Scotland, September 1297
“Slay the English bastards!” an outraged Scottish laird yelled to the rebels packed within the great room of Dunadd Castle. “Cast their entrails upon the fields of Berwick to rot!”
A clan chief at the front thrust his claymore into the smoky air. “Aye, ’twould be justice for the cruelty served upon our countrymen. Too long have we suffered beneath the English king’s greed!”
Lord Griffin Westcott, Baron of Monceaux, halted at the entry amidst the curl of smoke belched from a large hearth near the opposite wall. Ignorant of his presence, leather-clad nobles continued their furious shouts, all directed toward the man whom Griffin served—King Edward.
Griffin’s hand brushed the empty sheath where his dagger had rested; he had been relieved of its comfort by the guard before he was allowed to enter Dunadd Castle. His English heritage and his pledge to serve the king inspied little trust.
As the vicious clamor continued, Griffin’s escort gave a curt nod. “I will announce you, my lord.”
“My thanks.” Few wanted him on Scottish soil, especially since they had begun planning for war against his king.
The guard stepped past Griff in, and cleared his throat. “Lord Monceaux, King Edward’s advisor to the Scots, seeks entry.”
Silence reverberated throughout the room like a blast of thunder. The Scots turned, their faces congealed in loathing.
Griffin eyed each man and met his scorn with a challenging glare.
Feet shuffled and claymores thumped in their sheaths as the warriors parted to reveal their leaders, Sir Andrew de Moray and William Wallace, seated upon the dais.
Griffin stepped into the cast of dim torchlight. A room’s length away, he nodded toward the rebel leaders.
Recognition flickered on both men’s faces. De Moray stood with the slow, controlled movements of a leader and a man ingrained with military tactics gleaned from training with Swiss mercenaries.
“King Edward sent you,” de Moray said, his voice hard. It wasn’t a question.
“He has.” From inside his tunic, Griffin withdrew the two documents he carried. “Sir Andrew, I carry a letter of safe passage from the king as well as a letter from your father.”
De Moray frowned and slid a doubtful glance toward Wallace. “A letter from my father?”
Wallace raised a skeptical brow.
“Indeed,” Griffin replied. “Both are urgent. ’Tis of the utmost importance that I speak with you immediately—in private.”
“Nay believe the treachery spewed, Sir Andrew,” spat a burly Scot with a wild black beard, his hand clasped upon the hilt of his claymore. “Your father wrote naught. Well ’tis known over the Highlands that he lies imprisoned within the Tower of London, cast there by the English bastard!”
Agreement rumbled throughout the chamber, but Griffin remained silent.
De Moray folded his arms across his massive chest. “Let Lord Monceaux state his business.”
“Aye,” William Wallace agreed as he shoved to his feet, “but here.”
The offer Griffin carried would do naught but bolster the warriors’ anger, a fact Wallace must suspect.
He nodded to de Moray. “King Edward promises to release your father if you will take his place within the Tower of London.”
Furious shouts boomed.
De Moray raised his hand, and the room calmed. “And if I agree to your sovereign’s offer, where will my father be released, and to whom?”
Griffin eyed him, aware a brilliant strategist like de Moray would deduce that the king’s proposal would be designed to serve English needs. “Your father will fight with King Edward in Flanders.”
“I see.” De Moray’s face betrayed naught. “And after the battle is over?”
“You will both be set free.”
A cold smile edged the formidable leader’s mouth. “And I am to accept Longshank’s words as truth?”
At de Moray’s use of the unflattering name given to the king due to his height, Griffin understood that the rebel leader had made his decision. “I but deliver a bargain offered.”
“A bargain whose timing I find intriguing,” Wallace stated. “An offer made when your king sends the Earl of Surrey north leading an immense contingent to seize Stirling Bridge.”
It was a military secret Griffin himself had passed to de Moray and Wallace a few weeks ago. He remained silent, playing the game both he and the rebel leaders understood, their roles defined by need: Griffin’s, to protect his secret identity as
, an English noble aiding the Scots to reclaim Scotland. The rebels’, to lead their people and reclaim Scotland’s freedom.
