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Rebellious Secrets (Secrets of the Heart Series Book 3) by Elizabeth Rose (1)

Chapter 1

England, 1386

Maira Douglas swore to never eavesdrop again after what she’d just heard.

Standing in the shadows of the great hall of Castle Rothbury, Maira listened to her father, Rowen of Whitehaven, talking to her guardian, Lord Walter Beaufort of Rothbury, Earl of Northumberland. Having heard her name mentioned at the wedding of her cousin, Willow, she wandered over to learn more.

“Your daughter is twenty years of age now,” the earl told Rowen. “I have mentored her as well as your nieces for many years, as you know.”

“Aye, Earl. And I am ever so grateful. However, remember, it was by the king’s dying wish that you do so,” Maira’s father reminded the man.

“I’m sure King Edward never meant for the girls to stay with me this long!”

Rowen took a swig of ale from his tankard and slowly nodded. “Fia and Willow are no longer under your guardianship, so I can only imagine you want to be relieved of your commitment where my daughter, Maira, and my niece, Morag, are concerned.”

“It’s not that, Whitehaven,” grumbled the earl, not sounding at all convincing.

“It’s just that I have been summoned to King Richard’s side and will be leaving on the morrow to campaign for him in France. I am not sure when I’ll return.”

“Then I’ll take the girls with me, back to Whitehaven,” offered Rowen.

“Nay. Face it, Rowen. You need to betroth your daughter. No man is going to want a woman well in her prime to bear his heirs. Especially with the way that one acts like a man!”

“Prime?” Maira whispered to herself. “I’m not that old! And I do not act like a man.”

“Maira, I heard what the earl and yer faither said.” Her meddlesome cousin, Morag, appeared right behind her. The girl seemed to be everywhere and always had her nose in everyone’s business. “Ye ken he’s right. Ye need to marry like Fia and Willow. Ye are next in line.”

“I don’t want to marry. Ever.” Maira ran her hand over the hilt of her dagger hanging from her belt. Her skill with weapons was better than a lot of the new recruits for squires. She was proud of it. “I want to be a warrior, just like my father.”

“Maira, come here,” her father called out, nodding toward her.

She didn’t want to go to him, but had no choice. This wasn’t going to be a pleasant conversation.

“Aye, Father?” She faked a smile. “Are you enjoying Willow’s wedding celebration?”

Rowen looked over to his two brothers, Rook and Reed who were arm wrestling each other with a crowd of people looking over their shoulders. The wedding celebration had lasted almost a sennight now. The two brothers had once again drunk too much and were trying to outdo each other in any way possible.

“I’m sure I’m not enjoying the celebration as much as those two fools.” Rowen shook his head, scoffing at them. Out of the triplet brothers, Rowen had always been the voice of reason. Each of the men had a personality of their own. “Rook, Reed, stop causing a scene,” he called out.

“No’ until I show the fool that Scots are stronger than Sassenachs,” Reed shouted back. He was the redhead of the three and lived in Scotland, always talking, dressing and acting like a Scot since the boys had grown up in Scotland being raised by Ross Douglas.

“Maira, I have something to tell you,” said Rowen, looking as nervous as Maira felt.

“What is it, Father?”

“Ye ken what it is,” said Morag, pushing her way into the conversation. “He’s betrothin’ ye, just like we heard him say.”

“You were eavesdropping.” Rowen flashed Maira a disappointed look.

“Mayhap I was, but now I wish I hadn’t. Father, I don’t want to be betrothed to anyone,” Maira told him, never afraid to stand up for what she believed.

“The earl is leaving to campaign in France for Richard.”

“Then can’t I come home with you?” asked Maira hopefully. “I miss Mother and haven’t seen her in quite some time.”

“And, mayhap, I can go home to Scotland,” added Morag excitedly.

Rowen and the earl exchanged glances. Then Rowen cleared his throat and continued. “Maira, I’ve already made plans for you. The earl believes it would be beneficial for me to make an alliance with the High Sheriff of Durham.”

