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Falkland Palace, Scotland
August 1st, 1592
Elizabeth Ruthven stood at the edge of a cliff that fell several hundred feet straight down. A short distance from her booted toes was a thin, whisper-sheer cascade of water that tumbled over the broken lip of the precipice, spraying transparent, rainbow-hued mist onto the rocks below. An updraft of wind swooped over her from the moorland. In the distance, like an amber jewel set in a sea of green, was Falkland Palace.
Tears flooded Elizabeth’s eyes, falling to her cheeks momentarily before they were dried in the wind. King James VI and Queen Anne had brokered a truce between the Ruthven and the Douglas clans by forcing her to marry Lachlan Douglas on the morrow—a man she had never met, but whom she was born to detest.
A sad smile came to Elizabeth’s lips. It wasn’t every day a girl turned nineteen. Yet on her birthday, tomorrow, she would be forced to marry a man she did not love and did not even know. A man her father had talked about her whole life as evil incarnate. And now she was supposed to marry this . . . demon . . . when her heart belonged to another?
How did the king and queen imagine this arrangement would succeed? Two sworn enemies with no common ground? The queen had tried to assure Elizabeth that her bridegroom was not evil, and that he was indeed educated, civilized, a gentleman, and a warrior. The king had simply scowled at her and demanded she do as she’d been bid.
Had she been born male, she would not be in this position, she reflected bitterly as she took a look at the empty void below her feet. She wanted Roland Carswell in spite of his faults. She’d been in love with him for the past five years. Elizabeth released a ragged sigh. But she was not male, no one cared that it was Roland she loved, and it did no good to wish for what could not be.
Instead, she would be terrified to be alone every single day with the man she would be forced to marry, waiting for the moment when the bloodshed between their two families erupted anew. And it would continue no matter what the king or queen did to stop it. The hatred between their two families ran too deep for the fighting to end. Which was why she had come to this ledge. Her death would at least prevent her from sacrificing herself on the altar of supposed peace. Elizabeth shifted up on the balls of her feet, ready to jump.
“Is it really as terrible as all that?”
Elizabeth startled at the unexpected sight of a man not ten paces from her on the cliff’s ledge. How had he managed to get so close without her noticing? Then another thought struck her. Was he here to harm her before she could harm herself?
He did not have the ragged look of a thief or a vagrant about him; his white muslin shirt was clean and well fitted to his muscular chest and his breeches were well tailored. His boots were of the finest leather and polished to a high shine. The fading sunlight caught and caressed the man’s features, limning his cheeks and throat with light and tipping his eyelashes with gold. His blue eyes were filled with concern as he inched closer to her.
Blue eyes that seemed ever so familiar. “Stay where you are,” she warned.
He paused and looked over the edge of the cliff before returning his gaze to hers. “It’s a long way down. Before you plunge over the side and to your doom, would you care to talk about what’s bothering you?”
“What’s there to talk about?” Elizabeth said with her fists clenched as tightly as her jaw. “Besides, why do you care?”
They stared at each other for a heartbeat before he replied, “It would be a shame to spoil something so perfect as you.”
Heat came to her cheeks as she looked away, needing a reprieve from his calm, unnerving stare.
The young laird took three steps toward her until her gaze shifted back to him. He was beside her, an arm’s length away. Elizabeth frowned down at the emptiness below her. She wobbled slightly before she sucked in a startled breath and stiffened, stopping her forward momentum.
The blond-haired man met her frown with one of his own. “At least you have the sense to be frightened.”
Elizabeth opened her mouth to argue, but realized he was right. She was frightened, not only of leaping to her death, but also of marrying a stranger. In order to avoid acknowledging the truth, she changed the subject. “May I ask what you are doing out here in the middle of nowhere?”
He studied her for a long moment before he said, “The Lomond Hills are not ‘nowhere’ and nay, you may not.”
Despite her precarious situation, her temper flared and her skin warmed beneath the boldness of his gaze. “If you are going to be rude, then please leave. I would rather not die feeling flummoxed and flighty.”
“You are lucky I am here and not someone who will take advantage of this situation—someone with more time and fewer scruples.”
