Certain she will never wed for love, sworn to let no man possess her for her beauty alone, Jacqueline de Crevy has vowed to become a bride of God. But en route to the convent of Inveresbeinn, her party is ambushed by a knight, who snatches Jacqueline from her saddle and spirits her away with him.
He is Angus MacGillivray — not the black-hearted ravisher she fears but a valiant man of honor who has returned to Scotland seeking justice…and revenge. Angus has come home from the Crusades to find his family murdered and his birthright seized. Sworn to reclaim his rightful lands, he has kidnapped the stepdaughter of Duncan, chieftain of Clan MacQuarrie — Angus’s avowed enemy.
But his lovely captive refuses to be the chattel — or ransom — of any man…until Jacqueline senses the yearning heart beneath Angus’s embittered facade. In spite of himself, Angus has let this defiant beauty touch his very soul. And as desire flames between them, a lady fair and her battle-scarred knight will fight for a love that could banish all the sorrows of the past…
“Four stars! A tale to warm a winter’s night.”—Romantic Times
USA Today Bestseller
New York Times Bestseller
2001 Best Long Historical Romance
Greater Detroit RWA Booksellers’ Best Awards
A Rhapsody Book Club Selection
(N.B. – Jacqueline is on her way to take her vows at a convent. CD)
With lightning speed, two men on horseback appeared from naught, swinging their swords as they roared. The little party froze in shock as the bandits bore down upon them.
They were still on Ceinn-beithe’s land! Jacqueline halted her steed to stare. One of her escorts swore, then slapped the buttocks of her horse, sending it fleeing from the fray.
Jacqueline could not help but look back.
The attacking knight in the lead struck down two of her escorts before those men even had time to draw their blades. A knight? One heard of knights turning to villainy in France, but not here. Fear rippled down her spine – Jacqueline had learned to expect ill of knights from abroad.
The third of her party had drawn his sword but was no match for the knight’s prowess. He fell to the ground and moved no more.
Then the attacker’s course was unobstructed.
He rode like an avenging angel, and one determined to smote those who defied him. He was tall and broad of shoulder. His red cloak flared behind him, his tabard was white with a cross of blood red on the shoulder. His mail gleamed, even though the day was overcast. His large ebony stallion was caparisoned in white and red, that extraordinarily fine beast fairly snorting fire.
And when he fixed his gaze upon her, Jacqueline thought her heart might stop.
In panic, Jacqueline dug her heels into her palfrey’s sides. The horse needed little urging to run at full gallop across the peat, but was no match for the long strides of the black stallion in pursuit.
The stallion drew closer, until she could see the steam of its breath just over her shoulder. Jacqueline gave a little cry and tried to urge her horse to go yet faster.
But the knight snatched her from her own saddle, so quickly that her breath was stolen away. He cast her across his saddle, so she lay on her belly before him. The sight of the rollicking ground beneath her made her dizzy. He was strong, wrought of muscle and steel. Jacqueline screamed and fought him all the same.
He swore and caught her against him in a tight grip, his arm locked around her chest and arms. He turned his steed, and slowed it to a brisk canter. Jacqueline heard her own palfrey continue to flee into the distance.
She bit his glove and kicked his steed, and he swore with ominous vigor. He pulled her up so that she sat before him now, though was no less free to move with his arm locking her elbows to her waist. Indeed, she could feel every relentless increment of him, his chain mail digging into her back.
“Let me go!” Jacqueline gave a powerful wrench that only rubbed her wool kirtle so hard against his mail that she was sure the wool left a burn on her flesh.
“Nay.” He spoke grimly, his French as fluent as her own, his words tight and hot. “Be still or you will frighten the steed.”
“I should think naught would frighten this monster,” Jacqueline snapped. A French knight holding her captive was no reassurance at all – she could not help but think of Reynaud, holding her down, heaving himself atop her.
The very thought left her chilled, sickened and faint.
The knight laughed under his breath though ‘twas a mirthless sound. He pinned her against him with one arm, so casually that he might be accustomed to capturing innocents, and rode back toward his companion. Jacqueline squirmed, though she made no progress against his strength.
Just as she had made none against Reynaud. The breath left her chest for a moment, leaving her dizzy with fear, but she forced herself to take a deep breath. Somehow she would escape him!
The knight doffed his helm and cast it into his open saddlebag. When she heard it land there, Jacqueline could not restrain her curiosity.
