After eight years abroad, Malcolm returns to Scotland with a fortune, a companion even more hardened than he and a determination to restore his inherited holding. But when that companion falls into peril, Malcolm seizes the chance to repay an old debt, trading his own soul for that of his doomed comrade. Knowing his days are limited and determined to leave a legacy of merit, Malcolm rebuilds Ravensmuir with all haste, though he fears he will never have an heir.
A night of violence has left Catriona with no home and no faith in the honor of men. She expects little good from a visit to her lady’s brother, Laird of Ravensmuir, a known mercenary. But the handsome laird challenges her expectations with his courtesy, his allure—and his unexpected proposal. Knowing it is her sole chance to ensure her child’s future, Catriona dares to accept Malcolm’s hand. She soon realizes that this warrior fights a battle of his own and that she holds the key to his salvation. Little does she realize her past is in hot pursuit, seeking to destroy all she holds dear—including the laird who has thawed the frost of her reluctant heart.
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An excerpt from The Frost Maiden’s Kiss:
“Tell me that it does not get colder,” Rafael said, his tone grim. Malcolm and his companion had just entered the forests outside of Kinfairlie, and the trees hung thickly with ice. Snow was falling with purpose, but at least the forest gave shelter from the biting wind. Malcolm had never seen such a storm, but he doubted his companion would believe any such claim.
It was not ideal weather for a homecoming, although Malcolm felt the weather echoed his own mood. He felt cold himself, chilled by what he had done to fill his bags with gold and silver. The wind and snow swirled around them obscuring the landscape from view, and he acknowledged that he felt lost.
Kinfairlie. He was within moments of home. As much as he wanted to see his older brother Alexander, he did not want to face his older brother’s censure. There would be disapproval, even more of it than before. Alexander had been displeased when Malcolm had chosen the life of a mercenary over his inheritance of Ravensmuir: his brother would be disgusted to learn how much blood was on Malcolm’s blade now.
“I am chilled to my very marrow,” Rafael complained. “I cannot even feel my toes. Have you not heard of the marvel known as fire in this remote place?” The mercenary cast a glance around himself and his disgust would have been comical if Malcolm’s mood had been lighter. “It would not surprise me, as evidently the inhabitants here are unfamiliar with the sun.”
It was falling dark early, far earlier than had been their experience on the continent. Rafael was from the south of Spain, his skin a rich golden hue from the sun’s caress, his eyes and hair of darkest brown. His teeth flashed when he smiled, which was usually after the death of an enemy. Rafael was better as friend than foe, the perfect warrior to have at one’s back, and his bitterness made Malcolm feel a little less cold himself. Rafael had seen much, experienced more, and expected less than any man Malcolm had ever known.
“I can understand readily enough why you left this miserable place,” Rafael continued. “The mystery, my friend, is why you would ever return.”
“You will have your feet before a hearty fire soon enough,” Malcolm said, hoping it would be so.
His companion made a sound of skepticism. “That fire will be thawing a corpse at this rate,” Rafael muttered. “How much farther?”
Malcolm halted his horse at a familiar crossroads in the midst of the forest. The right road would take them to Kinfairlie. His family would be gathered for the Yule, and the hall where he had grown up would be filled with music and candlelight. There would be children and merriment, a board groaning with food and greenery decking the hall. Rafael would have his fire and more.
Such joys were not for Malcolm, not yet. He did not know what he would say to Alexander, much less how he would explain Rafael’s presence by his side. There was no disguising what Rafael was, much less what Malcolm had become.
They were mercenaries and warriors for hire. Killers.
“Straight on. It will not be long now,” he said, gesturing to the road that led to Ravensmuir.
It quickly became clear that this was a neglected road. It had never been that busy, but since the destruction of Ravensmuir, he supposed it had no real destination. If not for the parting of the trees in the forest, he would never have guessed it even was a road.
“This is a road to no good end,” Rafael complained. The horses were laboring heavily, up to their knees in snow. Rafael looked at Malcolm with suspicion. “Where are we destined that is worth the sacrifice of five good horses?”
“Ravensmuir,” Malcolm admitted, breathing the name of the holding he loved more than anything.
“For the love of God, why?”
“Because it is mine.”
Rafael laughed. “You are a lord with a holding to your name?”
“I am,” Malcolm said so quietly that his companion sobered.
Rafael’s eyes lit with curiosity and something Malcolm chose not to name. “For how long has this been so?”
“Years now.” Malcolm spared the other man a glance. “For as long as I have known you and more.”
“And yet you never said a word of it. All this time, I fought beside a nobleman who pretended to have naught to his name.” Rafael slanted a glance at Malcolm. “One has to wonder why.”
Malcolm tried to swallow the lump in his throat and failed. “My uncle died in the keep of Ravensmuir.”
“Of old age? Poison? An assassin’s blade?”
“There are caverns beneath the keep, secret passages that wind down from the hall to the sea. My forebears used them for…trade.”
