An Excerpt from the Prologue & Chapter One . . .
Pass of Brander, August 14, 1308
“Arise, Sir James.”
A fierce surge of satisfaction rushed through him. The stench of battle had never smelled so sweet. As the king lifted the sword from his shoulder, James Douglas, the dispossessed Lord of Douglas, rose from the boggy ground along the narrow Pass of Brander a knight.
The steep rocky hills of Ben Cruachan loomed behind him, casting dark shadows over the valley floor. Bodies of friend and foe alike littered the ground and hillsides. Fortunately, there were far more of the enemy. Robert the Bruce had won a great victory here today against the MacDougalls of Lorn, and James’s role in the battle had earned him a knighthood.
Bruce was one step closer to reclaiming his throne, and James was one step closer to reclaiming his patrimony. As Bruce’s fortunes rose and fell, so too would his. They’d been bound together, liege and liegeman, since that fateful day nearly two and a half years ago when the then nineteen-year-old James had waylaid Bruce on the way to his coronation and sworn his fealty. A fateful decision that might have seemed short-sighted—especially six months later when the king and his followers had been forced into exile—but had begun to reap its rewards.
James lifted his bloody sword in the air, and a great cheer rang out among the battle-weary warriors who’d gathered to stand witness to this sacred bastion of chivalry. It was the greatest day of his young career as a warrior. He wished Jo was here to see it. She more than anyone knew how important this was to him.
Bruce grasped his forearm and gave him a hearty slap on the back. “Well, Sir James, what say you now? You have your knighthood. Later than you wished, perhaps, but earning your spurs on a field of battle makes for a better story than a ceremony.”
James returned his smile, his lanky, nearly six-and-a-half-foot frame towering over the warrior king. At two and twenty, his knighthood had come later than he would have liked, but there hadn’t been much time for ceremonies in the past eighteen months as the king fought to retake his kingdom. “I’d say I keep good company, Sire.” Bruce had been knighted on a battlefield, also by a king, albeit—ironically—an English one. “I’m honored,” he said with a bow of his head.
“You earned it, lad,” the king replied, with another firm slap. “Campbell said you and your archers were invaluable in ensuring our surprise attack was not discovered. ‘Cunning in strategy and ruthless in execution’ were his words. High praise indeed.” He grinned, shaking his head. “I should have liked to see the expression on the MacDougalls’ faces when you and the others appeared from the rocks above them.”
One side of James’s mouth curved, remembering. “I don’t think they were expecting us.”
“I’d wager not. Next time they lie in wait, perhaps they will learn to look above.”
“Or climb higher,” James said.
The king laughed. “Aye. You’ve the right of it.” The MacDougalls had lied in wait from the hillside above the narrow pass, intending to ambush Bruce and his army as they marched toward Dunstaffnage Castle. Instead, thanks to information gleaned from the scout Arthur Campbell, Bruce’s men had climbed above them, ambushing the ambushers. “With results like that, there’s no telling how high you will climb.”
James smiled, the king’s play on words amusing him.
After some of the men had come forward to offer their congratulations, the king pulled him aside again. “You’re making quite a name for yourself, lad, are you sure you won’t reconsider?”
The king had offered James a place in his elite guard. The secret group of phantom warriors that Bruce called the Highland Guard had already become legend. Feared and reviled as Satan’s spawn by their enemies, they were hailed and lauded as gods and heroes by those loyal to Bruce. They were the best of the best in each discipline of warfare, an elite group of warriors handpicked by the king to wage a new kind of war. A war of surprise, ferocity, and fear. A Highland war.
Despite his bow to chivalry today, James knew that the king’s strategy was sound: The only way to defeat the larger numbered, superiorly trained and outfitted English was to wage a secret war of ambuscade and surprise attacks, avoiding the pitched battle of army versus army. Admittedly it was not a very chivalrous way of thinking for a newly minted knight who’d yet to even don his spurs.
James was honored—and flattered—by the king’s faith in him, but still he didn’t hesitate. He shook his head. “Nay, Sire. I shall serve you best in the south.”
As his lieutenant. Where the people would speak his name—his enemies in fear, his countrymen with love and admiration.
Anonymity was not for him, for the Highland Guard was a secret band of warriors, its members’ identities shrouded to all but a few.