She turned and her heart trembled, so certain was she that she looked into the face of a dark angel. Her captor’s lips were drawn to a tight line, his gaze narrowed. He would have been a handsome man – had it not been for his ferocious expression and the scar upon his cheek.
And the patch over his one eye.
Then he smiled slowly, like a dragon anticipating a hearty meal, and Jacqueline panicked. She managed to punch his nose, then drove her heel hard into the stallion’s belly. The beast shied – ‘twas too large and vigorous to be more than startled – and Jacqueline took advantage of the moment of surprise to jump from its back.
She turned her ankle on impact, but ran all the same.
The knight swore with savagery behind her, but Jacqueline did not waste a moment in looking back. She leapt into a scree of rocks, knowing that the stallion could not follow her, and ran as though the devil himself pursued her.
She was not entirely certain he did not.
The knight did pursue her, though, punctuating his progress with oaths. Jacqueline would not consider how he would hurt her if she was caught. Oh, he was furiously angry and would desire vengeance just as Reynaud had desired vengeance.
And was likely to claim it in the same way. Jacqueline pushed her fears of that aside and simply ran.
He gained upon her all too quickly, for he was much taller and more agile than she. Jacqueline glanced back when his footfalls grew loud, her own steps faltering at his proximity and his fury. She stumbled, then fell with an anguished cry, and he was immediately upon her.
He was quick with the braided leather he carried, but to her astonishment, he was not harsh. He bound her knees together loosely, though she was sufficiently hobbled that she could not have fled. He tied her wrists behind her back, moving with such speed that Jacqueline had no hope of a second escape.
She writhed on the ground, seeking a weakness in the knots that she did not find. He stood and stared down at her from his considerable height, his expression unfathomable and all the more terrifying for that.
Finally, when she had nigh exhausted herself with her struggles, he drew his blade, then crouched before her.
Fearing the worst, Jacqueline flinched.
“You are worth more to me whole,” he snapped, then cut a length of cloth from his tabard. She stared at him in confusion, noting that his move exposed more of his chain mail.
When he reached for her injured ankle, Jacqueline cried out and squirmed away. She would not suffer him to touch her! She rolled and desperately tried to crawl away from him, though ‘twas not easily done with hands and knees bound.
He snatched at her foot and caught her all too easily. He held her captive thus, even as she squirmed on her belly, his fingers exploring her ankle as though he was blinded in both eyes. Jacqueline shivered, then felt the heat of a blush stain her cheeks at his familiarity.
“A fine view, but you cannot imagine you would get far.”
“I will not lie meekly while I am raped!”
He laughed then, the sound so surprising that Jacqueline turned to look at him once more. He was crouched behind her, holding her ankle in one hand, his grip resolute but gentle.
He did not acknowledge her gaze, though he must have known she looked. Nay, he frowned in concentration, focused on his task. He removed her shoe and stocking with surprising care. He had doffed his gloves and his hand was warm against her bare flesh.
Jacqueline thought she might die of the mortification of having a strange man touch her thus.
“If touching a woman’s foot is akin to rape,” he said mildly, “then there are far more lawless men in this world than even I imagined.”
He glanced up, his smile broadening as he considered her expression and no doubt guessed the reason for it. His smile was cold, but there was a heat in his gaze that made her tremble. “Or are you so innocent of men that you do not know the nature of intimacy?”
There was a look about him that warned Jacqueline he had thoughts of contributing to her education.
She decided to feign boldness, for a show of fear would win her naught. “My innocence is not of issue here,” she retorted and tried to draw her ankle away.
He moved his thumb smoothly across her instep, the deliberate caress making her shiver with something that was not entirely fear. “I should say ‘tis. And the preservation of your innocence shall be a considerable concern…at least for others.”
He flicked her a hot glance that made a lump of dread rise in Jacqueline’s throat. He did not wait for an answer, but checked the way her ankle had already begun to swell, his fingers moving deftly and gently.
Jacqueline did not know quite what to make of him. She had expected him to harm her, but truly, she had little experience of strange knights and none of it good. And she had no experience of such treacherous circumstance.
She deliberately kept her expression impassive, hoping she could hide both her terror and the curious sensations his touch awakened within her. He finished binding her ankle with the cloth, his gaze hooded as he gave his attention to the task.
