The Scotsman

The Scotsman

Virginia Brown

July 2017 $17.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-772-4


 
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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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Prologue

Scottish Borderlands

October, 1313

A COLD, FIERCE wind as foul as a demon’s breath sucked the clouds from the western sky and spat gray sheets of rain toward the distant bristled spires of Kielder Forest across the border. Alexander Fraser reined in his lathered mount atop a rocky summit where the wind was the fiercest and watched in angry disbelief as the riders vanished over the crest of a bare knoll. Sassenach, though they were too far away for him to see the pennant that identified them. They would be well across the border into England before he could reach them. Curse them. He was too late... too late.

A crackling boom split the heavens, drowning out the relentless drum of futility resounding in his ears, and Alex looked up into the blackness overhead. Thunder rumbled in the skies, an ominous pound­ing like the English hooves on Scottish soil. Rain fell harder. Rivulets streamed over his face, plastering his long black hair to his head like a monk’s cap, clumping his eyelashes together and blurring his vision as he stared at the distant border. He huffed a long breath that formed frost clouds in front of his face, but the demon wind whipped them away.

He curbed both his restive mount and the temptation to follow the enemy across that invisible line between Scotland and England. It had been overlong that he had bided his time as Robert Bruce bade him do, and now he was weary of engaging the English only in swift skirmishes or lightning raids that availed them heavy tributes from the villagers but not their freedom. Would a decisive battle ever come? Too many Scots lay among English dead strewn about the summit in boneless sprawls, waning steam slowly rising from their lifeless forms. He nudged his horse forward to survey the dead with dread anticipation, but did not see his own men among the fallen. Nor did he see Adam de Brus, dead or alive. Bitterness rose. Curse Robert Bruce’s cousin for confronting the English with too few men at his side. Aye, even after Alex had warned him. Now Scots lay dead on their own turf, testament to foolish de Brus pride and hot temper.

A savage flick of rain-thick wind curled the edge of his plaid and knifed through the jagged rips in his sherte. Alex barely felt it. The stench of death was too strong, defying even the wind, seeping into him with powerful premonition. It was all much too familiar, the moans of the dying, the peculiar sickly sweet smell that pervaded even his dreams—had he ever had a day without it? It did not seem so now. All he could remember was struggle and battle and the screams of those hurled into eternity in the blink of an eye and the flash of a sword—Alex drew in a deep breath to clear his head and sweep away the images that haunted him.

The metallic clink of harness was muffled by the relentless keening of the wind as Robbie MacLeod rode up beside him. Robbie’s horse snorted, crimson nostrils flared and blowing frost clouds like dragon- smoke.

"It was the Earl of Warfield. He has Adam de Brus.” Robbie’s roughannouncement only confirmed what Alex already suspected, and he nodded tersely.

"Aye, curse him. Doubtless, ’tis vengeance for the Bruce’s raids over the Solway two years ago, his burning of Haltwhistle and most of Tynedale. Bruce will not be pleased to hear the English have yet another of his kin captive.”

"Alex—they have Jamie as well.”

A splinter of shock pierced Alex, sharp and suffocating in its inten­­sity as the Gaelic words were whipped away by a gust of wind. "I left Jamie behind at Castle Rock.”

"He did not stay behind.” Robbie jerked his head to indicate a bloody form being wrapped in a wool plaid and borne to a litter. "One of de Brus’s men just said that your brother joined them late last eve and was taken captive with de Brus.”

Alex did not move, for it would betray the tension that rendered him almost immobile. "Christ above! I gave Jamie strict orders to stay where I left him.”

"Och, you know Jamie’s a braw lad with not a dram of caution in him.” Robbie spat onto chewed turf that was rife with battle litter. Rain molded his thin sherte to his body and dragged his woolen plaid down with its weight. His light hair was dark from it, and water streamed over features as sharp as an ax blade as he regarded Alex with glum resigna­tion. "He was angry because you said he was too young to fight the English. Now he has fought his first battle.”

"So it seems.” Alex drew in a breath saturated with the smell of fresh blood, wet earth, and grim despair. "By God, I will have his hide for this!”

"Aye,” Robbie said soberly, "but Warfield will have his head.”

Alex sucked in another sharp breath. "Yea, ’tis true. This feckless deci­sion will cost Jamie his life.”

