since Aiden and the other Templars had sailed from the port of La Rochelle. Yet, each time he thought of the French king's treachery, fury blackened his soul.
He glanced at the fierce warriors at his side, Knights he'd fought alongside in many a battle, men he would give his life to protect. "We will map the castle grounds, take stock of its stores, the number of guards, and note any other details we decide are imperative for King Robert to plan a successful attack."
"Mayhap," Cailin said, "we will discover a secret entry."
"Given the stronghold's location," Aiden said, "I suspect a hidden tunnel runs beneath, a passageway nay doubt Lady Gwendolyn is aware of. The question is whether, during our brief stay, we will have time to ascertain where it is."
"What will happen to the lass once King Robert seizes her castle?" Rónán asked.
Aiden shrugged. "If she is as beautiful as Bróccín claimed, 'twill be a simple task for the Bruce to find a nobleman to wed her."
"Mayhap the woman will have an admirable spirit that will catch the king's notice," Cailin said with a smile, "and, like Stephan and Thomas, our sovereign will guide you down a wedded path."
"With the demands on the king's time," Aiden said, his voice cool, "I doubt he will meet Lady Gwendolyn much longer than to learn her name and decide upon an appropriate match." Refusing to entertain the topic further, he glanced at the dead earl. "We bury Bróccín, then ride to Latharn Castle."
* * * *
Wind raw with the scent of the sea whipped against Lady Gwendolyn Murphy as she aimed her dagger, threw.
A deep chuckle sounded to her right. "I dinna think your betrothed would be praising your skill, my lady."
"As if I care what the Earl of Balfour thinks." She turned toward the well- armed knight leaning against a nearby rock. At the humor in her friend's eyes, she glanced at the rough charcoal outline of a man on the nearby sun-bleached limb, her sgian dubh lodged in the center of the crudely shaded heart.
"I know you are upset with Lord Comyn's dictate to marry," Sir Pieres continued, "but with Lord Balfour occupied with the upkeep of his numerous holdings, along with engaging in combat for your liege lord, 'tis rumored he is often gone."
Scowling, Gwendolyn walked over to jerk her blade free. "As far as I am concerned, he could stay away. In truth, if I did not need Comyn's guard, I would keep the gates barred and deny the earl entry."
"If you wish, that could be arranged."
The lazy teasing in her friend's voice prodded a smile. "You would do that for me, would you not?"
Pieres's expression grew serious. "My lady, for you I would give my life."
Humbled, she shook her head. "Never would I ask such."
Eyes dark with concern, he walked to her. "'Tis said your betrothed is a hard man, one feared by many, but those beneath his command give him their respect."
She smothered the slide of nerves. "And you tell me this because ...?"
"You need truth, not wisps of fancy. That the earl earns respect from his men reveals that however strict, his dictates are given with reason. His success in battle, along with the praise earned from your liege lord, reflect his cunning as a warrior."
She gave a curt nod.
"My lady, Lord Balfour is a man of war and willna tolerate defiance on any level." Expression grim, he paused. "With your headstrong ways, I beseech you to tread with care. You could do far worse."
"A warning?" Furious he'd feel the situation warranted his caution, or that the time had come in her life when she'd need such, she stalked to where she'd drawn a line in the sand, turned, threw. A chunk of the charcoal-stained heart broke free as the dagger sank deep. "I am not a fool."
"Nay," he said, his voice softening. "You are a woman whom any man would be blessed to have as his wife. Sadly, many nobles dinna want a lass beyond that of bearing their heir."
She jerked her weapon free. "I willna be cast aside in my own castle, treated as if I were naught but a scullery maid fit only for the bedding. I need nay husband."
Sir Pieres remained silent, the worry in his gaze easy to read.
Frustrated, she sheathed her dagger, faced the waves sliding up the shore tossing about stones and shells within the tangled rush. Bedamned this entire situation! "If only I could convince Lord Comyn that I dinna need to wed."
Firm steps crunched on the sand. Pieres paused at her side. "'Tis too late; his decision has been made."
The exasperation in his voice matched her own. "I know." She wanted to scream at the injustice of losing her home to a stranger. In the weeks since the writ had arrived announcing her betrothal, she had tried to think of a way, often with Pieres's aid, of negating the union and, at every turn, had failed.
On a hard swallow, Gwendolyn picked up a fragment of an abandoned shell. She cupped the fragile piece in her hand as the damnable frustrations weighed heavy in her chest. "Over the years my father would bring me here and tell me of his dreams, or talk about mine. He never laughed at what I shared, but encouraged me to achieve any goal that I could envision."
"He was an extraordinary man."
"Aye, he was." Emotion welled in her throat, and she swallowed the rush of grief. "W-when my mother died during my youth, 'twas here my father consoled me, and years later, where he asked me to marry Lord Purcell to strengthen our bond with our neighboring clan."
Pieres's mouth tightened. "Your father was wrong to have forced you into a marriage, more so to a man who couldna see what an incredible woman you are."
The soft fury in his voice left her humbled. Her fingers curled against the memories of how she'd pushed away Pieres's subtle advances since their childhood. However much she'd wished otherwise, never had she felt more than friendship, nor would she dishonor him by offering false hope. She prayed one day he would find a woman who could give him the love he deserved.
"And 'twas on this stretch of sand," Pieres continued, drawing her from her musings, "that you learned of your husband's death but a month after you had wed."
She grimaced. "With my father's blessing, I was foolish enough to believe that never again would I have to marry for duty, that I could live the life I chose." Anger twisted inside. "Yet with my father's death, I have become little more than chattel."
"I am sorry."
Mouth tight, Gwendolyn cast the fragment into the incoming wave. The battered, sun-bleached shell that once had held life tumbled beneath the current and was swept out to sea. Like her life, she was naught but a pawn to those in power.
Excerpted from "Forbidden Vow"
Copyright © 2018 Diana Cosby.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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