Our story begins: The greatest climber in Scotland fights to win a place among the legendary warriors of the Highland Guard and the heart of the woman he dares to love in New York Times bestselling author Monica McCarty’s steamy new adventure.
An excerpt from the Prologue:
Douglas Castle, South Lanarkshire, Scotland, June 1, 1296
Thomas MacGowan—Wee Thom as everyone in the village called him (his father being Big Thom)—looked at the top of the tower and forgot to breathe. He nearly stumbled, too, which would have been a disaster, as his da had entrusted him with the very important task of carrying the laird’s sword. Considering the hours his father had spent sharpening the blade until it could “slice a hair in two,” and polishing it until “he could see every speck of soot on his wee laddie’s face,” had he dropped it in the mud, his bum would have stung for a week!
He wouldn’t have minded too much though. Big Thom was the best blacksmith for miles around, and Thommy (it was what his mother called him—a lad of nearly nine sure as the devil shouldn’t be called “wee”) took fierce pride in his father’s work. Big Thom MacGowan wasn’t just an ordinary village smith, he was Lord William “the Hardy” Douglas’s personal smith and armorer.
But as Thommy stared up at the tower ramparts, he could almost excuse his near mishap. For what had caused his breath to stop and his limbs to forget their purpose was a glimpse of something extraordinary. A rare, exquisite beauty of the like the little boy who had spent most of his days surrounded by the fire and soot of his father’s forge had never imagined. It was as if he were seeing a brilliant jewel for the first time when all he’d known were lumps of ore. He didn’t need to know who it was to know that he was seeing something special. The way the light caught her white-blond hair blowing in the breeze, the snowy perfection of her tiny face, the shimmering gold gown. It dazzled the eyes. She dazzled the eyes.
“Is she a princess?” Thommy asked in reverent tones when he could finally remember how to speak.
His father gave a hearty guffaw and cuffed him on the back of the head fondly. “To you she might as well be, laddie. ’Tis the laird’s wee lassie, Lady Elizabeth. Don’t you remember . . . ?” He shook his head. “You must have been too young when the family left for Berwick Castle four years ago—she was little more than a babe then. But now that the laird has been released from Edward’s prison”—he spit on the ground as he did every time the English king’s name was mentioned—“she and her brothers have returned with the laird and Lady Eleanor to live.”
Thommy knew that Sir William had been keeper of Berwick Castle when King Edward had attacked the city and slaughtered thousands of Scots. For his defiance in holding the castle against him, King Edward had thrown the laird in prison. But he’d been freed on signing the king’s “ragman rolls” of allegiance that all the Scottish lords had been forced to put their names to.
At the thought of such a beautiful creature in their midst, Thommy’s eyes must have widened.
His father might be the biggest man in the village, with heavy muscles as hard as rock from clobbering steel in shape for a living, but he wasn’t thickheaded. He still had a smile on his face, but his dark blue eyes had narrowed just enough for Thommy to take the warning. “Stay away from her, lad. The wee lass is not for the likes of you. Your mother may have been the daughter of a knight, but you are the son of a smith—about as far from noble as the roof of that tower. You may like to climb the rocks around here, but you’ll never be able to climb that high.”
His father laughed at his own jest and pushed Thommy on ahead.
But Thommy wasn’t so sure his father was right. He was pretty good at climbing.
“Why are you crying?”
The little girl’s voice startled him. Thommy looked up and blinked, shielding his eyes with his arm, as if a ray of sunshine had just slipped out from behind dark clouds.
It was the little princess from the tower a few weeks ago—Lady Elizabeth.
“I’m not crying!” He wiped his eyes furiously with the back of his hand, shame crawling up his cheeks in a hot flush.
She held his gaze for one long heartbeat. Her eyes were big and round and startlingly blue. Up close her features were even more perfect than he’d realized, small and delicate set in an adorable heart-shaped face. Two chunky plaits of hair at her temples had been pulled back in a crown around her head and tied with a long pink ribbon that matched her gown. He’d never seen a gown of pink before. The material was strange, too. It wasn’t scratchy like wool but soft and shimmery. He wanted to reach out and touch it, but his hands probably had soot and dirt on them.
