Pushed beyond his limits. . .
Scotsman Alexander Fraser has lost too much in his fight for freedom from the English. So when his younger brother is taken hostage by the cruel Earl of Warfield, Alex retaliates by kidnapping the earl’s delicate daughter . . . only to find she’s nothing he expected.
Taken for ransom. . .
Catherine Worth, daughter of Warfield, knows her value. She’s worth nothing to her father except as, now tarnished, property to be traded through marriage to a titled ally. He won’t trade a valuable prisoner for her return. Her life is in the hands of her cold and ruthless captor as he realizes that there will be no trade. What she doesn’t count on is falling in love with a man like none she’s ever known.
Neither expected passion. Neither expected the choices they’d face. Alex must someday give her up . . . or forfeit his brother's life.
Virginia Brown has written more than fifty historical and contemporary romance novels. Many of her books have been nominated for Romantic Times’ Reviewer’s Choice Award, Career Achievement Award for Love and Laughter, and Career Achievement Award for Adventure. She is also the author of the bestselling Dixie Diva mystery series and the acclaimed mainstream Southern drama/mystery, Dark River Road, which won the national Epic e-Book Award in 2013 for Best Mainstream.
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|Product dimensions:||5.98(w) x 9.02(h) x 0.62(d)|
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LADY CATHERINE WORTH braced herself against the wind. Her fingers curled into the rough stone of the high curtain wall that encircled Warfield keep as she gazed over crenellated parapets into the distance. A heavy mist dampened the air and curled her unruly mane of coppery hair around her face in dark-fire ringlets that tickled her cheek. An impatient flick of one hand brushed them aside; violet-blue eyes narrowed against the moisture that obscured her vision.
"Where are they?" The wind whipped her fretful words away on wet currents. Clouds stacked in a towering black and gray mass raced by overhead. The keening sob of the wind grew louder; it sounded to her like the mournful despair of lost souls. The maudlin thought sent a shiver down her spine. Catherine tugged the fur-lined edges of her cloak more closely about her. Aye, 'twas true she was far too fanciful, as her mother oft lamented. And just as often, her father cursed her for it.
The earl made it abundantly clear that he had no patience for the whims of a female, even his wife. And especially his daughter. Her lips tightened. Robert Worth, Earl of Warfield, was not an affectionate man. Nor was he a man who considered it important for a female to know more than how to sew altar cloths or brew medicinal herbs. Nay, 'twas not for her father's return she had come to the turrets to watch this dreary day, but for her brother.
A faint smile replaced the grim slash of her mouth. Nicholas was far too frequently all that stood between her and their father's wrath, for she was not at all the dutiful daughter the earl demanded. Her mother had once complained that she had inherited far too much of her father's obstinacy, but it was not said in front of him. The countess would not dare imply criticism of him so openly. Only Nicholas dared that.
Restless, but preferring the worsening weather to the mundane chatter of the women beside the fire, Catherine knotted her small hands into fists beneath the warm fur lining of her cloak as she strained to see through the gray gloom stretching beyond Warfield. Hills rolled down from the knoll upon which Warfield Castle squatted like a great hulking beast keeping watch. Which it was. The earl was known to many as the Border Lion, for he kept a close eye on the marauding bands of rebellious Scots that frequently crossed the border between England and Scotland. That boundary lay only a few miles from Warfield.
A small frown knit her brow as Catherine studied the lip of horizon beyond the spiky tree spires of Kielder Forest. Warfield was so detached from the rest of the world it seemed, her life here an anonymous blur of days sliding one into the other. Yet she knew something more existed beyond these walls, heard whispered tales of strife and bloodshed, of the Earl of Warfield's fierce reputation ... of brutal Scots raids on surrounding villages the earl would not protect. Was it true he did not defend his own people, or only idle malice? No one would tell her. They kept her as sheltered as a child.
