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July 31st, 1593
It all came down to whoever drew the short straw. That man would be the one to accept King James VI’s secret mission to finally rid himself of the threat his own cousin brought against the throne of Scotland. Reid Douglas, Quinn Douglas, Alexander Ross, Cameron Sinclair, Rhys Elliot, Lachlan Douglas, and Malcolm Hamilton—the warriors who comprised his Magnificent Seven—stepped forward and drew their lot from the king’s own hand. As they compared their straws, James pressed his mouth into a thin line. He cared not who would go to seek out his nemesis, just that the deed would finally be done.
“God’s teeth,” Alexander Ross grumbled as he looked upon his stubby piece of straw. His voice echoed in the empty great hall in Edinburgh Castle.
“Seems that you, Alexander, are the man for this important mission.”
“Aye,” Alexander said, his tone resigned.
The king settled himself once again at the long wooden table on the dais where he took his meals while his men, his personal protectors, gathered in the seats around him. “One of my spies reports that a Mr. H is hiding just outside the town of Haddington at Dunbar Manor owned by David Graham.”
Reid Douglas scowled at the king. “That is the name Bothwell assigned himself when he forced my wife, Lucy, to make an attempt upon your life.”
“Why Mr. H?” Malcolm asked.
“Hepburn was his mother’s maiden name,” Cameron stated. “Perhaps is it in honor of her?”
Heat flooded James’s cheeks. “My cousin is devious but not very clever if he’s still using that name amongst his supporters.” James glanced around the table at his Magnificent Seven. His gaze settled upon the man chosen for this latest task: Alexander Ross.
The men gathered before him had saved his life countless times. They would succeed in stopping his cousin Francis Stewart the Earl of Bothwell’s newest scheme as well. Then Bothwell would finally stand trial for his crimes against the crown. His dastardly cousin had tried kidnapping him, consorting with witches, assassination attempts, and, if the latest reports were to be believed, was gathering an army of supporters to challenge him directly for a claim on the crown of Scotland.
His men would see that never happened, wouldn’t they? James reached for the goblet of wine before him and drank deeply. Only when he felt more composed did he turn his attention back to his men. “I confronted the Earl of Montrose about his relation cooperating with an enemy of the crown two days past, but he seemed truly confused by my accusation. I need you, Alexander, to head to East Lothian and do whatever it takes to see Bothwell is finally apprehended after years of pursuit.”
Reid Douglas inclined his head. “The rest of us will be waiting at Redhouse Castle only a few miles away with a hundred men ready to assist you if and when the need arises.”
The king nodded, gratified by his men’s efficiency. “I want you to leave as soon as possible, Alexander. My cousin is gathering more supporters and growing more powerful every moment. Put an end to his tyranny for the sake of us all.”
August 2nd, 1593
Two horses and their riders came to a stop in the shadows of the afternoon sunshine just outside the marketplace. The harnesses jingled as the men dismounted, the sound blending with the movement and voices from the bustling village of Haddington.
“Keep the horses out of sight,” Alexander Godric Ross whispered to his partner on this mission for the king. He gazed from where he and Rhys Elliot tried to conceal themselves at the village beyond. The center of town, where everyone would soon gather, was at the junction of Market and High Streets. Just beyond the marketplace was the tolbooth, with its gaol, courthouse, and council chamber.
Alexander squinted up at the sky. The sun was nearly at its zenith. “We must act quickly or we will have to wait until tomorrow,” he said to his brother-in-arms. For the past year, they had been waiting for an opportunity like this to present itself, and now it had thanks to one of the king’s spies. “You know what you need to do?”
Rhys nodded. “Are you sure you want to be placed in the pillory?” he asked in a hushed tone as he tied the horses to a bush, leaving them enough room to graze. “An hour in such a contraption can seem endless, and not everyone escapes such a punishment unscathed. What if they throw rocks at you? What if someone decides to nail your ear to the wood?”
