In medieval Scotland, the illegitimate children of a notorious criminal vie to claim their birthrights, and find that love is an even greater prize...
Edinburgh merchant Tavish Cameron has no choice but to pay outrageous tolls to the nobility, until fate gives him an unexpected opportunity for advancement. To claim Tower Roscraig, all he has to do is admit that he is the bastard son of a murdering baron...and evict the proud, impoverished Lady Glenna Douglas from her crumbling castle.
With her father ailing and her village devastated by illness, Glenna has lost almost everything except her home. Now a ruggedly handsome stranger intends to take that too. Until the king himself arrives to determine the rightful laird, Glenna and Tavish Cameron must share Tower Roscraig — resulting in a scandalous bargain.
But something deeper than passion ignites as they realize that Roscraig has been targeted by enemies. And only by uniting can they evade the traps set for them both...
Contains mature themes.
Release date: September 17, 2019
Publisher: Lyrical Press
Print pages: 352
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The Laird's Vow
January 31, 1427
Thomas Annesley was a dead man running.
He felt rather than saw the large slabs of rock thrusting out of the frozen ground as he stumbled past them, the black winter night hiding scores of the treacherous obstacles that littered the land beyond the manicured gardens of Darlyrede House, his childhood home. Thomas staggered and gasped as his wounded shoulder caught the jagged edge of one such monolith, spinning him on his feet and throwing him backward onto another slanted boulder. He lay against it, shaking, his eyes squeezed shut but his mouth open wide with a silent scream of pain. Every reedy breath of frigid air sliced his parched, bruised throat.
Thomas opened his eyes with a whimper to look up at the sliver of moon, its image blurred by tears held behind the frozen crust along his lashes. It was little light, but the trail of blood would make him easy prey for an expert hunter such as Hargrave. Thomas couldn’t go on much farther any matter—he’d pulled two arrows from his own flesh, and the cold had stolen most of the feeling in his extremities. But the most distressing indicator of his rapidly declining state was each painful, whistling breath confirming that the ball from the arquebus had damaged his right lung when it had exited the front of his chest. Hargrave’s boasting of the expensive new weapon’s accuracy had been warranted, it seemed.
Hargrave would find Thomas and kill him, or he would bleed to death. Either way, Thomas Annesley, third Baron Annesley, Lord of Darlyrede, recognized that his life was already over even as he fled through the wild winter night.
He was eighteen years old.
Thomas tried to push himself aright and heard a soft riffle of sound; his clothing had begun freezing to the rock. He was wet from his bare head to his boots with sweat and blood, as though he’d been so full of fear and death that when he’d fallen onto the stone he’d burst like a dropped wineskin.
Cordelia. Cordelia’s blood. Rivers of it, the stone floor flooded so that his boots splashed…the walls around him gummy and black…
He wanted to scream and scream; the atrocity he’d seen burrowed in his chest and in his soul just as deeply and permanently as the stone he collapsed onto once more was sunk into the earth. There would never be any true escape for him—he was trapped in his own mind as surely as in the wide-open land of his own demesne.
Cordelia’s wide-open eyes, staring up at that dank, dripping ceiling, the once-blue irises now a thin gray ring around gaping pupils, her pale, perfect heart-shaped face unmarked save for the tiny prickling of purple around her eyes…but below her bare, graceful neck, her alabaster skin slashed, ripped into bright ribbons, the body he’d worshipped in secret now ruined and mauled, her abdomen…
Thomas shook so hard with fear and cold that his head nodded wildly. Cordelia was dead—horribly, violently dead. Dead.
The rocky scrape of hooves on frozen track elicited a pained whine from Thomas’s scorched throat, and he cringed into the rock, as if it might animate and enclose him in a stony, protective embrace. He stopped breathing to listen in the crystal-cold night, and indeed the horse—horses?—was drawing nearer, and he heard the rumble of a masculine voice.
But it wasn’t his voice. It wasn’t Hargrave. It wasn’t any of Darlyrede’s men, Thomas was sure of it. Oh, God, please…
Thomas lurched from the stone and staggered toward the sound, toward the narrow track of road that wound past Darlyrede House and to which he hadn’t known he’d been so close. There should have been no one traveling so remote a path in the middle of the night, especially during the coldest January Northumberland country had endured in generations. But as Thomas pushed himself from stone to stone, the shadowy images of two mounted riders approaching became clearer.
