From Rowan Keats--author of To Kiss a Kilted Warrior, When a Laird Takes a Lady, and Taming a Wild Scot--comes the newest entry in the Claimed by the Highlander novels...
In the Highlands of Scotland, danger and desire can be found anywhere—but finding them may lead to something much more perilous and passionate than anyone can handle.
Lady-in-waiting Caitrina de Montfort is in a terrible bind. With her sister held captive by a henchman of Edward Longshanks, she has been forced to spy on the dowager queen of Scotland. But the resourceful young noblewoman has a plan to set her sister free—until the arrival of a charming but steely-eyed courtier ruins everything.
Bran MacLean has made his living by his wits for most of his life. After stealing a valuable treasure, he evades pursuit by donning a disguise and joining the queen's retinue. All goes well until the lovely Caitrina pilfers his loot and demands his aid in rescuing her sister. But their enemy is ruthless—and they soon find themselves facing a desperate choice between love and survival...
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Rowan Keats is the author of To Kiss a Kilted Warrior, Taming a Wild Scot and When a Laird Takes a Lady. She graduated from the University of Ottawa with an Honours degree in Business. She worked as a banker, stock broker, and marketing director before returning to her true calling: writing. Born to a French-Canadian father and a Scottish-Danish mother, she has centuries of rich history to draw from when penning her romantic tales of days gone by. She currently lives in Central Canada with her familyExcerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
PRAISE FOR THE CLAIMED BY THE HIGHLANDER NOVELS
ALSO BY ROWAN KEATS
Near Stirling Castle
Caitrina de Montfort scurried down the darkened corridor of the abbey, a candlestick gripped tightly in one hand and a bowl of lemon brined herring in the other. The queen had awoken in the middle of the night with a fierce desire to eat fish. Given that Her Grace was only weeks away from birthing the future king of Scotland, Caitrina had happily volunteered to fulfill her request. But the timing was inconvenient. And a wee bit disquieting. The graceful stone columns and carved oak crucifixes she admired by daylight were havens for eerie shadows at this hour.
A shiver ran down her spine as she passed an unlit archway.
The circle of light cast by her flickering candle barely held the gloom at bay. Perhaps it would have been wiser to rouse one of the maids. The chambers provided to visiting nobles were in a separate tower of the abbey, more than a scream away from the sleeping quarters of the Augustinian monks . . .
Caitrina grimaced and slowed her pace to a more ladylike walk. Dear lord. Why did she insist on letting her foolish imaginings give wings to her feet? What reason would she have to scream? Monks lived here. These were hallowed halls.
She climbed the stairs to the third level, where a single, brave torch fought—and lost—a battle against the shadows. The dim outlines of several arched doorways were discernible along the corridor, but little else.
The queen’s quarters were at the far end—a grand set of rooms that included an antechamber, a stone hearth, and a large platform bed. Just beyond the iron-studded door ahead, a pair of armed soldiers faithfully stood guard, protecting the queen and the half dozen women who served her.
Safety was a mere twenty paces away.
She stepped forward.
A faint smile was curling her lips when a hand snaked out of the dark. Big and brutal, it grabbed her by the throat and slammed her against the stone wall. She attempted to shriek, but the only sound that escaped her lips was a strangled whisper. Her candlestick toppled to the wooden floor and the flame was snuffed as it rolled, leaving her in the dead of night with a hot-breathed monster.
Heart pounding, Caitrina squeezed her eyes shut.
“You,” growled the monster, “try my patience.”
She recognized the voice, but it was no less monstrous for its familiarity. It belonged to Giric the Bear—henchman and loyal knave to Edward Longshanks, the King of England. Even with her eyes closed, she could see his large, misshapen left ear and the puckered scar some failed assassin had drawn upon his cheek.
“Every move the queen makes must be reported.”
A flush of shame seared her cheeks. Did he think she could forget, even for one moment, the horrid task demanded of her? Caitrina attempted to respond, but his hand was still too tight, still choking. Impossible.
Hearing her sputter, he eased his hold, and a sweet rush of air filled her chest. He leaned in close, his breath thick with ale and rot. “If the queen shares a meal with the abbot, you tell me. If she eats haggis instead of venison, you tell me. And if she chooses not to return to Stirling Castle for the evening, you tell me. Every move. Am I clear?”
“’Twas a belated decision,” Caitrina said hoarsely. Miraculously, she had managed to hold on to the bowl of fish, and she cradled it to her chest. A flimsy barrier, to be sure, but a strange comfort nonetheless. “She felt poorly.”
“Were she already confined, as a woman of her station ought to be, such discomfort could have been avoided.”
“And had her husband not perished on the eve of her birthday,” Caitrina responded, “she might well be resting at Kinghorn instead of seeking out every holy monk in the land. But she is convinced the unfortunate timing of Alexander’s death is an ill omen, and she fears for the soul of her unborn child.”
