Seductive and mysterious, Merlyn was the laird of Ravensmuir — never had a man so stirred my body and soul. I gave myself to him — willingly, trustingly, passionately — and we soon wed. Then a horrible revelation emerged, shattering my innocence and my marriage…
Five years later, Merlyn returned to my doorstep, desperate for my help. The scoundrel swore he was haunted by memories of me, that a treasure locked in Ravensmuir could clear his name. Yet I could not surrender to his will again. Now he is said to be murdered and Ravensmuir has fallen into my hands.
But even as I cross the threshold of this cursed keep, I hear his whisper in the darkness, feel his caress in the night, and I know that Merlyn has told me but part of his tale. Should I do as is right and expose his lair? Or dare I trust my alluring but deceptive spouse – the rogue who destroyed my heart?
“A beguiling medieval romance from Delacroix…readers will devour this rich and compulsively readable tale.”
A Rhapsody Book Club Selection
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An excerpt from The Rogue:
It is market day in Kinfairlie village some five years past, a fine spring day. The sun is glorious, the wind filled with warmth. May Day is nigh upon us and there is frolic in the air, as there so oft is when spring shows her face after an arduous winter. All the village is merry. It is a day filled with possibilities, a day when any dream could ripen unexpectedly. I am but eighteen summers of age and my footstep is still light.
I hear the nobleman before I see him. The horse could belong to no other, its shod hooves and proud gallop revealing its value, size and lineage.
The nobleman has ridden his destrier through the throng and between the stalls as his ilk so oft do. The sound of that massive stallion’s hooves carry over the chatter of the market.
Conversations fall silent at the familiar sound, the villagers fearing what toll a nobleman will take of us now.
This one has not come for coin.
I feel the nobleman’s presence, feel his gaze upon my back, feel my cheeks heat with the awareness that I have been chosen.
Dread rises within me. His is a stare so burning that it cannot be ignored. I try desperately to do so, nonetheless.
I am not so young that I do not know what happens to a peasant girl who snares a laird’s desire, let alone one who boldly meets his eye.
Indeed, I know my own assets. To be red of hair is not so much of a liability, not if one’s hair is long and thick and curly as mine. I am tall and strong, though not without a few curves. I know that I have become desirable, by whatever measure was used by men, but I do not intend to give away what meager advantage I have.
Marriage is my sole chance of better circumstance, but marriage is not what noblemen offer to village wenches who arouse their lust.
He walks the horse not two steps behind me, but says nothing. Though I know my color rises, I do not acknowledge him. People halt to watch, some nudging and smiling, some whispering, some shaking their head with disapproval. As I hasten my errands, and he patiently stalks me, I know the dread of a mouse cornered in the kitchen. Are noblemen not said to adore the hunt above all else? I hope against hope that this lord will choose more willing prey.
Had I known more of Merlyn then, I would have understood the futility of this hope. Merlyn never sways from winning his desire. He is the most patient man ever born, or perhaps the most determined one. He always has a surety that he is right, and that certainty ensures that he never sways from his objectives.
However disreputable they might prove to be.
I spare a glance back and my heart plummets. The nobleman’s horse is fine beyond belief, blacker than black, larger than ever one such as me might imagine a horse to be. It is so high-stepping and proud that it seems another kind of creature entirely than the sole plough-horse in Kinfairlie. I turn and race away, a glimpse of the steed enough to make me flee. Unwilling to lead him to my home, I lead him upon a chase through the alleys of Kinfairlie.
He laughs and clicks his tongue to the horse.
I duck through every street – for there are not many – and every twisted alley that should have been too narrow for his steed. Yet I fail to lose him nonetheless.
Breathless and exasperated, I spin to confront him in the relative security of the marketplace.
That first sight of him nigh steals my breath away, as does his alarming proximity. My heart lodges in my throat as I note the black of his garb, the golden bird with outspread wings that forms the clasp of his cloak. He can be no other than the scion of the Lammergeier family who have rebuilt Ravensmuir keep. Their wicked repute has preceded them and my fears redouble. He is beside me in a heartbeat. I have to look up, over his knee, to meet his gaze and then, I am lost.
Oh, this is a wickedly handsome man, of that there can be no doubt. Black of hair and broad of shoulder, he would be striking by his features alone. His lips curve in a knowing smile, his carriage is proud and confident. He has been born to wealth, and grown tall and straight beneath its advantages. His smile is crooked, confident.
His eyes temper my fear and awaken my curiosity. They brim with merriment, sparkling as though wrought of stars. He seems amused yet mischievous at the same time. There is a shadow of knowingness deep within those eyes, an awareness of dark secrets, a certainty of not only his own allure but of my reaction to it.