“Alliance?” asked Maira. “You mean you want me to marry this man.”

“Sir Gregory Arundell of Durham holds a high position, not to mention he is rich,” said the earl, Lord Beaufort, as if that would matter to her. “You would be wise to consider the marriage, Maira.”

“Father, nay,” she protested. “If I must remind you, the king granted me permission on his deathbed to agree or disagree to any betrothal.”

“That’s right, he did,” agreed Morag. “Fia told me so.”

“I am well aware of what King Edward said. I was there,” said Rowen with a stiff upper lip. “Maira, you will leave for Durham Castle on the morrow to meet Sir Gregory. After a month of living there, you will get to know him. Then, I’m sure you’ll see that he is a good choice for you.”

“A month?” spat Maira. “You might as well put me in the dungeon right now because, to me, that is a horrible punishment. Why can’t I just come home with you, Father?”

“It’s for the best,” the earl told her. “Give yourself some time to know the man, like your father mentioned. I’m sure you will agree with us in the end.”

“Do you like this High Sheriff, Father?” asked Maira.

“I have never met the man,” Rowen admitted. “But I am taking the earl’s word for it, as I trust his judgment. He has never steered us wrong before.”

“I never met him either,” said the earl. “But I asked the Bishop of Durham about the man and he had naught but good things to say. I’ll take the holy man’s word for it.”

“I don’t want to go,” Maira said, trying one last time to change her father’s mind. “I’ll be all alone and won’t know anyone there. Father, you can’t mean to put me in such a position. You don’t want me to be lonely, do you?”

“Well, nay, I wouldn’t want that,” her father mumbled, looking at the ground.

“She can take Morag along with her,” said the earl, making Maira want to muffle the man.

Rowen’s head jerked up and he looked at the girls. “Aye, that’s a fine idea. Then you won’t feel lonely, Maira, since you’ll have your cousin along with you. I’ll tell Reed right away that his daughter will be going to Durham, too.” Rowen glanced over his shoulder. “That is, if the fool ever stops with the arm wrestling.”

“Beat ye!” cried out Reed, jumping up from the stool and slamming his empty tankard down on the table. He moved so fast that the bench toppled over, taking two men with it. Half the crowd cheered and the other half booed. “Now, someone bring me some more Mountain Magic because I’ve got some celebratin’ to do.”

“My da is drinkin’ Mountain Magic?” asked Morag with a roll of her eyes. “That’s no’ guid. When he’s well in his cups, there is no talkin’ any sense into him.” Morag flipped her long, blond braid over her shoulder and crossed her arms in front of her, letting out a deep sigh. “I guess I’m comin’ with ye, Maira. So we might as well make the best of it.”

“Father, please don’t make me do this,” begged Maira, trying once again to change her father’s decision. “You know how miserable I’ll be. Besides, I’m not going to agree to the marriage so it’s just a waste of everyone’s time.”

“I don’t know,” said her father, looking over to the earl as if he might change his mind. Maira was Rowen’s only daughter and often she could convince him to agree to what she wanted. The only trouble was that the earl held more influence over her father than she did.

“It’s a smart move, Whitehaven, so don’t make a decision you’ll regret later,” warned the earl. “You know as well as I that you could use the alliance.”

Maira’s father looked back at her, keeping his jaw tight. He took one more swig of ale, smacking his lips together before he spoke. “Two weeks instead of a month, Maira,” he answered in finality. “But you are going to Durham Castle, like it or not. And I want you to leave behind your weapons and act like a lady while you’re there. No sense scaring off the man before he gets to know you. And that is exactly what will happen when he sees the way you act.”

“Leave behind my weapons?” The thought was appalling to Maira. What was her father saying? He knew how much practicing with her sword and daggers meant to her. “I can’t do that. You are the one who gave the weapons to me in the first place. How can you order me not to use them?”