Not even Nicholas would tell her more than vague tales of border raids by the Scots, though at times she saw thick plumes of smoke in the distance and knew another village had been destroyed. Even Lanercost Priory had been sacked by the ruthless Scots, and 'twas said that the savage rebels had made the nuns dance naked. But it was futile to ask questions, for she would be sharply rebuked for it. 'Twas as if they all feared her delicate female constitution would warp and fray from the horror of truth, or perhaps even —
Catherine half turned and saw her handmaiden peering out from the arched shelter of the tower doorway. How vexing! Had Bess been sent to fetch her? As if she were naught but a small girl? Poor Bess shivered, blinking away the wind and rain, and looked so miserable that Catherine's irritation eased. She lifted her voice so she could be heard over the keening wind, speaking in the maid's familiar vernacular, a blending of Welsh and English.
"If thou hast come to fetch me inside, Bess, I am not ready. I watch for my brother. Perhaps 'tis the day they return."
"Mayhaps not ... milady, thy lady mother sent me to fetch thee inside before thee catch thy death from the raw wind. Wilst thou not accompany me?"
"Nay, Bess, I will not. Tell my mother thou could not find me." Catherine glanced again across the parapet toward the distant murky line of sky and land, seamed together by gray mist and rain. It beckoned her, elusive and vague, a mere promise of freedom. "Yea," she muttered crossly, "I much prefer solitude to the constant harping prattle of my mother and those other tiresome ladies."
The squelching sound of wet shoes in rain puddles marked Bess's progress as she inched her way to the parapet wall, carefully keeping her distance from the wide ledge. Her dark eyes were wide with anxiety. "'Tis dangerous to stand here so close to the brink in such a wind, milady! What if the Tylwyth Teg should snatch thee away? I beg of thee, come with me. ..."
"'Tis safe enough, for your Welsh spirits do not come here. Tell me, Bess —" Catherine turned suddenly, her abrupt movement startling a squeak of alarm from the maid. "Is it true what some say?"
Bess was shivering, her thin wool dress clinging damply to her spare frame. "S-say, milady? Of what?"
"About my father — that the Earl of Warfield is ruthless with his enemies. That he is greatly feared by even his own villeins ... yea, it must be for thou art shaking like the last autumn leaf in the wind and looking as pale as a boiled owl. Never mind. I know 'tis forbidden to discuss such matters with me. Go inside, silly goose. I shall be down presently, and 'twill satisfy my mother if I feign deep repentance."
"Truly, milady, I d-dare not go back without thee. Lady Warfield will be most distressed."
"Pah! She cares about naught but her lace tatting or tapestries. She will not miss me. I daresay she will not notice my absence until my father's return, and then only when he takes notice." Catherine drew in a ragged breath. She had not meant to sound so bitter and saw from Bess's earnest face that it had not gone unnoticed. She managed a bright smile. "Ah, Bess, thou shalt suffer no ill. I shall come in soon. I just thought that perhaps today they wouldst return. It has been a fortnight, when Nicholas said they wouldst be gone only two days. I worry, 'tis all."
"Lord Devlin is very important to thee, is he not, milady? More important even than thy betrothed?"
Catherine stiffened. "I do not know Ronald of Bothwick, nor do I care to wed him. 'Tis my father's choice, not mine. I think I wouldst rather retire to a nunnery than wed a stranger. There, at least, I could be at peace, and none wouldst think it improper if I chose to read or write, or study philosophy —"
She halted and drew in a deep breath. It would never do to have that repeated about the keep! If the earl were to hear of it, he would no doubt have her wed to Ronald within a sennight.
Dredging up her most aristocratic tone, she said, "Inform my lady mother that I will join her anon, Bess, then thou dost hurry to the kitchens and tell Cook that I will need a cup of hot spiced wine to chase away my chill."
"Aye, milady. At once, milady."
Bess bobbed a curtsy, half lifting her drenched skirts in one hand as she turned away, obviously delighted at the thought of going to the warm cavern of the kitchen. It was one of the girl's favorite spots, and Catherine knew she would linger there as long as possible. Neatly done, she congratulated herself with a faint smile as Bess disappeared amid the turret shadows, leaving Catherine in peace.