Giric snorted. “She’s a madwoman. All the more reason I should know what she is about.”
The insult chafed her already raw conscience. “I’m in service to the queen. I cannot be sending a messenger every hour.”
“It is King Edward you must please, not that French bitch.” Something feather soft slid along her cheek. “Honor the bargain you struck with him. Find a way to make him happy.”
Caitrina grimaced. Bargain? That made it sound as if she’d had a choice. “I have given him every insight into the queen’s affairs that I am privy to. My only lapse has been this delay.”
“A delay that might have had serious consequences.” Giric tucked the soft object into the neckline of Caitrina’s gown. “Fail him, and the king will make good on his promise to brand you and your sister as traitors to the crown.”
A vision of her sister sprang into Caitrina’s mind—the last time they’d seen each other, at Dunfermline Abbey in early April. The day after King Alexander’s state funeral. She would never forget the bewildered expression on Marsailli’s young face as Edward and his soldiers escorted her off to Uxbridge Priory. Nine years separated the two girls in age, and Marsailli had not understood that when a king offers his protection, he cannot be denied. Even when that protection was merely a mask of kindness. “I have not failed.”
The hand about her neck tightened again. “I will be the judge of your success,” he snarled. “Not you. Make your reports with more diligence, or you will not enjoy the consequences.”
Her family had been stripped of land, wealth, and title, but noble blood still coursed through Caitrina’s veins—her grandfather had been the Earl of Leicester and her grandmother had been the daughter of a king. Allowing Giric to believe she was without power would be a mistake. She opened her eyes. The henchman’s face was only inches away, and she could vaguely behold the rippled flesh of his scar. “I am cousin to the queen. Punish me without just cause and I’ll see you hang for it.”
The Bear chuckled in her ear. “You and your sister are the spawn of an excommunicated murderer. Who do you imagine will leap to your defense?”
His words sparked a bitter fire in Caitrina’s chest, and she struggled against his hold. “He was not a murderer. My father simply did what honor demanded. He avenged his kin.”
“There was no cause for vengeance. Your uncle and grandfather died on a battlefield. Henry of Almain had his throat cut in a church.”
“You paint Henry as an innocent,” she said. “But he was not. He stole Leicester’s colors and then slaughtered every man who flocked to his banner.”
“King Edward does not tell the tale the same way.”
“Of course not. Henry was obeying Edward’s orders!”
Giric’s thumb pressed deeply into her throat. “Your father’s sins are not worthy of debate,” he snarled. “All that matters is the babe. Do as I say, or your sister will pay the price. Understand?”
Caitrina’s desire to argue vanished along with her air. She understood the stakes all too well. Spying on her cousin upset her, but imagining the life Marsailli would live if they were branded as traitors made her physically ill. Their father had died a penniless pauper in some unknown land. She could not allow Marsailli to endure the same fate. She nodded.
“Is the birth imminent?”
She shook her head.
Giric eased his hold again. “The midwife in my employ suggests it could be any time in the next month. I must know the moment she is confined.”
Caitrina’s gut knotted. What need would Giric have for a midwife? She had been spying on the queen for several months and she had long known King Edward’s interest lay in the bairn—the future monarch of Scotland. But what was the king’s ultimate intent? “The monks have offered the queen the hospitality of their fine manor at Clackmannan. We travel there on the morrow.”
“I assume that once the bairn is born, Marsailli will be free to leave the priory and take up residence with me in the queen’s household?”
A short silence followed her question.
Finally, he released her and stepped back. “She will be free to depart once your task is complete.”
“And when is that?”
“After you snatch the babe and bring it to me.”
“What?” Caitrina stared at his murky outline in horror, her stomach heaving. Steal her cousin’s babe? The only child Yolande would ever have with her now dead husband? “No word was ever said about stealing the bairn. I was asked to spy, nothing more. I cannot do such a thing.”
“Did you truly believe a bit of spying would be enough to earn you forgiveness for your father’s evil deed?” the Bear jeered. “Surely you are not so witless as that.”
Head spinning, Caitrina slumped against the stone wall. If not witless, then certainly naive. It all made a sick sort of sense now—why King Edward had approached her personally at the funeral, why the meeting had occurred in an abandoned bothy behind the abbey, and why he had taken her sister into his care. This had been their plan all along. Her sister was more than a simple prisoner. She was the means by which King Edward would bring a proud and independent nation to its knees.
“Is my sister safe?”
“Well enough . . . for now. She is no longer at the priory. She is here in Scotland, with me.”
Caitrina died a little at his words. It had been dreadful enough imagining her sister alone with a group of strange nuns. But with Giric? God only knew what horrors Marsailli was enduring at this mongrel’s hands. At ten and five, her sister had developed into a willowy beauty with a gentle soul. She would not fare well under abuse. Not that Edward Longshanks spared a thought for the lives of innocent young lasses—he cared only for his own plans.