Alexander removed his doublet, folded it and placed it in the saddlebag before he reached down and scooped up a handful of the peaty dirt. “It’s a chance I must take—besides you’ll be nearby. Make certain the villagers don’t do such things.” He smudged his cheeks with the red dirt before grinding a few stains on the front of his muslin shirt. He released the tail of his kilt from over his shoulder so that it brushed the ground. He needed to appear drunk and disheveled without actually imbibing. A clear head would be vital to his success.
Rhys watched him with a frown. “You know everyone comes out at noon just to taunt those who find themselves forced to endure such public humiliation. How am I to stop them from doing something they do every day?”
“You’ll think of a way.” Alexander ignored Rhys, hunching lower into the shadows, surveying the marketplace. He had picked Haddington for this charade for one reason only: Isobel Seaton. He’d heard rumors the young widow desperately needed help bringing in the harvest before it started to decay in the fields. Alexander was prepared to infiltrate her household any way he could in order to get what he wanted—access to her land. Her farmland and estate would provide the perfect cover and allow him to spy on her neighbor—a man who was suspected of harboring the king’s most dangerous nemesis.
Yet a connection to Isobel did not come without a price. It seemed any man unfortunate enough to wed her did not live long. She’d already buried two husbands, who had been in the prime of their lives, in the last three years. One rumor suggested Isobel was a witch. Another implied she’d poisoned both men. And still another claimed she was cursed.
Alexander pressed his lips into a thin line. ’Twas fortunate he didn’t believe in such nonsense. Isobel was simply a woman who’d had some bad luck. Would he bring her more? The idea sliced through his brain like a lance. Nay, he pushed the thought away. He was doing what he had to do to make certain nothing happened to the king.
“Having second thoughts?” Rhys asked as he came to stand beside Alexander. “I’m sure we can find another way to gather the information we need. You could always just show up at Isobel Seaton’s farm and beg her for work.”
Alexander shrugged dismissively as he uncorked his flask and splashed whisky on his neck and down his shirt. For good measure, he took a swig before replacing the cork, returning the flask to his sporran. “We’ve already been over this a dozen times. There is no other way to proceed without raising suspicion. Isobel might not be suspicious if I do that, but others would be. David Graham’s land borders Isobel’s. I need to make this whole arrangement seem as if it occurred by chance, no matter the risk. Working for her will provide me the cover I need to expose Bothwell’s treasonous efforts to take the throne.”
“All right then.” Rhys wrinkled his nose. “At least you smell the part of a drunk. Let’s pray this works.”
“It’ll work. It has to. And no matter what they do to me, promise me you won’t respond unless they are threatening my life.”
Rhys frowned again. “If that is what you want, then I promise.”
With a satisfied nod, Alexander stumbled out of the shadows, heading toward the main square in town where the pillory was located. He sang a Scottish folk song about an ox and a plow as loud as he could, making certain to slur his words as he bumbled along, bumping into anyone he passed on the way to the market cross.
“Watch where yer goin’!” a merchant carrying a basket of oatcakes growled at Alexander as he staggered past. When Alexander reached out to snatch a triangle from the heaping pile, the merchant swatted his hand away. “A halfpenny each.”
“Ain’t got nae coin.” With a quick glance at Rhys who trailed behind, Alexander snagged a triangle-shaped oatcake and stuffed it in his mouth.
“Ye varmint!” the merchant yelled and seized Alexander by the ear, dragging him toward the marketplace.
Alexander made like he was attempting to pull out of the man’s grasp. Had he wanted to, such a feat would not have been difficult, but the opportunity that had presented itself was far superior to the brawl he had originally planned with Rhys. Stealing would easily land him in the pillory until he could pay the merchant for his goods, but it might also cause the authorities to use a hot branding iron to mark his hand with a T, designating him as a thief. Alexander’s jaw tightened. It was yet another risk he would have to take.