The reaction of any woman to him.
“What do you want of me?” I demand, knowing full well the answer.
The rogue’s smile broadens. He leans down from his saddle with a male grace unfamiliar to me, and flicks his gloved fingertip across my cheek. It is a possessive and intimate gesture, one that makes the old women in the market begin to whisper and cluck.
I am struck to stone. His glove is soft, softer than I had believed leather ever could be, and his touch is gentle. The glove is dyed to the most remarkable shade of crimson.
I am tempted to close my eyes and lean against his unexpected caress, tempted to welcome the softness against my cheek, tempted to forget every warning I have ever heard.
I do not succumb.
“I desire what all these men desire of you,” he whispers, his words deliciously low. “I desire what you promise with the sway of your hips.”
“I promise nothing to any man.” I give him a disparaging glance. “And grant them even less.”
“Are you wed then?”
“Nay.” I spin and walk yet again, my fear changing to intrigue with startling ease. I had expected violence of him, a capture and a rape, not an inquiry.
Not a caress.
Not a flirtation. I almost smile when I hear the horse trot behind me.
“Have you been spoken for?”
“Pledged to the convent?”
“Then, what is your name?”
“It is not for you to know.”
His voice brims with laughter. “And what, my lady not-for-you-to-know, would it take for you to grant a smile to a suitor?”
I glance back to scoff. “You are no suitor!”
He feigns such affront that I nearly laugh. Indeed, I enjoy myself overmuch with this handsome rogue.
“But one glance and the lady knows my intentions. What an uncommon prize of a woman!” His eyes gleam. “I can only assume that you refer to knowledge in the biblical sense.”
I survey him from unruly hair to fine boot toe with apparent disdain. “In your case, I most definitely do.”
The villagers laugh.
He catches at his heart and pretends to be injured. “The lady wounds me.”
The crowd gathers closer, much entertained, nudging each other as they strain to catch every word.
I prop my basket upon my hip, toss back my braid and scoff. “Understand this, sir rogue, I would grant such knowledge more willingly to a farmer than to one of your ilk.”
He is not insulted, as I might have hoped. He laughs aloud, the rich sound tempting me, among others, to join his merriment. “Do you not imagine that a nobleman could pay a finer price?”
“Oh, undoubtedly he could, but I doubt that he would do so.” Certain our parlay is done, I walk on.
He clicks his tongue and the beast strolls after me.
A crowd of villagers begins to follow us, clearly enjoying our wordplay. Their interest makes me realize that my conquest has become a spectacle. I do not take kindly to being the butt of a jest. The fact of my neighbors’ entertainment steals the pleasure of matching words with this handsome nobleman.
And truly, I know what he wants and I know what he will do once he has it.
“Why would you think as much?” he asks, his low voice making a part of me tingle in a most unwelcome way.
I have never been shy and my next words prove as much. “Village women are so much chattel to noblemen,” I declare.”They plough our furrows and plant their seed, then abandon the fruit to others.”
My fellow villagers roar with laughter.
The nobleman’s lips twitch. “And what man, fair damsel, will win the right to plough your fields? Would you choose him solely for his experience at farming?”
The crowd jostle around us, all certain that we do not truly speak of fields tilled.
“Of course not.”
“It is my suspicion that all men are born with the knowledge of farming, so there is no merit to be found in considerable experience.”
His smile puts a dimple in his chin. My heart skips a beat, though I try to hide any response from that bright gaze.
“What then?” His tone is teasing, though his eyes are solemn. “What then are your terms, my lady not-for-you-to-know?” He dares me, but he does not guess that I will rise to his challenge.
I smile, feeling my pulse quicken at his proximity, even though I know he will not accept my demand. “My virgin fields, of course, shall solely be the right of my rightful husband to furrow.”
The villagers alternatively gasp and roar, thinking the matter resolved by my audacity. I turn away, certain of that myself.
But the nobleman seizes my elbow and pulls me to a halt. His gaze burns with unexpected avidity. “Then marry me,” he says and I cannot summon a word to my lips for shock.
Does he mock me? Certainly, there is a reckless gleam in his eyes.
“But bed you first, I am certain,” I scoff. “Or take vows before your priest, who will be revealed to not be a priest with morning’s light.”
I pull my arm from his grip and turn away. “You make a jest at my expense, sir, and I need not linger to hear more of it. Unlike you and your kind, I have labor enough to fill my waking hours.” I march blindly across the market with the unwelcome sense that amusement has been provided at my expense.
“I make no jest.” He speaks with such volume and resolve that the marketplace falls silent.
I glance back in surprise.
