Authors: Hannah Howell
Before Annora could say a word, she was on the bed with James moving over her. When he settled his weight on top of her, she felt her whole body welcome him with a shameless abandon.
Annora pressed her hands against James’ chest and her good sense took yet another serious battering. His skin was so smooth and warm. The feel of his taut muscle beneath that fine skin made her feel dizzy with passion. She ached to touch him all over, to stroke him from head to foot. Annora caught herself tracing a ragged scar that ran from just above his breastbone and over his left shoulder and realized that she was losing her battle with her own desires again. She had never thought it would be so hard to do as she ought to and not as she so badly wanted to.
“Rolf,” she began and then blushed. “Nay. ’Tis James, isnae it. ’Tis only now that I e’en ken what your real name is.”
James brushed a kiss over her mouth. He could almost feel her conflicting emotions in the way she would tense and then soften. It had been so long since he had enjoyed the soft heat of a woman.
“I have wished to hear my true name upon your lips from the verra moment we met,” he said softly.
“We really shouldnae do this,” she whispered in an unsteady voice, “
shouldnae do this.”
“Aye, ye should…” he whispered as he began to unlace her gown….
Copyright © 2008 by Hannah Howell
Published by E-Reads in cooperation with Zebra Books. All rights reserved.
Sir James Drummond, once laird of Dunncraig, once a husband and a loving father, crawled out of his hiding place deep in the Highlands’ most remote mountains and slowly stood up. He felt the hint of spring in the air, the promise of warmth in the moist dawn breeze, and took a deep, slow breath. He felt like some beast waking from a long winter’s sleep, only his had lasted for three long, hard years. He was ragged, filthy, and hungry, but he was determined not to spend another season slipping from hollow to hollow, afraid to venture near friends or kinsmen because he had death at his heels and afraid to exchange even the most fleeting of greetings with anyone else—because they might be the one who would recognize and kill him. It was time to stop running.
He clenched his hands into tight fists as he thought on his enemy, Sir Donnell MacKay. Even though he had never liked or fully trusted the man, he had allowed Donnell to come and go from Dunncraig as he pleased, for he was Mary’s kinsman. That simple act of courtesy and his wife Mary’s own sweet innocence, the sort that never saw evil in anyone, had cost her her life. James had barely finished burying his wife and was thinking how he could prove that Donnell had killed her when the man had made his next move. James had found himself declared guilty of murdering his wife; soon after that he was declared an outlaw, and then Donnell had claimed both Dunncraig and little Margaret, James’ only child. The few people who had tried to help him had been killed and that was when James had begun to run, to hide, and to keep himself as far away from those he cared about as possible.
Today the running stopped. James collected up the sack holding his few meager belongings and started down the rocky slope. As he had struggled to survive the winter, living no better than the beasts he had hunted for food, James had come up with a plan. He needed to get back to Dunncraig and find the proof he required to hang Donnell MacKay and free himself. There was still one man at Dunncraig that James felt he could trust with his life, and he would need that man’s aid in beginning his search for the truth and the justice he craved. He would either succeed and then reclaim his good name, his lands, and his child, or he would lose it all, including his life. Either way, at least he would not be running anymore.
At the base of the hill, he paused and stared off in the direction of Dunncraig. It was a long, arduous journey away, one that would take him weeks because he had no horse, but he could see it clearly in his mind’s eye. He could also see his little Meggie with her fat blond curls and big brown eyes, eyes so like her mother’s. Meggie would be five now, he realized, and felt his anger swell as he thought of all he had missed of his child’s growing because of Donnell’s greed. He also felt the stab of guilt born from how he had thought mostly of saving his own life and not what his daughter might be suffering under Donnell’s rule.
“Dinnae fret, my Meggie, I will come home soon and free us both,” he whispered into the breeze and then James straightened his shoulders and began the long walk home.
“Pat the dirt o’er the seed verra gently, Meggie.”
