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Joanna Fulford

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THE BETROTHAL BARGAIN

The infamous Lord Ban has lost all in the Northumbrian conflict, and now this battle-hardened warrior must turn his thoughts to producing an heir. But only the very desperate would align her fate with such a man.…

Almost broken by the violent ravings of her first husband, the recently widowed but ever beautiful Lady Isabelle is left with no dowry and no hope for the future. Believed to be barren, she is forced into a secret betrothal to the powerful Lord. On one condition—she must be with child before the wedding vows are spoken.…

Her heartbeat quickened.
The courteous greeting was at distinct variance with the boldness of his manner and his present state of undress.

Darting a swift look around her, she became more acutely aware of her present isolation and the remoteness of the stream. If she screamed no one would hear. Besides, it was a mistake to show fear.

Ban saw the dainty chin tilt. Far from being embarrassed or afraid, she had a look in her eyes that was bold—challenging, even. It satisfied him. His gaze traveled downward, mentally removing the cloth again. When she saw this, the color rose in her face.

“How long have you been watching me?”

“Long enough.”

The blush deepened and the hazel eyes sparkled with anger. “How dare you spy on me?”

“Unforgivable, I know,” he admitted, “but impossible to look away.”

* * *

His Lady of Castlemora
Harlequin® Historical #357—June 2013

Praise for
Joanna Fulford

“Fulford’s story of lust and love set in the Dark Ages is reminiscent of Woodiwiss’s
The Flame and the Flower.
A suspenseful plot, well-developed characters and a passionate romance combine to keep readers engaged from start to finish. The authentic depiction of the historical setting adds to the enjoyment of this short but evenly paced story.”

RT Book Reviews
on
The Viking’s Defiant Bride

“The sequel to
The Viking’s Defiant Bride
is a well-crafted portrait of the era,
combining strong characters with the classic romance elements of a battle-of-wills love story.
Fulford’s keen awareness of the time period allows her heroine to be a woman of her time as well as
a character who appeals to modern sensibilities.”

RT Book Reviews
on
The Viking’s Touch

Available from Harlequin® Historical and JOANNA FULFORD

The Viking’s Defiant Bride
#934
The Viking’s Touch
#1082
Snowbound Wedding Wishes
#1111
“Christmas at Oakhurst Manor”
The Wayward Governess
#329
The Caged Countess
#347
His Lady of Castlemora
#357
*
Redemption of a Fallen Woman
*
Part of
Castonbury Park
Regency miniseries

Did you know that these novels are also available as ebooks? Visit
www.Harlequin.com
.

JOANNA FULFORD

is a compulsive scribbler with a passion for literature and history, both of which she has studied to post graduate level. Other countries and cultures have always exerted a fascination, and she has traveled widely, living and working abroad for many years. However, her roots are in England, and are now firmly established in the Peak District, where she lives with her husband, Brian. When not pressing a hot keyboard she likes to be out on the hills, either walking or on horseback. However, these days equestrian activity is confined to sedate hacking rather than riding at high speed toward solid obstacles. Visit Joanna’s website at
www.joannafulford.co.uk
.

Prologue

I
sabelle threaded her way among the trees and came at length to the wall at the far end of the orchard. It afforded a fair view of the wood and the hills above Castlemora, though in truth it was not these she saw. All she could think about was the last interview with her mother-in-law...

‘Had you fulfilled your wifely duty and produced an heir, you would have retained your place among us. As it is, my son’s death removes any requirement for you to remain.’

Isabelle stared at her in stunned disbelief. Alistair Neil’s demise in a hunting accident had been shock enough, but this was beyond everything. ‘But this is my home.’

If she hoped to appeal to Lady Gruoch’s compassion the notion was wide of the mark. The blue eyes regarding her now were cold, the stern face pitiless.

‘Not any longer. A barren wife has only one future open to her: to take the veil and disappear from the world of men.’

Isabelle’s stomach knotted. ‘It is not my fault that I am childless. My late husband must share the responsibility for that.’

The furrows in Gruoch’s brow deepened. ‘How dare you attempt to cover your own failings by besmirching the name of the dead? My son was eager for an heir. I have good reason to know that he never neglected his duty to you.’

Isabelle’s hands clenched at her sides. So they had discussed this behind her back. She could well imagine what spiteful and lying tales her late husband had told to cover his own ineptitude. Mortification vied with anger.