“Aye, well, just remember that,” the king said with a grin. “’Tis a Bruce who sits upon the throne not a Douglas.”
James just smiled, accustomed to the king’s prodding. It was not unwarranted. James had made no secret of his ambition. Ambition would see the lands of Douglasdale stolen from his father by the English restored, and the name of Douglas—like Wallace and Bruce—revered and remembered for generations.
Fear. Force. Intimidation. Those were the weapons that would win the war and ensure his place in history.
The English king would rue the day he’d tossed James’s father in prison and left him to die like an animal. James would show the English and their king the same mercy shown to his father—none.
As hundreds of years before, when the villagers along the western seaboard had cried out in fear “the Vikings are coming,” the English strongholds along the borders would reverberate with panicked screams of “the Black Douglas!”
Sir James Douglas was coming, and God help anyone who tried to stand in his way.
Douglas, South Lanarkshire, Scotland, February 1311
James was coming home! Joanna Dicson waited anxiously beside the big rock atop Pagie Hill. Spread out below her, clustered on the banks of the river, was the village of Douglas. To the north on the far side of the riverbank, she could make out the towers of Douglas Castle—or, as the English who now garrisoned the castle called it, “the dangerous castle of Douglas.” To the west were her father’s lands of Hazelside, and to the east . . .
To the east was James!
Her smile fell. At least she thought he would be coming from the East. Although James waged his campaign against the English from a base in the forests west of Selkirk, she’d heard rumors of his being in the North recently with King Robert the Bruce as a member of his personal guard. He was so important now, and she was so proud of him. But it had been so long since she’d seen him—nearly three months since James had last returned to his ancestral stronghold to harry the English who held his castle—she couldn’t be certain of his whereabouts.
When her father had told her James was rumored to be in the area, she’d raced up the hill to the place they’d always met, knowing he would look for her there as soon as he arrived. Tears of happiness blurred her vision. She couldn’t wait to see him. They had so much to talk about. Her heart swelled with emotion. He was going to be so happy.
How long had she been waiting? An hour, maybe two? It would be midday soon.
The snap of a twig behind her made her heart jump. She spun around excitedly. Finally! “You’re—”
Here. Except he wasn’t. It wasn’t James. The rush of emotion that had surged through her so suddenly came crashing down.
The man who approached shook his head in mock chagrin. “Sorry to disappoint you, Jo. It’s just me.” One corner of his mouth curved in a wry smile. “Good thing I’m not one of those English soldiers of yours; the look of disappointment on your face would have plunged a dirk right through my heart.”
Joanna felt the heat rise to her cheeks. “They aren’t my English soldiers, Thommy. You know I do nothing to encourage them.”
The man she’d known since childhood, who was closer to her than any brother, looked at her with amusement twinkling in his dark blue gaze. “Lass, just standing there you encourage them. Who’d have thought such a funny-looking thing would turn out to be one of the prettiest lasses in Lanarkshire?”
“Funny looking?” She feigned outrage but couldn’t help laughing, knowing it was true. Her too-big eyes and mouth had looked awkward on a small face. “You’re one to talk. I don’t think I saw you without soot on your face for the first dozen years of your life.” She gave him a playful shove, and then frowned when he didn’t budge an inch. Already one of the tallest men in the village, Thom was on his way to being one of the strongest—not surprising since his father was the village blacksmith. She gave his chest another poke. “Good gracious, Thommy, you’re about as hard as one of those cliffs you are always climbing. If you grow any bigger, you might find yourself holding a sword and not a hammer.”
A shadow crossed his face. “Actually, that’s why I came to find you.”
Her brows drew together. “How did you find me?”
He shrugged. “Douglas is coming; where else would you be?”
She ignored the wry edge to his voice that almost bordered on sarcasm. “It’s true?” She pounced on him excitedly. “Have you seen him?”
He shook his head. “Nay, but Park Castle was fairly abuzz with whispers of his imminent—or should I say eminent—arrival.”
This time there was no mistaking his sarcasm. Thom made no secret of his disapproval of his former childhood companion and the man most in Scotland regarded as a hero, “Good Sir James” who fought to rid Scotland of its English oppressors. But it wasn’t James’s politics or his methods that Thom objected to, it was his relationship with her.
