-Cathy Maxwell, New York Times bestselling author
Deep within Scotland, a healer and a warrior join forces to protect Scotland's future . . .
There is an intruder in the woods near King Robert Bruce's camp, but when Sir Thomas MacKelloch comes face-to-face with the interloper, he is shocked to discover his assailant is a woman. The fair lady is skilled with a bow and arrow and defiant in her responses. The wary Knight Templar dare not allow her beauty to lower his guard. Irritated by his attraction, he hauls her before his sovereign to expose her nefarious intent.
Outraged Sir Thomas dismissed her claim, Mistress Alesone MacNiven awaits the shock on the arrogant knight's face when he learns that she has told the truth. But it is she who is shocked, and then horrified, as it is revealed that her father, the king's mortal enemy, has betrothed her to a powerful noble, a deal that could jeopardize the king's efforts to unite Scotland. Robert Bruce orders Sir Thomas to escort Alesone to safety. As they embark on a harrowing journey through the Highlands, Alesone tries to ignore her attraction to the intimidating warrior, but as she burns beneath Thomas's kiss she realizes this fearless knight could steal her heart.
Praise for the novels of Diana Cosby
"Cosby gives you it all-passion, danger, lush history and a touch of magic. Excellent reading."
-Hannah Howell, New York Times bestselling author
"A sexy new voice in historical romance. Scottish historicals have a bright new star."
-Sandra Hill, USA Today bestselling author
"Diana Cosby writes wonderful historical romance!"
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|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.53(d)|
Read an Excerpt
By Diana Cosby
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2017 Diana Cosby
All rights reserved.
Scotland, late fall, 1307
Wind sharp with the edge of winter battered Alesone MacNiven as she ducked beneath the thick limb of an oak. She scanned the surrounding trees, her body aching with exhaustion after two days of hard travel.
Withered brown leaves scraped across the snow-smeared ground like harbingers of death. She shuddered, damned the images haunting her. Though she hadna seen Comyn's men since last night, his knights hadna given up their search for her.
Fingers trembling, she withdrew the ring from a hidden pocket inside her cape. A snowflake settled upon the ruby embraced by the gold filigree carving of a lion.
"Give this to King Robert," Grisel Bucahn rasped. "Tell him —" A cough wracked her body.
"Dinna try to talk," Alesone pleaded to the woman who'd raised her.
Her beloved mentor placed the ring in Alesone's palm, curled her fingers over the circlet. "Lo-long ago I saved Robert Bruce's life. He said if ever I had need of his assistance, to bring him this ring. 'Tis too late for me, but he will protect you."
"Our enemy returns any moment. Go!"
Tears burning her eyes, Alesone hugged Grisel, slipped the ring into her pocket, and fled.
Sunlight shimmered off the ruby as if to mock her heartbreak. Fingers trembling, Alesone stowed the ring. Aye, the bastards would pay!
After taking a drink, she secured her water pouch, shifted the bow hung on her shoulder, and continued on. Beyond the stand of fir and oak, a field came into view. She kept to the woods. As much as she needed to put distance between herself and her pursuers, 'twas safest to travel beneath cover.
A pain-filled scream sounded nearby.
She ducked behind a clump of bushes.
"Tell us where King Robert is!" a man's rough voice demanded.
Dread ripped through her. Sir Huwe!
Another agony-laden scream.
Pulse racing, Alesone looked where the voices had come from, in search of the knights. A distance away stood another stand of fir trees.
Go! 'Twas death to linger.
And if she fled, whoever suffered Sir Huwe's brand of twisted brutality would die like Grisel.
With quiet steps she crept to the trees. Between the breaks in the needled boughs, she caught sight of the burly knight's back.
From her limited view, she couldna see if his detestable friend aided him with whomever he tortured. Little doubt the vermin was near. Like wolves, bad blood traveled in packs.
She withdrew her bow, nocked an arrow, then edged closer.
Another knight, ill-kempt, walked into view.
Her skin crawled with disgust.
With a curse, Sir Huwe hauled the man who lay sprawled on the ground to his feet. "The king is camped nearby; tell us where!"
Blood streaked the prisoner's swollen face. He remained silent.
"Let me kill him," the scrawny man spat. "He is naught but a traitor to Lord Comyn."