Another gust of wind snapped the hem of her cloak, a loud popping sound like the crack of a whip. The heavy wool and fur slipped from one shoulder, and she had to grab for it swiftly before the capricious wind sent it sailing over the edge of the parapet into the turbid waters of the moat below.
Rain began to fall harder, pelting her upturned face with stinging droplets. Tiny cold rivers streamed over her brow onto her cheeks, chilling her. Wet lashes closed over her eyes, blotting out the gray sky and bare tree limbs. There had to be another future for her. She did not want to wed a man she did not know just to align two powerful houses, and could not bear the thought of spending the rest of her life as her mother spent her days, quaking at an unkind word from her husband, always so anxious to please, so afraid of his displeasure —
Drawing in a deep, shaky breath, Catherine opened her eyes again and stared across the rolling land stretching away from the keep. Thunder? No, the escalating sound of hooves against solid turf, a low, steady pounding that could be heard above the sobbing moan of the wind. She blinked away rain and in a moment could make out the shadowy forms of mounted troops approaching along the muddy track that snaked over the hills and through the towering trees. The line of horsemen briefly disappeared from view into a shallow ravine that harbored a winding stream, then appeared again, much closer now. Warfield's banner flew before them, a red lion against a white field, and to her relief, she saw Nicholas, his uncovered head dark and glistening with rain beneath the unfurled standard of the earl.
Relief flared, dispelling her gloom and anxiety. Even at such a distance, she knew her brother. His cocky demeanor set him apart from the other muddy riders, a laughing rogue who had his way with far too many village maidens, charming them into haystacks and corn cribs or wherever he fancied. Nicholas — older by six years — her brother, her confidant, her only refuge, and now he was back at last.
Turning, Catherine flew across the slippery gray stones of the battlement and ducked into the musty shadows inside the turret. Blinking at the abrupt absence of proper light, she made her way down steep, winding stairs only dimly lit by sputtering torches stuck into iron holders on the newel walls. The smell of burning pitch was acrid in the close air. Darkness yawned beyond the hazy, wavering pools of light as she descended the narrow steps into the great hall, then hurried through the vestibule and out a heavy door onto the open staircase guarded from the bailey by a massive stone forework. Smoke stung her eyes, and the ordure in the moat seemed heavier than usual. No one tried to stop her as she scurried across the bailey toward the gatehouse.
Was she too late? No, there was the groaning rattle of the portcullis being lifted, the shriek of the winch chains and the inner drawbridge being lowered to admit the earl and his sons, home from Scotland.
Heart pounding, delight drowning her turmoil, Catherine dodged a woodsman with a heavy load of faggots atop his bent back and reached the gatehouse just as the first riders thundered over the wooden bridge. Nicholas saw her, as she'd known he would. It was a ritual. She always waited for him here, anticipating his return as she had done since she was small, and he watched for her. Now he bent slightly from his huge, snorting destrier to scoop her up beside him, ignoring their father's disgruntled oath.
"It is raining, kitten, do you not know that?" Nicholas teased, laughing as he pulled her against his side.
Catherine held tightly to him, her fingers sliding over the rough metal links of his mail to grip the thick wool surcoat. He smelled of rain and mud and other vague odors that she preferred to ignore. She leaned slightly away, her voice accusing to hide the choking relief that he had safely returned. "You are near a fortnight longer than you said you would be, you know."
"Aye, so we are." His arm tightened around her. "But the rebels were more troublesome than usual. Thick as fleas on a camp cur, and near as vicious."
Catherine's hand closed on a handful of wool and wet hair, and she pressed her mouth against her brother's ear. "I must talk to you. Will you meet me later?"