There was no one to remind him to wash them anymore.
The resulting wave of sorrow made him scowl at her, trying to make her go away. Why was he even noticing blue eyes and pink gowns? His mother was gone and never coming back.
He had to force back a fresh blast of heat burning behind his eyes. He’d never been so humiliated in his life. Almost-nine-year-old lads didn’t cry, and to be caught doing so by a lass—any lass, but especially a fine one like Lady Elizabeth—made him want to crawl under a rock and die.
She ignored his warning, however, and sat beside him.
He was sitting on the bank of the river that wound its way through the village, well away from—and what he thought was out of sight—the Midsummer’s Day festivities. But the dull sound of merriment could be heard in the distance.
“Why did the fish swim across the river?”
He was so startled by the question it took him a moment to respond. “I don’t know.”
She smiled, revealing a big gap in the space where her two front teeth should have been. “It couldn’t beach the sea.”
She barely got the last word out before she startled giggling. He didn’t think it was very funny, but he couldn’t help smiling when he saw how much she enjoyed it.
When her giggling finally died down, they sat in surprisingly comfortable silence for a few minutes. He didn’t know much about little girls, but it seemed unusual that one could be so quiet. A few of his friends had little sisters and they were always bothering them with their chatter.
As it was summer, Thommy wasn’t wearing shoes, and he dug his heel back and forth in the dirt as they watched the swiftly moving current. He only stopped when she started to copy him, and he realized her fine leather slippers were getting muddy.
“How old are you?” he asked.
“Six. How old are you?”
His chest puffed out. “Almost nine.”
Her nose wrinkled. It was a tiny nose, so there were only one or two, but they were kind of cute. “When is your saint’s day?” she asked.
“The twenty-third of November.”
She grinned, and he was embarrassed again. It was still a full five months away.
She was quiet again for a while, before she asked, “Don’t you like the fair?”
Hearing the gentle probing of the question, he stiffened. His mouth drew in a hard line. He didn’t want to talk about it. He was about to tell her to go away and leave him be—lady or not—when he looked over at her face and all the anger seeped out of him. She didn’t mean to pry; she was just trying to be nice.
He picked up a small, flat rock from the ground and threw it into the river. It skipped twice before sinking into the water. “My mother died Sunday last.”
He could feel her eyes on him, but he didn’t look up, not wanting to see her compassion. “You must miss her a lot.”
He nodded, his throat squeezing hot again. He missed her terribly—the beautiful, smiling woman who’d loved her husband and son with such abandon. But that was no excuse to bawl like a baby.
She must have guessed the direction of his thoughts. He felt a gentle touch on his arm, as if a butterfly had landed and spread its wings. The sensation enveloped him with a strange warmth. For a moment it reminded him of the way he felt when his mother hugged him.
“I never knew my mother, and I still miss her.”
He frowned. “You didn’t know her?”
She shook her head, her flaxen hair floating around her shoulders like a veil of spun silver and gold. “She died giving birth to me.”
“My mother died giving birth, too.” He paused. “To my new brother.”
She must have heard something in his voice. “He didn’t mean to hurt her,” she said softly.
Thommy sucked in a startled gasp. He stared at her in horror, realizing what he’d said.
“My brother blamed me, too, when I was little.” Those big blue eyes pinned him. “But he forgave me.”
“There was nothing to forgive, it wasn’t your fault.” The response was automatic, but Thommy realized as he said it that he meant it. It was no more her fault than it had been his two-week-old brother’s.
Someone shouted her name, and she made a face, crinkling up her nose again and pursing her pouty mouth. “That’s my nurse. I better go. It was nice to meet you . . .”
“Thom,” he filled in. “But everyone calls me Thommy.” Somehow it was very important that this lass never think of him as “wee.”
“I’m Elizabeth,” she said. “But you can call me Ella, since we’re such good friends now.”
He nodded, trying to hide his smile. She was sweet and all, but almost-nine-year-old lads weren’t “friends” with six-year-old lasses—especially ones who looked like princesses.
She jumped to her feet so quickly she would have slipped in the mud had he not caught her arm, steadying her. “Careful,” he said. “You’ll fall and hurt yourself.”