And those plans included hammering the Scots into submission in any way he could. He’d revealed his true colors in his negotiations with Caitrina, openly deriding his neighbors to the north. But she’d never imagined he would stoop so low as to steal Yolande’s bairn. Dear lord. “Kidnapping the heir to the throne of Scotland will be no easy feat.”
“You are cousin to the queen,” he reminded her.
“Cousin or no,” she protested, “what you ask is impossible. The bairn will never be alone.”
“Find a way,” he said softly. “Or lose everything you value.”
Then he took another step back and disappeared into the darkness.
As his footsteps faded and silence took over the corridor, the stiffness in Caitrina’s shoulders eased. Echoes of the Bear’s threats still rang in her ears, but she darted for the big oak door at the end of the corridor with the bowl of herring clasped to her bosom like a stolen treasure. She’d been gone far too long. The queen would be weak from hunger.
Inside the antechamber, the two armed guards draped in red and gold tabards stood silent and purposeful, completely unaware of the incident in the corridor. Not that they would have come to her defense had they known—they were members of the royal garde du corps. They would die before leaving the queen’s side.
She pushed on the inner doors and entered.
A waft of soft heat from the fire greeted her. Five ladies-in-waiting, clad only in their white linen night rails and silk slippers, were loosely gathered around the huge platform bed in the center of the room, chatting in quiet undertones.
Gisele de Noyon, the mistress of the robes, scurried to her side. She snatched the fish from Caitrina’s hands, irritation evident in the deep creases on her brow. “Mon dieu! You lazy wench. Did you stop to stare at the moon? Martine was right. I should have sent a maid.”
“The kitchens are on the far side of the abbey,” Caitrina reminded her.
But she need not have bothered. Gisele had already spun about and sailed for the bed. The heavy velvet draperies hung open on one side, revealing the young queen, reclined upon a sea of embroidered pillows. A broad smile spread across Yolande’s face as she spied the fish, and she eagerly accepted a silver spoon with which to eat. She had the spoon poised above the bowl, about to partake, when she suddenly lifted her gaze and stared across the room.
“Caitrina,” she called. “Come.”
The informal summons earned Caitrina a glare from Gisele. Ladies-in-waiting were typically addressed by their titles, and the queen rarely strayed from that etiquette. Except with her cousin.
Avoiding the censure in Gisele’s eyes, Caitrina crossed to the bed with as much speed as decorum would allow and curtsied. “How may I serve you, Your Grace?”
“Lady Gisele has assured me that no food would be brought to me without being tasted,” Yolande said, gently caressing her mounded belly with her free hand. “But I need to hear that assurance from your own lips. For the sake of my prince.”
Her fears were not groundless. Some months before, a fiend had attempted to poison the queen and her unborn child—and very nearly succeeded. “You have my word,” said Caitrina. “I woke the cook, and he tasted the fish himself, right before my eyes.”
Satisfied, the queen’s spoon dipped into the bowl and scooped up a small portion of the flaky fish. It went into her mouth, and Yolande’s eyes closed briefly as she savored her midnight meal. “Perfect,” she murmured after the mouthful was consumed. Then she emptied the bowl in a series of delicate but eager bites.
Gisele removed the bowl to a side table and one of the other ladies offered the queen a lavender-scented cloth to wipe her lips. Now replete, the queen laid her head back. “I wish to rest.”
Caitrina was about to step away when the queen’s eyes popped open and she grabbed Caitrina’s hand. “Tomorrow, we will talk, my little cousin. You have been a true comfort to me these past months since my Alexander’s death.”
“I live to serve you, Your Grace.”
“We will require a lady of the nursery,” the queen said, her eyelids drooping. “Someone who will put the needs of the new prince above all else. You have proven your loyalty time and again, and I can think of none better to entrust my babe and his future.”
Caitrina felt, rather than saw, the stabbing glance from Gisele. “Would you not wish to appoint a woman with more experience, Your Grace? A woman with children of her own?”
“Nay,” the queen said, allowing her eyes to close on a soft sigh. “An unwed woman is best. The lady of the nursery should have no other claims on her attention.” She released Caitrina’s hand. “But we will speak more on this tomorrow.”
Bowing deeply, Caitrina stepped back.
The other ladies closed in, tucking the sheets around the queen and lowering the drapes.
Lady of the nursery. How incredible. She’d never imagined the queen would honor her with such an appointment. Especially now. If Yolande had any inkling of the conversation in the corridor, she’d have Caitrina wrapped in chains and thrown into the dungeon. And rightly so. Disloyalty and treason should never be rewarded, no matter how fine the intentions were.
With her heart beating a heavy march, Caitrina reached into the neckline of her gown and pulled out the feather-soft item Giric had tucked there. It ...
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