Their captor struggled to break free. "King Robert is Scotland's rightful sovereign."
"Rightful sovereign." Sir Huwe grunted. "The Bruce murdered his rival at the church of the Greyfriars to ensure he received the crown." His fingers tightened on the man's garb. "Tell us where he is or die!"
Alesone straightened, stepped into the opening, drew back the bowstring, and aimed. "Leave him."
Sir Huwe's gaze shifted to her. Surprise darkened to recognition. Thick brows narrowed. "You are a fool to dare threaten me."
"Move back," she ordered, praying he didna see her trembling, "and I will allow you to walk away, which is more mercy than you showed Grisel."
With a cold smile, he shoved the wounded man to the ground, strode toward her. "Like you, she deserved none."
Bastard! She released the shaft.
The arrow drove through the knight's heart. On a gasp, Sir Huwe collapsed.
Outrage reddened his accomplice's face. He withdrew his sword, charged.
Her second arrow plunged deep into his chest.
Face ashen, he stumbled back, dropping to the ground with a thud.
After ensuring nay others were in sight, Alesone secured her bow, then hurried to the injured man. "I am a healer." She knelt by his side, tore a strip from her garb, and pressed the cloth against the large gash across his shoulder.
Pain-filled eyes held hers. "You must leave! A contingent of Comyn's troops wait beyond the corrie. I was on my way back to warn ..." The stranger's face paled.
"King Robert. I heard you. Dinna worry," she said as she secured his broken arm. "I am loyal to the Bruce."
His body sagged with relief. "The king must be informed of the threat."
"Aye." She assisted him to his feet. "Can you walk?"
He nodded. "My name is Sir Deargh."
"I am called Alesone." With one last look around, she helped him into the shield of trees.
* * *
Firelight illuminated the powerful sovereign's face, that of a warrior, a man renowned for his tactical expertise. Fighting to steady her nerves, Alesone curtsied before Scotland's king. "'Tis an honor to meet you, Your Grace."
"Rise, Mistress Alesone," Robert Bruce said.
Exhausted, she stood, relieved they'd arrived before the last rays of sunlight faded.
The crackle of the campfire melded with the murmurs of men outside the tent as the king settled in a sturdy but unadorned wooden chair. He motioned for her to sit on a bench paces away. "You saved the life of one of my knights. For that I thank you."
She clenched the ring in her palm. "I am a healer. I did naught but come to the aid of a wounded warrior."
"Which explains your actions in part." He paused. "My knight could have been a criminal."
"A worry I would have considered, Your Grace, had I not heard his attackers demand that he reveal your camp's location. Both men serve Lord Comyn."
Surprise flickered in his eyes, and then his gaze narrowed. "How would you know their allegiance?"
"My loyalties lie with you, Your Grace," she rushed out, aware that with but a word he could name her a traitor and order her hanged.
"From my man's account, I believe your claim." The Bruce rubbed his chin. "You are brave to have faced down two knights alone."
Brave? Nay, furious.
"Tell me, why are you in the forest without protection when Scotland is at war?"
She drew an unsteady breath. "'Tis complicated."
A frown worked his brow, and he leaned back. "I have time."
Against the crackle of the fire, Alesone met the king's eyes, found sincerity, patience, and intellect. Grisel's dying words rolled through her. Though the healer had saved the Bruce, would his pledge given to her those many years ago override Alesone's blood tie to his enemy?
As smoke curled from the flames, she explained how Grisel had taken her in as a child, gave a brief history over the years, and told him how two days earlier she'd returned to her home and found the woman who'd raised her beaten and dying. And how, with her last breath, Grisel had revealed those behind her attack.
Face solemn, the Bruce held her gaze. "What did she do to incite their outrage?"
Tears burned in Alesone's throat as she struggled with the loss, with the knowledge that she'd never again see Grisel. "I found one of your knights wounded and hid him in our hut. Until Comyn's men demanded entry, neither she nor I believed anyone was aware of his presence. Before they broke into her home, she helped your knight slip out through a secret passage. Loyal to you, she stalled the men while your knight escaped." She paused, angled her chin. "Neither will I apologize for killing any of Comyn's men."
"Nor should you." A frown deepened on his brow. "You are alone and on the run?"
