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By Gerri Russell
Dorchester PublishingCopyright © 2007 Gerri Russell
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIsle of St. Kilda, Scotland, 1372
Isobel Grange felt an ominous tingle race across the back of her neck. A portent of doom. Her mother had always warned her of such things. But what could harm her at the crofter's cottage she called home on the remote isle of St. Kilda? The locals paid her no heed, and her foster family only cared about how quickly she did her chores.
Izzy shook off the odd sensation. She had just set a basket of eggs on the wooden table in the center of the room when the door thumped closed behind her.
She turned toward the sound and gasped. A tall, broad-shouldered man stood in front of the door. He was dressed in the style of their countrymen, in a saffron shirt and dark woolen tartan.
The breath stilled in her chest. He knew her name-her real name. The stone walls of the cottage seemed to close in around her.
His dark eyes examined her. "Are you Lady Isobel?" His words were short and sharp.
A thick, heavy silence settled over the room until the only sounds that remained were the pop and hiss of the fire and the stuttering of her own controlled breathing. Izzy nervously flexed then clenched her hands at her sides, resisting panic. "I am Izzy ... Isobel."
He continued his cool assessment of her with eyes that were jet black and framed with even darker lashes-dark as the night sky and as emotionless as the blackest soul. She tried not to flinch as his gaze moved from her face to her unkempt hair, her tattered skirt, and her dusty slippers.
A hint of displeasure crept into the dark shadows of his eyes, and she bristled in response. He would judge her as all the rest did, by her looks and nothing more. Izzy boldly met his gaze despite the gnawing fear that grew with each passing heartbeat. "Who are you?" she said slowly, the words helping her regain control of her emotions. Her curiosity grounded her when nothing else could.
When he did not answer, she stepped up to him, closer to the door and the openness she knew existed beyond. "Remove yourself at once and let me out," she commanded, surprised at the haughty tone in her voice. Never had she spoken to anyone that way. Such behavior might land her back in the tower-a place she vowed never to return to.
He shook his head and kept his hand firmly against the door latch. "I will release the door if you promise to sit down and listen. I have come to make you an offer."
Izzy swallowed against the sudden dryness in her throat. "An offer?"
His angular features became hard. "For your hand in marriage."
Marriage? Izzy blinked, stunned. For a moment she could only gape at him. "Never."
"I am afraid the offer I give you is no better than the one given me." A flicker of compassion reflected in his eyes before it vanished. "You will marry, and you will leave this isle right now."
"I am offering you a new life."
A new life? New hope? How long had it been since she had allowed herself such a fantasy? Did he truly offer her a chance to escape this isle and her nightmare of being returned to the tower where she'd spent the first seven years of her life? Her mother's death had released her from that torment only to be enslaved by the MacDonalds as their servant. Izzy's gaze fastened on his. A twitch of impatience pulsed in his jaw.
"You have no choice. My men await me at the shore. Come."
"Who you are, and why-" The frantic rattle of the door latch broke off her words.
"Izzy! Izzy!" her foster father called out as he rapped a fist against the closed door. "There is a boat at the shoreline. A stranger was reported headed this way. Is he with you? Izzy, answer me."
The tension in her muscles only increased at the sound of her foster father's voice. "Aldous MacDonald will never let you take me away." Frantic pounding sounded against the wooden portal, echoing through the room.
"Do not be so certain of that." A steely resolve settled in the stranger's gaze. Large and intimidating, he towered over her. If he wanted to, he could make her go anywhere by brute force. Could he force her foster father to release her as well?
He dropped his hand from the door latch. It flew open. Her foster father filled the doorway with his bulk. "What do ye want with Izzy?" His startled gaze flew between her and the stranger, his eyes revealing first fear, then anger.
"The Lady Isobel?" The stranger's face remained shadowed as he withdrew a folded sheet of parchment from inside his tartan and handed it to her foster father. "She is to be my bride."
Alarm flashed on Aldous's face as he scanned the document. Isobel edged closer until she could see the document clearly herself. It bore the bold seal of Robert II of Scotland, grandson of Robert the Bruce.
"Did my father send you here?" Aldous demanded.
"The king sent me."
Aldous frowned. "How could anyone know of her existence, especially the king?"
"The king knows a great many things." The stranger towered over her foster father like a dark, immovable force. "And he will not be disobeyed without retribution."
A tendril of fear shivered up her spine, not at the veiled threat but as she read her true name, Lady Isobel, on the parchment that bore the king's seal.
"No one knew our secret," Aldous mumbled to himself as he examined the papers before him. His skin was pasty, and fear glittered in his eyes. "If the king knows about her, then so does he."
The stranger frowned. "Who do you speak of?"
Izzy knew that he spoke of her own father. That Aldous MacDonald feared the man as much as she did sent a chill to her very core. Her mother had warned that if her father ever found her, her life would be in danger.
Did Aldous fear some danger as well? His gaze darted about the room as though searching for something in the darkest shadows. "If he and the king both know the truth ..." He returned his gaze to Izzy. "To lose the girl will be difficult ... She's become quite important to our household."
The stranger's gaze took in her bedraggled clothing and hair, her well-worn slippers. "I can see that." The soft lilt of his words contrasted sharply with the flash of steel in his eyes.
The fear in Aldous's eyes faded, replaced by hopeful appraisal. She had seen that look on her foster father's face when he bartered over goods. He was calculating just how much she might be worth to this man. With a sense of growing irritation, she watched the two men bargain.
"I've spent years training her," her foster father said. "She's quite valuable in that she is strong, biddable, and of childbearing age. Those things canna be ignored or given over without some sort of fee."