She laughed as if that were the funniest thing she’d ever heard and ran off to find her nurse.
He watched her go and realized that for the first time since his grief-stricken father had told him the news of his mother’s death, Thommy felt as if the dark cloud surrounding him might have lifted just a little.
One month later
Thommy was about to tell Joanna to hurry up—again—they were going to be late to join the others, when he heard her voice. “Hi, Thommy.”
He looked over to see Lady Elizabeth standing beside him. He’d noticed her arrival in church with the rest of her family, including the black-haired lad of about his own age who was hastening none too happily through the crowd toward them.
“Hi,” he said uncertainly, aware that some of the other villagers who were milling around the churchyard following the Sunday services were looking at them—probably wondering why the little lady was talking to the smithy’s son.
“I’m Ella,” she said to Joanna, who was staring at her with a similar look to the one he’d had on his face the first time he’d seen her.
“J-J-o-anna Dicson,” she finally managed, and then remembering added hastily, “My lady.”
“Just Ella. You are the marshall’s daughter?”
Joanna nodded mutely.
The dark-haired lad with the stormy expression came up behind her. “What are you doing, Ella? You can’t run off like that.”
She sighed, with a short movement of her eyes that in a few years Thommy assumed would be a full roll. “This is my brother, Jamie.” She turned to the lad who might have even been an inch or two taller than Thommy (who was already as tall as lads two or three years older than he). “I was just saying hello to Thommy and,” she turned her head, “Joanna.”
Thommy glanced toward Jo and frowned. What was wrong with her? She was staring at the young lord as if he were one of those knights from the silly stories she was always going on about. His frown deepened, realizing that the young lord was staring right back at her with a silly look on his face, too.
Thommy stepped in front of her protectively. Joanna was a pain at times—like today when he was supposed to be joining the other lads to swim and she’d asked to come along right in front of her mother. But since his mother had died, her mother was always doing nice things for him, and he couldn’t say no.
Jamie returned the frown, seeing his movement. He turned back to his sister. “How did you meet?”
Ella turned to him and smiled. “At the fair last month. Thommy saved me from slipping in the mud.”
Thommy released the breath he didn’t even realize he’d been holding. The only thing worse than having Lady Elizabeth see him crying might be her telling other people about it. Their eyes met in understanding. She’d kept his secret, and now they had a bond.
Jamie shook his head and ruffled her hair fondly. “What else is new, Ella? You need to stop being in such a hurry all the time; one of these days someone isn’t going to be around to catch you, and you’re going to get hurt.”
Now Thommy understood the reason for Ella’s laughter at his warning last time. Apparently her slipping wasn’t an unusual occurrence.
Ignoring her brother, she asked, “Where are you going?”
“To the falls at Arnesalloch to go swimming with some of the other lads in the village.”
“I asked if he would take me along,” Joanna volunteered.
“Jamie is supposed to help teach me to ride my new pony,” Ella countered.
The two boys exchanged looks of commiseration. Apparently Thommy wasn’t the only one having to watch over a younger sibling—or in Jo’s case an almost sibling. He’d known her as long as he could remember, and since she pestered him most of the time, he suspected that was about like having a sister.
“Would you like to come?” Ella asked. “You could bring your horses and we could all ride together.”
There was an awkward silence eventually filled by Jo. “We don’t have horses. Thommy and I don’t know how to ride.”
Ella looked perplexed. “You don’t?” She looked accusingly at her brother. “I thought you said all knights needed to know how to ride a horse.”
Jamie shook his head. “I did. Thommy isn’t going to be a knight. He’s going to be a smithy like his father.”
Thommy was surprised that the young lord knew who he was.
“You mean you don’t have to practice all day with a wooden sword like Jamie does?”
Thom shook his head. “Sometimes I get to watch my da work on them though—steel ones,” he clarified.
“I’ll be getting a steel one soon,” Jamie boasted, with an eye to Joanna.
“Maybe you’ll make one for Jamie?” Ella asked him.
Thommy shrugged, not wanting to confess that all he did right now was carry the charcoal and pump the bellows. “Maybe.” He took Joanna’s arm, knowing he was going to have to drag her away. “Come on, Jo. We should probably go.”