Help, Thomas tried to call, but the wheezing from his mouth was barely audible even to his own ears. He staggered toward the road, stumbled over the toe of his boot, and clutched at his shoulder as he went down. He heard the men’s exclamations of surprise, but Thomas did not wait to see if they would dismount to come to him. He dragged himself to his feet once more, lurching into the road, starbursts appearing behind his eyes as he fought for breath.
He swayed to a stop in the middle of the track, flinging his left forearm in a pathetic arc.
He braced his hand on his thigh and let his head drop as the horses halted. Thomas willed his chest to expand, his lungs to fill with air. Dizzy…
“Great ghost, boy! What think you to be about on a night such as this, and frightening our—” a voice demanded near his ear, and then strong hands around his arm pulled him upright, and Thomas somehow found the breath to give a whistling scream before his vision went gray and a loud buzzing erupted in both his ears.
“My God, what’s happened?” the man amended, his tone now one wholly of alarm.
“Who is it, Kettering?” a second voice called out from a distance.
“It’s a young man—he’s injured. I don’t believe I know him. Come, Blake, bring my horse—I daresay I shall require your assistance.”
Thomas collapsed against the man, who took his weight easily.
“There now, lad—I say, you’re all but frozen. Fortunate we came along just now.” Thomas was jostled, and then this saint, Kettering, eased him away to lean against a solid, warm, breathing wall of horseflesh. “Hold there a moment. Blake, take under his hip—with care. I believe he’s suffered injury to his shoulder and side—perhaps elsewhere, also. All right, we’re going to lift you onto the saddle, lad. Here, bite down on this.” Thomas felt a thin wooden rod pushed between his lips to settle between his teeth. “Steady, now. All right, Blake.”
Thomas would have cried out again at the pain in his chest and shoulder, but he had no breath left in him, and so he merely tried to cling to consciousness as his teeth sank into the wood and the warm seat pressed his ribs into the muscles of his chest like blades. He lay limp across the beast, tears building up once more in his eyes, his stomach pushing into his throat.
“Fortunate we came along, indeed,” the second man—Blake?—was saying, his voice seeming to echo queerly in the wide expanse of the night. “And good thing we’re so near Darlyrede House.”
“Just so,” Kettering said. “I’ll lead him so as to disturb him as little as possible. Blake, you follow behind with vigilance—the criminal who beset this poor lad may yet lie in wait for us. Darlyrede shall be our haven.”
The word rang rings around Thomas’s head as he felt the horse beneath him begin to rock and turn. They were delivering him back to Darlyrede, that abattoir, that place of death where Cordelia lay in the river of blood. Delivering him into the stained hands of Hargrave…
Thomas somehow pulled his right leg up and over the horse’s back, leaning heavily upon the beast’s neck. It took all the strength remaining in his legs to hold on.
“There he is,” Blake said from somewhere behind Thomas. “Taking to it well enough, I say—upright before I can even mount. Fear not, my boy; we shall have you in the care of Lord Hargrave’s house soon enough, and then we shall most certainly get to the bottom of who has done you so ill a turn.”
Thomas dragged his hand to his mouth, removing what he thought must be the carved wooden pin from the brim of Kettering’s hat and gripping it in his fist. He took the deepest breath he was able, and then stabbed the wooden pin down into the horse’s side. The animal screamed and reared, causing Thomas’s vision to gray again, but it must have pulled its reins free from Kettering’s hand, for in an instant the horse was thundering northward into the darkness, away from Darlyrede.
If Thomas Annesley must die, it would not be in that house of the damned.
* * * *
“Damn it all!” Blake shouted as his own horse jerked free and bolted into the black, frigid night after its companion. “Kettering, look what your good deed has done to us. I knew we should have stopped for the night in Alnwick.”
“Well, that was most unexpected,” Kettering lamented. “I wondered that the lad had enough life left in him to persevere unto Darlyrede; I never thought him capable of absconding with our horses. Forgive me.”
Blake went stamping about the road for several more moments, cursing and peering into the night while his companion stared contemplatively down the road where the young man had disappeared.
“I say,” Kettering at last mused. “Speaking of Darlyrede, should I not think better of it, that lad bore a keen resemblance to young Lord Annesley himself.”
Blake sighed and came to stand near his friend. “That’s more than a bit unlikely. Isn’t Annesley to be wed on the morrow?”
“Indeed,” Kettering murmured. “To Lord Hargrave’s own Cordelia. You must be quite right, Blake. Whoever he is, he shan’t get far, I’ll warrant. He’s gravely injured. Even with such a brief encounter, I’m covered in the poor fool’s blood.”
