“To my dear daughter,” Lord James Graham declared as he stood at the high table in the great hall and lifted his pewter goblet, wine sloshing over the sides. “And her soon-to-be husband. On the morrow, they wed.”
Cheers filled the chamber while defiance filled Lady Arabela Graham’s heart. She shifted to avoid the splattering dark red drops that stained the table linen. If only she could so easily avoid her wedding.
Her father reached down to grasp her shoulder. Hard.
She did her best not to grimace and looked up to find his eyes full of warning. Forcing a smile, she attempted to appear the adoring daughter, though that was far from the truth.
His grip eased while the guests who’d gathered for the evening meal continued to cheer, raising their cups. “Slàinte!”
Arabela drew a breath of relief as her father took his seat next to her, his attention shifting elsewhere. If this evening’s meal was anything to judge the rest of her life by, she was in serious trouble. Defiance was not a desired trait in a young lady. One of her many flaws, according to her father.
“Have you ever seen your father so pleased?” Sir Rory Buchanan, her betrothed, asked with a smug look on his face as he leaned close.
She braced herself, knowing what would happen if she moved away. The number of her bruises grew daily. With the same forced smile, she briefly met his dark, glittering gaze but didn’t bother to answer. He preferred she didn’t speak. He and her father had much in common.
Though a knight, Rory was anything but chivalrous. In fact, he couldn’t be further from an ideal knight in looks or manner. A brute of a man with coarse features and pock-marked cheeks which left his dark beard spotty, he saw no purpose in treating others kindly. Stale sweat and garlic seeped from his body, creating a unique stench she’d recognize anywhere.
His claim of being an indirect descendant of Donald, the last Scottish king to have the honor of being laid to rest by the monks at Iona centuries ago, had brought him to her father’s notice. Their shared hatred of the English finalized the betrothal.
Arabela held doubt as to Rory’s heritage. When she’d questioned him, he’d been unable to explain his exact connection to Donald, the last ruler who’d truly believed in Scotland’s full independence. Additional questions only angered him. She’d raised the topic with her father, who told her to leave such matters to men.
Her father had made no secret of his plan to place her and Rory on the throne of Scotland. With no obvious heir, division tore the country apart. An alliance with France two years prior had angered England, causing additional problems. Her father was certain Rory’s tie to Donald would convince the people that he was the rightful king and unite the country. And if it didn’t, her father intended to see Rory and her become king and queen by force.
After failing to convince her father that marriage to Rory would be a terrible mistake, Arabela had tried to speak with her mother. With her typical blank mask in place, her mother merely said, “Do as your father tells you.”
Arabela had tried, but the more she was near Rory, the less she could. Not when she knew how disastrous Rory would be as king. While she’d led a sheltered life, that didn’t mean she was unaware of the political environment. Her father entertained often, and Arabela listened carefully to the conversations.
She’d heard the concerns other noblemen shared of angering the English and causing Edward, England’s king who was known as Longshanks, to march on Scotland once again. Her father had only grown more determined when faced with opposition for his plan to make a Scotsman king. Some agreed with doing so, but the way he intended to do it caused concern. Several of her father’s peers believed his actions—placing someone of his own choosing on the throne—would bring Edward’s wrath upon them all.
Her role in his plans was small but pivotal as her marriage to Rory would unite him and her father. Her life’s purpose was to serve as a pawn, to be used and traded, much like a horse. Why couldn’t she accept her fate like her mother, Rhona?
Arabela leaned back for a glimpse of her, unsurprised to find her expression empty. Was that Arabela’s destiny as well? To allow her mind to go elsewhere in order to bear her present circumstances? Her mother had mastered that for as long as Arabela could remember, only returning when forced.
“Our guests are cheering,” Rory whispered in her ear. “Let us give them what they want.”
Only then did she hear the calls and the rhythmic pounding of cups on the tables, the pace increasing as the roar grew louder. Before she could protest, Rory stood then grasped her arm to force her to rise. Her cheeks heated with embarrassment as he placed his hands on her hips and jerked her against him. The feel of his manhood pressed against her brought forth a vivid image of what their wedding night would be like.
Bile rose in her throat, making it impossible to speak. The idea of this man atop her—doing the things her maidservant, Edith, had shared—made her ill.
Rory grinned as he studied her. She wondered if he enjoyed her fear. He certainly took pleasure in it. He bent to kiss her and wrapped his arms around her so tightly that her entire length pressed against him. When he thrust his tongue inside her mouth, she nearly gagged. He tasted as badly as he smelled.
The crowd cheered at his bold act. She held a faint hope her father would stop this public display. But nay. He clapped along with everyone else. Her mother had yet to show any interest in her happiness or lack thereof about the wedding, so Arabela knew she’d do nothing.
What choice did she have but to stop Rory of her own accord? As his tongue swirled in her mouth, she bit down, catching him off guard. He jerked back to glare at her, though she supposed their guests thought he gazed lovingly into her eyes based on the shouts.
“You little bitch,” he ground out.
“Next time, ask permission,” she whispered.