Rowen nodded and looked as if he felt bad about the deal. “All right, then. You can take them with you, but I want them locked away at all times, do you understand? You are not to be seen with your sword on your back or your daggers attached to your waist belt. No bow and arrows either.”

“This isn’t fair!” she shouted, feeling like she was being sentenced for no reason at all.

“Rowen, get over here,” called out Maira’s Uncle Rook. “Reed is cheating. We need you to be the judge.”

“I wish Mother was here, because she would listen to me,” said Maira, feeling like crying. But she wouldn’t cry because that would make her look weak. Maira was known as the strongest of all the girl cousins in her family and she liked that reputation.

“Your mother has other things taking her concern right now,” Rowen told her. “Little Michael has been ill lately, and also acting up again. So I don’t want you sending missives about this to Whitehaven because you will only worry her. Now, go get packed. You and Morag will leave for Durham in the morning.” He turned and walked away with the earl, heading toward the crowd. The conversation was over and his decision was final. There was nothing more Maira could do.

“Morag, would you really come with me to Durham?” Maira asked her cousin.

“It doesna seem as if I have a choice. But I dinna mind,” said Morag. “Since she’s married, Fia is takin’ all the attention with the new bairn so no one will even notice if I’m there or no’. I sometimes think that I’ve been forgotten.”

“Then go get Fia and Willow and meet me in the secret garden,” Maira told her. The families were still there celebrating Willow’s wedding but they would be leaving soon. Maira turned and started across the great hall.

“Do ye mean Imanie’s garden?” asked Morag, running after her.

“Of course I mean Imanie’s garden. Do you know another secret garden? Now, go. Tell them this is important and to come alone. I need to talk to them anon.”

“All right,” said Morag, stopping in her tracks.

Maira called over her shoulder. “And whatever you do, don’t bring Branton along.” The page that longed to be a squire was starting to be just as troublesome as Morag lately. He already knew too many of the girls’ secrets. Maira decided that even though she liked to spar with him, she should start to distance herself from him if possible.

She made her way to the stable and mounted her horse, making her way to the secret garden. Chosen by the late Queen Philippa, Maira, as well as her cousins, Willow and Fia, were members of a secret group of strong women called the Followers of the Secret Heart. Morag had meddled her way into the group as a member before their old mentor, Imanie, dropped dead from a bad heart.

Maira wore her crown today since she and her cousins were allowed to wear the late queen’s jeweled crowns during important celebrations and gatherings. Maira’s headpiece was a thin gold band loaded down with sparkling rubies and yellow amber stones. Fia had the bulkiest crown, and Willow’s was a good size as well. But Maira liked hers because it was thinner and lighter and wouldn’t weigh her down if she had to protect herself and use her sword to fight.

With her sword strapped to her back and her daggers at her side, Maira rode quickly through the woods to the edge of the earl’s land. The secret garden was found where his land and the king’s lands met. Within it was a little cottage made from wattle and daub where their mentor, Imanie, used to live.

As soon as Maira approached the half-hidden gate, she swung her legs over the side of her steed and dismounted. Quickly scanning her surroundings, she checked to make sure she hadn’t been followed. Since this garden was in the royal forest, no one dared to bother it. And for the most part, it was safe.

Maira pushed open the gate and led her horse inside. On the far side of the enclosed space was Imanie’s cottage as well as a single covered stable that had, at one time, housed her horse. On the other side of the house was a shed that held gardening tools of all kinds. When she had first seen this garden, it had looked like the abode of a fairy. It seemed so magical and was well kept. It had beautiful blooming flowers and a variety of healthy vegetables. But since Imanie’s death, the girls had not tended to the grounds like they probably should have. It was only recently that Willow and her husband’s sister, Hazel, had started caring for the garden again.