“Well.” Blake sighed again. “Let’s you and I get on to Darlyrede any matter and warn Hargrave. Someone of the house is bound to be yet awake with such a happy ceremony so soon to take place. Perhaps they’ll ask us to stay on, or at least lend us a pair of mounts; I’ll offer my prayer book as a pawn.”
“Oh, Blake, look—here comes someone now. I’ll wager it’s a guard of the house in search of the lad. Ho, there,” Kettering called out, waving his arms toward the black-shadowed rider. “There’s an injured man who’s only just stolen my horse and frightened away my companion’s. Perhaps you—”
Kettering’s words were cut off as the whine of an arrow ended in an abrupt thunk in the man’s chest.
Blake stared mute at his friend as Kettering looked down at the stub of arrow protruding from his cloak, then crumpled onto the frozen road. He turned his horrified gaze to the steadily approaching rider and began backing down the road, stumbling, reaching into his fur-lined robe for the costly leather book he carried over his heart. He held it out in both hands like a small shield as the click and scrape of mechanism echoed across the cold expanse of frozen track.
“I mean you no harm! I mean you— No, no! Don’t! Please!”
The twang of the crossbow sounded again.
“’Tis beautiful, Tavish.”
Miss Keane looked up through her eyelashes as she ran her fingertips over the striped silk folded on the bench between them, the refined lilt of her voice just as smooth as the imported cloth she admired. Her hand drifted to the edge of the silk where Tavish’s hand rested and grazed his skin. “Just what I was hoping for. I think I should like to have all of it. And even more, if your voyage was a profitable one.”
Tavish felt his lips quirk as he looked down at the daughter of one of the wealthiest merchants in all of Edinburgh. Redheaded and pampered, Audrey Keane was alluringly beautiful. But, even if she and Tavish hadn’t been friends since they were little more than children, it was well known that Niall Keane hoped to elevate the station of his only child with a distinguished and titled match, and Tavish Cameron was neither. And so regardless of her coquettish banter, Audrey would remain nothing more than a good friend and a good customer.
Except for this day—there could be no indulging of Audrey’s games with barrels of illegal French wine behind his bench and a stranger about the shop. Tavish glanced over at the black-clad man for what must have been the hundredth time; the stranger’s back was currently turned to the bench as if he were merely biding his time while waiting for attendance, inspecting the stacks and bundles of oily wool lining the shop floor. But Tavish caught sight of his straight jawline, could all but see the man’s ear cocked toward the conversation being carried on over the bench.
A spy, if ever Tavish had seen one. And seen more than one, he certainly had.
“I’m sorry to say that’s all I have this time, Miss Keane,” Tavish said, his cool tone causing Audrey’s eyebrows to rise. “Shall I have my mother wrap it for you?”
The man in black was obviously not the only one whose ears were paying close attention to the business being conducted, as Mam appeared at Tavish’s elbow just then, reaching across him and pulling the silk from beneath Audrey’s hungry touch.
“I’ve a fine flax that shan’t snag a’tall, Miss Keane,” Harriet Cameron said.
Audrey gave his mother a brief, tight smile before looking to Tavish once more. “Naught else?” she cajoled pointedly. “But you said there would be—”
“Ah, aye!” Tavish interrupted and caught sight of the man in black turning his head ever so slightly toward them. He reached into the wooden barrel behind the bench and withdrew two bright spheres, presenting them to Audrey as if they were Scotland’s crown jewels. “Forgive me. Here you are.”
“Oranges,” Audrey said stiffly.
Tavish smiled and then indicated with his eyes the stranger now turned fully toward them. “From Spain.”
Understanding dawned at last in Audrey’s eyes. “Oh, oranges! How lovely! Thank you, Master Cameron—father will be so pleased.”
“Perhaps you might return later in the day to see if I’ve any left,” he suggested. “It’s all the Stygian returned with on this latest voyage. Silk. And oranges.”
Audrey Keane nodded smartly and then dared to give him a wink as her maid took the tied bundle from Mam. “I will most certainly do that. I do hope,”—she paused a moment, met his eyes and lowered her voice—“there are…more.”
“Good day to you now, Miss Keane,” Mam said pointedly through her smile.
The redhead only glanced at Mam. “Mistress Cameron.” Then she turned and left the shop, trailing her expensive skirts and her young maid behind her through the open doorway and up the stone steps to the bustling spring street above.
“She wanted one of those filthy books you promised her, nae doubt,” Mam hissed low at his side as she rewound the hairy twine she’d cut. “I doona ken why you’d waste space on such rubbish. She canna even read, I’ll wager.”