Rafael laughed again. “Trade in items that had to be hidden. I understand. Your forebears were pirates.”
“Not all of them. Some also had a thriving business in the sale of religious relics.”
“I knew there was more to you than met the eye.”
“My uncle Tynan did not approve. Like his father, he was an honest merchant, trading in cloth and other luxuries.”
“He would use the same contacts in the east for both,” Rafael noted. “And if a treasure slipped between the cloth, who would know?”
“Nay,” Malcolm said hotly. “My uncle was honest through and through. He ran a fair trade and refused to trade in relics. That was what killed him.”
Malcolm shook his head. “I had an aunt, or a woman we called an aunt. Rosamunde was a pirate and proud of it. She also was in love with Tynan. They had thought their feelings for each other wrong, for they believed that they were blood cousins. In truth. Rosamunde was a foundling who shared no blood with us and who had been adopted by my grandfather’s brother. When they learned the truth, I believe they became lovers.”
“The pirate and the man of honor. It is an unlikely partnership.”
“I believe it was quite stormy, but passionate. They argued about the relics and parted, but he pursued her into the caverns.”
“Then she killed him, to gain the hoard.” Rafael nodded. “I should have liked to have met this woman.”
“Nay, nay. She tried to save him.” Malcolm paused in his tale, for the next part sounded implausible, even in his own thoughts, even though he knew it to be true. “There is an old tale that Ravensmuir opens into the hidden realm of the Fae. We never believed it, until my youngest sister, Elizabeth said she could see the Fae in our abode of Kinfairlie.”
“A sister estate, governed by my father and now by my oldest brother, Alexander.”
“Children claim to see many things.”
“Indeed. But in the caverns below Ravensmuir strange events occurred. Rosamunde and Tynan were confronted by a Fae, a spriggan, convinced the relics were its own treasure. In the ensuing challenge, the caverns collapsed.”
“And there your uncle died,” Rafael guessed.
“And there he died, but not Rosamunde. She escaped into the realm of the Fae, through that very portal, one that was truth not rumor.”
“And you know this because she returned to share the tale.”
Malcolm nodded. To his thinking, there had always been an unreal quality about Ravensmuir. It had always perched on the lip of the North Sea, a brooding dark keep where there should not be one, a tower filled with secret passages and undermined by hidden tunnels, a castle said to be administered by lairds with strange powers. Ravens lived in the tops of its towers, dark and watchful birds that were said to communicate with the laird himself. There was a hedge of thorns before the gates, as if visitors were not welcome. Malcolm had played at Ravensmuir as a child, and its hall had been merry much of the time. Still he had always had a sense that there was more afoot than most people guessed.
More even than the secret traffic in religious relics that had funded Ravensmuir’s construction.
Rafael scoffed. “So you were to believe a pirate.” He shook his head. “I am skeptical, my friend. It seems to me this pirate Rosamunde stole the hoard, destroyed the caverns to escape your uncle when he opposed her, and returned—after the sale of the goods—with a pretty story to pacify you all. Perhaps she intended only to confirm that there was no more for the taking.”
“Believe what you must,” Malcolm said. The forest ended just ahead and all he could see was swirling white. He nodded toward it. “We ride directly toward the sea and the fields are open there. It cannot be a league to the keep, but it will be cold.”
Rafael rolled his eyes, then pulled down his hood, winding his cape across his face. “The blood in my veins turns to ice,” he complained, then caught his breath as they left the comparative shelter of the forest.
The wind was bitter and strong, the snow falling fast and thick. The sky was as dark as pewter over the sea and the snow drove at him in small hard pellets. Malcolm had a sense that Ravensmuir would keep them away, but the holding was his legacy and he had been away long enough.
After half an eternity, he saw the broken tumble of stone ahead of him that had once been the proud keep. He eyed its silhouette with a lump in his throat. Ravensmuir had always haunted his dreams.
He urged his horse onward, but the steed halted at the hedge of thorns.
“What manner of foul gate is this?” Rafael cried. The way had grown over, for so few had come this way. Malcolm dismounted and used his sword to widen the opening, hacking at the doughty growth. He wondered if it would dull the blade, but did not care.
He knew in that moment that his days of fighting were over, forever.
The wind was howling in his ears and echoing in the ruins of the keep when he had made a way broad enough to let the horses pass. His own steed balked and Malcolm had to lead him, then mount again once they were through the barrier. He checked that Rafael was close behind, along with the palfreys loaded with their spoils of war. He rode through the gate and to the stables, glad that they had not been destroyed. The stables were constructed of wood and not stone and were extensive, given his family’s history in breeding horses at Ravensmuir.
It was still inside and much warmer out of the wind. He dismounted and pushed back his hood, looking around with appreciation.
“This is your legacy?” Rafael demanded, his own expression much less pleased. “You have inherited a ruin, my friend!”