She tied her horse to a tree and headed toward the house. The weeds were nearly as tall as her. It was like walking through the forest once again. Maira wasn’t as tall as Willow or Fia, but she made up for it in strength and determination. Each of the girls had a special skill and was mentored by Imanie to use their talents wisely. It was the purpose of this group to make important changes but also, in the process, to make men think those choices or happenings were because of them. After all, women were not respected nor were they allowed to have choices. Her father proved that by making her agree to live with a man who she had no intention of marrying.

“I don’t want to go,” she said, kicking at a stone. The whinny of a horse caught her attention and she stopped in her tracks. The sound didn’t come from the gate, so she knew it wasn’t her cousins. Nay, this noise came from inside the stable.

In one motion, she drew the sword from her back and held it steady with two hands, letting the tip of the blade lead her way to the stable.

“Who goes there?” she called out, ready to fight if need be.

As she approached, a man stepped out into the clearing holding out a sword aimed toward her as well. He was tall and wore a cloak over a dark green tunic and brown breeches. His hood was up and his face remained hidden in shadow.

“Put down the sword before you’re hurt,” directed the man in a low voice.

“Who are you?” she asked curiously and cautiously. “And what are you doing here?” She gripped the hilt of her sword tighter.

Her eyes settled on a burlap bag flung over the man’s shoulder. Sticking out of the top of the bag she noticed what looked like the iron poker from the hearth from Imanie’s cottage.

“I’m just passing through, so there’s no need for alarm,” he told her. “Now turn around and get on your horse and forget you ever saw me.”

“Forget I ever saw you?” she asked, wondering if this man thought she was a fool. “Nay, I will do naught of the sort. You’re stealing!” she spat. “You are a thief, and I am not about to turn away and let you leave here with things that don’t belong to you.”

“And what are you going to do about it?” he asked with a chuckle. “Fight me with that mighty sword? I’m surprised you can even hold the bloody thing.”

“Then you’ll be surprised by this as well.” Maira lunged forward, swiping her sword at the man.

Startled, he stepped back quickly. The tip of his sword lowered in the process. From his sudden motion, the bag fell from his shoulder. Imanie’s possessions spilled out over the ground. “Your blade ripped my tunic,” the man said in shock. His hand fingered the cloth over his chest.

“Put down your sword and get on your horse and ride away,” she repeated his warning back to him. “Do it, or the next move I make will be my blade ripping through your flesh instead.”

“Egads, what’s the matter with you, wench?” growled the man. “Don’t you know I could kill you right where you stand before you even have a chance to strike again?”

“We’ll see about that!” She shot forward and her sword clashed with his. When he moved, the hood fell from his head, enabling her to see his handsome face. He had sun-kissed golden skin. That told her he lived in the elements, or spent a goodly amount of time outdoors. And by the simple clothes he wore that blended in with the earth, she realized he must be a peasant. However, his fighting skills were as strong as those of a nobleman. Plus, he owned a sword. This made her very confused.

“I highly doubt a common thief could best me where my fighting skills are concerned,” she told him. “I have learned from the best.” She lunged forward and he parried.

“I must admit, I’ve never seen the likes of this,” said the man. “Tell me, how does a wench know how to handle a weapon? Or for that matter, how does such a little thing like you even hold up a heavy sword at all?” His sudden interest in her felt good. She liked to be noticed for her strengths instead of scoffed at because of them. Especially from a man.

“Not that I need to tell you anything, but my sword is lightweight and is made especially for a lady,” she bragged, continuing to spar with the man, “And I’m not a wench! I am Lady Maira Douglas,” she answered proudly. “My father is the legendary Rowen the Restless. I’m sure you’ve heard of him.”

“The pirate?” The man’s brows arched. “Ah, that is why you can fight like a cutthroat.”

“My father is no longer a pirate, and I don’t fight like a cutthroat!” She didn’t like this man’s assumptions. It only angered her more than she already was. In one motion, she shot forward with her sword leading the way. But once again, the man agilely stepped aside. He was quick on his feet. Maira almost fell trying to stop abruptly. She spun around to see the stranger smiling as if he were amused.

“If I’m not mistaken, your father is a bastard of the late King Edward,” he said.