“’Tis nae filthy, Mam,” Tavish murmured. “’Tis a single volume of poetry, easily carried among the bottles. You know as well as I that Audrey reads quite well, much to Master Keane’s dismay. You’re only salted because you canna read such stuff yourself.” He watched the man move to the other side of the shop.
“Och, Audrey all the day now, is it?”
“That’s her name.” Tavish felt beneath the bench top for the familiar smooth handle of the baton he kept, his eyes never leaving the stranger while his mother’s mumblings about the dangerous wiles of Audrey Keane faded into the hum of the street noise beyond the shop walls.
Tavish guessed the man in black to be approximately his own age—a score and ten, perhaps a few years more. His profile revealed a high, sloping forehead with prominent brow and cheekbone, a Roman nose above a noble looking chin. Certainly, the man’s grooming was impeccable, his long, black hair tied at the nape with a dark-colored silk ribbon, both of which nearly disappeared against the plush quilting of the man’s fine gambeson. He was successful—or wealthy, any matter—considering his black suede leggings filling the shining leather boots. The stranger’s belt was wide and equipped; long gauntlets hung from his right side, his weapon on his left—a lengthy arming sword with shining silver pommel, its leather-wrapped scabbard stretching from hip to mid-calf. This was no home-forged, crude weapon.
Nay, this was no ordinary stranger.
So the burgess had hired a foreigner to do his dirty work for him, had he? Tavish took firm hold of the baton and slid it silently from its hiding place, holding it down by his leg.
“—Audrey Keane since she was in braids and you’d think Captain Muir and yourself would—” Mam broke off her hushed tirade. “Tav?”
Tavish’s eyes followed the stranger as he ambled ever closer to the bench, his eyes still seeming to peruse the bundled wool.
Mam wrapped her fingers around his arm, seeking his attention, but all he would allow her was the slight angling of his ear toward her.
“What are you thinking you’ll do with that?” she whispered, shaking his arm for emphasis. “Is it your plan now to beat those who come to hire you?”
“He’s nae here to hire me, Mam.”
“And how would you be knowin’ that?”
“Only look at him,” Tavish said. “Nosing about the place, eavesdropping on my business with Audrey. Someone’s sent him.” Mam’s silence told Tavish he’d no need to explain his meaning. “Perhaps ’twill deliver a clear message to the burgess that I’ll have no more of his threats and his thieving, do I send his hired man back to him with a glen in his skull.”
Now his mother’s fingernails dug into his arm. “You hush, now! Hush! Doona speak of such things! The burgess will jail you and take everything we have—everything you’ve worked so hard to build. To keep!”
“I’ve a revelation for you, Mam—’tis the burgess’s intent to take it all any matter. The Stygian canna so much as anchor at Leith—as if I were no better than a common pirate.” His mother gave him a look from the corner of her eye, but he ignored it. “I’ll have nae more of it, I say.”
“And I’ll nae have my only child hanged!” She pinched the inside of his elbow hard enough to make him wince, and then, before he could stop her, Mam had shoved past him and was gone from behind the bench, approaching the stranger.
“Good day to you, sir,” Mam called out, leaning at the waist as if to draw the man’s attention.
He turned and gave Mam a short, courteous bow that took Tavish a bit by surprise—usually those sent by the burgess possessed little in the way of manners. “Bonjour. A good day to you, Mistress. Forgive me for not greeting you sooner; I had no wish to encroach upon a private conversation.”
Any good will kindled by the stranger’s courteous French greeting to Harriet Cameron was quickly extinguished by the remainder of his address, spoken with a proper, clipped accent.
“Oh,” Mam cooed, causing Tavish’s bad temper to increase. “Well! How verra kind of you! That’s only my son, though.”
Tavish had the suspicion that, had he been able to see his mother’s face, she would be looking up at the stranger through her eyelashes, much as Audrey Keane had looked at Tavish.
“What I mean to say is, he’s the master of the shop but he’s also my—” Mam clapped her hands together once gaily and then held them against her matronly, aproned bosom. “Have you come to collect goods from the shipment? Perhaps some”—she paused, her turning and nodding head indicating she was looking the man over thoroughly—“cloth for your…your fine”—she reached out a finger and almost touched the man’s chest—“self?”
A faint smile cracked the stranger’s proper façade and he gave her another short bow. “Thank you for your kind offer of assistance, but I believe I have located what I seek—you are Harriet Payne, are you not?”
Tavish’s heart stuttered in his chest.