Thom just didn’t understand.
Something else in his voice, however, had caught her attention. “You saw Beth—I mean Lady Elizabeth?”
James’s younger sister had recently returned to Scotland and was currently residing at the old Park Castle, since the English had garrisoned Douglas Castle. The four of them had been inseparable in their youth—before the war had sent James to battle and Elizabeth to France for safety.
He didn’t answer, but the slight tightening around his mouth answered her question. “I’m leaving, Jo. It’s been arranged. I’ve come to say good-bye.”
She stared at him, perplexed. “Leaving? But where? When will you be back?” Was there a market nearby that she hadn’t heard about? Taking some of his father’s goods to market was about the only time that Thom left the village.
“I don’t know. Not for some time, I imagine. Perhaps a year or two.”
Joanna blinked, stunned. “A year or two?” She couldn’t have heard him right. “Is your father moving to another castle?”
He shook his head. “This has nothing to do with my father. He’s the smith of the Lords of Douglas—even in their absence—and he’ll never be anything else. He’s never wanted to be anything else. But I . . .” He stopped, a look of deep pain crossing his face. “I can’t stay here.”
Joanna put her hand on his arm, knowing the cause of that pain. Thom had loved—practically worshiped—James’s younger sister, Elizabeth, since the time he was a lad. About the only person who didn’t realize it was Lady Elizabeth herself. Thom had been dying for an excuse to see her since she’d returned with her stepmother and two younger half-brothers. He must have found one. “Whatever she did, I’m sure it was not meant to hurt you. She’s never understood how you feel.”
His eyes hardened. “She does now.”
Joanna sucked in her breath, his pain so intense she felt it herself. He must have told her, and gauging from his reaction, the lady did not return his affections. “Oh God, Thom, I’m sorry. Perhaps if you gave her some time—”
“I’ve given her most of my damned life. It’s enough.”
She could see the determination on his face and knew there would be no dissuading him. And part of her knew that as much as it would hurt to lose him, it was probably for the best. He would never see another woman with Lady Elizabeth nearby. “Where will you go?”
Expecting that he would find work as a smith at another castle, she was shocked when he said, “I’m going to pledge my service to Edward Bruce.”
“But how?” she blurted. One didn’t just decide to be a warrior; it took training, connections, and more important, coin.
“My mother always wished it for me. She set aside some silver should I ever decide to leave.”
Thom’s mother had been the daughter of a knight, she recalled. She’d married beneath her—for love. “And now you are sure you wish to do so?”
The look in his eyes was as hard and sharp as a shard of black onyx. “I can’t stay here. She doesn’t see me as a man, but as a girlhood companion—and one too obviously beneath her. She’s a Douglas.”
Joanna did not miss the warning in his voice. It was one she’d heard many times before. “James isn’t like that—and neither is Elizabeth. I know you are angry with her, but you know he loves me, Thom.”
He gazed down at her pityingly. “Love doesn’t matter to a Douglas. Pride. Ambition. Those are what will help your James build his dynasty. You will always be the marshal’s daughter, just as I will always be the blacksmith’s son. Your father might be a baron, but he is still a vassal. Douglas will take a wife who feeds his ambition. One who will bring him wealth and position.”
Just for a moment his certainty sent a flicker of icy fear racing through her heart. “James isn’t like that. You don’t know him like I do.”
She believed in him—in them.
He held her gaze intently. “Aye, I do. I knew the boy, and I know the man. Ambition and James Douglas go hand in hand. People around here might revere him as a hero, but don’t be mistaken: He is ruthless. Nothing will stop him from getting what he wants.” He paused, letting some of his anger cool. “Are you sure you know him as well as you think you do?”
“You know better than to listen to the English, Thommy. James is not the black devil they would make him out to be.” But even as she defended him, Joanna acknowledged a growing unease about James’s reputation. The fearsome man who’d struck terror in the heart of the English was not the James she knew. It was hard to mesh the gallant knight she loved with the ruthless “Black Douglas” who cut a swathe of destruction across the Marches.