Annora smiled as the little girl patted the dirt as slowly and carefully as she patted her cat Sunny. Margaret, who stoutly preferred to be called Meggie, was all that kept Annora at Dunncraig. Her Cousin Donnell had wanted someone to care for the child, and her family had sent her. That was no surprise, for she was poor and illegitimate, a burden every kinsman and kinswoman she had was quick to shake off whenever they could. At first she had been resigned, but then she had met little Meggie, a child of only two with huge brown eyes and thick golden curls. Despite the fact that Annora thought Donnell was a brutish man, even feared him a little, and had some doubts about his rights to claim Dunncraig, three years later she was still at Dunncraig and not simply because she had no better place to go. She stayed for little Meggie, a child who had stolen her heart almost from the very first day.
“Seeds are precious,” said Meggie.
“Aye, verra precious,” Annora agreed. “Some plants just grow again every spring all by themselves,” she began.
“Cursed stinking weeds.”
Bending her head to hide a grin, Annora quietly said, “Young ladies shouldnae say cursed.” Neither should ladies of four and twenty, she mused, fully aware of where Meggie had heard those words. “But, aye, weeds grow all by themselves in places where ye dinnae want them. Some plants, however, cannae survive the winter and we must collect the seeds or roots, storing them away so that we can plant them when it is warm again.”
“’Tisnae warm yet.”
Annora looked up to find Meggie scowling at the sky. “Warm enough to plant seeds, love.”
“Are ye certain we shouldnae wrap them in a wee plaid first?”
“The earth is their plaid.”
“Annora! The laird wants ye to go to the village and see how good that new mon makes a goblet!”
Even as Annora turned to respond to young Ian’s bellow, the youth was already heading back into the keep. She sighed and carefully collected up all the little bags of seeds she had intended to plant this afternoon. Ian was probably already telling Donnell that Annora was going to the village and, of course, she would. One did not say nay to Donnell. Taking Meggie by the hand, Annora hurried them both into the keep so that they could wash up before leaving for the village.
It was as they were about to leave that Donnell strode out of the great hall to intercept them. Annora tensed and she felt Meggie press hard against her skirts. She fought the urge to apologize for not having raced to the village without hesitation and met his dark scowl with a faint, questioning smile.
Her cousin should be a very handsome man, Annora thought. He had thick dark hair and fine dark eyes. His features were manly but not harsh. He even had good skin and no visible scars. Yet Donnell constantly wore such a sour or angry expression that his handsomeness was obscured. It was as if all that was bad inside the man left some irrevocable mark upon his looks. The way Donnell looked now, Annora could not see
how any woman could find him attractive.
“Why arenae ye going to the village?” he snapped.
“We are going right now, Cousin,” she said, doing her best to sound sweet and obedient. “We but needed to wash the dirt of the garden off our hands.”
“Ye shouldnae be working in the gardens like some common slut. Ye may be a bastard, but ye come from good blood. And ye shouldnae be teaching Margaret such things, either.”
“Someday she will be the mistress of some demesne or keep with a household to rule. She will rule it much better if she kens just how much work is needed when she orders something to be done.”
The way Donnell’s eyes narrowed told Annora that he was trying to decide if she had just criticized him in some way. She had, all too aware of how little Donnell knew or cared about the work he ordered people to do. He never gave a thought as to how all his needs and comforts were met, except to savagely punish the ones he deemed responsible if they failed in some way. Annora kept her gaze as innocent as possible as she met his look of suspicion, breathing a silent sigh of relief when he obviously decided she was not clever enough to be so subtle.
“Get ye gone, then,” he said. “I have been hearing a great deal about what fine work this new mon does and I seek a goblet or the like so that I may see his skill with my own eyes.”
Annora nodded and hurried past him, little Meggie keeping step close by her side. If the fool was so interested in this man’s skill, she wondered why he did not go and have a look for himself. It was the fear of saying that thought aloud that made her hurry away. Donnell’s response to such words would be a hard fist, and she preferred to avoid those whenever possible.
“Why does the laird need a goblet?” asked Meggie the moment Annora slowed their fast pace to an almost lazy stroll.
