February 23, 2010
Avon
ISBN-10: 0061344796
ISBN-13: 978-0-06-134479-4



Only one man could set her heart ablaze…

Lady Averill Mortagne learned to control her fierce temper as a young girl. But if her father insists on parading her before one more English lord who looks askance at her flame-colored hair, she’ll simply scream! Her only respite is the time she spends with Kade Stewart, the wounded Scot her brother brought home from the Crusades. Who could have imagined a Highland warrior would be the only gentleman around?

Lady Averill helped save his life, and for that Kade is truly grateful. She is also almost unbearably beautiful, but he could never subject such a sweet and gentle lady to the rough life of a Stewart laird’s bride . . . or could he? When she braves an unexpected danger by his side, Averill will prove to Kade that her heart is as fiery as her hair . . . and that submitting to their scorching passion would be heaven indeed.


Chapter One

“I did tell Father not to get his hopes up, that I did not think Lord de Montfault likely to accept me as a bride, but he would not listen.”

Kade heard those words as he stirred from sleep and slowly opened his eyes. He found himself peering up at what might be the patterned draperies of a large bed. The material appeared quite dark, but then the room, too, seemed dark, with just the flicker of flames from a fire that cast dancing light and shadow everywhere.

It was night then, Kade deduced, and he was ... somewhere. He wasn’t sure where, exactly. He was hoping this was Stewart castle, his clan’s home in Scotland, but the woman speaking had a very definite English accent, Kade noted as she continued.

“Alas, Father simply does not see what others see when they look at me.” The words were said with a combination of exasperation and sadness that drew his curious eyes to the blurred figure seated next to the bed—a woman, obviously. Not that he could see her well enough to be sure of that, but the voice was definitely feminine, soft and a touch husky. It was soothing and he quite liked listening to it, which was a good thing since it appeared she was speaking to him. At least, there was no one else in the room for her to be addressing.

“I fear he sees me through a father’s eyes and simply does not notice how plain and unattractive I am. I suppose all fathers see their daughters as lovely, though. Which is sweet and right, but I do sometimes wish he could see me as I really am. Perhaps then he would not take these rejections so much to heart. I hate disappointing him.”

Kade closed his eyes for a moment, hoping to clear his vision enough to see the young woman’s face, but it felt so nice and soothing to have them closed that he found himself reluctant to open them again. Deciding he would leave them shut for the moment, he lay still and simply listened to her chatter, letting it flow over him like a sweet balm.

“I was hoping that with you and my brother here, Father would be distracted from his husband-hunting efforts. I do grow weary of being paraded before lords like a prize horse, especially when they all find me so wanting. ’Tis not that I mind the rejection so much, but some are quite rude about it. Montfault even had the nerve to say outright that he would not wed the Devil’s spawn.”

She gave a little sigh, and muttered, “Enough on this subject, ‘tis a sad one to be sure.” There was a silence, then she said fretfully, “Though I am not sure what else I should talk to you about. I have told you every tale I can think of, and surely the details of life here at Mortagne are not very interesting. I fear my life has been most staid and unexciting compared to the adventures you and Will have enjoyed together. No doubt whatever subject I choose will bore you to tears.”

Ah, Kade thought. So he was at Will’s home in northern England. Well, that answered that question at least. And she had commented earlier that she’d hoped her father would forget his efforts to wed her off now he and her brother were home. That meant she was Will’s sister, Averill. Will had spoken often of the lass over the last three years, and the tales had never failed to make Kade smile and wonder about the girl.

He was wondering even more now. Will had never said anything in all those tales that might explain why men would reject marriage to her. And what was this nonsense about being the Devil’s spawn? From all he knew, Will’s father, Lord Mortagne, was respected and well liked. Kade was suddenly curious to see what she looked like and why she was suffering these rejections she spoke of.

However, it seemed he wasn’t meant to find out just yet, for when he opened his eyes again it was to find that his vision had not improved. All Kade could see was a fuzzy figure seated beside the bed, bent over something in her lap. She appeared to be small in stature, her clothing dark, and her hair a bright, fiery orange in the light from the fire.