And she knew better than anyone that not all the stories were false. The infamous “Douglas Larder” had happened three Easters past in the very castle she could see across the river. Her own grandfather had died at James’s side when James and his men had surprised the English garrison while they attended services on Palm Sunday. After looting the castle stores, they’d beheaded the prisoners and tossed their bodies on a pile of the remaining stores before setting the whole lot on fire.
Fight fear with fear, James had told her. And it had worked. The danger in holding Douglas Castle had earned it the moniker “Castle Dangerous” from the English. But she didn’t like to think of the man who’d held her heart for as long as she could remember as being so . . . merciless.
Stop! she told herself. James loves you.
She trusted him. But unconsciously, her hand covered her stomach.
Thom gave her a sad smile, obviously sensing the direction of her thoughts. “He might love you, but he’ll marry to increase the wealth and prestige of Douglas.”
“You’re wrong.” But her soft voice lacked the conviction it had held before.
Suddenly, Thom’s expression changed. His gaze flickered to the hand that was spread out over her belly, first in disbelief, and then in horrified anger. “Oh, God, Jo, what have you done?”
She blushed. From what she’d heard from some of the village lasses, Thommy knew exactly what she’d done.
“Tell me you aren’t with child?” He breathed tightly.
She couldn’t do that. She lowered her eyes, not daring to meet his gaze. It wasn’t condemnation she feared but something far worse: pity.
“The bloody bastard, I’ll kill him!”
Joanna latched on to his arm, preventing him from moving away. James would not be the one killed—they both knew that. Despite their similarity in size and physical strength—Thom had the heavy muscles of a smith—he had never been trained to fight. James was “the Black Douglas,” a battle-hardened warrior who’d held a sword in his hand since he was a lad. It would be no contest.
“No, Thom. I neither need nor want your outrage. It isn’t warranted. I knew the risk I took. I wanted . . .” She bit her lip, embarrassed. “I wanted to lie with him. He did not force me.”
But her words did little to dampen his anger. “He took advantage of your love for him as he’s always done, damn it. I should have put a stop to it the day I caught him kissing you—doing more than kissing you—up here, but I never thought he would dishonor you like this.”
“He didn’t dishonor me.”
“Make no mistake, Jo. No matter what Douglas might have let you believe, he might make you his leman, but he won’t make you his wife. Babe or nay.” The distraught rage on his face cut her to the quick. Her chest squeezed. “Damn him to hell. Your innocence belonged to your husband. You don’t have to be a bloody knight to know that.”
Joanna had never seen him so angry. And in spite of her faith in James, it was hard not to be affected by Thommy’s reaction. Her heart started to flutter with panic, and tears burned her eyes. “Why are you doing this? Why are you trying to ruin this for me? I know you’re upset about Beth, but this is different. James and I have been in love for years. You know that. He intends to marry me; I know he does. Can’t you be happy for me?”
He sighed, raking his dark hair back with his fingers. Some of his anger seemed to dissipate. “I’m sorry, Jo. I don’t want to upset you. But I care about you, and don’t want to see you hurt. Your heart is too big. You are worth far more than land and gold. It is Douglas who doesn’t deserve you.”
She bowed her head and said quietly with all the conviction in her heart, “You’re wrong about him, Thommy.”
“I hope so. For your sake, I hope so. If I had a woman who had half as much faith in me as you, I would never let her go. But promise me something.” He paused until she looked up. “If he doesn’t live up to that faith, you’ll send for me. If he won’t give your child a name, I will.”
She stared at him in shock. “But you don’t love me.”
He laughed. “Perhaps not in the way you mean, but we’re friends, which is more than most husbands and wives can say.”
The generosity of his offer moved her, but it was an offer she could never accept. For his sake as well as her own. “What of Beth?” she asked softly.
His mouth hardened. “I could become the greatest knight in Christendom, and it would not change my birth or how she looks upon me. I do not delude myself. Lady Elizabeth Douglas will never be for me. She might as well be the bloody Queen.”
The way he said it . . .
Was Joanna deluding herself?
No. James wouldn’t do that to her. She trusted him with every fiber of her being—body and soul.
It was well after midday by the time James clambered up the hill. There was a lightness in his chest that he hadn’t felt in a long time. Since the last time he’d been with Jo, in fact.
God, it had been too long.