“You flatter yourself, sir, if you think you could so easily steal my virtue from me.”
“I made no claim to your virtue or anything else.” That calm, unnerving gaze of his held her in its grasp long enough for a flush to spread down her throat. His gaze followed to where the damask of her gown molded over her breasts. His eyes were the same brilliant blue as the sky. They held her in check and she had nowhere to look but into their depths.
It wasn’t until she felt his arm brush against her back and pull her toward him that she realized just how deeply entranced she had allowed herself to become. She drew a startled breath. “Let me go.”
He held her captive in his arms, facing him. “Only if you promise to remove yourself from this ledge and allow me to return you home with your virtue intact.”
He was so close—close enough that she could smell both sunshine and a slight hint of cloves on his skin. She watched as the wind pressed his crisp muslin shirt against his chest and broad shoulders, hinting at a muscled physique beneath. “How dare you,” she stammered, shocked by how affected she was by his nearness. Never had she had such a response to any man before, not even Roland.
“You have a lot of fight left in you for one who was willing to leap from that ledge a few moments ago.”
“I will fight you with my last breath if you do not let me go,” she said tartly. He edged closer, and Elizabeth felt the heat of his eyes rake her again.
“I need your promise you will not leap.”
“I do not make promises to strangers.”
“Then I shall hold you until you do.” His roguish smile brought out a dimple in his right cheek. “Although the longer we remain like this, the more my thoughts drift to other things that could happen between a man and a woman alone in the wilds of Scotland.”
“You wouldn’t . . .” But even as she returned a defiant stare, she knew she was entirely at his mercy. This man was not like her clansmen who blindly followed her father’s lead. This man thought for himself and didn’t appear to be one to play by any rules but those of his own making. He was far stronger than she, and it appeared just as stubborn.
Elizabeth frowned. Whether she wanted to admit it or not, she found him intriguing. There was something reckless about him that made her heart pound within her chest and sent her blood singing through her veins. She tried to pull away, but he held tight. “Why are you doing this? It does not concern you.”
“Today’s anxiety will only be a memory of a bad day tomorrow. Nothing in your life could be so bad that you would have to take your own life to avoid it.”
Her frown deepened. Was the stranger right? If she died, then Lachlan Douglas wouldn’t have to marry her either. And her father would no doubt blame her—but the feud would continue.
Elizabeth drew a thoughtful breath. Would it be better for her to live and force Lachlan to want to find a way out of their marriage instead? Could she stir up enough trouble until he would do anything to be rid of her? Or, she could always kill him instead. Her father would approve of that tactic. Elizabeth brought her gaze back to the man who held her and said the words he wanted her to say, “I promise not to harm myself.”
“That is a relief,” he breathed, then brought his hand up, winding an errant tendril of her brown hair around his finger.
Her pulse raced. “What are you doing?”
“Remembering you and this moment. Is that all right?”
“Nay.” She felt breathless, shaky, confused. She did not know this man, and yet something deep inside her felt as if she did.
He didn’t stop stroking her hair. In the silence, she heard their breathing as it mingled with the wind that ebbed and flowed around them. She heard the pounding of his heart, though it was probably only her own. He held her so close she could feel the heat of his body, and smell the musk of his skin.
Something dark and unreadable crossed his gaze as he released her hair and brought that same finger to stroke the skin of her cheek. “You are so beautiful. Whoever he was who sent you up here on the ledge should be strung up by his thumbs for making you feel so hopeless.”
His words ran over her like honey. She swallowed, suddenly hot and flushed and a little faint. “What makes you think a man is the cause of my troubles?”
“Isn’t it always a man behind a woman’s sadness?” His startling blue eyes connected with hers. There was some emotion in them, something uncertain and yearning. That emotion pulled at her, filling her with an overwhelming urge to move closer, to lift her face to his.
His eyes held her in watchful suspension as his head drifted lower, his lips nearing her own.
She held her breath. His hands drifted to the narrow indent of her waist and against her better judgment, she closed her eyes, waiting for his kiss.