“I will see it rebuilt,” Malcolm said with resolve. He straightened and eyed his companion. “You are welcome to stay, if you so choose. If you go, I will not be offended.”
Rafael’s glance slipped to the loaded horses, and Malcolm remembered that they both knew the packs to be filled with gold and silver.
Perhaps it had not been the best choice to ensure that he was alone with his fortune in the company of a ruthless mercenary.
Perhaps he was too tired to think clearly. He and Rafael had fought back to back a hundred times, and each had gone back to save the other at risk. Malcolm reminded himself that he could trust Rafael.
He took a bucket and tried the well, gladdened to find that the water was still abundant and clear. He fetched water for the steeds, returning to the stables to find that Rafael had removed their trap and started to brush down his own horse. There was still some hay and oats, as well as a few bundles of straw. Rafael’s brows rose as he surveyed the former majesty of stables, but for once, he held his tongue.
The two warriors worked together in silence, tending their horses and ensuring that their needs were met. For Rafael, Malcolm expected that this labor was part of ensuring his arsenal remained in good care: a horse was a weapon and a tool, no more than that. Good care would ensure the steed survived longer and performed better, providing greater value for coin spent.
It had never been that way for Malcolm. The horses were as important to him as people, perhaps more so. He knew their characters and their preferences, and was devastated by the loss of one. That was why he had not taken one of the black destriers bred by his family with him when he had left. Malcolm had known he rode to war, and he did not want to lose such a steed.
The lineage of those who had bred horses at Ravensmuir ran in his veins and the prospect of continuing that legacy pleased him. He kindled a fire on the hearth that had been used by the ostler as the steeds ate, aware that Rafael was pacing the length of the stables.
“Your family did well in their trade,” he said quietly when he returned to watch Malcolm. “It has been a long time since I have seen a stable of such generous proportions and grace.”
“They bred horses.”
“The black destriers of Ravensmuir,” Rafael said softly. Malcolm turned in surprise. “Oh, they were of great renown, even amongst the Saracens. I have heard of them but never seen one. I thought, actually, that they must be a fable.” He stretched out his hands to the growing blaze with obvious pleasure, then turned to look again. Malcolm followed his gaze, eying the carved wood edges of the stalls and the vaulted roof overhead, also adorned with carvings.
“Many a man would be glad to be sheltered so well,” Rafael said, his tone wry. “You keep your promises, my friend.” He watched Malcolm carefully. “You pledged to return here, did you not?”
“And to rebuild. And I will.”
Rafael nodded, his gaze wandering over the building. “And so it is, when a man loses his heart to a dream.” His tone was uncharacteristically thoughtful, but before Malcolm could ask him to explain, music floated through the stables. It was beautiful music, more skillfully played than any Malcolm had heard before. He turned to look toward the back of the stable, where the music seemed to emanate, and saw a golden glow of light there. How could this be?
To his relief, Rafael saw it as well. The other man turned silently on his heel, drawing his knife and sparing Malcolm a nod. His posture indicated that he also believed there was an intruder. The weather, after all, was most foul and any unfortunate would seek shelter where it could be found. It made little sense that a trespasser would play music, though.
At Rafael’s gesture, they slipped into the shadows silently, one on each side of the great corridor, and worked their way steadily toward the sound.
The last stall was empty, a gaping hole in its back wall.
Malcolm entered the stall and peered down into the hole. A rough passage led down, the route hidden from view. There was only the light and the music to beckon them onward. He tested the rocks but they seemed to be stable.
“The caverns to the sea,” Rafael murmured, his words almost soundless.
Rafael considered the light and the music, his eyes narrowing.
Malcolm pointed to himself, then down into the caverns. Rafael’s lips tightened, then he nodded as well. They both tightened their grips on their knives and squared their shoulders.
Then Malcolm Lammergeier, Laird of Ravensmuir, descended into the abandoned caverns beneath the castle he had returned to claim. He had not gone a dozen steps before a gust of cold wind blew from below. The golden light was extinguished and they were plunged into darkness.
Rafael swore, even as he gripped Malcolm’s shoulder.
Malcolm froze in place, willing his eyes to adjust, smelling the salt of the sea. The caverns opened to the ocean far below, and he took this as a sign that they were not blocked the entire way. The music became louder, the tune so merry that his feet itched to dance.
“Some festivity would be most welcome,” Rafael said, then pushed past Malcolm.
“But wait!” Malcolm protested, fearing that he knew exactly what kind of music they heard. It was too late, though, for Rafael had plunged ahead. His silhouette had almost disappeared into the tunnel ahead.
Malcolm could not abandon his comrade, not now. He spared but one backward glance, ensuring that the stable was secured and the horses at ease, then descended into the earth after Rafael.
He could only hope they both returned to the stable unscathed.
Excerpt from The Frost Maiden’s Kiss by Claire Delacroix
©2013 Deborah A. Cooke
The next book in the True Love Brides Series is The Warrior’s Prize.