As he neared the crest of the hill, he saw her. Waiting for him beneath the old Sessile Oak tree, as she always did. She turned, and the broad smile that spread across her face made his breath catch hard in his chest like the pounding of a fist.
The memories that held him over the long months of their separation never did her justice. It was impossible to remember just how lovely she was in the flesh. He could never quite get the exact shade of golden blond of her hair, the vivid peacock-blue of her eyes, the flawlessness of her freshly-churned-cream skin, the brilliance of her smile, or the curvy—very curvy—lushness of her figure.
Hers was not the refined beauty of the noblewomen at court, but a wholesome goodness drawn from the verdant beauty of the countryside around them. His Viking dairymaid, he thought of her. His lusty Viking dairymaid, he amended. He’d known she would be responsive, but never could he have imagined such innate sensuality.
Anticipation coursed through his blood, the memories of what had happened last time hastening his steps. He hadn’t meant to let it go so far, but it had seemed inevitable from the first kiss they’d shared in the barn so long ago. Even at fifteen, he’d known she belonged to him.
And she knew it, too. She was already flying into his arms. “James!”
Just the sound of her husky voice was like ambrosia to his war-trodden soul. His arms slid around her, and he savored the simple pleasure of her soft, welcoming body melting into his.
He’d missed her, he realized. More than he’d ever dreamed possible. When had she become so important to him? So vital? Like the air he breathed and the food he ate, Joanna nourished his soul.
“You came,” she said, looking up at him with such an expression of joy on her face, it felt like his lungs had turned to steel.
Because her mouth was only inches from his, because he could practically taste its sweetness, and simply because it had been too damned long, he kissed her.
His mouth covered hers, swallowing her gasp of surprise, and then the low moan of pleasure that went straight to his bollocks with a hard tug.
So soft. So warm. So much sweeter than he’d remembered. Heat coursed through his blood and tired limbs.
He groaned, feeling her soften. Her mouth opened under his, and he had to taste her more deeply. His tongue delved into her mouth, stroking and consuming in long, slow pulls.
Oh God, it was incredible. Over and over, he drew her in.
The first tentative flicker of her response nearly brought him to his knees. Passion was new for her, but instinct and enthusiasm more than made up for lack of experience. Her body was made for this and seemed to know it.
He tightened his hold around her waist, bending her into him, increasing the pressure against his already rock-hard cock.
She felt so good. He couldn’t wait to be inside her again. To feel all the tight, warm flesh gripping him. To hear her cries of pleasure as he made her shatter.
His heart pounded. His blood surged. He felt his control slipping.
He pulled away with an oath. He couldn’t do this now. He didn’t have time. He shouldn’t even be here, but he had to see her. Robbie Boyd and Alex Seton were probably already looking for him. The two members of Bruce’s secret Highland Guard wouldn’t be happy he’d snuck away only hours before they were to put their plan into motion.
But gazing down into her hazy, passion-filled eyes, he almost reconsidered. Three months was a long time to abstain. He felt more like a monk at lent, than a young, virile, and lusty man of not yet five and twenty. But since the day she’d given herself to him, James had lost his appetite for other women—an appetite that had been rather voracious up to that point. He’d been trying to ease his hunger with trifles, only finding satisfaction with Joanna.
When his breath returned, he said, “Of course, I came. You know I can’t stay away from you.”
The pink bloom of her cheeks rose with delight, his words obviously pleasing her. “But it’s dangerous. The English are looking for you. If they see you—”
“They won’t see me,” he said flatly, and then smiled. “Not until I want them to.”
Though his voice brokered no argument, he knew he had not completely allayed her fears when her fist came up to her mouth. For as long as he could remember, she’d nibbled on her thumbnail when she was worried. But since she hated the “vile habit,” he took care not to point it out.
She gazed up at him, her big blue eyes wide with worry. “Are you planning something, James?”
He cocked a brow. She knew very well that he was. “As long as Clifford keeps filling my hall with Englishmen, I’ll keep emptying it.”
Joanna knew better than to dispute his claim of ownership of Douglas Castle. All the hatred he’d once borne the English king who’d killed his father had been transferred to the man Edward had given his father’s land to: Sir Robert Clifford, the English baron and trusted military commander of both the dead King Edward and his son, Edward II. Twice James had destroyed Clifford’s garrison, and twice Clifford had replenished it with more men. The last time Clifford had come to the castle himself to see to its fortification.