Instead, a sharp whistle vibrated in the air. She felt herself being lifted. Her eyes flew open as a white horse came to an immediate halt beside the man. The pressure of his hands increased as he lifted her higher, then unceremoniously settled her atop the horse. He took a half-step back. “This is for the best.”
A stab of regret pierced her chest. Before she could object, he slapped his hand across the horse’s flank. She jerked back in the saddle as the horse spirited her down the path at the edge of the cliff to safety below.
Once on the moorland, the horse did not stop. The beast continued racing toward Falkland Palace and her bridegroom awaiting her there. Why had she not met the stranger on the cliff before today? Perhaps then the two of them could have explored the palpable attraction between them without regret. Perhaps they still might if she could turn the horse around and go back to him and convince him otherwise.
Elizabeth leaned forward, trying to gather the loose reins in her hands, but failed as she was forced to hold on to the saddle itself to stay upright. Her skirts whipped around her legs and her cheeks were on fire at the memory of the stranger’s arms locked around her, his fingers in her hair. At least she would have the memory of her brief encounter with a stranger to hold in her heart as she married a man who could only ever be her enemy.
The sun was setting as the horse entered the palace gates as if knowing exactly where to return her. At the sight of her, a tall and lanky stable boy she recognized as one of her father’s own ran up to greet her. “Milady, ’tis good ye are returned,” Richie said, his brows drawn together with concern. “Yer father is in the palace, and he’s displeased that ye weren’t here tae greet him.” The lad caught the reins of her horse and brought her to a stop. “Ye best go inside now afore he works himself into one of his rages.” He offered her a hand down.
“My thanks, Richie,” Elizabeth said with a nod of appreciation before heading to the doorway that would take her to the great hall where her father no doubt waited to berate her for inconveniencing him. She hadn’t taken two steps before that feeling of fear she’d tried to escape returned. She drew a breath, forcing it back, as she had for the last three weeks since she’d learned about her betrothal to her enemy. Instead, she concentrated on the sound of her footfalls on the gravel in the drive as she made her way inside.
She looked about the chamber hoping and praying to see a familiar dark-haired man who had been gone from her life for months now, but her beloved Roland was nowhere in sight. Instead, as soon as she entered the great hall, her father turned toward her.
Donald Ruthven’s features hardened as he strode to her side. Anger sparked in his eyes. The man was not the clan leader, but he had been playing the role for many years. His brother left a son behind who would take control of the clan in the future, but at fifteen he was too young for such responsibility. Her father had only been too happy to lead the Ruthvens in the young laird’s stead. “Where have you been? Do you not know how dangerous it is for you to go outside this palace alone?”
At her hesitation, he stepped a hairsbreadth from her face, trying to intimidate her. “Answer me, foolish girl. Where have you been? They say you have been gone for hours.”
Elizabeth tensed, but held her ground. “I needed to clear my head, so I took a walk,” she answered a little more defiantly than she would have three weeks ago. He did not need to know how far she had walked or what her true purpose had been. Such knowledge would only make him angrier.
“A walk?” he sneered. “The Douglas bastards could’ve found you and killed you. Then where would we be? If you don’t get married, then we do not receive the money that’s been promised us.”
“Three weeks ago, you didn’t want me to marry the Douglas at all,” Elizabeth stated boldly. Something about her meeting with the stranger in the Lomond Hills suddenly gave her a strength she hadn’t possessed when she left the castle this morning.
Her father’s face darkened. “That was before the king and queen withheld our funds until you are wed.” His lips curled in a satirical smile. “’Tis after the wedding when we’ll work to free you from that bond. For then the king and queen cannot punish us for not holding up our end of this vile bargain.”
Unable to maintain her bravado, Elizabeth took several steps back, putting some space between herself and her father. “I shall play my part. Have no fear of that, but until the wedding, please leave me in peace.” With that, she turned and fled from the room. They would see her tomorrow morning when she could no longer avoid her duty. Until then, she had no desire to be near her kinsmen who put her in this awkward position in the first place, or to see her bridegroom when he arrived at the palace. Let her father fret a little until he received his bribe from the king and queen, and let her bridegroom wonder about who he would be marrying until the appointed time.
End of Excerpt