“My king’s decisions are his own,” Griffin said. “As I stated, I but deliver a bargain offered.”
“A bargain offered,” Lady Rois Drummond repeated as murmurs of malcontent whipped like a feral wind amongst the warriors. She glanced at her friend Sir Lochlann, who stood alongside her in the shadows at the back of the chamber. “’Tis rot. The English noble is in bed with the king and well aware that once Lord Andrew is placed inside the Tower, he will never be freed.”
“Aye,” Sir Lochlann replied, his body tense. “And, surrounded by his enemy, ’tis lucky Lord Monceaux is still breathing.”
Rois took in the English baron. Brown hair secured at the back of his neck with a leather thong accented high cheekbones, and the hard curve of his jaw framed an unforgiving mouth. His stance was that of a warrior, of a man unafraid. She ignored the shot of awareness rippling across her skin. Much she’d heard about King Edward’s advisor to the Scots, his loyalty, his cunning. A man who, if nae her enemy, would cause her gaze to linger upon him.
“What are you looking at, lass?” Lochlann whispered.
At the hint of jealousy, she shot her longtime friend a teasing glance. “I was thinking ’tis too bad he is of English blood. Fine he is to look at.”
Lochlann’s grey eyes darkened. “The man is nae one to trust. He spews naught but the English king’s treachery.”
Guilt touched her. She was wrong to tease her friend when she understood he wanted their relationship to be more. “Lochlann, I was but—”
“Pray you Lord Monceaux nae sees your father.”
Lochlann leaned closer. “Several months past, your father re-pledged his fealty to the English king. Think you if Lord Monceaux sees the Earl of Brom, he will nae expose him as a traitor?”
Panic slid through her. Her da, like many Highlanders, had re-sworn to King Edward as a ruse to keep his land and evade war. “My father . . .”
“Will be hanged,” Sir Lochlann finished.
She gasped. “We must keep Lord Monceaux away from him!”
“Then you had best pray King Edward’s man steps nay closer to the dais.”
Rois glanced to where her da sat at the front of the chamber before de Moray and Wallace, but twenty paces from the king’s man, a man who could ensure her father’s death.
“What can we do to stop the baron from moving any closer?” Rois whispered.
Lochlann shook his head. “Naught.”
Naught? She refused to accept his claim. Since her mother’s death, her father had sacrificed everything to raise her with a tender hand. When he thought her nae aware, she caught the sadness, the loneliness he tried to hide. Whatever it took, she would protect him.
“Bring me the writ.” De Moray’s voice boomed throughout the chamber.
Nay, Lord Monceaux must nae see her father! Rois rushed into the torchlight and pointed a pale finger at the baron. “He canna be trusted!”
Against the smoke and stench of anger, all eyes shifted to her.
Heart pounding, Rois took in the powerful lords, Scots who knew her, nobles who would believe her claim. She caught her da’s frown and shook her head, thankful when he remained silent.
“And why is that, lass?” de Moray asked from his seat on the dais.
“Yes,” Lord Monceaux added softly, his hooded gaze raking her from head to toe, “a fact I would be interested to hear as well.”
The anger in the English baron’s deep voice swept her, but his eyes, God in heaven, their intensity seared her like a whip. What reason could she give to convince those within the chamber he was unworthy? Thoughts battered her mind, but she discarded each.
An idea ignited in her mind. Nay, she couldna. ’Twas outrageous? As if with her da’s life at stake, she couldna take the risk.
With her heart pounding, she faced the Scots. “A month past, the baron took liberties with me. After,” she hurried, refusing to meet Lord Monceaux’s gaze, “he gave me a false promise he would return.”
“God’s teeth, lass,” Lochlann muttered. “Are ye daft?”
Nay, desperate. Several warriors cast curious glances toward Lochlann, but she didn’t acknowledge him. She refused to endanger her friend or her father. She would endure the consequences of her actions alone. Rois took another step forward and started to speak.
But her mind went blank.
Her father’s face darkened with displeasure as he moved in her direction.
What was he doing!
she mouthed, and motioned for him to remain where he stood.
With a frown, he paused.