‘Since he was assiduous in undertaking his part,’ Gruoch continued, ‘it is only reasonable to expect that you should have done yours.’

Isabelle bit back the heated reply that leapt to her tongue. Alistair was dead; what use to recount the embarrassed fumbling that had blighted the marriage bed in the early part of their relationship; fumbling that became frustration and, eventually, violence when he took out his failure on her?

Seeing her hesitation Gruoch nodded. ‘I note that you do not deny it. The shame is doubly yours. You were married a year. Any self-respecting wife would have a babe in arms and another in her belly by now.’

‘I wanted that as much as my husband did. How can you doubt it?’

‘It may be so. However, that does not alter the fact of your failure as a woman and as a wife. You will go back to your father and he may dispose of you as he sees fit. If he has any sense he will place you in a convent as soon as possible.’

Isabelle didn’t care to think about her father’s response to this development. Quite apart from the insult, her return would be a burden that he would scarcely welcome. Nevertheless, it would have to be faced. Knowing that further argument was useless, she lifted her chin. ‘In that case I demand that my dowry be returned to me.’

‘You are in no position to make demands. It is our family that has been wronged. We made a bargain in good faith and we were cheated.’

‘This isn’t just.’

‘Do not speak to me of justice.’

The words created the first fluttering of panic. ‘Keep part if you will, but return the rest.’

‘We will keep what is ours.’

Isabelle swallowed hard. With no dowry, and a reputation as a barren woman, she would have no chance of remarriage. Sick with repressed shame and fury she made a last desperate attempt.

‘It is not yours to keep. The Neils have wealth enough; they have no need of more.’

‘Do not presume to tell the Neils what they need.’ Gruoch’s voice grew quieter. ‘You may count yourself fortunate to leave here at all, my girl. There are those at Dunkeld who favoured a quicker and neater end to the embarrassment you represent.’

Isabelle experienced a sudden inner chill. When first she came to her husband’s home she was accorded courtesy, albeit not warmth. Her new kin were not given to displays of affection. However, as time went on and she failed to conceive a child, their attitude changed until their scorn was scarcely veiled. The thought that they might do her physical hurt had not occurred, until now.

‘Would the Neils risk incurring the wrath of Castlemora?’ she demanded. ‘My father would not let such a deed go un-avenged.’

Gruoch’s lips tightened to a thin line. ‘We have no fear of Castlemora.’

‘You would be wiser if you had.’

For all that the words were defiant Isabelle knew they were futile. In this argument all the weight was on the other side of the balance.

Gruoch’s lip curled. ‘We are content to put it to the test. You leave first thing in the morning.’

And so she had, under the disdainful gaze of her erstwhile kin. The recollection was bitter. All the high hopes she’d set out with at the start of her marriage were ashes, and her pride lay among them. At the same time it was hard to regret leaving a place where she was so little valued or wanted. The trouble was that she couldn’t imagine how the situation was going to change in the foreseeable future. Unwilling to let the Neils see any tears she contrived to put a brave face on it.

She’d worn a brave face when eventually she had to confront her father. Archibald Graham was fifty years old. Formerly a strong and active man his health had failed in his later years until even small exertions tired him and any significant effort brought on the pains in his chest. However, his grey eyes were bright and shrewd, his mind as sharp as it had ever been. He made no attempt to hide his anger and disappointment. When he learned that they had refused to return her dowry his wrath increased tenfold.

‘Those scurvy, double-dealing Neils are no better than thieves.’

Her brother growled agreement. At sixteen Hugh was grown to manhood and, as the only surviving son, was now the heir. He also possessed a keen sense of what was due to kin.

‘This is an insult to our entire family. It should be avenged. Let me take a force to Dunkeld and burn out that nest of rats.’

‘The rats are numerous and strong, boy. We’ll bide our time.’

‘You mean we’re to swallow this outrage?’

‘This outrage will not be swallowed or forgotten, I promise you.’ Graham paused. ‘However, revenge is a dish best tasted cold. If you’re to be laird one day you need to remember that.’

Hugh nodded slowly. ‘I’ll remember.’ He turned to Isabelle. ‘You’re well rid of the scum, Belle.’

That much was true, but it didn’t change the fact that she was now a dowerless widow. It hung there, unsaid, like the subject of her alleged barrenness. Her brother was fond of her and would never throw such an accusation in her face, but it wasn’t going to go away...

Being thus lost in gloomy reflection, she was unaware of the approaching figure until she heard him speak.

‘Well met, Lady Isabelle.’