“That’s right.” She raised her chin and looked at him down her nose. Whoever he was, he needed to respect her. “My father is a nobleman, so you’d better stop calling him a bastard,” she said through gritted teeth. “He is a lord and very respected by his people. He is not a common thief like you.”

“Really?” His sword pushed hers to the side. “Then correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t your father as well as his brothers once referred to as the Demon Thief? They stole from their own father – the king! If that’s not thievery, I don’t know what is.”

Maira flinched inwardly. She’d been hoping the man didn’t know about all that. He must have heard it somewhere. It was hard to scare or impress him with her words when he already knew all about her family secrets.

“What’s your point?” she asked the stranger. Her sword clashed with his once again.

“Why do you fight like a man when you are naught but a woman?” he rallied.

“I don’t like you using the word naught,” she spat. Her fury rose. “I am going to turn you in to the earl for theft. He’ll have you thrown in the dungeon.”

He stepped back, pulling the tip of his blade away from her. Then he chuckled. “This isn’t the earl’s land so he has no authority to do anything to me.”

“Then I’ll tell my cousin, King Richard, since it’s his land. He’ll have your head for trespassing and stealing from a dead woman’s cottage.”

“Whose place is this?” he asked with a nod of his head toward the house and garden.

“That’s none of your concern.” Once again she shot forward. His movements were graceful as if he were doing a dance. He spun around and when he faced her once again, he made a wide swoop, managing to disarm her. Her sword was knocked from her grip and clamored to the ground. Then his foot shot out and he swept her off her feet. Maira landed with a thud on her back with the air knocked from her lungs. When she reached for her dagger, the tip of his sword under her chin kept her from moving further.

“I wouldn’t if I were you,” he warned her.

“Please, don’t kill me,” she begged, not wanting to die this way. Had she been too bold to go up against a man in a real battle?

“I don’t kill ladies.” His proffered hand shot out and he waited. His steel gray eyes met hers and their gazes interlocked. All thoughts of kicking him in the groin, biting him, or pulling another blade on him, fled her mind when she saw the sweep of his perusal down her body and then back up, settling on her mouth. “Lady Maira,” he said, the deep timbre of his voice rattling in her chest. It wasn’t often she encountered such a handsome – and dangerous man with her name upon his tongue. “You look so small and frail, yet you have the tenacity of a wild boar protecting her young.”

“Wild boar?” Her eyes shot upward and she narrowed them. “I don’t like being compared to such an animal.”

“Well then, let me rephrase that.” Without waiting for her to take his hand, he reached out and pulled her to a standing position. His hand lingered and she felt the warmth of his palm in hers. It was intimate, exciting, and dangerous. She’d never felt this way about any man before. “You look like a queen with that crown on your head. And you possess the confidence of a ruler as well. However, your fierce demeanor, being a woman and all, really intrigues me.” He released her hand, reaching for her crown. His fingers skimmed over the jewels and, for a moment, she thought he was going to steal it from her.

Not wanting to wait for that to happen, she pushed him away and drew her dagger, pointing it at him. “Don’t touch my crown. You can’t have it,” she spat.

He smiled again, sighed, and then used his foot to flip her sword up from the ground. He caught it in one hand with his sword still clutched in the other. “If you insist on challenging me, then let’s at least make it a fair fight, shall we?” He handed her sword to her, hilt first.

Her eyes darted down to the sword and then back up to his face. Her heartbeat sped up. What was he doing? She waved her dagger in the air in front of him. “This is a trick, I know it is.”

“A trick?” The thought seemed to amuse him.

“You want me to reach for my sword so you can run your blade through my heart when I do.”

“I assure you, I would never do that, my lady. Now, please, retrieve your sword.”

Cautiously, and keeping her eyes on the thief, Maira reached out for her sword. When she did, he knocked the dagger from her hand and pulled her close to him. She landed hard up against his chest, trapped in his strong arms.