“I won’t have to once we marry. I’ll take any part of you I want. Whenever I want. Wherever I want.” The threat sent shivers sliding icily down her spine. He released her and grabbed her arm just above her wrist, squeezing painfully as he turned her to face those in the great hall. “My bride and I are most anxious for the morrow,” he shouted to be heard over the din.
The guests laughed and called out bawdy encouragement, causing Arabela’s cheeks to heat even more. She tugged on her arm but to no avail. Rory only squeezed harder, the pain making her forget her embarrassment. Not when she worried he might break it. “Release me.”
“Not until you kiss me.” He continued to smile, acting as if nothing untoward was happening.
“I’d rather die.”
“That can be arranged. But not until after we say our vows, and you give me an heir.” His fingers bit into her flesh, and her arm ached down to the bone. “Now kiss me before I show you the back of my hand.”
Panic coiled deep within her, for she had no doubt he would. He’d already demonstrated his ability to fool everyone. She was certain he could turn striking her into her fault.
With little choice, she lifted onto her toes to do as he bid, pressing a brief kiss on his lips.
The guests jeered their displeasure at her paltry effort.
“Come now,” he said loudly. “Don’t be shy. You can do better than that.”
Hate burned within her for him humiliating her like this. She felt powerless. Helpless. And worse—frightened. Her arm ached from his brutal fingers.
“Release me so I might kiss you properly.” She spoke clearly with the hope their audience would hear and encourage him to comply.
Cautious interest lit his gaze, and he did as she requested. “If you bite me again, you’ll pay,” he whispered.
This interlude with Rory confirmed her plans, making her more determined to proceed with them. She need only make it through the remainder of the evening.
After pressing her nails into the palm of her hand to brace herself, she wrapped her arms around Rory’s neck then raised up once more to kiss him soundly but with lips firmly closed.
Were all kisses so unpleasant? Wet, sloppy, and something she couldn’t wait to end? Mayhap a convent was the right place for her.
The guests pounded their cups once again, deeming her attempt worthy. She eased back only to be held tight by Rory.
“I look forward to the morrow more than you know.”
She smiled, this one nearly genuine. “As do I.”
Because if all went well, she’d be gone.
Sir Chanse de Bremont stared at the holding just visible above the castle wall in the fading twilight. Grim determination swept over him at the task ahead.
“I’d wager you never thought to return here,” Sir Matthew Longley said as he drew his horse to a halt beside Chanse’s.
“True.” He glanced at Matthew, brow raised. “Nor you, I’d guess.”
Matthew scowled in response. “My departure was unexpected, so I have a few things here I’d like to collect.”
Chanse’s gaze shifted back to the holding a short distance away. Lord James Graham would not be pleased to know of his presence. But what of his daughter? “I have but one thing I intend to take. Lady Arabela.”
“Graham might have something to say about that.”
“I won’t be asking his permission.”
“Let us hope you’re successful, or we might find ourselves sitting in the dungeon.” Matthew shuddered. “As the previous captain of his lordship’s garrison, I recommend we avoid that.”
“Point noted. Avoid the dungeon.”
Matthew frowned at Chanse’s joking tone. “Mayhap I should clarify. We should avoid capture.”
“I shall endeavor to do so.”
Chanse held up a hand, palm out. “I’m well aware of what’s at stake—our lives. Don’t think I take that lightly. My mother would never forgive me if I were to die this far from home.” He waited to see if the knight grasped his attempt at humor. Matthew was far too serious for his own good.
His friend frowned, obviously sifting through the faulty logic of Chanse’s statement. “But—”
“I jest. Trust that I will take great care.” His mother would follow him to the grave if he lost his life. She’d made that perfectly clear before he and his brother, Braden, had left England to follow their cousin to Scotland. “Now then, how do you suggest we enter?”
They’d avoided the road since mid-day to help prevent discovery. Approaching from the south gave them the added benefit of being able to use the cover of the crags and woods to hide their approach. To reach the parapet wall unnoticed, they needed both darkness and luck as the holding sat on a low rise with nothing to hide them.
Matthew studied his former home for a long moment. “I’m still not certain of the wisdom of this quest, but I’ll show you the hidden steps once night falls.”
“You mean if night falls.” Chanse shook his head. “Darkness is elusive in this country during the summer months.”
Matthew chuckled as he looked about the countryside. “Normally, ’tis a good thing but not for our purpose. You have to admit how beautiful this land is.”
“You’ve mentioned that each of the last two days since we rode east from Berwick.” The man had more pride in Scotland than his fair share.
Matthew lifted a casual shoulder. “I only speak the truth.” Pride in one’s homeland was understandable, but Matthew’s love of his country bordered on obsession in Chanse’s opinion.
“You haven’t yet ventured to my home,” Chanse said. “There lies beauty.” He missed it and his family though he’d had a short visit earlier in the summer when he’d escorted his cousin, Garrick, and his new bride home.
