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.
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
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
“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
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.
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
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
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
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
“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
When Kade relaxed back in the bed, he asked, “Do
you recall our boat journey?”
Kade frowned, searching his mind for what he spoke
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
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
“Stop trying to talk,” Will said with
exasperation, then sighed. “We lost Gordon and
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
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,”
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
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
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.
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