“I knew you’d trick me! Let me go,” she shouted.

“I only wanted for you to realize how dangerous it is for a lady to be wielding a sword. No matter how well trained you are, you still will never be a match for any man’s strength.” His gaze dropped to her mouth. Her eyes focused on his lips as well. Then she became confused. For a moment, when he leaned closer to her, all she could think about was kissing him. Her eyes closed and her head fell back as she anticipated the sensuous, yet strong lips of this stranger pressed up against hers. It might have happened, but Morag interrupted as usual.

“Maira? What are ye doin’?” came Morag’s voice from the gate as she rode her horse inside the secret garden. Maira’s eyes sprang open. She kneed the man in the groin to release his hold on her. He let out a groan and stepped away.

“You are a feisty sprite, Lady Maira. For some reason, that excites me. But now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be on my way.” He handed her sword back to her and turned to leave.

“Wait!” she called out, following him to his horse. “You are not taking Imanie’s things.”

“They’re going to go to good use,” he said, grabbing the satchel and mounting his horse. “Besides, you told me the woman was dead, so what does it matter?”

“You are starting to sound like my cousin, Willow,” she retorted. “Now, give those things back to me, you thief.”

“Nay, I won’t. You’d be best off to go back to the castle, now, where you belong. Do some embroidery or play your harp, my lady. Because behind a blade is no place for any woman to be.”

“How dare you talk to me that way! You don’t even know me.”

He adjusted the bag on his shoulder and turned his horse to face her. “I know that you need to go back to the castle where there are men to protect you from people like me.”

“I don’t need a man. I can protect myself.”

“Can you, now? I suppose that was what you were doing with your eyes closed and your head tilted back, waiting for a kiss?” He nodded, looking smug as if he had proven his point. Then he took off toward the gate, managing to infuriate her even more by leaving in the middle of this conversation.

“I let you do that,” she called out after him. “I could have stopped you if I had so wanted.”

“Maira, who was that?” asked Willow, looking over her shoulder as the man left the garden. Morag led the way and Fia brought up the rear as they rode in a single line.

“I’d say by the looks of that sack of Imanie’s things over his shoulder that he’s a thief.” Fia was the cousin who could read people. She was also very observant and had the ability to tell by one’s actions or words things that others could not see.

“He was handsome,” said Willow, always liking the men.

“Ye are married now, Cousin,” said Morag. “Stop lookin’ at the men. Ye have one! Leave them for Maira and me.”

“I can still look but, honestly, I only have eyes for Conrad,” Willow assured her with a dreamy look upon her face. “I rather like being married.”

“Don’t leave them for me, because I’m not interested,” said Maira. “And Willow, you’ve only been married for a sennight. We’ll see if your eye starts to wander and if your opinion changes any time soon.”

“It won’t! I assure you. I’ve reformed from flirting with men,” Willow said with a smug nod. “I might still have to use my powers of persuasion on occasion since it is my duty as a member of the Followers of the Secret Heart. But if I do, it’ll only be a job and not for pleasure.”

“Well, don’t waste your skill on that man,” Maira told her, nodding toward the gate. “He is a man that none of us will ever want.” She reached over her shoulder and slid her sword into the leather scabbard that was attached with a harness to her back.

“Why would ye say that?” asked Morag, always wanting to know more.

“Because, like Fia said, he is a thief.” Maira walked over and rubbed the nose of her horse.

“Then perhaps we should go after him,” suggested Fia.

“Aye, we need to tell the earl,” added Willow.

“Don’t bother.” Maira shook her head “He’s not important. He’s naught but a petty thief in the night, stealing items from a dead woman. His actions here were stealing from the king, not the earl, since the secret garden is in the king’s royal forest. The earl cannot do a thing about it. Now, the reason I called you all here was because I’m sure you heard from Morag by now that my father has betrothed me.”

“I think that thief liked you,” said Willow, looking over to the gate where the stranger had already disappeared. Her thoughts focused on him instead of Maira. “You seemed to like him as well.”