She resisted, and before he could stop her she asked the two Douglases, “Do you want to come along?”
“Sure,” Ella said so quickly he knew she must have been waiting for the invitation. She turned to her brother, who wasn’t looking quite as certain. “We can go riding tomorrow. It’s such a hot day.” She turned back to Joanna. “I don’t know how to swim, but Jamie does.”
“I don’t know either,” Joanna said.
“I could teach you sometime,” Jamie offered.
Ella looked at her brother as if he’d just grown a second head. “How come when I ask you to teach me, you always say lasses don’t need to know how to swim?”
Thommy tried not to laugh at the boy’s red, I’m-going-to-throttle-you-later expression. He sure was glad he didn’t have a sister.
The girls, however, were oblivious to Jamie’s discomfort. Joanna, at a year older than Ella, had already perfected the eye roll, which she executed in his direction. “Thommy says the same thing when I ask him to teach me to climb,” Joanna said to Ella. “He climbs the rocks up near Sandford with the other lads from the village. But he’s the only one who goes up the devil’s slide.”
“Really?” Ella’s eyes widened, looking at him as if he were some kind of hero from a bard’s tale.
Maybe having a sister wouldn’t be bad all the time—not if Jo was going to talk about him like that.
Jo nodded, and then looked at Jamie. “Do you know how to climb, too?”
“Of course,” Jamie said, as if surprised that there was even a question.
Thommy was amazed that Jamie didn’t split the seams of his fine doublet with the way his chest and shoulders seemed to puff up.
Ella gave her brother a funny look and opened her mouth as if she were going to argue, when Jamie cut her off. “Do you want to go or not, Ella?”
The little girl let out a cheer of delight and linked her arm with Jo’s. As if they’d known each other forever, they skipped off ahead, not giving Jamie a chance to change his mind.
The two boys took one look at each other, shook their heads in tandem as if to say “lasses,” and followed.
As it turned out, before the day was over, the two girls weren’t the only ones who were fast friends.
The boys swam in the burn for a couple of hours while Jo and Ella sat on the edge with their toes in the water, when one of the other boys from the village—Iain, the constable’s son—suggested they play a game of hide-and-find.
The dense forests of big, domed oak trees, downy birch, and hazel trees, with the thick bracken and mossy underwood, was ideal, providing plenty of places to hide. It had been a warm spring, otherwise the ground would be a carpet of fairy flowers. The blueish purple flowers that were shaped like a bell had been his mother’s favorite.
Thommy had played it many times before, but he explained the rules to Jamie. All the boys except for one would hide. The one who didn’t hide—the finder—would have to cover his eyes and count to a hundred before trying to find them. The rest of the boys couldn’t move once the hundred count was up.
Jamie, apparently confident in his tracking abilities, volunteered to be the “finder.” It was then that the trouble started, when Ella—who apparently wasn’t used to being excluded—objected to the no-lasses rule. Although it really wasn’t a rule because up until that point that hadn’t needed one: all the village lasses had understood that they weren’t included.
“But that’s not fair,” Ella said with a surprisingly mulish look on her cherub’s face. “I’m smaller than all of you, I can hide the best.”
The boys looked at each other as if she were daft. Everyone knew lasses didn’t best lads. They instinctively looked to Jamie to do something. Normally, they would look to him, but under the circumstances Thommy was happy to defer his role as leader.
Jamie tried reasoning with her, but when that didn’t work, he grew frustrated and just told her that was the rules, and if she didn’t want to follow them, they would go home.
That stopped her. Ella slammed her mouth shut, pursed her lips together as if sucking on a lemon, and plopped down angrily on a rock with her small arms crossed in front of her. The wee lass apparently had a stubborn streak.
The other boys looked relieved, and Jamie tried to act as if her agreement had been expected, but Thommy thought he detected a whiff of relief.
Jo, who could normally counted on to be reasonable but had been surprisingly vocal in her support of her new friend, shot Jamie a disappointed look (his star apparently having dimmed), and sat down beside Ella to wait.
At least that’s what they were supposed to do, but when Thommy and Jamie came to collect them after the game was done (Jamie had been correct in his estimation of his tracking skills), the girls were gone. Apparently stubborn and willful, he amended.