Frustration welling up in him, he blinked several times, but it did little good, and he closed his eyes again with resignation.

“I know!” she exclaimed suddenly. “I shall tell you tales of my naughty childhood.”

He could hear the wry amusement in her voice and almost opened his eyes to try again to see her expression, but it seemed like too much effort, so he didn’t bother and merely lay wondering which tale she would tell. Kade was very sure Will had told him every story there was to tell while they had been held prisoner the last three years. Their days had been spent laboring under the baking sun for their captors, but in the evenings they sat in dark, windowless cells passing the time by talking of home and family. Kade had told Will most of, if not all the details of his own youth and clan and was quite sure Will had done the same. So he was surprised when Averill began to tell an unfamiliar tale.

“I did not have such a naughty childhood really. I was mostly well behaved,” she assured him as if confessing a sin. “But when I was six I did try to run away ... though, ‘twas not very successful.”

That announcement was followed by a small, almost embarrassed chuckle. “You see, Will was five years older than I. He was my only playmate and was good enough not to mind having me trailing about after him. We used to play hide-and-go-seek and other childish games together after our lessons were over for the day. But then, when I was five, Will was sent away to train, and I lost my only playmate and best friend.”

A little sigh of sadness slid from her lips at the memory. “I was most unhappy, and somewhat spoiled by having had him be so indulgent of me. I begged Mother and Father to bring him back so that I could play with him again, but they were often busy and had little time to soothe a small girl missing her brother. So I decided that if they would not bring him back to me, I should do as I’d always done and follow him.

“First, I asked my father’s captain of the guard to please take me to see Will. He, of course, refused, explaining most kindly that my father would not approve. I fear I kicked him in the shins for his refusal. I then ran to my room to have a good cry, and before the tears had dried on my face, decided I would have to run away.

“I planned it all most carefully in my child’s mind. I snuck into the kitchens and filched some plums and buns while Cook wasn’t looking, then gathered my favorite bed linen—for I knew it might be a long way and I might have to sleep out of doors a night or two—and then I headed out. There are secret corridors built into the walls of Mortagne—” She paused and there was a frown in her voice as she admitted, “I suppose I should not have told you that. Fortunately, you are not conscious to hear. Still ...”

Kade strained to listen as she paused again. He was glad when she continued, “Well, you are not likely to recall when you awake anyway, so ... The secret passages run between the rooms, then join up at a tunnel that ends outside the bailey walls. Will and I were always told that it was the way for us to flee should the castle ever be attacked, and that is how I got out of the castle.

“I took the candle from my room, lit it from the fire in my nursemaid’s room—she was old, always cold, and never without her fire blazing even in summer,” Averill explained before continuing. “And then I braved the tunnels. They were dark and dirty, with horrible large cobwebs and skittering sounds. I was sure there were small creatures that would attack me at any moment. I almost turned around and hurried back to my room, but I wanted to see Will again, so I made myself continue on and finally reached the end of the tunnel.”

A small chuckle rolled through the air around him, and she admitted, “I had the devil of a time getting the outer tunnel door open. However, I did, and a breeze immediately blew in and snuffed my candle, but the tunnel ends in a cave, and enough sunlight was streaming through the entrance that I could see my way out. I left my candle there and dragged my linen behind me out into the open air.

“I remember it being so bright that my eyes stung after being so long in the tunnels, and I was exhausted by all my efforts, so I didn’t walk far before stopping under a nice shady tree to enjoy my pilfered food. I planned to continue on my journey as soon as I finished eating, but all the excitement and the food made me sleepy, so I brushed off the worst of the dirt and cobwebs my linen had gathered in my travails and curled up under the tree to sleep. And that is where they found me.

“I gather there was quite a ruckus when they realized I was missing. The servants searched every nook and cranny of the castle, and the soldiers were called in to help look. Father is the one who found me under that tree. I was sound asleep in my dirty bit of linen, cobwebs in my hair and dirt smudges on my face so that he swears he first thought me a peasant girl rather than the little lady I was supposed to be,” she finished affectionately.

Kade couldn’t resist, he opened his eyes, squinting in an effort to see her better as he asked, “Were you very upset to have been found and brought back?”