“I agree,” answered Fia.”

“We fought, and I kneed him in the groin,” Maira pointed out. “I hardly think there was anything but animosity between us.”

“Nay, that’s no’ true,” said Fia with a shake of her head. “I could tell by both his and yer body actions that there was more to it than that.”

Maira cringed inwardly. Sometimes, her cousin Fia’s natural skill of being able to read people was invading. Maira didn’t like anyone peering into her mind. It was hard to keep a secret from Fia.

“When we entered the garden, it looked like you two were going to kiss,” Willow pointed out. “I could see your head tilted back and your eyes closed. And he had his hand on your chin.”

Dang, the seductive cousin of the bunch would have spotted that a league away.

“Stop it, all of you,” said Maira, feeling very uncomfortable about this whole situation. How can you say those things? That man told me to go back to the castle where the men could protect me. He even told me to embroider and play a harp and to give up swinging a blade! Can you believe that?”

“I canna,” said Morag making a face. “After all, I dinna think ye even ken what to do with a needle, or a harp.” She chuckled. “It’s no’ like ye’ve ever tried either of those things.”

“Morag,” said Maira, glaring at her. “Hold your whee as the Scots would say.”

Morag rolled her eyes and shook her head. “At least get it right, dear cousin. It’s haud yer wheesht.”

“Whatever it is, it doesn’t matter.” Maira tired of talking of the stranger. “That man’s opinion of how a lady should act is the way most men think. It’s disgusting.”

“He’s right that a lady shouldn’t be acting like a man,” said Willow, fussing with her hair. She was too feminine at times and the exact opposite of Maira.

Fia spoke up next. “Remember, Maira, ye need to let men think that way. I hope ye didna do anythin’ to make him suspicious.”

“Nay.” Maira looked down and played with the reins in her grip. “Not really.”

“Maira, ye didna use yer weapons around him, did ye?” asked Fia. “We are supposed to keep our skills a secret and no’ alert anyone by usin’ them openly.”

“Fia, ever since you got married and had a baby you worry like an old hen,” snapped Maira. “I may have used my sword but it was only to protect myself, I assure you.”

“It didn’t look to me like you were in any danger from him,” said Willow.

“Aye,” agree Morag. “Ye two were standin’ very close, like lovers.”

“Lovers?” This interested Willow. “Maira, you almost had me believing that you didn’t like men. I guess it was all an act after all. I knew it!” Willow thrust her chin in the air and pushed back a lock of her long, ebony hair.

“Ye’d better stop kissin’ the men since ye are leavin’ on the morrow to get married,” added the meddlesome Morag.

“I wasn’t kissing him and I’m not marrying anyone, no matter what my father and the earl think.” Maira wanted this nonsense to stop. She wouldn’t be swayed by anyone to wed a man against her will.

“Then who will ye marry?” asked Morag.

“No one!” she snapped. “Don’t you understand? I’m a warrior, not a feeble noblewoman that will sit at her husband’s side like an obedient dog. Besides, no man would want a lady warrior for a wife, just like that man said.”

Her eyes roamed over to the gate. Something about the stranger intrigued her yet she couldn’t put a finger on why he kept her interest. This man was nothing but a peasant – a mere commoner. He shouldn’t have even been talking to her since she was a descendant of the crown. Her thoughts went back to the way his hand felt pressed against hers, and the strong muscles she felt under his tunic when she’d laid her hands on his chest to steady herself. Why did she like it? She’d never felt this way before. And she shouldn’t be feeling this way since she was now betrothed to someone else.

An alliance with the High Sheriff of Durham would be a smart move. Her father and the earl were right about that. But this didn’t interest her in the least. Instead, all she could think about was the stranger who had held her in his arms so intimately. It was wrong, but Maira now felt like her flirtatious cousin, Willow. Part of her wanted, once again, to be in the stranger’s arms even though he was naught but a common thief in the night.