At first they were more annoyed than worried. The other lads had gone home, so he and Jamie split up, Jamie yelling threats to his sister, while Thommy yelled some of his own to Jo.
Thommy found Jo after a few minutes. She’d picked a good hiding place under a fallen tree covered in a veil of moss, but she’d neglected to ensure her skirts were tucked completely out of view.
It took far longer to find Ella. Actually, they didn’t find her. Jamie finally had the smart idea to shout out that she’d won, she could come out now, when a moment later they heard a soft cry in response.
Realizing where it was coming from, Thommy felt his heart tumble to the ground. Dread quickly rose up to take its place.
The light was already fading as he gazed up into the branches of the massive old oak tree to see the tiny lass perched on a branch about fifty feet above him. Lord have mercy, how in Christendom had she climbed up so high?
His stomach churned like he’d just drunk a glass of soured milk, thinking about what would happen if she fell.
“God’s blood, Ella, what are you doing up there?” Jamie said. “Come down before you break your neck.”
Thommy thought he heard a sniffle. “I can’t. I’m stuck.”
“What do you mean you’re stuck?” Jamie said. “Just climb down the same way you went up.”
“I don’t remember how.”
She started to cry and Thommy couldn’t take it anymore. “I’ll get her,” he said.
Jamie shook his head. “I’ll go. She’s my sister.” A fact he didn’t sound very happy about at the moment.
Jo looked terrified. “Are you sure? It’s getting dark, and Thommy’s the best climber in the village.”
Thommy winced. He was old enough—and proud enough himself—to understand that Jamie would never back down now. Unintentionally Jo had just thrown down a gauntlet. Jamie was the young lord; it was inconceivable that he could be outdone by a village lad—especially in front of a lass he wanted to impress.
Jamie removed his velvet doublet and started up the tree. Thommy and Jo were quiet as they watched the lad navigate the lower maze of branches. It was so dark in the canopy of leaves that Thommy could barely see when Jamie glanced down and stopped about halfway up.
“What happened?” Joanna said, her eyes round and filled with worry. “Why did he stop? Why isn’t he moving?”
“I don’t know,” Thommy lied. He didn’t tell her that Jamie had probably looked down and gotten scared. Lads didn’t like girls knowing things like that. Tossing off his own doublet—made of scratchy wool—he started up after the tree after them.
He reached Jamie first. The other boy’s face was pale and his lips bloodless from being clenched so tightly. He seemed to be frozen in place. Some people didn’t like being high up. The future Lord of Douglas must be one of them.
Ella was still quite a ways above him, but she must have seen Jamie stop and was asking him what was wrong and why he wasn’t moving. His nonresponsiveness was making her increasingly upset.
“He’s fine,” Thommy shouted up to her. “He’s stuck, that’s all.”
Jamie met his gaze. Thommy could see his fear warring with his pride.
“I should have told you not to look down,” Thommy said. “I’ll wager you haven’t been up this high before?”
Jamie managed to shake his head.
“Next time, I’ll take you up slower so you can get used to it.”
Jamie managed a scoff, and Thommy suspected he wouldn’t be climbing a tree again for some time.
“What’s happening up there?” Jo yelled from below.
The girl’s voice seemed to do something to Jamie. Some of his fear vanished, and the gaze that met Thommy’s was braced—almost as if he expected Thommy to try to humiliate him.
“Nothing,” Thommy shouted back down. “His tunic is stuck on a branch, that’s all.”
The other boy visibly relaxed. He gave him a nod of thanks, and Thommy knew that another bond had been formed that day. Secrets had a way of doing that.
He was able to talk Jamie down the first few branches, instructing him first to turn and face the tree, and then to slowly and carefully ease himself down to the next branch, with Thommy there to provide him guidance where necessary.
When Jamie reached a place close enough to jump, Thommy scrambled back up the branches to where Ella waited.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
She nodded. He could tell she was scared, but like her brother was trying not to show it. What concerned him more, however, was her shimmering eyes and trembling lower lip. Ah blast it, she better not start crying!
“What was that joke you told me last time? About the fish and the river?”
