Driven from her late husband’s estate, Countess Eglantine de Crevy fled to wildest Scotland to claim a castle, only to find a ruin — and a clan chieftain standing guard. Kinbeath was hers, she declared, vowing to rebuild the manor and launch a bride quest so her daughters could marry for love. But Duncan MacLaren had devised a bride quest of his own, swearing to win the land — and the fiery countess — in a war of sweet seduction…
Eglantine declared she would never be captured by this barbarian. Yet Duncan awakened passions she had never known before. She promised to fight him with every weapon at her command even as he vowed to woo her for a year and a day — and make her his pagan bride.
Each thought Kinbeath the prize the most desired, a prize to be won at any price. Until passion turned to love, and the chieftain found himself fighting for the heart and hand of the woman he was born to possess.
“Master storyteller Claire Delacroix has done it again with this marvelous medieval romance. The Countess is a keeper!”
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An excerpt from The Countess:
Scotland – 1177
(NB – Although Eglantine and Duncan have already met and disagreed over the ownership of the land Eglantine has arrived to claim, I like this scene. Eglantine has ridden to hunt with her hawk (Melusine), her daughter (Jacqueline), her hounds etc., only to discover that she has miscalculated the differences between France and Scotland. I enjoy how Duncan shakes her assumptions in this scene. – CD)
But they were not the only ones who hunted in that early morn. Eglantine straightened from the tenth rabbit that Melusine had killed, and a flicker of movement caught her eye. She spun quickly as the boy took the kill, and saw a short shadow slip through the trees. It disappeared before she could discern precisely what ‘twas. Four legs it had, though ‘twas smaller of stature than the wolfhounds and moved with a stealth they did not possess.
The hunting dogs growled, the fur on the back of their necks bristling as they looked after the shadow. Eglantine exchanged a glance with Jacqueline, noting the girl’s concern.
“What is it, Maman?”
Eglantine held up a hand for silence. The rain pattered on the ground and echoed on what few deadened leaves still clinging to the trees. The branches of the trees rattled slightly in the wind, the sea sang in the distance as the surf broke against the shore. She heard naught else.
But there ‘twas again.
‘Twas no more than a dark fluttering between the tree trunks, at such a distance that it could not be readily observed. ‘Twas smaller than either of the dogs accompanying them but fleet of foot. One of the dogs took a few steps forward and growled.
It could not be a fox, for such creatures avoided human contact. Her horse began to stamp, more troubled than the steed usually was. Its nostrils flared and its eyes widened, its fear telling Eglantine what she should have already guessed.
She eyed the blood of the butchered hares and knew ‘twas a hungry predator who trailed them. Though she had only heard tales of wolves, she should have expected they would thrive in this remote place.
But because of her lack of foresight, Eglantine’s small party were not equipped to face a wolf. They would cease the hunt and make do with the meat they had. If there were wolves about, there would be safety in numbers, in the camp.
Melusine, though, cried from above before Eglantine could give an order. Eglantine turned and raised her fist with a whistle, but the bird had already spied her prey. Melusine dove, plummetting from the sky like a feathered spear, and the shadow moved like lightning in the same direction.
Three more shadows followed.
It seemed that hungry wolves were not fools.
“Nay!” Eglantine ran through the woods, hoping she would reach Melusine before the wolves. They would kill the bird, of that she had no doubt, because Melusine would not suffer her kill to be taken by any other than Eglantine.
She gathered her skirts in two fistfuls and plunged through the woods, even as the boys shouted behind her. The dogs ran beside her, barking in anticipation of a fight.
Melusine gave a strangled cry. Eglantine burst into a small clearing to see the bird’s talons buried deeply in an unfortunate hare. But the peregrine flapped awkwardly, her tether caught on a thorny shrub beneath her kill.
Four shadows separated themselves from the woods and edged closer. Their eyes were cold, their gazes fixed upon Eglantine. She halted, uncertain what to do. The dogs snarled but she stayed them with a gesture, suspecting that they would lose a battle with these wild creatures.
The largest wolf sidled closer to Melusine and the hare, one wary eye on Eglantine. The bird screamed outrage at the creature’s boldness, the snagged tether impeding her ability to fight.
The wolf snarled at her, and seemed to coil itself to spring. It was clearly not a stupid creature, for it had associated the bird’s dive with freshly killed meat. Eglantine had heard many old tales of the cleverness of wolves, though she had never seen one. They had been driven from Crevy more than a century before.
Were they truly as fearsome as reputed? Did she have any options to save Melusine?
“It takes a particular kind of fool to step between a wolf and his meal.”
Duncan MacLaren’s words nigh made Eglantine jump from her skin. She spun to find him leaning against a tree, watchful and amused. Despite that, he looked no less wily, unpredictable and dangerous than the wolf.
And no less inclined to pounce.
Jacqueline and the boys stood behind him, Jacqueline holding the reins of the steeds. Duncan evidently noted her glance for he shook his head. “I forbade them to come further. You are in peril here.”
There was no heat in his words and he seemed more interested in studying the wolf.
“Are they as vicious as repute?”