"You travel to relations?"
"Nay." Alesone damned the waver in her voice.
He arched a brow. "Friends?"
She shook her head. Hand trembling, she held out the ring. "Grisel Bucahn said to bring you this and you would offer me protection."
Recognition flared in the king's eyes, and his hands tightened on the arms of the chair. "God's teeth."
At the emotion in his voice, her own throat tightened. "I will never forget her."
"Nor I," he rasped. "She was a fine woman, one to whom I owed my life." For a moment he studied her, and then gave a curt nod. "I will honor my promise to Grisel and offer you my protection. And your arrival is fortuitous. I am in need of a healer to care for me as well as my men, a position I offer you."
Overwhelmed by his generosity, she nodded. "I thank you. 'Twould please me to serve you, Your Grace."
"'Twill nae be easy," the king cautioned. "Life on campaign is difficult at best."
"I am well aware of the demands necessary and more than prepared for the task. In addition to my knowledge in the use of herbs, I am proficient with a bow and a dagger," she said, proud of her skills, a proficiency that'd saved her life many times.
Satisfaction filled the king's eyes. "Mistress Alesone, 'twould seem we have a bargain."
Dread eroded her happiness. Though he'd offered her a position along with his protection, neither did he know of her own circumstance. Terrified of admitting her bond to his enemy, she refused to allow the truth to be unearthed later and be labeled a spy. "There is one more issue, Sire. I fear when you know of my lineage, you will withdraw your offer."
Shrewd eyes narrowed. "Go on."
"I am ... or rather, my mother was ..." Bedamned! "Lord Comyn is my father," she breathed, nae wanting the guard at the entrance to hear.
A gust of wind battered the tent.
His mouth tightened, and a tremor slid through her. Please let him look past my heritage.
"You said as a newborn you were left with Grisel?"
Shame warmed her cheeks. "Aye. My mother was Lady MacNiven. While her husband was on Crusade, she went to Comyn's bed. Upon learning she was with child, she went to Lord Comyn, admitted that she carried his child, and begged him to aid her. Instead, he cast her out. After she gave birth, she had her personal maid, Burunild MacCheine, bring me to Grisel. Then" — Alesone paused and inhaled, lifting her chin — "preferring death over a lifetime of shame, my mother threw herself from the cliffs. As I grew, my father, along with those in the castle, shunned me. Though I hold a blood tie to Comyn, I swear to you I loathe the very name."
A cinder snapped within the dance of flames.
Face taut, the king exhaled. "My offer for you to serve as my healer remains. But" — the Bruce glanced toward the guard at the door, lowering his voice to a whisper as he turned back to her — "you must swear fealty to me, and never shall you disclose to those loyal to me your father's identity. Nae all who serve me will be so tolerant."
Thankful, she dropped to her knees. "Until my death, Your Grace, I swear my fealty, and I shall keep my blood tie a secret."
The king laid his hand upon her shoulder. "Mistress Alesone, I welcome you."
* * *
The rush of water filled the crisp morning air and a light mist clung above the land as Sir Thomas MacKelloch glanced toward his knights at the river's edge. "While you finish watering your mounts, I will climb the knoll and ensure nay one is about."
His men nodded.
Unless King Robert had moved, they should reach the sovereign's camp by midday. Thomas tugged his fur-lined cape closer and led his bay up the steep incline.
The frozen ground crunched beneath his steps as he searched the shadows where an enemy could hide.
Overhead, gray clouds moving east slowly smothered the sun.
Snow was coming, a storm paltry to the tempest raging within France.
Two months had passed since the Grand Master had secretly dissolved the Knights Templar, a decree Thomas still struggled to accept. In but a breath, the Order — a way of life he loved — had ceased to exist. Few Templars still in France knew of the decision. For the sake of ensuring their treasures were safely removed and hidden, the Templars' dissolution was a secret he and the others within the Brotherhood who had sailed from France must keep.
Thomas clenched the reins as he cursed the arrests of the Knights Templar in France. Charges included claims of heresy, idol worship, sacrilegious acts, and more.
Falsehoods spewed by malcontents who'd been cast from the Order.
However despicable the allegations, all within the Brotherhood who'd escaped knew their nefarious origin.