“My, my!” Mam murmured, and Tavish was glad to hear a bit of caution creep into her tone. “I’ve nae heard that name in an age. Aye, I’m Harriet; Payne was my da.”
The stranger nodded. “Mistress Cameron now, of course. I knew you by the lovely mark there on your upper lip.”
Mam’s fingertips fluttered at her mouth, where the perfectly round mole she was known for lived, but this time when she spoke, all traces of coquettishness were gone.
“Have we met, sir?” she asked.
“Forgive me,” the man said and bowed again. “I am Sir Lucan Montague, Knight of the Most Noble Order of the Garter of His Majesty King Henry of England.”
Harriet turned wary eyes to Tavish, whose fingers tingled around the handle of the club he still held beneath the bench top.
“What reason have you to seek my mother, sir?” Tavish asked quietly, his heart galloping in his chest as the barrel nearest him crowned so deliberately with a pyramid of orange fruit seemed to become exponentially larger in the room.
Why was an English knight in his shop?
Lucan Montague’s gaze, blue and cold, at last found Tavish. “In truth, I seek the proprietor of this works, and the owner of the merchant ship Stygian.” His accent was clipped and cool, but also completely at ease. He seemed to examine every detail of Tavish’s face before meeting his eyes again, and his face once more betrayed a secret mirth. “I believe you are he. You may retire the weapon you’re holding in your right hand; I vow upon my honor that I mean you and your mother no harm.”
Tavish felt his brows raise, and he couldn’t help but glance down at the baton in his hand—for sure, the man could not have seen it from where he stood.
“In fact,” the knight said, stepping to the door and kicking away the wooden wedge that held it open, “I’ve come bearing what I suspect you will consider to be very good news, and all I ask in return are answers to some few, concise inquiries.”
A pair of ladies drew up short before the doorway as Lucan Montague began to close the stout shop door.
“Désolé. I do apologize—a matter of great urgency, you understand. So sorry. Good day.” He closed the door and looked up and down the frame before engaging both intricate locks, while Mam stepped backward quickly to join Tavish behind the safety of the bench.
Tavish laid the club atop the wood, still firmly in his grip. When Lucan Montague turned around, the knight’s gaze went immediately to it, but he didn’t seem disturbed in the least.
“Your shuttering my business without my leave is not endearing me to your request. You have a short amount of time to explain yourself, knight or nay, before I make use of this baton,” Tavish warned. “Now, I’ll only ask once more: What do you want?”
“A fair request,” Lucan Montague said with a gracious nod. “I believe your mother may possess some knowledge that will assist my efforts on behalf of the Crown to investigate a series of murders that took place in England.”
Mam gasped. “Murders?”
But rather than cause him further alarm, the knight’s admission prompted Tavish’s shoulders to relax. “You have been misinformed, sir; my mother has not been farther south of Edinburgh than Peebles the whole of her life.”
“They’ve lovely wool,” Mam added, her smile returning. She laid her hand upon Tavish’s arm. “Tav takes me each year for the festival. Have you been, sir?”
“I’ve not yet had the happy fortune,” the knight said, and to his credit, Tavish could not detect even a hint of condescension in his tone. His gaze met Tavish’s directly. “Indeed, it was not my intent to insinuate that your mother was in England when any of the crimes were perpetrated, nor at any time before or after, Master Cameron. My questions for her are wholly concerning your father.”
Tavish’s jaw grew tight, and a pair of moments ticked by in the silence of the shop. “My father is dead.”
The knight nodded. “Oh, yes, likely he is hanged now. But he was very much alive a month ago. I interviewed him myself.”
“You are mistaken. Sir.” Tavish spoke in a low, measured voice. “Dolan Cameron has been dead for fifteen years.”
Lucan Montague’s gaze never wavered. “Forgive me my bluntness, but I don’t believe it is a secret to any here present that Dolan Cameron was not your true sire.”
The shop was as still as a calm sea at midnight.
Tavish forced himself to swallow while he tried to think of a reply. He had only discovered the fact of his bastard status fifteen years ago, the very day his stepfather had died. And he was fairly certain Mam wouldn’t have admitted it even then if Tavish hadn’t been intent on surrendering himself to the constable that terrible night.
And it was Mam who came to his rescue again.
“Perhaps,” Harriet Cameron said quietly, “you might agree to keep such an idea to yourself, sir. Tav has inherited this shop and his ship from his…from Dolan Cameron. Dolan claimed Tavish as his own son, and all of Edinburgh knows him as such. If rumor was started that…” Harriet paused. “We . . .
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