“He wants to see if the man who carves them is as good at what he does as everyone says he is,” replied Annora.
“He doesnae believe everyone?”
“Weel, nay, I suspicion he doesnae.”
“Then why will he believe us?”
“A verra good question, love. I dinnae ken why he should if he doesnae heed anyone else’s word, but ’tis best if we just do as he asks.”
Meggie nodded, her expression surprisingly solemn for one so young. “Aye, or he will hit ye again and I dinnae want him to do that.”
Neither did Annora. Her Cousin had come close to breaking her jaw and a few other bones the last time he had beaten her. She knew she ought to be grateful that Donnell’s second-in-command, Egan, had stopped him from continuing to punch her, but she was not. Egan did not usually care who Donnell beat or how badly he did so, was in truth just as brutish as Donnell was. The fact that the man did not want her beaten, at least not too severely, made her very nervous. So did the way he always watched her. Annora did not want to owe that man anything.
“Neither do I, love,” she finally murmured and quickly distracted Meggie from such dark thoughts by pointing out the cattle grazing on the hillside.
All the way to the village Annora kept Meggie entertained by drawing her attention
to every animal, person, or plant they passed by. She exchanged greetings with a few people, yet again regretting how closely watched and confined Donnell kept her and Meggie. Although she would have preferred choosing the times and reasons she traveled to the village, Annora enjoyed the pretense of freedom, able to ignore the guards she knew were right behind her. She only wished she would be given enough time and freedom to come to the village more often and get to know the people of Dunncraig better.
Annora sighed and inwardly shook her head. She had not been given any chance to become a true part of Dunncraig, but that was only part of her regret about not getting to know the people as well as she would like. Something was not right about Donnell’s place as laird, about his claim to these lands and to Meggie. Annora had sensed that wrongness from the start, but after three years, she had not uncovered any truth to give some weight to her suspicions. She knew someone at Dunncraig knew the answers to all the questions she had, but she had not yet found a way around Donnell’s guard long enough to ask any of them.
Approaching the cooper’s home and shop, Annora felt her spirits lighten just a little. Edmund the cooper’s wife, Ida, might be at home and Annora knew the woman would readily sate her need to talk to another woman. Her pace grew a little faster in anticipation. She dearly loved Meggie, but the child simply could not satisfy the need for a good, long woman-to-woman talk.
“Rolf, she is coming.”
This time James did not hesitate to look up from his work when Edmund called him by his assumed name. It had taken James longer than he had liked to become accustomed to being called Rolf. He hated to admit it but Edmund had been right when he had counseled patience, had warned him that he would need time to fully assume the guise of Rolf Larousse Lavengeance.
Then what Edmund had just said fully settled into James’ mind. “Meggie?”
“Aye, but to ye she must be Lady Margaret,” Edmund reminded him.
“Ah, of course. I shallnae forget. Who comes with her?”
“Mistress Annora and, a few yards behind, two of Donnell’s men.”
James cursed. “Does the mon think there is some danger to the woman or Meggie here?”
“Only to him, I am thinking. MacKay doesnae allow the woman to talk much with anyone. Nor the bairn. Some folk think the lass thinks herself too good for us and is teaching the bairn to be the same, but I think Mistress Annora is forced to keep to herself. E’en when she has a chance to talk to someone, there are always some of MacKay’s men close at hand to try to hear all that is said.”
“’Tis his own guilt making him think everyone is eager to decry him.”
“I think that may be it. My Ida says the lass is clever and quick. MacKay may fear she has the wit to put a few things together and see the truth. ’Tis a big lie he is living and it has to weigh on the mon.”
“I hope it breaks his cursed back,” James muttered as he tried to clean himself up just a little. “Better still, I want it to hang him.”
“So does most everyone at Dunncraig,” said Edmund.