“Nay. By that time I was rather relieved,” she admitted with a self-deprecating laugh. “It had started to rain, you see, and was growing cold. I was eager to return to the castle and—” Her voice died abruptly, and her head shot up, eyes, no doubt, finding him, then her blurred shape stretched as she stood with a gasp. “You are awake!”

Kade didn’t respond. It had pained his throat to ask his question, and her words didn’t require a response.

Averill moved closer to the bed then, but he still could not see her very well as she asked, “Would you like a drink? Or—Oh, I should send for Will. He has sat by you quite often and insisted I find him if you stirred. Wait here.”

Kade raised his head to watch her blurry figure bustle away, frustrated by his inability to see properly when her dark outfit blended in with the shadows of the room. The patter of her footsteps and the door opening and closing were the only way he knew she’d left.

Grimacing, he lay back on the bed and closed his eyes once more, wondering why they were playing him false. He had never had trouble seeing before. And why did he not recall how he’d come to be here? And what had she meant by saying Will had sat by him quite often? What—?

The sound of the door opening distracted him from his questions, and he frowned in that direction. Will couldn’t have been far away. Probably down in the great hall, Kade supposed, considering the lateness that the dark in the room suggested. He squinted in a useless effort to see better, and called, “Will?”

“Nay, ‘tis Averill.” Her voice sounded surprised as she closed the door, then she rushed forward, her figure separating from the general blur and becoming a dark wraith crowned with fiery hair as she rushed closer. “I sent a maid to tell Will the news and fetch back a drink. It should be here soon. Are you having trouble seeing, my lord?” The question had barely left her lips when she added, “Do not speak, it obviously pains you. No doubt your throat is dry. Just nod and shake your head for now.”

Kade grimaced. She was right. It did pain him to speak though he was sure a drink would help with that. He was more concerned with how he had come to be here and why his eyes were playing him false, but merely nodded to indicate that he was indeed having trouble seeing.

“Oh.” She bent slightly over him, and the heady scent of flowers and spices teased his nose, as she muttered, “Will did not mention an injury that might damage your sight. Mayhap the head wound has something to do with it.”

She straightened and turned slightly as the door opened again. Kade glanced that way as well to see a much larger figure in dark pants and a light-colored tunic move forward, booted feet pounding on the floor with each step.

“Will?” The question slipped from his lips before Kade could help himself, and he grimaced at the sad croak he produced, not to mention the friction it caused in his throat.

“He cannot see,” Averill explained. “It may be a result of the head wound. Or mayhap his eyes are merely in need of liquid as much as his throat to work right. We’ve managed to get little enough in the way of food or liquid down his throat these last two weeks.”

“Aye,” Will agreed, moving toward the bed even as Averill moved toward the door.

“I shall see where that girl is with his drink and have her fetch him some broth as well,” she said as she left the room. Then Will stepped up to tower over Kade where he lay.

“You look like hell, my friend.”

When Kade gave a grunt of disgust at the words, Will laughed and took the seat Averill had been using earlier. “I am glad to see your eyes open at last. I feared that was something I would never see.”

“What—?” Kade began, but paused when Will reached out to grasp his arm.

“Save your voice. I’ll recount what has happened while you were unconscious, and you may ask questions later.”

When Kade relaxed back in the bed, he asked, “Do you recall our boat journey?”

Kade frowned, searching his mind for what he spoke of.

Will obviously noted it, because there was concern in his voice as he asked, “You do recall our being captured by Baibar’s men and held prisoner for three years?”

Kade nodded. That time was not one he would soon forget. Nearly three years of his life had been wasted in that prison. It had been exactly one thousand and seventy-two days of hell. Kade had counted them off as he’d sat in the dark cell at night, talking to his cellmates—his cousin, Ian, and this man, Will Mortagne. While Will was an Englishman whom Kade had hardly known prior to their capture by infidels while on Crusade, he was now counted among his closest and most trusted friends. Their friendship was the only good thing to come out of the experience.

“And our escape?” Will asked. “Do you remember that?”