His voice was deceptively soft. “Aye, when cornered, when hungered, when tempted.”
“But I cannot leave Melusine to fare for herself. Her tether is caught, it inhibits her ability to defend herself, and that tether adorns her at my behest.” Eglantine met Duncan’s gaze, noting that he seemed surprised by her words.
“How does one deceive a wolf?”
His smile was not without admiration. “Are you not afraid?”
“I am terrified. The beast seems wrought to fight, but that changes naught of my responsibility.”
He pulled out his knife, cleaned its blade on his chemise. His eyes gleamed with intent and he looked grimly purposeful. “’Tis not a task for a lady,” he murmured, then moved with the same swift grace as the wolf. “Restrain your dogs.”
The creature seemed to sense that it had met its match, for it crouched warily. The other three wolves backed away slightly, their poses wary. Melusine flapped and struggled as Duncan eased toward her. He moved slowly but deliberately, with a grace and economy of movement Eglantine had not expected of him. His boots made no sound on the deadened grass.
When he stood half a dozen paces from the wolf, rabbit and peregrine midway between them, the wolf snarled a warning. It was claiming possession of the meat, of that Eglantine had no doubt.
Duncan stood still so long that Eglantine thought he had frozen in place. Just when she was convinced she could wait no longer, he lunged forward with the speed of lightning.
Duncan kicked the rabbit aside. The wolf leapt after the meat, its teeth flashing, not realizing that Duncan followed. He cut Melusine’s tether without missing a step, then fell on the distracted wolf. The bird meanwhile flew high above. The wolf turned and snapped in surprise, but Duncan snatched at its snout and held it closed with one powerful hand. He drove his knife into its chest and jerked the blade hard.
The wolf sagged to the ground. Duncan wiped his blade and sheathed it, meeting the gaze of each of the lingering trio of wolves as though challenging them.
They sniffed the air, then melted into the forest once more, becoming one with the shadows so quickly that they might not have been.
Duncan picked up the rabbit, examined it for damage, then offered it to Eglantine. “Your kill, my lady.” He gave her a mocking bow.
And truly, the way he hunted made her activity look frivolous and feminine. “I would have left them the rabbit.”
He snorted. “And taught them that you are a source of food. ‘Twould not be long before they entered your camp and feasted as they chose.”
Eglantine had not thought of that. “I would never imagine that a wild creature would be so bold.”
He smiled, then bent to gut the wolf with deft gestures. “They make much of opportunity.”
She whistled and lifted her fist, relieved when Melusine immediately came to her. She hooded the bird and whispered to it, reassured to find it uninjured. She sensed that Duncan was watching her. “You have killed wolves before.”
“Aye. Kill or be killed is often the choice of it.” His eyes twinkled unexpectedly. “I have always preferred the former option.”
“Will the others return?”
“Perhaps. Wolves are not unlike men, in that felling their leader leaves them uncertain how to proceed.”
“I am surprised they do not linger to see what scraps you leave.”
His features hardened. “They do not eat of their own.”
‘Twas as though he admired the savage creatures, and truly he seemed to have much in common with them.
Perhaps they had an understanding of each other, all these wild creatures and men.
But a measure of civility was required. Eglantine took a deep breath. “I must thank you for your aid, no less for it unexpected nature. I should think you would be relieved if I met with misfortune.”
Duncan chuckled at that. “Ah, but my lady, if you were to be killed here, there would be no one to lead your people away.”
There was little she could say to that. She watched him work, curious at the difference in their ways. “Do you intend to eat its meat?”
“Nay. ‘Tis strong and unfit for a meal.” She saw that he trimmed the liver, dicing it in his hand before he tossed it toward her dogs. The hounds fell on the raw meat, consuming it with gusto. “There is little loss in giving your dogs a taste for wolf, if your cooks do not mind butchering it for them.”
“Then there is no point in wasting it. I should be glad of the meat and ‘twill be good for the dogs.”
“Then ‘tis yours.” Leaving the offal on the ground, Duncan slung the wolf’s carcass over his shoulder and strode back to her side, looking as though he did such deeds all the time.
The horses shied at the heavy scent of blood, but Jacqueline held their tethers fast. The boys regarded Duncan with undisguised admiration and Eglantine could not completely hide how impressed she was by his courage and skill.
“I will keep only the pelt for myself.” He held the tail toward her, as though daring her to touch it. “’Tis most soft.”
She would not give him the satisfaction of balking at his challenge. Eglantine smiled coolly and touched the fur, its softness making her gasp. ‘Twas a thousand shades of silver and grey, thick and luxuriant, the hair so long that her fingers were swallowed by it.
“More than one man has won a woman by offering her a bed heavy with such furs,” Duncan murmured, a predatory gleam in his eyes. Eglantine felt that unwelcome heat of awareness once again, though she strove to hide her response.
She stepped back and eyed him. “Indeed? ‘Twould be a simple woman who exchanged her future for no more than a few pelts.” She spun and marched away from him, mounting her steed and leading her party back to the camp.
He strode along with them, silent and watchful, and she could not shake the sense that she had been been rescued from one predator by another.
©2000, 2011 Claire Delacroix, Inc.