He stares fixedly at me, the merry glint in his eyes gone and his smile banished. He is the image of a man resolved, if inexplicably so. There is a majesty about him that draws every eye, that compels every voice to silence. We all stare, knowing we have never seen the like of him.
And I understand suddenly that such men are different from those I know. This resolve, this commanding presence, is why men follow other men, even to their deaths.
He holds my gaze for a long moment, then he raises his voice to address all in attendance.
“My name is Merlyn Lammergeier, newly pronounced Laird of Ravensmuir by my father’s own dictate. I seek a bride to grace my home.”
“Merlyn,” I whisper, trying his name upon my tongue though I know I should not.
He turns his horse that he might address all of the rapt crowd, the creature arching its neck as it circles in place with perfect composure. The wind lifts the ends of Merlyn’s cloak and the steed’s tail. The vivid blue of the sky shows the hues of Merlyn’s garb and his eyes to advantage, the sunlight glints on the gold of his cloak clasp and the silver of his steed’s harness. They are magnificent, the two of them, as far beyond our daily lives as might be imagined.
“Let it be known by all that I would wed this woman honorably on this very day, that I will do so in the chapel before whosoever of you will witness the match.”
I stare at him in shock. Is he mad?
Do I care?
“What about the banns?” cries one bold woman as I grapple with the whimsy of his offer.
“There is no consanguinity between us,” Merlyn declares, then winks at me. “Unless you have kin in France.”
I shake my head, marveling.
He nods but once, the matter resolved. “And I have no kin here. I am certain that a donation to the chapel can see such trivialities waived. We shall be wed by the priest of the lady’s choosing.” He turns back to face me and his eyes shine. “If my lady’s terms are truly as she declares.” He smiles, and as his voice falls low, I have a sudden sense that I wager with the devil himself. “If her deeds are truly as bold as her speech.”
The villagers laugh, jostling each other at this unexpected marvel, then turn to watch me. It is the first but not the last time that Merlyn astounds me with his choices.
Nor is it the last time that he makes my heart thunder.
“Are you certain of your choice, Laird Merlyn?” shouts a bold villager. “This one has the sharpest tongue of any damsel in Kinfairlie!”
Merlyn’s gaze darkens, his smile turns seductive. “I have a fancy for maidens with sharp tongues.” He coaxes the steed closer and offers his hand to me. “But is this lady of bold speech equally bold in deed? Is she bold enough to accept me, the heir of the Lammergeier? Or have I guessed wrongly that she is stalwart enough to face any challenge?”
There it is again, that mischief, that certainty that not only is his family’s repute well known but that I will not rise to his dare.
Perhaps it is a test of whether I will make a fitting bride for him.
Perhaps it is a warning.
The truth is that I do not care. I know only that Fortune smiles upon me. I know that Merlyn has wealth, I know that he is handsome, I know that he is not a fool. I know that he makes my heart leap. I know that even if he is a rogue, even if he is mad, that as his wife I could still live well enough on his coin. I know that this chance would only be mine if I seize it immediately.
And most importantly of all, I know that I want to surprise him. I am seduced by that dimple and by that dare in his eyes.
He is irresistible, and he desires me. I have no intent of granting him the time to change his thinking.
I hand my basket to the woman beside me, an elderly neighbor of ours. “Take this home to my mother, if you will, Anna, and please bid her hasten to the chapel if she would see me wed to Laird Merlyn of Ravensmuir by Kinfairlie’s own priest.”
The crowd hoots with glee but I see only Merlyn’s brilliant smile. My heart lurches, but I take his hand as if there is nothing uncommon in what I do. I catch my breath at his strength and surety when he grasps me around the waist and pulls me directly into the saddle before him.
And I find the evidence of his desire pressed against my buttocks, my breath deserting me as his lips touch my ear.
“So, you are indeed as audacious a woman as I suspected.” He murmurs, his voice making me shiver. He seems untroubled by what has always been perceived as a liability in my character by others. “Your intrepid nature will serve you well at Ravensmuir.”
I wonder then if there is more to the tale of him, more to his need for a bride than I might be pleased to learn.
But such concerns grow no roots in my thoughts, not then. He kisses me, possessively, thoroughly, exhilaratingly, coaxing the spark between us to a smoldering blaze. When he lifts his head, he smiles knowingly at me, fully aware of the hunger he has awakened within me.
“Well met, bride of mine,” he whispers. He flings his cloak around me and spurs his steed to the chapel, his hand rising in the shadows to cup the weight of my breast. My flesh tingles in a startling new way. I know with dreadful certainly that I have been claimed by demon, and that with my own consent.
But I do not step away from the flame Merlyn kindles. The devil has chosen me as his handmaiden, and for the moment, I do not care.
©2003, 2011 Claire Delacroix, Inc.