James nodded. He had quickly seen how cowed his people were. Donnell was a
harsh, cruel laird. He was also unskilled in the knowledge needed to keep the lands and the stock thriving. There were all too many signs that the man glutted himself on the riches of Dunncraig with little thought to how his people might survive or the fact that care must be taken to ensure that there would be food in the future. The people might be afraid of the man seated in the laird’s chair, but they did not hold silent when they were amongst themselves, and James had heard a lot. Donnell was bleeding the lands dry to fill his belly and his purse.
Ida stuck her head into the room. The lass says the laird sent her. He is wanting a goblet made by Rolf.”
Before he could say anything, Ida was gone. For a moment James simply sat at his worktable and breathed slowly and evenly to calm his excitement and anticipation. This was the first step. He had to be careful not to stumble on it. He knew Donnell spent a lot to make Dunncraig Keep as fine as some French king’s palace. That required a skilled woodworker, and he wanted to be the one who was hired.
“That one,” said Edmund, pointing toward a tall, richly carved goblet.
“Aye, I think ye have chosen the perfect one, old friend,” James said and smiled.
“I havenae seen that expression for a while.”
“Aye. I can fair feel it in the air. The mon is a vain swine who spends far too much of your coin on things he doesnae need, things he thinks make him look important. Ye guessed his weakness right. Do ye really think the mon would leave some proof of his guilt around, though?”
It was a question Edmund had asked before, and James still was not confident of his feeling that the truth was inside the keep. “I cannae be sure but I think there has to be something. He cannae be rid of all proof. Mayhap I will but hear something that will aid me.” He shrugged. “I cannae say. All I do ken is that I must be inside Dunncraig if I am to have any chance of getting the truth.”
“Weel, then, let us get ye in there.”
Annora looked up as Edmund and another man stepped out of the workrooms in the back of the little shop. She stared at the man with Edmund wondering why he so captivated her attention. He was tall and lean, even looked as if he could use a few good meals. His hair was a light brown and hung past his broad shoulders. There was a scar on his right cheek and he wore a patch over his left eye. The right eye was such a beautiful green she felt a pang of sorrow for the loss of its mate. His features were handsome, cleanly carved yet sharpened a little by the signs of hunger and trouble. This man had known hardship and she felt a surprising tug of deep sympathy for him. Since she had no idea what sort of trouble may have put that harshness on his handsome face, she did not understand why she wanted to smooth those lines away. The way his slightly full lips made her feel a little warm alarmed her somewhat. The man was having a very strange effect upon her and she did not think she liked it.
Then she saw his gaze rest on Meggie and put her arm around the child’s shoulders. There was such an intensity in his look she wondered why it did not make her afraid. A moment later, Annora realized that the intensity held no hint of a threat or dislike. There was a hunger there, a need and a grieving, and she wondered if he had lost a child. Again she felt a need to soothe him, and that need began to make her very
She looked at the goblet he held in his elegant long-fingered hands and gasped softly. “Is that the one ye wish to sell to the laird?” she asked.
“Aye,” the man replied. “I am Rolf, Rolf Larousse Lavengeance.”
Annora blinked and had to bite her lip not to say anything. It was a very strange name. It roughly translated to wolf, redhead, and vengeance. It was also strange for a poor workingman to have such an elaborate name. There had to be a story behind it and her curiosity stirred, but she beat it down. It was not her place to question the man about his name. As a bastard, she was also all too aware of the hurt and shame that could come from such questioning, and she would never inflict that upon anyone else.
“It is verra beautiful, Master Lavengeance,” she said and held her hand out. “Might I have a look?”
As she took the goblet into her hands, she decided the man had been in Scotland long enough to lose much of his French accent and pick up a word or two of their language. If Donnell hired the man to do some work at the keep, that would make life a great deal easier. Donnell had absolutely no knowledge of French and could easily become enraged by a worker who had difficulty understanding what he said. And, looking at the beautiful carvings of a hunt on the goblet, she suspected Donnell would be very eager to have the man come and work at Dunncraig Keep. The thought that she might have to see a lot of the man in order to translate orders for him made her feel a little too eager, and Annora felt a sudden need to get away from this man.