The sun was cresting higher in the sky. The other penitents, if there were any, would be brought out soon. And Isobel, if she kept her normal routine, would wander by shortly after.
“This man robbed me,” the merchant accused as he pulled Alexander to a stop before a burly, dark-haired man. “I demand he be placed in the pillory ’til he can pay what I’m owed.”
“That’s the third time this week you’ve made such a claim—” The man who looked to be the sheriff cut off his words and took a step back from Alexander as he covered his nose. Perverse pleasure flitted through his dark eyes. “A thief, huh? And I was worried we had nae entertainment fer this afternoon. Smells like the miscreant could use a little soberin’ up as well.”
“Let me go.” Alexander slurred his words. “I’m sure someone’ll pay my fine.” He stumbled toward a young woman whose face paled as he approached. “Will ye pay it fer me?”
The blonde woman shrieked and took several steps backward. “Get away from me.”
The sheriff grabbed Alexander by the arm as he addressed the gathering crowd. “Can anyone vouch fer this man? Anyone here wanna pay his fine?”
The response was only laughter and more jabs.
“Lock ’im up ’til the birds come tae peck his flesh.”
“Give the drunken wastrel what he deserves.”
The sheriff led Alexander to the pillory. There wasn’t much debate about his innocence or guilt with so many witnesses to his crime. Alexander shot Rhys a wary look as the aged and splintered wood came down around his neck and wrists with a thwack. The lock was secured as more villagers poured into the streets to buy from the street sellers. Once those men and women realized the pillory was occupied, they excitedly gathered around Alexander to taunt, tease, and laugh at him.
Trepidation trickled up Alexander’s spine as the villagers came closer. He hadn’t been in place more than a moment when the first rotten egg hit his head, followed by the carcass of a dead rat. Cheers went up and more people gathered about, throwing more rotten food and mud at him.
“Are all of you without sin?” Alexander rebuked in anger. “If you judge me, then should you not also judge yourselves?” Then with his next breath, he caught hold of his instinctive response. He could not react as a nobleman. It was time to fully embrace his secret persona—that of Xander Godric. The name was not unfamiliar, as his mother had called him by that name as a child.
More rotten food hit him in the head, along with a stone. It thumped against his skull, bringing a flash of pain. “Stop that!” Xander exclaimed as he struggled against his bindings. Another stone followed the first, but Xander managed to dodge it by stretching his head to the side. The wood scratched his exposed neck, leaving a splinter or two in his flesh. A tightening came to his chest as he looked out at the crowd. Where was Isobel? Had she changed her routine today of all days?
A dead rat then a rotten apple hit the wood beside his head. Xander growled his frustration. “If someone will only pay the baker a halfpenny to set me free—”
A rock hit his forehead, and for a moment the world around him blurred. “God’s wounds!” Xander looked up in disbelief and saw Isobel at the edge of the crowd. He blinked until putrid apple juice cleared from his eyes.
At the sight of her, his breath stilled. There was grace in the way she moved amongst the crowd. Near invisible, and yet, once spotted hard to ignore. Her bearing was proud, and he could tell her body was both delicate and slender beneath the mud-colored gown she wore. The color of her gown enhanced her rosy complexion and her thick dark brown hair. The length of her tresses was gathered in a low knot at the back of her head that appeared ready to fall at the slightest movement. When their gazes connected for a heartbeat, she looked away, focusing on anything except him.
A cold terror lodged in his throat. He had to regain her attention. “I’ll do anything to be freed from these shackles.” He forced the words from his throat.
Her steps slowed then stopped as she returned her attention to him. Her gaze passed over him, inspecting, evaluating what he might have to offer. Instead of her face brightening, she knotted her hands before her and a cold mask fell over her face. She turned away.
Xander’s heart sank at the thought he had underestimated Isobel’s need. She would not act as he had anticipated. Instead, she would leave him to his fate in the pillory. He swallowed and glanced to Rhys. His brother-in-arms had moved closer when they’d started throwing stones and now stood a short distance away, staring after Isobel.