"Yea, kitten, so I will." His voice was gruff and low, his squeeze quick before he reined in his great destrier and lowered her to the muddy ground by the forework. With a wink, he bade her go inside to ascertain their evening meal was hot. "I will eat no cold meat tonight, by God!" Catherine made a face at him, keeping a wary eye on the agitated warhorse as it pranced in a tight, nervous circle. Those lethal hooves could bash a skull in quickly if one got too close. She backed away, skirts lifted in her hands to clear the muck of the bailey, and swept a brief glance toward her father. The earl ignored her. His attention was trained elsewhere, and she caught a glimpse of scarlet and blue against the anonymous drab of mud and mist.
Pausing, Catherine peered through the tangle of horses and men toward the flash of color. An angry curse rose into the air, followed by the unmistakable sound of a blow. At once, horses neighed and reared, and men began to shout. In the confusion, no one noticed as Catherine crept closer, her curiosity stronger than even dread of her father.
She was startled to see that one man was the source of all the chaos, and he was shackled with heavy chains about his wrists and ankles, standing in the midst of the heaving mass of shouting men with his garments awry. Oddly, he did not look at all afraid, but rather contemptuous of those around him. His hair was dark with mud and rain, but she could see that it was a lighter color, almost as pale and coppery as her own. He was forced to his knees, and she saw then that he was shackled to another prisoner, who was being dragged down into the muck beside him.
With a shock, Catherine realized the second captive was young, even younger than herself, and cuffed as brutally as the older man. Both were hauled roughly to their feet again. The boy glanced up, and she saw the youthful features twisted with ancient hatred. A thin trail of blood trickled down from his brow to his chin as he turned to regard the earl with contempt.
"Murderin' Sassenach swine —"
One of the guards struck him, a backhanded blow of his mailed fist that caught the boy across the face and sent him staggering to one knee. More blows followed, raining down on both prisoners, and Catherine gasped with horror. Or perhaps she cried out, for her father turned toward her with his brows lowered over his colorless eyes in a scowl. His voice was low and tight.
"Go inside, Catherine."
"But what have they done? If they are prisoners, should they not be treated more kindly?" The words were out before she knew it, and she realized at once that she had done the prisoners no favor by questioning her father in front of his men. It was all she could do not to turn and flee when she saw fires of rage leap in her father's eyes. White lines bracketed his mouth with tension.
"This is none of your affair, daughter. Get inside with the other women, and do not dare speak of matters that do not concern a maiden."
Rebellion flared in her and might have spewed unwisely forth had Nicholas not intervened, leaning from his great mount to say in a soft voice, "They are my captives, and I will see to them, kitten. Do not tweak our father's nose for what you cannot change."
"Very well, but only because you ask it of me." With a fleeting glance at her father, she turned angrily on her heel and ascended the stairs of the forework.
Lady Warfield met her just inside the entrance to the great hall, and a glance at her expression made Catherine sigh inwardly. Were there never any secrets at Warfield?
Exasperation edged Lady Warfield's cool rebuke: "Must you behave like the lowest scullery maid, Catherine? Look at you. Garbed in a filthy gown, hair uncovered, flying loose and as wet as cat's fur — hardly the conduct of a lady."
Catherine held her tongue and stared down at her ruined slippers. Sodden velvet toes peeped from beneath the frayed and muddy hem of her gown. The contrast between her appearance and her mother's could not be more vivid — Lady Warfield was elegant in the gilt barbette atop her head and thinly woven gold threads of the crispinette that held her hair, down to her small embroidered slippers encrusted with pearls and gilt. Her mother's grandeur made her achingly aware of her own disheveled state. She focused on her feet while Lady Warfield delivered a scathing lecture, allowing the French language preferred by her parents to drift over her head until one particular remark captured her attention.
Catherine's head snapped up with consternation as the countess finished, "... and hardly suitable should your betrothed witness your unbefitting demeanor. God grant, he is not yet arrived, but with the date so soon now —"
"Soon? What date do you mean, my lady?"
Excerpted from "The Scotsman"
Copyright © 1998 Virginia Brown.
Excerpted by permission of BelleBooks, Inc..
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