Her body trembling with relief, she turned toward Lord Monceaux, his expression that of a man confident in his decisions, who scrutinized her as if prey. Heaven help her, what had she done? Could she make her father understand her actions? Would he ever forgive her? However much she longed to look at her father, she kept her gaze leveled on the intimidating warrior.
After a long moment, Lord Monceaux’s mouth curved with a confident tilt. “You were saying? I believe something about why I cannot be trusted?”
At the soft challenge of his words, her irritation trampled caution. Fine, let the braggart talk his way out of this. “And, shamed I am to say, this man has left me with child.”
Griffin stared at the woman in disbelief. Against the wash of torchlight, a tumble of chestnut hair embraced the sweep of her pale cheeks, and she had full lips that any man would desire. But it was her eyes that held him, eyes as green and enchanting as the fields of Scotland.
He stiffened. Her beauty mattered naught.
Griffin assessed the room, stunned by how the nobles eyed him with violence. Did they believe her ludicrous claim?
His anger grew. How dare the chit sabotage a situation already dire! From her sultry burr, he knew she was a Scot and that she understood his presence within this enemy stronghold placed his life in danger. Did she want him dead? God’s teeth, never had he seen this woman in his life!
The warriors closed around him, shaking their claymores, their teeth bared in the smoky light.
Bloody hell, if he didn’t quell her lie now—
“He does nae deny it,” one man yelled.
Griffin rounded on the Scot. “Wait!”
“Nay,” a scar-faced laird growled, striding forward, “’tis long past time for waiting.”
At the man’s words, the woman shifted. Face pale, she took a step back.
God’s teeth, she was not abandoning him in this mire. The woman would admit her lie! When she made to take another step back, Griffin caught her hand, aware of every Scot in the room watching and waiting for the slightest error, for any excuse to kill him. God’s teeth! In all his years of service to the king, he had never been foiled by a woman.
Nor would he be now.
“My lady,” Griffin said, his words strong, clear of doubt, and, through sheer will, void of anger. “’Tis my deepest regret you believe I have slighted you in any manner.” He raised her hand, and was at once irritated by the sweep of awareness, by the softness that lured him.
Anger sparked in her eyes. She tugged to free her hand.
Griffin held firm, lifting her fingers and pressing a chaste kiss upon her knuckles. Nerves darkened her impossibly green eyes, eyes a man could drown in, eyes that would make him beg. Bedamned. After her outrageous claim, he should feel naught but contempt. But he wanted her, damnably so.
“If indeed I have left you with child,” Griffin said, “’tis honor I offer you.” Eyes narrowed, he scanned the room, meeting the impenetrable fury of each Scotsman’s gaze. Satisfied, he turned to the stunning woman whose hand trembled within his. “Before your peers, I will take you for my wife.”
Her face drained of color, a reaction he’d expected. Well he understood Scotland’s custom of handfasting, that once a pledge was issued in public and agreed upon, they would indeed be wed. Feeling confident, Griffin waited for her to admit the truth.
The growing concern in her eyes assured him that she regretted her lie. ’Twould be but moments before she declared her false accusation to all, and he could return to de Moray’s decision concerning King Edward’s offer.
Silence battered the crowded chamber, thick with expectation.
Rois again tried to yank her hand free of Lord Monceaux’s grip. He smiled down at her, but no warmth existed in his hazel eyes. Could she fault him for his resentment?
Aye, Lochlann had asked her if she was daft when she voiced her assertion. Well, now she sat in a fine mess. Proof her mind was indeed muddled.
Shame filled her. Of all of the mischief she’d stirred over the years, naught had reached this magnitude. Why had she insisted on attending the meeting? And what of her promise to her da to stay in the shadows unnoticed?
Thank heaven the men crowding around her and Lord Monceaux were blocking him from sight.
“Enough,” her father declared. “Let me through.”
Nay! He couldn’t make his presence known! Rois met the baron’s smug expression. Pulse racing, she nodded. “Aye, I accept your offer of marriage.”
The room exploded with shouts of outrage and disbelief.
Rois took advantage of the baron’s complete shock and jerked her hand free, slipping into the throng of uproarious men. Under the shield of mayhem, she reached her father.