Year of our Lord 1283
In the light of the early dawn, Lady Fay traverses her parapet wall and waits with bow drawn taut. Only when she realizes the group of men who exit the Saxon rowboat are tonsured does she allow herself to breathe. She need not shoot another of King Alexander’s suitors. At least not today. With a wicked grin, she lets go the bowstring, and the arrow makes a perfect arc to land directly in front of the one in the lead. She isn’t so fond of priests, either.
Nicholas Bruce jumps when the barb lands within inches of his sandaled feet. The former queen of the Isle of Man is just as beautiful and deadly as he remembers. Suddenly, he is not so certain that this holy disguise will work. Surely she’ll remember him, the bastard grandson of the mighty Earl of Annandale. But what choice does he have? If he wants to survive, he needs to bed her, and soon.
Year of our Lord 1283
The castle at No-Man’s-Land, just north of Carlisle
With arrow buried deep in his shoulder, Nicholas Bruce raced between the thick black pillars of his brother-in-law’s keep while colorful pennants flapped overhead in the parapets. Cold wind off the Scottish moors chilled him to the bone and the loss of blood made him lightheaded.
Pain blinded him as he all but fell off his charger, stumbled into the main hall, and collapsed onto his side. His pool of blood widened, staining the rush mats. All he could do was pant and stare, unbelieving.
She tried to kill him? After all they’d gone through?
The devil grinned, waiting at the gates of hell, until a hard palm smacked Nicholas’ cheek, bringing him back to earth.
“Christ’s blood! Just what’ve you gotten yourself into this time?” Thomas D’Agostine, his Norman features laced with concern, cut away the sodden tunic. His shouts echoed in the great room, “Anon. Awake all. We need more torches! Merry, to me.”
Still in her nightclothes, Nicholas’ twin sister fell to her knees and put a cool hand to his cheek. Merry’s voice shook as she turned to a young maid. “Wake Lady Ann and have her bring medicines and flesh needles.”
Sleepy gawkers arose from their pallets and lit torches, candles, and lamps. Nicholas moaned, shut his eyes once more, and hoped for heavenly clouds instead of the fires of hell.
His face stung once again when Merry smacked a mite too hard. “Don’t you dare die! Not on Christmastide. I won’t have it.”
His heavy eyelids refused to open and to his surprise, angels, instead of the devil, greeted him. He prayed that his grin would stick to his face long after he was gone. It would prove to the Lady Fay that a merciful God existed and had forgiven his many sins.
Three months prior at Castle Carlisle
“I won’t kidnap her. Even if deposed, Lady Fay’s still royalty.” Nicholas clenched his fists and counted to twelve as he paced the upstairs chambers. Hell’s balls, how he hated Castle Carlisle.
As usual, any time he, his father, and grandsire gathered, Nicholas was the one that paid a heavy price. All shared the same hair, same hazel eyes, and same perfected glower, but only he was bastard-born. To distance himself from the others, Nicholas tied his red hair back, shaved often, and favored a simple brown tunic.
The other two wore red, striped with green, as did the wall pennants and a rug in front of the hearth. Even the bed, hanging by iron chains from the rafters, was covered in Bruce plaid.
Nicholas snorted. What arrogance.
His grandsire, the fifth Earl of Annandale, was in fact a mere steward. The keep, the bed, and the lands all belonged to King Edward, no matter what the colors.
Dear God, if you have any fondness for me, and for England, let the old man drop dead before he can cause more trouble.
Taking a deep breath, Nicholas wandered toward a new hanging. In it, Edward battled the Welsh, surrounded by yellow lions and God’s holy light. His father, the future Earl of Annandale, battled with helm down while an angel guided his sword.
What a farce.
There was no holiness on that day, only the suffocating odors of the dead and dying. He pressed his palms to his eyes and shook his head.
The old Earl, his grandfather, continued, noticing nothing amiss. “If it disturbs your chivalrous nature, woo her as you see fit. What’s so difficult? An overthrown queen’s no queen a ’tall. Steal her away and put your seed in her.”
Using the perfected Bruce scowl, and knowing how much it would infuriate the other two, Nicholas approached the warm hearth. “Just what are you two plotting?”
An old knurled finger shot forth, poking Nicholas in the chest repeatedly. “You should be gladdened by my offer. In the Isle of Man, they don’t care so much about low-born bastards.”
“God’s—umph.” Nicholas inhaled, then exhaled out a thanks when his father elbowed his gut. Better a pain in the side than locked up in the dungeon again.
“We’ll not be discussing my son’s birthright. Not here. Not ever.”
Nicholas raised his eyebrows. This was new. His father seldom stood up to the great and almighty Earl of Annandale.
The two glowered, their jaws clenched, and cheeks reddened until they matched the room’s decor.
Good for them.
Hoping to escape the shouting no doubt to ensue, Nicholas slipped toward the door. He cracked it open, peered down the empty hallway, and took a step toward freedom. The oak slammed in his face and his ever-vigilant grandsire tugged him back by his tunic.
“You will obey!”
Wool tightened around Nicholas’ neck, reminding him of a noose. Damnation, even the dogs in Annandale’s castle get better treatment.
He tried to reason with the old man one last time. “King Alexander intends for Lady Fay to marry a Scot, nay an English.”
With his palms raised to heaven, the old maggot smiled as if saying mass for God Almighty. “We’re all but pawns in the game of kings.”
Nicholas scoffed. Even the fishwife knew that his grandfather plotted only for himself.
There was no way he should even be considering this, but the idea of seducing a queen held some appeal to his basest nature. “Let’s say I were to agree. ’Tis well known that Lady Fay, the former queen, shot arrows into her last two suitors. ‘Twould be easier to bed a rabid boar.”
“I thought you loved a quest.” Old eyes reflected red from the wall’s hearth fire and thin lips exposed yellowed teeth. His grandfather knew he was winning the war and grinned.
The devil walked over Nicholas’ grave and he shuddered, despite the warmth. Instead of riding straight back to Scarborough, as he should’ve, he said, “Heed me. She lives on an island, surrounded by loyal guards. None of them will allow an English knight onto the Isle of Man. I know. I met some of them last summer.”
The former queen was beautiful, and haughty, and he a low born bastard, not even knighted. His heart raced at the audacity. The penalties of such an accomplishment were unimaginable. The rewards, beyond his wildest dreams.
“If you’d married her last summer, as I’d asked, none of this would be necessary.” The old man chuckled. “If you’re worried you’re not man enough, I’ll send you with a dowry.”
God’s Blood, how he loathed the earl. So as not to land back behind iron bars, Nicholas chose his words with care. “Very well, but when I return I expect to be knighted.”
His father laid a hand upon his shoulder and said softly, “Do this one more deed for Edward and for England, and I will see to it, Son.”
A snort of disdain sounded from his grandfather.
Biting his tongue, Nicholas turned to gaze out the window where steel clanged against steel. Holy knights practiced swordplay in the fields just beyond the walls of the keep. How many times had his grandfather promised and then reneged? This would be the last time he whored for clan or country.
“I swear, should you not keep your word, I will search out Edward and we will all hang together.” He shook off his father’s fondness, turned on his heel, and headed for the tavern.