"It is usually the groom who is compensated with a dowry." The stranger's face grew shadowed again as he reached for the brown leather bag tied to his belt. He tossed the bag on the table, and the coins inside clinked against each other. "Twenty-five gold pieces should off-set your loss."
At the sight of the coins, Izzy frowned. She might not know much about the world, but something did not seem quite right here. "Why would you pay a fortune in gold to take me away from here?"
"Quiet!" Aldous thundered. "Yer future is to be decided between myself and the gentleman."
Izzy raised her chin and stared at the stranger, silently demanding an answer. Before they could comment she continued. "And why should I go with you? I don't even know your name, let alone where you plan to take me."
The stubborn look in the stranger's eyes said she would leave with him no matter the obstacle. "My name is ..." He hesitated. "My name is ... Douglas." The word sounded difficult for him to say. "I am taking you to the Black Isle. And you will come with me." He turned away from her, putting an end to any further protests. "Now," he addressed Aldous, "do you agree to my terms?"
Aldous reached for the bag of coins. "'Tis done. Izzy, go peacefully with the man, and make of yer future what ye can. The MacDonalds never meant to hold you captive. We were forced to do so by the secrets of yer life. Now that those secrets are revealed, yer future is up to you."
His words sounded like he did not expect her to have a future at all. In her mind's eye she saw her mother, frail and discarded, among the shadows of the tower room, heard her warning: Beware of those who know your past, Isobel. For they are a danger and cannot be trusted.
Izzy shook her head, forcing the memory away. Her mother had been half mad when she'd said those things. Pain-filled ravings, that's what they had been. And memories best left untouched. The only dangers that awaited her were those she brought on herself by putting too much trust in those around her.
Regardless of why the stranger had offered a fortune in gold for her to come with him, she would grasp this opportunity. He provided her a way off the isle. As for his offer of marriage ... There had to be a way out of that trap. Marriage for her mother had only brought isolation, starvation, and death.
Izzy wanted more from her life, even if she'd never pursued such hopes before. Her dreams of freedom had kept her alive during the most difficult times of her life. And they would give her strength now.
"If your business is done here, then let us be away." She reached for the threadbare wool shawl that hung across the back of a chair, then wrapped it about her shoulders.
The stranger's features softened before he dipped his head in assent. She thought she saw a flicker of admiration in his eyes, but then it was gone. "Get your things, Lady Isobel."
"I am wearing all that I own." She straightened her shoulders with pride despite her embarrassment.
The stranger cursed softly beneath his breath. "Then let us go."
More out of courtesy than thanks, she said good-bye to her foster father and stepped through the doorway. The stranger followed her across the yard beyond the crofthouse and into the heather-scented air of early spring.
Despite her brave words about leaving, her legs quivered as she headed over the ridge that led to the shoreline below. When a three-masted ship came into view, her footsteps faltered. Once she boarded that ship she would leave behind the only place she had ever known.
What was the rest of the world like? She had often wondered. Now she would have the opportunity to find out for herself. Her throat tightened with both fear and excitement. She had waited her whole life for this moment. Why was it suddenly so hard to take the next step toward the shore? She drew a deep breath, as though it would bolster her bravado. If only she did not suddenly feel so alone.
The stranger paused beside her. "Come. We must hurry before the tide shifts and we find ourselves stranded."
"I almost forgot." Pivoting, she ran back toward the house. She gained three steps of freedom before the stranger's hands grasped her waist. Before she could draw a breath, he swept her off the ground and draped her over his shoulder.
"Put me down," she gasped, and kicked sharply at his gut.
The stranger barely broke stride and only tightened his grip. She could feel the heat of his hands through her skirts on the back of her calves and across her bottom. A shiver coursed through her. "Please put me down." Her words came out as a whisper.
He slowed but did not loosen his hold. "So I can have you run away again?"
"I will not run. You have my word."
He stopped and set her down. Annoyance snapped in his eyes. "You have nothing to fear from me."
"It is madness to trust you." A desperate laugh bubbled up. "I don't even know you."
"We will be acquainted soon enough when we are wed." He reached out and encircled her wrist, drawing her toward the shoreline once more. "We've a long journey ahead."
She dug her heels into the loamy soil, forcing him to stop as she cast a glance back at the house.
He tugged at her arm.
"I'd like to bring a small piece of this place with me."
He frowned. "I thought you said you owned nothing."
"I don't ..." She hesitated. "I mean, there is only this one small thing."
Once again, his jaw tightened, and she wished that momentary compassion she'd seen in his eyes would return instead. "Can it be retrieved quickly?" he asked.
At his words, her spirits lightened. "Oh, aye."
"Fine." He turned back toward the yard.
She stayed him with her hand. "Let me go alone. I will be quick."
After a slight hesitation, he nodded.
Izzy raced across the open grass. One small item, it was all she needed to make the journey to her new life feel less uncertain. She disappeared around the side of the crofthouse. No one on the isle would ever know she'd taken it with her.
At least she hoped not.
Excerpted from Warrior's Bride by Gerri Russell Copyright © 2007 by Gerri Russell. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Again Gerri Russell has written a, 'can't put it down,' book. I was hooked on the first page. Very well written and it creates an interest to keep reading till the end.
The Warrior Bride by Gerri Russell is a wonderfully written story. The talented Ms. Russell took events from history and made a sad story into a happily ever after, and her story transported me back to another time. I loved finding out the hero¿s secret...he is a nice guy despite his reputation. This story has many twists and turns that keep you guessing. I read this book before I found out it had a companion book the Warrior Trainer, which you should read first. I cannot wait to read it. I hope to see more from this great author.