Kade nodded again. After three years of hard labor, with sweat stinging in the open wounds on his back from the whips their guards liked to apply, Kade had thought he’d die in that foreign land. He’d seen enough men go that way. Every couple of days another prisoner had fallen, a victim of starvation and dehydration, worked to death and dragged away to be tossed into an open pit where others lay rotting.

Kade had been sure he, too, would end his days in that mass grave. But when his cousin, Ian, had fallen ill, Kade had had enough. He’d lost man after man to the stinking pit, but he was not letting Ian go. He was like a brother; they’d grown up together, and Kade was determined to do what he could to save him ... or die trying. The plan had been simple, and desperate. At night, after being returned to their cell, he’d had Ian pretend he was dead, not hard since the illness that had claimed him had made him pale as a corpse. Kade had then called the guard.

Two had come, both swarthy and strong with swords drawn. They hadn’t even examined Ian other than to glance at him through the bars before they’d opened the door and ordered Kade and Will to bring him out. Kade had taken Ian’s feet and Will his arms, and they had carted him out of the cell, but as they were passing the guard, Kade had dropped Ian’s feet and tackled the guard nearest him.

It was surprise alone that had won the day. He’d managed to get the man’s sword and keys and tossed the keys to Will to free the others. He’d then taken on the now-unarmed guard and his armed compatriot alone until the others were free to aid him. He still found it hard to believe he’d survived those moments uninjured. But he had, and they had all escaped unscathed.

“And the monastery in Tunis?” Will prodded. “You recall the three months we spent there while Ian recovered from his illness, I healed from my sword wound, and we all recuperated and regained our weight and strength?”

Kade grimaced. While they’d escaped the cells unscathed, they hadn’t been so lucky afterward. They were stealing horses on which to flee when Will had been run through by a guard who took them by surprise. Once the guard had been taken care of, Will had tried to be brave and steadfast, clutching the wound in his side and telling them to go on without him, but Kade had ignored that and taken the time to bind the wound the best he could. It had been bad, and Kade had feared losing yet another friend to Baibar’s cruelty.

Once they’d reached the safety of the monastery in Tunis, the monks had tended to Ian and Will. Ian had recovered from his illness within a couple of days, but it had taken two weeks for Will to recuperate. Once he was up and about, they had spent another two and a half months regaining their strength and working to earn the money for food, clothes, and horses to make the long journey home. It had taken them more than two months to make their way north to France. They’d hired a boat there to carry them across the Channel to England, he recalled.

“But you do not recall the boat crossing from France to England?” Will asked, reminding him of his earlier confusion.

“I remember,” he managed, wincing as the words tore at his throat. The boat they’d hired had seemed sturdy and the day fine when they’d cast off, but a storm had whipped up halfway across, and waves taller than the ship had surrounded them. Kade was no coward, but even he had trembled before the powerful walls of water that had tossed the ship about. When they finally saw shore ahead, he suspected he was not the only one to breathe a sigh of relief that it was nearly over. But Mother Nature had not been finished with them yet and, as the captain tried to steer into the harbor, the ship was caught by a wave and dashed against the rocks. Kade had a vague recollection of the screams of men and panicked whinny of horses, then a blinding pain in his head.

“The men?” he asked, doing his throat more damage.

“Stop trying to talk,” Will said with exasperation, then sighed. “We lost Gordon and Parlan.”

Kade closed his eyes as loss slid over him. Two more men to add to the others lost to the madness of Edward’s Crusade. Of the thirty warriors he’d been captured with, only Domnall, Ian, and Angus remained. And Will, he acknowledged. Edward had ordered that the Englishman accompany them on the late-night sojourn to check on the whereabouts of Baibar’s men. That order had cost the Englishman more than three years of his life, and while Kade was sorry for his friend’s sake, he was grateful for his own. Their friendship had helped him stay sane during their trials.

“But Ian, Angus, and Domnall made it to shore,” Will went on firmly. “And I pulled your sorry hide there when I found you facedown in the water. The horses did better,” he added dryly. “We only lost one and managed to collect the others as they swam to shore.”

Kade grunted. He’d rather have lost all the horses than one more man.