This time James intended to take back Douglas Castle for good. He’d rather see his family stronghold razed to the ground than have it occupied by thirty English whoresons. Too bad Clifford wasn’t here now. James would see the English devil straight to hell. If Boyd didn’t do it for him first. If there was anyone who hated the Lord of Clifford more than James, it was Robbie Boyd.
She eyed him warily. “What are you going to do?”
What he’d done twice before: use guile and cunning to trick the enemy and then destroy them. “Empty the larder,” he said with a hard smile.
She paled and her eyes flew to his. “You swore nothing like that would ever happen again. You said—”
“I know what I said,” he snapped. It wasn’t her place to draw lines in the sand about what was acceptable or unacceptable in warfare. Hell, Wallace was said to have made a belt out of the skin of Sir Hugh de Cressingham, the hated English commander who he’d defeated at Stirling Bridge. But the horrified way she’d looked at him after that “Douglas Larder” episode, as if she didn’t know him . . .
It had pricked his conscience, damn it. He would have promised her anything not to have her look at him like that, and that scared him. He couldn’t let anyone—even Joanna—interfere with his plans. He would take back his father’s lands from the English, restore his patrimony, and see the house of Douglas raised to dizzying heights. He didn’t care how much English blood needed to be spilled to do so. “I will show your Englishmen mercy, unless they give me cause otherwise.”
She heaved a sigh of relief. “I’m glad. They fear you enough.”
It wouldn’t be enough until every English soldier fled Scotland in terror. His eyes narrowed, the spark of something dangerous taking hold. “Why do you care so much about them, anyway?”
She gazed up at him quizzically. “It’s not the English I care about, it’s you.”
“So there is no truth to the rumor I heard that the captain of the guard has been finding excuses to stop by Hazelside?”
The heat that flooded her cheeks made him see red.
“I was ill one morning,” she explained. “Sir John witnessed it; he was only being kind.”
James looked down at the beautiful face tilted toward his and felt a flash of anger so intense and irrational it stole his breath. Jo was his, damn it. His. If “Sir John” de Wilton—the commander of the English garrison—was standing before him right now, he would be a dead man. “Don’t be naive, Jo. The Englishman wants you. What man could look at you and not want you?”
She was beautiful. The face of a cherub with a lush body built for sin. But it was so much more than her physical appearance. Joanna Dicson was sweet and good and kind. She was his heart and the keeper of his soul. Without her, he would . . .
He couldn’t even contemplate it. Joanna had been at his side for as long as he could remember. She was a part of him—the very best part of him. And God willing she would be by his side for the rest of his life.
Any prick of conscience he might feel about what he’d done had been eased by that thought. He would take care of her. Forever.
She reached up and cupped his stubbled jaw in her hand and gave him a tender smile. “You’ve no cause for jealousy, James. Sir John has a sweetheart back in England. And even if he didn’t, the only man I want is you. I love you.”
The warmth of her words spread over him, soothing the red haze, and allowing joy to blossom in its place. Love. Aye, she loved him. And he loved her. How could he not?
Good intentions forgotten, James drew her into his arms once again and kissed her. He groaned at the contact—at the flood of sensation. Her lips were warm and soft, and so incredibly sweet. No honey had ever tasted sweeter.
He knew he didn’t have time for this, but he just couldn’t seem to stop. That was how it had always been between them, hot and out of control—as impossible to harness as wildfire. Now that it had been unleashed, he wondered that they’d been able to keep it contained for so long. The raw power, the intensity, the sheer devastation of it, surprised even him. He’d never felt anything like it before, and knew he never would again. This kind of passion was once in a lifetime.
His lips moved over hers hungrily—ravenously—drinking her in with each wicked stroke of his tongue. He wanted to devour every last inch of her, leaving no part of her unpossessed, unclaimed.
She was his.
And she knew it. She surrendered to the passion without hesitation. Nay, surrendered wasn’t the right word. Welcomed. She opened her heart to him, and he reveled in it, savored it. She took him in, as if she would never let him go.
He prayed she never would. He needed her, and he was only beginning to realize how much.
End of Excerpt
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