“’Tis not broken,” he informed her, then sat back on his heels. He donned his gloves once more and watched her. She nigh fidgeted beneath the intensity of his gaze and felt she should confess something, anything, whatever would make him look away from her. “‘Twill heal quickly enough, Mhairi.”
Jacqueline blinked. “Mhairi? I am not Mhairi!”
He shook his head. “You lie.”
“Nay. I never lie!” Jacqueline bristled. “And I would not lie about my own name. Mhairi is my younger sister, she is but four summers of age.” ‘Twas a golden opportunity to pretend she did not fear him and she lifted her chin proudly. “Most can tell us apart.”
This seemed to amuse him, however fleetingly. “The Mhairi I seek would be of an age with you.” He studied her intently, as though reaffirming his assessment, though Jacqueline could not guess his conclusion. “More or less.”
“Then she is not me.” Jacqueline spoke firmly, determined to save herself with her wits and the truth. None else could aid her here. “So, you have best release me. This is a simple enough error to amend.”
“Indeed?” His gaze flicked over her ample curves. “Then who are you, if you would not be Mhairi?”
His intimation that she did not tell the truth was irksome, and Jacqueline answered more sharply than perhaps she should have. She did answer honestly, certain her identity would prove his error and win her freedom. “I am Jacqueline of Ceinn-beithe.”
Something flickered across his features, though Jacqueline would not have gone so far as to call it doubt. His words, though, were even more terse. “Who holds Ceinn-beithe in these days?”
“Duncan MacLaren, my step-father. And my mother, Eglantine. Who are you?”
The knight shook his head, ignoring her question as he stood once again. “I do not know that name. You lie.”
“I do not!”
“Then how did this Duncan come to wrest Ceinn-beithe from Cormac MacQuarrie’s grip?”
“Duncan is Cormac’s chosen heir. He is the chieftain of Clan MacQuarrie.”
“Nay, in this you clearly lie.” His lips tightened to a harsh line again. “Cormac is the chieftain of Clan MacQuarrie and Iain his blood son. He would never surrender Ceinn-beithe to another.”
“Cormac has not been chieftain since he died, some ten years past. Duncan was his foster son and is his heir.”
The knight regarded her in silence for so long that his tongue might have been stolen. “And what of Cormac’s daughter Mhairi?” He eyed her distrustfully.
Understanding swept through Jacqueline. “Oh, you seek that Mhairi! She is long dead, for she killed herself upon her father’s insistence that she wed a man she did not love. ‘Twas her loss that killed Cormac, to hear Duncan tell it.”
“That I can well imagine,” he said. He glanced back at his companion. To Jacqueline’s relief, the men who had accompanied her were not fatally injured, for they were being marshaled toward her. Their hands had been trussed behind their backs and the other attacker urged them forward at the point of his sword.
“Well?” the knight’s comrade called.
“She claims she is not Mhairi, that Mhairi is dead.” The knight pushed to his feet. “She claims to be the step-daughter of the new chieftain of Clan MacQuarrie.”
He then smiled down at Jacqueline. ‘Twas not an encouraging smile and Jacqueline suddenly doubted his intent to free her. He bent and picked her up in his arms, cradling her weight against his chest.
“Either way,” he said silkily, “she will do very well.”
“You cannot do this!”
That smile broadened, no less disconcerting from such close proximity. “Can I not?”
“But you have not even told me who you are, or what you want. I have tried to help, I have told you everything!”
He chuckled then, a low dark sound. “Your mistake, my beauty. Now you have naught with which to bargain.” His teeth flashed in a wolfish smile, and he suddenly looked both wicked and dashing. Jacqueline’s heart stopped cold. “And I, for once in all my days, hold every advantage.”
“Nay!” Jacqueline screamed but made little sound before the knight clamped one gloved hand over her mouth.
She struggled, but to no avail. The man kept her silent and powerless with disconcerting ease.
She was helpless in a man’s grip once more, prey to his every whim, and his intent was naught good. Fear rose to choke Jacqueline with the taste of that leather, her memory of being captive beneath Reynaud too similar to be denied. She fought to stay aware, knowing that if she fainted she could not aid herself.
But the terror of that memory and the similarity of her circumstance was too strong to be denied. Jacqueline’s last glimpse was of the resolute lines of the knight’s visage, the flicker of desire in his eyes.
God in heaven, but she could not change the truth. She had fallen prey to a demon on her way to the Lord.
©2001, 2011 Claire Delacroix, Inc.