In the spring, he and Braden had followed Garrick to Berwick, a bustling market city just north of the Scottish border. Garrick held the mission of discovering who was behind the unrest in the city and putting an end to it. King Edward himself had marched on the city over two years prior to make an example of the residents, a lesson the country would never forget. Thousands, including men, women, and children, had been killed when the English king had made his rage known because of Scotland’s secret alliance with France, an act he considered a betrayal.
Garrick, Braden, and Chanse had pursued information they’d discovered that hinted at who continued to risk the wrath of the king. Rumors of the Sentinels of Scotland had led them to Lord James Graham, the man behind the group which intended to place a man of their choosing on the Scottish throne. The group’s hatred of the English meant their choice would share the same trait. King Edward refused to allow such a thing to occur.
Regardless of who worked with Graham, the lord’s latest plan had to be halted or more innocent people would die.
“Looks as if they’re preparing for a celebration,” Matthew said with a nod toward the outer bailey.
From the rise on which they’d halted, rows of colorful tents were visible. The scene wasn’t so different from Chanse’s previous visit. On that occasion, he hadn’t been invited either but had managed to enter through the front gate. This time, doing so wasn’t an option.
Chanse smiled grimly. “Sorry to disappoint them.”
“Graham’s anger is nothing with which to trifle.” Matthew’s tone held a hint of warning.
“I’m still a bit angry myself.” Chanse had nearly lost Braden and his wife because of Graham. Vengeance was in Chanse’s blood, something that ran deep in the generations that came before him. Not that seeking it was his purpose here.
Matthew nodded. He’d witnessed the event to which Chanse referred. “You’re not a ‘turn the other cheek’ kind of man.”
“Remind me to tell you of my mother some time. My uncle as well.” Both had sought vengeance as had his grandfather. The result might not have been the one they expected, but justice had been served in a fashion with fate placing its own twist on the outcome.
“Graham went too far,” Matthew said. “I couldn’t serve a lord who acted without honor.”
“And he does so again.” Chanse reined in his anger, reminding himself that his purpose was to stop the upcoming wedding, not exact revenge.
“Do you suppose Lady Arabela will be pleased to see you?” Matthew asked, his tone doubtful.
Chanse glanced at him in surprise. “You can’t believe she wants to marry that brute of a man.”
“Sir Rory Buchanan is far from an ideal husband. But ’tis said he has the blood of kings running in his veins. The lady would make a fine queen, as she cares deeply about this country.”
“Not with her father’s hand guiding her on one side and Sir Rory’s on the other.” An image of the beautiful lady with a heart-shaped face filled his mind. She’d ignored him on his previous visit despite his attempts to win her over. Though he couldn’t say he cared for her cool, haughty demeanor, she’d entered his thoughts unbidden more times than he could count. What might it take to warm that coolness?
“Your charm is known far and wide, but we shall see what the lady’s reaction is to your plan.” Matthew grinned. “Should make for an entertaining conversation.”
Charming others had always come easily to Chanse. He might have developed the skill at a young age in order to draw attention away from his brother and onto himself but doing so had forced him to hone his ability. Anything to aid Braden in keeping his secret. Using humor to distract people had also proven helpful. If a situation or conversation grew overly serious, he calmed it with a light-hearted remark. Doing so had the added benefit of keeping others at arm’s length.
While Lady Arabela hadn’t succumbed to his charms during his previous visit, that had been his own fault. She’d thrown him off balance with her cautious, questioning looks. But when faced with marrying someone of Sir Rory Buchanan’s reputation, he had to believe she’d be thrilled with the opportunity to escape.
“Have no doubt,” Chanse said, “the lady will be pleased to see me. Overjoyed, in fact. I’d be willing to wager on it.”
Matthew nearly chortled in response, placing a hand over his mouth to remain quiet. They were a fair distance from the holding, but sounds carried far in the quiet of twilight. “Overjoyed, eh? I’ll take that wager. How unfortunate Braden isn’t here to join in this one.”
Hardly a day passed without Chanse and Braden wagering on something when they were together. His brother had wanted to come, but Chanse insisted he remain in Berwick with his new bride, Lady Ilisa. They’d been through enough. It was Chanse’s turn to lead this mission.
Besides, how difficult could it be to enter the lord’s keep and sneak out with Lady Arabela? He couldn’t believe that she was happy about the upcoming wedding. Still, she was a dutiful daughter who did her father’s bidding. No doubt she was ignorant of his true plans.
She’d be pleased to see him. Surprised, mayhap. But pleased. Especially once he added a charming spin to his plan to rescue her.
“Let us move a little closer so we’re ready when night falls.” Chanse kneed his steed forward.
“The steps in the castle wall are well hidden from the outside, but I think I can locate them even in the dark.”
“Excellent. We’ll leave the horses in the crags just ahead and venture the rest of the way on foot.”
“I hope this goes as smoothly as you think it will. Once we gain entrance, I’ll gather my belongings and meet you in the tower.”
“Aye.” But Chanse’s thoughts were already on the lady who was no doubt preparing for her wedding at this very moment. Was she distraught? Resigned? Frightened? Wishing for a way to escape?
He smiled, looking forward to seeing her expression when she realized he’d come to her rescue.