Recognising the voice she turned quickly. ‘Murdo.’

The master-at-arms was standing just feet away. She eyed him uneasily, repressing a shiver. The black-clad figure was entirely shaven-headed. A scar seamed the left side of his face from cheek bone to chin, though it was partially hidden by a beard close-trimmed and dark as night, as dark as the predatory gaze watching her now. He reminded her of nothing so much as a hunting wolf, lean, powerful and dangerous. A strong odour of stale sweat enhanced the impression of lupine rankness.

He bared his teeth in a smile. ‘I thought I might find you here.’

Suddenly she was aware that the orchard was some way from the house and that it was entirely private. Apprehension prickled. Unwilling to let him see it she remained quite still and forced herself to meet his gaze.

‘What do you want?’

‘To speak with you, my lady.’

‘Very well, what is it you wish to speak about?’

‘The future.’

The knot of apprehension tightened a degree. ‘What of it?’

‘Your honoured father is a sick man. He cannot live long. That must weigh upon your mind.’

‘It does,’ she replied, ‘but you did not come here to tell me that.’

‘When he dies you will need a strong protector, Isabelle.’

She knew what was coming now and sought desperately for the means to evade it. ‘My brother will protect me.’

‘A new husband would perform the role better.’ His expression became intent. ‘I would be that man.’

Isabelle’s stomach wallowed but she knew better than to anger him deliberately. ‘What you are asking is not possible, Murdo.’

‘Why not?’ He held her gaze. ‘Who better than me? I may be a younger son but I come of good family. I have risen to my present rank on merit and served your father well. Thanks to my efforts Castlemora is strong and feared.’ He paused. ‘And you cannot be entirely unaware of my feelings for you.’

‘I regret that I cannot return them.’

‘Not yet, but you might come to return them, in time.’

She shook her head. ‘I will never feel about you that way.’

‘You say so now but I know how to be patient.’

‘Time will not change this. Do not hold out hopes of me.’

‘If not me, who else, Isabelle? You are no longer the prize you once were, only a widow returned in disgrace to her father.’

Her chin lifted at once. ‘I wonder then that you should wish to make her yours.’

‘I have long wished it. The present circumstances change nothing, except to work in my favour since there will be no more suitors coming calling now.’

‘Never tell me you speak out of pity, Murdo.’

‘Far from it.’ He smiled. ‘I know the truth, you see.’

She stared at him. ‘What do you mean?’

‘That Alistair Neil was no man at all.’

‘You have no right to say such things.’

‘You don’t have to pretend to me, Isabelle. ’Tis common knowledge among the local whores: your late husband was but meagrely endowed, and that he couldn’t get a cock stand either. If you have no children the fault is not yours.’

Had it been anyone else this vindication would have been balm to her spirit. As it was, her cheeks burned.

Murdo drew closer. ‘I can give you children.’

She stiffened. The thought of intimacy with him was utterly repellent. ‘It’s impossible.’

‘Come now, would you not prefer to be ridden by a real man for a change?’ Seeing her outraged expression he laughed softly. ‘One night in my bed and you’ll forget Alistair Neil ever existed.’

‘I’ll never share your bed.’

If her reply had dismayed him it was not apparent for his expression did not change save that his gaze became more intense. ‘When I set myself a goal I always achieve it.’

Despite the warmth of the late afternoon sunshine goose bumps started along her arms, and she wanted nothing so much as to be free of his presence.

‘I regret that you will be disappointed this time.’

‘You’re wrong, Isabelle. This time you will be my wife.’

‘That I never shall.’ With that she turned to leave, but a strong hand on her arm prevented it.

‘I never take no for an answer,’ he replied. ‘You should know that well enough by now.’

She tested the hold but it didn’t alter. ‘Let go of me, Murdo.’

‘You escaped me once before but I’ll not let it happen again.’

The tone was casual but its implications were not. Her heart thumped unpleasantly hard but she forced herself to meet his gaze. ‘You forget yourself. You may have a trusted position in this household, but it does not give you the right thus to presume.’

‘Not yet perhaps,’ he replied, ‘but know this: I intend to have a husband’s rights over you soon enough.’

That quiet assertion snapped the last fragile strand of her self-control. ‘Never!’

Tearing herself free of his hold she turned on her heel and ran off through the trees. He watched but made no attempt to stop her.

‘Aye, run from me, Isabelle,’ he murmured. ‘You won’t escape.’

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