Another rock hit Xander’s head. Dizzily, he clenched his fists, struggling against the wood at his wrists and his neck. He stared after Isobel’s retreating back. “Please—I’ll do anything. Give you whatever you want. Please!” Desperation was sharp on his tongue.
She stopped before the sheriff and whispered something to the man before stepping back toward Xander. Her eyes displaying no emotion. “You’ll do anything?” There was a slight hesitation in her voice.
“Aye.” His breath came hot and fast.
“I will set you free if you agree to marry me.”
His eyes rounded as he tried to find words. Marry her?
The crowd seemed amused by the request. They laughed and taunted him further.
“Best of luck with that, lad. Ye’ll be dead by mornin’!”
“Take the pillory. At least ye’ll have a chance at escape upon the hour!”
“Why would ye want tae marry a witch?”
Xander frowned. “I can help you in innumerable ways that don’t require marriage.” He cocked his head to look up at her. “Don’t you need some help around your farm?”
Her gaze narrowed on him. “And how would you know that?”
He forced a nonchalant laugh. “Everyone in East Lothian knows of your need for a farmhand to help with the harvest. I can help you. I’m strong. I’m a good worker.”
His explanation seemed to satisfy her, for she relaxed ever so slightly. “Aye, but will you be a good husband?”
His frown returned. “Why is it important that I marry you?”
“You won’t be coming into my home, having access to my child if we are not married.”
He forced himself not to react. A child? How had he not discovered she’d had a child when he’d been gathering information about her? “The wee lad won’t know the difference.”
“But I will,” she said angrily. She looked away momentarily as though ashamed of her heated response. Her words revealed what he had suspected earlier. She was desperate for help.
Xander returned a challenging glance. He wasn’t the desperate one. He needed her cooperation, but not at the price of marriage. “You don’t even know me. Isn’t it better to simply hire me and let me go when the harvest is through?”
“I know enough about you. You drink too much. You steal things you should pay for. But you appear strong, and at this moment I am the one who can release you from your current predicament.” Isobel straightened as a well-muscled man broke through the crowd. He wore a leather apron and carried with him a red-hot iron with a T at the end. The acrid scent of heated metal filled the air.
Xander swallowed roughly as his gaze shot to Rhys. He stood toward the back of the crowd now with his arms folded over his chest as though he too were enjoying the spectacle as it unfolded. Xander narrowed his gaze upon his friend, silently urging the man to do something. Would he let them brand him?
The crowd shifted toward the pillory, eager to watch the blacksmith mete out a punishment befitting a thief.
“Now, let’s see.” The man stopped before Xander, studying first his right hand then his right cheek. “Where should I put the mark? Where you might be able to hide it? Or in plain sight for all to see?”
Xander’s gaze shot back to Isobel’s. Her cool gaze sent an insidious, coiling heat into the pit of his stomach. She looked neither fearful nor amused, but there was something in her expression that burrowed deep inside him. She had made him an offer. One she didn’t intend to alter. She would see him branded a thief before she would change her mind. Or, he could alter his own fate if he simply agreed to her terms.
At his silence, she started to turn away.
“The face it is,” the blacksmith said, lowering the hot iron.
“Wait!” Xander shouted.
Isobel turned back to him and held up her hand, stopping the blacksmith in his task.
“How about a compromise?” Xander ground out. “We can handfast right here, right now, if that is your wish. That way neither of us is bound to the other permanently if we find we do not suit.” Handfasting was as legally binding in Scotland as a marriage performed by a clergyman but the practice had been discouraged in recent years by clergy who wanted more control over the affairs of their people.
Isobel’s features were expressionless. Xander couldn’t read if she liked the suggestion or not until she finally said, “You’ll stay with us the entire year and a day as required by the handfasting ceremony?”