The beginnings of a smile appeared on the edge of her mouth. “You mean about the beach?”
He nodded. “Do you have any others?”
The tremble was gone—thank goodness—replaced by a full-fledged gappy grin. “You mean you like them? Jamie won’t let me tell them anymore. He says they’re all dumb ‘wee bairn’ jokes.”
Thommy leaned close and whispered, even though there was no need, “You can tell them to me. I don’t mind. But first, I need you to scoot a little closer so I can help you off that branch.”
She did as he asked without thinking, but her dress caught on one of the broken branches. She reached out, leaning all her weight on the thin branch to try to unsnag it. He tried to warn her, but it was too late.
The branch didn’t break, but the cracking sound and sudden movement as if it might startled her. She lost her balance.
Thommy’s heart shot to his throat and jammed. He may have cried out, but the “nay!” was intelligible.
It happened so fast, yet he saw it in slow-moving time. She fell back, and he lunged. Somehow he managed to catch her around the waist and catch hold of the branch above him at the same time. But now he had a screaming, terrified little girl latched to his side, unbalancing him on the less-than-solid branch on which he was precariously balanced.
For one terrified heartbeat he thought they were both going to plummet to the ground, but he dug his fingers into the bark until his arm burned and, after a stomach-in-his-throat few seconds, managed to steady them both.
He could feel the frantic beat of her heart against his as he stood there for a moment letting his own slow.
Her eyes didn’t blink as they stared into his. He’d never been this close to a lass before. Did they all smell clean and fresh as a patch of wildflowers after a spring rain?
Jo and Jamie must have seen enough from below, as he was suddenly aware of their shouting.
“We’re fine,” he yelled back, in a far calmer voice than he felt. “Ella is going to hold on real tight, and we’ll be down in a minute.” To her, he asked, “Can you do that?”
She nodded mutely, still too stunned to do anything else.
“Good. I need you to wrap your arms around my neck and keep your legs wrapped around my waist, so I can use my hands.”
She looked uncertain for a moment, but then brightened. “My father sometimes carries me around on his back like that.”
Thommy smiled back at her. His da had done the same when he was a wee one. “Aye, just like that, except you’ll be on my front, not my back.”
She retracted the kitten claws digging into his side long enough for him to help maneuver her into position.
“You’re strong,” she said. “Jamie says I’m too big to carry now.”
He’d been thinking the same thing (despite the heavy loads of charcoal he carried every morning for the forge), but the admiration in her eyes gave him a burst of strength. “Aw, a wee lassie like you? You don’t weigh much more than my da’s hammer. Now, what about those jokes you were going to tell me?”
For the next few minutes as he wound his way back down the maze of moss-covered limbs to the ground, he was barraged by a stream of silly jests from a seemingly bottomless well. They weren’t all that funny, but he made sure to chuckle at the appropriate time.
When he finally hopped down from the last branch, every muscle in his body was shaking with exhaustion. But he’d done it. The lass was safe.
“That was fun! Can we do it again?”
Thommy tried not to groan, while Jamie started yelling and cursing something fierce, the way Thommy’s da did when he burned himself.
His arms tightened around her in an involuntary squeeze of relief before he started to hand her off to Jamie, who looked as if he didn’t know whether to shake her or hug her to death.
But she held on to him long enough to press a small kiss on his cheek and whisper in his ear, “Jamie was wrong, you are a knight, and when I get old I’m going to marry you.”
He was so startled by the proclamation he didn’t know what to say. He should have laughed—it was as ridiculous as some of those jokes she’d told him. Even if he wasn’t only almost nine and she six, she lived in a castle and wore gold circlets in her hair. He lived in a two-room wattle-and-daub cottage with a thatched roof that they shared with the livestock for warmth and didn’t own a good pair of shoes for the winter.
But he didn’t laugh. Instead he felt something in his chest squeeze. Something that felt a lot like longing for something he knew he could never have. But for one moment he allowed himself to wonder if such a thing were possible.
It was a mistake, as his father would hammer in his head many times in the years that followed. But Thommy never forgot those carelessly uttered words spoken by a little princess that made him feel like the greatest knight in Christendom. Words that made a boy who had no right to dream.
End of Excerpt
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