"Alex, you cannot mean we will do nothing about it.” Robbie’s tone was angry, amazed. "The bloody Sassenach have your brother... do we not go after him? Christ above, Alex, you know what will happen once Warfield gets Jamie to England.”

Numbly, Alex swung his gray gaze to Robbie. A light of desperation glinted in Robbie’s eyes and made his decision more difficult, yet no less resolute. "Yea, I know well what is like to happen. I am not willing to let Jamie die, but I am not willing to defy the Bruce. He bade me stay my hand and arms for the moment, and until I confer with him, I must abide by my oath.”

Robbie groaned. "May God help Jamie then. Warfield is a ruthless man, and boon companion of King Edward. Though Longshanks’s spawn may not be the hard king his father was, he is still as dangerous as a snapping cur.”

"I will negotiate with Warfield—”

"The bloody earl holds the English king’s ear and will not listen to you,” Robbie growled.

"But he does want money.” Alex regarded him grimly. "My coffers are near empty, but I am worth more as hostage than Jamie.”

Flames of real fear leaped high in Robbie’s dark eyes, and his ruddy complexion turned scarlet as he searched Alex’s face for a long moment. "Do you think Warfield will pass up the chance to slay you both? He will not. We have ravaged his lands and exacted too many tributes from him not to know he will seek vengeance where he can. Nor will Bruce want to risk your certain death.”

"I have fought fifteen years for Scotland’s freedom and have sup­ported Robert Bruce well.” Alex’s jaw went taut, and he shoved roughly at the wet loop of dark hair the wind dangled in front of his eyes. "The Bruce holds English prisoners for ransom. If he is loath to risk me, surely among that lot there are some important to Warfield.” He drew in a deep breath. "Or to the English king.”

"More important than holding Bruce’s cousin?” Robbie shook his head dolefully. "’Tis doubtful, Alex.”

"You have met Warfield. What think you of him?”

Robbie spat on the ground again, and his lips curled. "He is a power­ful lord, to be certain, but not a man I would trust with the life of my kin. He backs King Edward, just as he backed his father, and ’tis said he would deliver his own mother to the king if ’twas asked of him.”

Alex was quiet. The wind howled around his head, and his horse pranced restively beneath him. At last he said, "Think you that if negotia­tion fails, you could remember the lay of Warfield keep, Robbie?”

A grin split Robbie’s craggy face. "Aye, ’tis more what I wanted to hear from you, by God! I have been to the earl’s keep and can recall well the lay of it. We should call up our men and ride hotfoot to England now—”

"Nay, first I will counsel with the Bruce.”

Wrenching his mount around, Alex spurred the lathered animal down the steep, rock-studded hill. A forked lightning tongue speared the darkening sky, briefly bringing noonday brightness to the rocky summit. The air shimmered with the pungent scent of wet turf and blood. Behind him, he heard Robbie following at a reckless pace.

Despite his words, Alex had more doubts than he would allow Robbie to see. Would Bruce allow him to negotiate for Jamie’s release? Of late, the Scottish king had avoided direct battle with the English, prefer­ring to raid towns and lay waste to the English countryside, exacting heavy tributes for his protection. Those who did not resist were spared, but those who turned to fight met swift ends. Noble English hostages were a valuable commodity, ransomed for hefty sums.

But if Warfield demanded ransom instead of an exchange of hos­tages, Scottish coffers could not bear the fine. The coin paid by the northern counties of England to purchase truce was spent too swiftly in the provisioning of an army.

With a sick heart, Alex feared Robert Bruce’s reply. Jamie’s future seemed grimly short.


 

 

Chapter 1

Northern England

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.

"Whereare 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—

"Milady?”

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?”

Lady Warfield’s elegant features remained stern and unlined. "It is un­seemly to be so rude, Catherine. Must you interrupt me?”

"I crave your pardon, madam, but I do not know what you mean by the date being so soon.”

"No doubt. Nevertheless, you will go immediately to your chamber and allow Bess to ready appropriate garments for the morrow. Wear the blue velvet gown, as we expect important guests. You are required to behave with decorum and not as if you are no more than a rebellious serf. I am certain that you understand me.”

"Of course, madam, but I—”

"Your father will wish to see you in the solar right after Prime is rung in the morning. I insist that you heed the customs you have been taught, and act accordingly.”

Catherine stared after her mother as the countess turned to move away in a familiar, silent glide, as if her feet did not touch the floor. No one would listen to her. She was trapped, and her freedom was slipping further and further away.





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