King Philip IV.
Plummeting toward financial disaster, in his desperation to replenish his coffers, France's king had sacrificed the elite warriors who'd protected him over the years.
Thomas jammed his boot into the hard ground and continued up. Naught could change the king's heinous act. Thank God the Grand Master had received warning of the charges, allowing Thomas and many of his fellow Templars to flee.
Still, too many knights remained in France, including the Grand Master. Honorable men falsely defamed. Thomas swallowed hard. Mere weeks had passed since the arrests had begun, and many Templars had been killed. Before 'twas over, many more would die.
A branch cracked beneath his boot.
He cursed, tugged the reins, and pushed on, ready to reach Scotland's king, to wield his blade once again for right.
Fragments of sunlight slipped through the clouds, illuminated the few stubborn leaves clinging to their branches overhead. For a moment, the ice-laden shells danced within the current, the fragile brown shimmers warming to amber. The gust abated, and the leaves hung limp like forgotten promises.
Watching a bloody leaf. With the enemy about, a fine way to get oneself killed.
Thomas tugged his mount forward. As he rounded the next tree, the clouds thickened. Gloom settled upon the forest. With a wary eye, he scanned the ridge above. Once he reached the top, he could —
An arrow hissed past, a finger's width before his heart.
The shaft lodged in a tree to his left.
God's teeth! Thomas clasped the hilt of his sword.
"Withdraw your blade and die!" a lass's voice warned.
Furious, he glared at the slip of a woman emerging from the tree line a short distance away. With her skill, neither had she wanted him dead.
A bird's cry sounded from behind him.
Relief slid through Thomas. His men had heard her, understood trouble was about. Now to keep the lass talking until his warriors seized her. Then, by God, he would have answers. "I am nae a threat."
"Remove your hand from your weapon, state your name and your loyalty."
Bloody damn. Unsure if her fealty was to Comyn or the Bruce, a wrong answer could hold a fatal consequence. "Sir Thomas MacKelloch."
"Release your sword and state your loyalty!"
A hand flashed to his far right, alerting him that his knights had surrounded her and were closing in. "Lass, I am but passing through."
Another arrow whipped past, sliced the first straight down the center.
He stared at the severed shaft in disbelief. An expert archer, he was proud of his ability and could match her skill, a level of proficiency held by few. Who was this lass? More important, why was she so close to King Robert's encampment? God's teeth, if her intention was to kill the Bruce, with her accuracy she would need but one attempt.
With quiet steps, his knights crept behind her.
"I would be asking for your loyalty as well," Thomas said.
With a panther's grace, the slender archer drew back her bowstring.
His knights lunged.
The woman screamed as Rónán caught her hands and jerked them behind her back. "Release me," she demanded, her legs kicking out with dangerous accuracy.
Rónán held tight.
Aiden retrieved her bow while Cailin made a quick search.
Cailin removed several weapons hidden within her garb, then held up the dagger she'd hidden in her boot. "A sgian dubh." He scowled. "The lass is well armed."
Furious at placing himself and potentially his men in danger, Thomas stormed over.
Blond hair tugged free from her braid and whipped against her comely face.
"Who are you?" Thomas demanded.
Bewitching moss-green eyes narrowed.
Though impressed by her daring, he wouldna have his question go unanswered. "Your name."
The woman twisted to free her arm; Rónán held firm.
"Why did you threaten me?"
"I only sought your name and loyalty, 'twas far from a threat."
Thomas grunted. "You have an intriguing way of asking. Whom are you loyal to?"
Fear edged her eyes.
A dose of nerves would serve him well. "Tell me, by God, or I will haul you before King Robert and expose your plans to assassinate him."
At his words, her face paled. "Never would I harm Scotland's king."
"You are loyal to the Bruce?"
She nodded. "I am his personal healer and under his protection."
An untruth. He'd received a detailed account on those of importance who traveled with the king. Never was a woman mentioned, certainly not one who was a healer. "Indeed?" Thomas said, his voice ripe with suspicion. "With Scotland at war, I find it odd for the Bruce to allow a lass under his protection to leave camp without a proper guard."
Excerpted from Forbidden Knight by Diana Cosby. Copyright © 2017 Diana Cosby. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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