He leaned toward her so that only she could hear. “Nay. I will give you two months. That is enough time to bring in and sell the harvest.” It would also give him the time he needed to find Bothwell and expose him to the king’s forces.
Her gaze narrowed. “At least there is no pretense about the commitment you are willing to make. I’ll not have you lie to me. Ever. Can you promise me that?”
“Aye, that I can do.” The falsehood burned in his gut, but what else could he do? He needed to keep his observations secret for the sake of his king. “I’ll make one stipulation as well; that you’ll not ask any questions about my past.”
Her eyes widened in surprise. “I can know nothing about you?”
“Only what I choose to tell.” He paused, giving her a moment to consider. “Do we have an accord?”
Isobel’s lips thinned in thought. Silence descended over the crowd as they waited for her response.
She straightened, then instead of looking at Xander, turned to the blacksmith and gave a tight nod. “Handfasting will do.”
The crowd groaned and booed. The blacksmith’s shoulders slumped. He drew back the red-hot iron and returned to his forge.
“Instead of brandin’ yer flesh, lad, ye’ve branded yer soul by tyin’ yerself tae one such as her.” An older man stepped forward from the crowd and came to stand before both Isobel and Xander. “Ye’ll regret this. Mark my words.”
An older woman, a deep frown upon her face, came forward to stare accusingly at the man. “Ye ken nae what yer talkin’ about, Otis Jenkins. Leave the girl in peace, will ye nae?” The woman turned to Isobel as she pulled the dark green ribbon from the crown of her hat. “Here, dearie, use this tae make sure ye have a father fer that lad of yers.”
Isobel accepted the ribbon and in a loud voice said, “I shall pay his fines and make certain this man follows through on his promise.” She signaled to the sheriff to release Xander from the pillory.
Once released, he stood and stretched his quivering muscles. He’d only been in the humiliating device for less than a quarter of an hour, but imprisonment and trying to avoid the obstacles thrown at him had taken a toll even on him—a man in his prime. His gaze shifted back to the woman before him. Her features were finely drawn: a pair of ruby lips that were full and tempting, bright, intelligent eyes that seemed to be an interplay of gold and brown, high cheekbones, dark lashes, and a straight patrician nose all set in an oval of perfect ivory skin. But the catalogue of her features didn’t do her face justice; it was her hair that framed it all, making her look innocent and worldly at the same time.
“What is your name?” Tension marked the corners of her mouth as she attempted a smile. “If we are to marry, I should know such a thing, should I not?” She removed the scarf she had tied about her shoulders and handed it to him.
He accepted the scarf, grateful to be able to wipe the rotten food from his face and hands. “Xander Godric, my lady,” he said with a bow. “And you are?”
“Isobel Seaton.” Her voice was low toned with just the hint of a rasp that sent tingles of sensation over his skin. The afternoon sunshine bathed her cheeks in a warm glow. He flexed his fingers, wondering if her cheeks were as soft as they appeared to be. He curled his hands, steeling himself against his need to touch her.
She stepped closer and he could smell the faint elusive scent of heather that lingered on her skin. She lifted the ribbon in her hands, holding it out toward him. “I wish to bind myself to you.” Her voice trembled. “Place your right hand in mine.” Isobel offered him her hand. She did not touch him, merely waited for him to come to her.
A breathless moment passed and then another as he remained still. They had come to an agreement. All he needed to do was reach for the fingers she extended. Marriage to her would be worthwhile if it gave him the access he needed to her neighbor. And still he hesitated.
The silence became heavy, almost stifling, drowning out the voices of the villagers, of all things except the beating of his own heart. He wasn’t heartless to use her in such a way, was he? Or did it really matter in the scheme of things? They would both get what they wanted—but nothing more. Finally, he reached for her, folding his fingers around hers. Such an outcome would have to be enough, for it was all he could ever give to the woman who would soon become his wife.
End of Excerpt