excerpts

Excerpt from The Spellbound Bride

Ian Hunter hated court. He hated the way the ornate Flemish tapestries that lined the thick, stone walls of Edinburgh Castle only managed to keep back the worst damp of a Scottish spring. He hated the cloying sweetness of the burning beeswax candles and the way their expensive scent mingled with the stench of too many people, some barely washed, that crowded into this waiting chamber.

Most of all he hated the peacock lords, men like his brother, who surrounded King James, all dressed in their lace ruggs and garish silks. Indeed, he hated them so much he refused to come to court dressed anything like them, wearning instead an expensively tooled leather jerking, dreen trunkhose and his silver-encrusted black leather scabbard.

Looking lethal had is advantage. He might be a second son, and an outcast, but there wasn’t a man in the room who didn’t acknowledge his battle skills as a mercenary. If his appearance kept away the men, all of them frearing they might be cut down for one wron word, it attracted the sidelong glances and breathy whishpers of the court ladies, all dressed in velvets and glittering gold-shot samite gowns.

As Ian neared the opulent gilded dorrs of the king’s audience chamber, a stout, older man stepped into his path. Ian shifted right. The bearded man, garbed in severe black from head to toe and relieved only by the silver laird’s badge fastened on his barrel chest, shifted with him, still blocking his path.

“What is this?” Ian growled. His hand fell to the hilt of his sword. “Move out of my path or I shall be forced to move you myself.”

The man swallowed. “I’ve a proposition for you.”

Ian kept his hand at his sword and said nothing. He still needed another five hundred pounds to complete his plans. If things didn’t go well during his audience with King James, he might require even more. A paying employer was better than no coin at all.

“I’m Lord Charles MacIver, Chamberlain of Argyll for Clan Campbell and the ward of the Earl of Argyll.”

Ian shifted his stance to the other foot.

MacIver glanced at the people moving around them. His voice lowered. “I’ve heard what your brother has done to you. I know you need money to reach France and I can pay you five hundred pounds.”

Three words rung in Ian’s head. Brother. Money. France. His heart thudded in his chest. This could be a boon or a trap. His eyes narrowed. Interesting that MacIver should appear at this moment to offer him exactly what he needed to free his property from the tax collector’s hold. Either it was another of his brother’s ploys to steal what did not belong to him, or it was a gift from God. Not certain which, Ian let his hand loosen on his sword’s hilt as he waited for the old man to continue.

“Whose blood would you have me spill?”

MacIver’s busy brows furrowed. “Marry my niece, no questions asked.” His eyes were glazed with uncertainty.

Ian blinked, beyond startled. “What nonsense is this?”

Surely the man was jesting. One didn’t offer that kind of money simply to marry a lass, unless she was already with child or he truly wanted to be rid of the woman.

MacIver leaned toward him, the wave of his hand warning Ian to speak more quietly. The old man’s gaze softened into somthing akin to pleading. “Hear me out. I’m not looking for a husband for her, only a man who’ll trade vows with her, bed her and rise the next morning to swear to her deflowering. You are just that sort of man.”

Ian’s eyes narrowed again. If this wasn’t one of his brother’s machinations, then God help MacIver’s ward. What kind of many paid a mercenary to take his niece’s virginity? MacIver didn’t look like the sort of man to treat his ward poorly. The anguish he suffered lined his face. Perhaps there were other reasons he chose this for her. Poor lass! She must be ugly beyond bearing. Perhaps this was the only way she’d ever marry.

MacIver’s eyes darted around the room again, then froze. Ian followed his gaze. An enraged Lord Rorick Campbell shoved through the crowd in teh chamber. His fair hair and beard were wild, his attire spattered with mud.

“Where is the chamberlain?” he bellowed. “I demand to see the king!”

The chamberlain stepped forward. He sniffed in dismissal, looking down his thin pointe dnose at the minor nobleman. “Go home, my lord, and change your clothing. You’re not fit to be in his majesty’s presence.”

Campbell yelled, his face beetroot red, and grabbed the chamberlain by the throat. “My son is dead, killed by a witch, and you dare to refuse me access to my king!”

Women screamed, the peacock lords scattered as if Campbell carried a deadly disease. Only the servants were left to leap upon Campbell’s back as they tried to free their master.

MacIver grabbed Ian’s arm, drawing his attention. Desperation flashed across the shorter man’s face. “Tell me you’ll do it,” he begged. “I need to know now!”

Ian glanced between the men once more. What did the death of Campbell’s son have to do with MacIver’s niece? Within him grew the certainty that his brother had nothign to do with his offer. He’d learned long ago to trust his instincts.

“I want half the coins before the vows are said,” Ian answered, mostly to gauge just how desperate the MacIver was.

The smaller man nodded as he sidled around Ian, out of Campbell’s view, as the hostile man pushed toward the head of the room.

MacIver cringed. “Aye,” he said, then his gaze sharpened, “but I’ll have your sworn word of honor that you’ll not betray our agreement. She must be married and deflowered with the fortnight. And you won’t get the first portion until you arrive at my home, Castle Ballochyle, in county Argyll, for the ceremony.”

Ian hesitated. He had never in his life broken his word once he’d given it. The certainty that this was a choice opportunity grew with in him. Nearby the servants had wrestled Campbell to the floor.

The MacIver thrust out his hand. “Will you do it?” he again pleaded.

Brother. Money. France. The thought that he would finally have the chance to avenge himself on his brother made Ian extend his hand.

“Agreed, Uncle,” he said with a grim smile.

MacIver breathed out in relief, and shook Ian’s hand sealing their bargain. “Castle Ballochyle, as soon as you can arrive,” he said with a curt nod, then as swiftly as he appeared, he wove his way toward the large doors fo the king’s audience changer in such a way to keep Campbell from seeing him. Not that Campbell could see much at the moment. The man lay pinned on the ornate marble floor.

“Are you mad?” the chamberlain shouted, his voice hoarse as he massaged his throat. “Attack me and you attack the king himself!”

“She bewitched him,” Campbell moaned, his body growing slack beneath those who held him.

The chamberlain huffed in dismissal and stalked back to his post beside the large golden doors.

Ian was ready to leave. He’d got more thatn he’d come for. Now not only did he have a means to get to France, he’d have a wife too. He shook his head. God spare him from such fools as Campbell. Witches. What superstitious rot.

Ian edged his way to the side of the room to get through the crowd more easily, but curiosity got the better of him. He eased toward the nearest group of men.

“What’s happened?”

The man glanced at him, then shrugged. “Lord Campbell wants Sorcha MacIver brought to trial as a witch for his son’s death.”

That explained MacIver’s hurry. The large doors at the other end of the chamber opened, admitting the next plaintiff into the kind’s presence.

“Has any called the kirk or the witch pricker to verify it?”

“Nay. Charles MacIver and the Earl of Argyll would not allow it, even though Campbell’s heair was the second to die in the widow’s marriage bed.” The man jerked his head at the entry to the king’s audience chambers. “MacIver is probably in there arguing that he has an offer of marriage for his niece and that she must be allowed to marry and prove Campbell’s accusations false.”

For an instant Ian’s heart stopped, then resumed its strong beat again. He should have been angry with Lord MacIver at the deception, but instead he felt only a buzz of interest in his veins.

His betrothed was considered a witch by her own clan. It was unexpected, but good to know the odds. Not that it mattered. He’d never been a superstitious man, and at this point, he’d marry the very Devil himself if it would get him out of the hell his life had become.

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