“I took you up on my mount, and we rode straight here to Mortagne. You have been unconscious nearly two weeks now, and—”

“Two—?” Kade began with disbelief.

“Aye, two weeks,” Will interrupted, and shook his head. “I do not know why. You had a bump, but it was not even an open wound. Averill says head wounds are like that though. A small bump can kill a man, while another will survive his skull being cracked open.” He shrugged. “She would know, I suppose. Averill was trained in healing by our mother and has aided in tending the ill and injured here since a child. She has fretted over you like a mother hen these two weeks, dribbling broth down your throat several times a day in an effort to keep you from starving to death. She has also been talking to you nonstop. Averill assured me that it would keep your soul tied to your body, so you did not wander to heaven and not return.” Will grinned as he added, “Your ears must be ringing from her nonstop chatter. You probably regained consciousness just to shut her up.”

Kade shook his head at the words. He had no recollection of anything since the boat broke apart. Though he must have heard her with some part of his mind, for he found himself missing her dulcet tones. As if called by her thoughts, he heard the door open and the patter of feminine footsteps.

“Here we are.” That gay voice was accompanied by a gust of the spicy floral scent he’d noted earlier as Averill bustled back in. Her arrival seemed to brighten the room, her cheer helping to wash away some of the bitter memories that had been occupying his thoughts. Blinking the rest of them away, Kade watched her dark, little figure hurry forward, leading what appeared to be at least two maids, possibly three, all carrying items he couldn’t make out. He strained in an effort to see better, but the women remained smudgy blurs in his vision, refusing to come into focus.

Kade scowled with frustration and tried to raise his hands to rub at his eyes. They felt gritty, as if he had something in them, though he suspected they were just parched, as was the rest of his body. His head felt stuffed with cotton, his mouth so arid he could not even work up any saliva to oil his throat, and his skin everywhere felt dry and stretched tight, like leather being cured. Still, it was his eyes that troubled him the most at the moment. However, the hands he was trying to lift to rub at the two irritating orbs merely flopped where they lay. He did not even have the strength to raise them. Kade gave it up with a small sigh. He had never felt so weak and helpless in his life, and he wasn’t enjoying the experience.

“Here, Will, help me sit him up to drink,” Averill ordered.

Kade grimaced as the Englishman slid an arm beneath his back and lifted him halfway upright. He knew he couldn’t manage on his own, so didn’t protest, but merely waited as Averill leaned down to press the drink to his lips. The liquid, sweet and cool, the finest honey mead he’d ever tasted, poured into his mouth. He would have gulped it down in two swallows, but Averill only gave him a sip, then waited while he swallowed it before tipping the mug up again.

“More,” he gasped impatiently, when she did that a third time.

“Nay. You have had little or nothing to eat or drink for weeks. ‘Tis best to go slowly at first.”

Forcing back his impatience, Kade suffered her slow and sensible approach, and by the time the chalice was empty, had begun to think she had the right of it. While he still thirsted and yearned for more, his belly was churning in a threatening manner.

“How is your stomach?” Averill asked as she set the mug aside.

Kade grimaced for answer as Will eased him back to lie in the bed.

“We shall wait on the broth then, I think,” she decided. “Do you think you can stay awake long enough for Mabs to help you clean up? Or do you wish to sleep now and wait until the next time you wake up?”

Kade opened his mouth to assure her that he wasn’t at all tired. After all, he’d just woken up, but the words were drowned out by a sudden yawn that made a mockery of what he’d wanted to say.

“Perhaps tomorrow morning then,” Averill said gently, as if he’d spoken, and he blinked his eyes sleepily as she tugged the linens and furs up more closely around him. “Sleep. You shall feel better in the morning.”

“Should he be tired already?” Will asked, as Kade felt his eyes begin to droop closed. “He only just awoke.”

“He will probably stay awake a little longer next time, but he shall tire easily for a while. I am surprised he stayed awake long enough to drink all the mead.” Averill’s voice was soft and soothing to Kade’s ears, lulling him into a state of half slumber. He didn’t really want to sleep, but his mind and body appeared to have other ideas, and the soft murmur of their voices wasn’t enough to keep him awake.


 

-return to top-