Grateful to be rescued from a watery grave, yet mortified she lay naked in a strange man’s arms, Paden can’t believe her savior is none other than the notorious Black Knight—a man accused of murdering his twin brother to secure his lairdship.
Determined there is more to the story, she steals away with him instead of marrying the man of her father’s choosing, and helps her Black Knight try to prove his innocence.
Battles wage, blood is shed, and secrets are a matter of life and death.
Will he be sent to the gallows, or will their love, and her belief in him, prevail?
Beecraig Loch, Lothian Scotland September, 1298
She should have known better. Now, she reaped what she had so recklessly sown. Grateful to be spared from a watery grave, yet mortified she lay naked in a strange man’s arms, Paden Laughlin stared in numb silence as her handsome rescuer retrieved a dirk from his belt, cut a length from his tartan, and coiled it about her body.
Moments earlier, she had been bathing in the still waters of Beecraig loch, whilst her younger brother stood guard. As she romped and splashed in the crisp, refreshing water, Richard busied himself with prying several large stones along the shore in search of the reclusive slow worm, a legless lizard that resembled a snake.
A clap of thunder rent the still morning air, prompting a flock of startled grouse to take wing. Having been caught in their midst before, Paden and her brother knew squalls on the loch could be swift, stealthy and intense.
Although their father had warned them that the loch’s flat surface acted as a funnel for the winds and could whip the tranquil waters into a white-capped frenzy, it was not until they were caught unawares and drenched did they learn their lesson.
Though the weather was worsening and the water was colder than usual for early autumn, Paden wouldn’t have missed partaking in her favorite pastime for the world. Sadly, she recognized the days of these carefree jaunts were numbered.
A fortnight prior, her father, the Earl of the shire of East Lothian, had beckoned her to his chamber. Sir Ian Laughlin announced he would soon be off to join the War of Scottish Independence. Further, he informed her that the laird from the Fergusson Clan, a family second only in power and regard to her own, had sought an audience with her father. In a show of solidarity, he had proposed the marriage of his eldest son and heir, Patrick, to Paden. The union would combine two powerful armies, solidifying a crucial allegiance against the English tyrant, King Edward.
Paden had been devastated.
It was foolish of her, perhaps, but she had always dreamed she would marry for love. Now, it appeared, that dream would escape her. So when her parents granted permission for her to venture beyond the grounds of the castle with Richard, she was eager to take advantage.
Though Paden felt confident she could avoid getting into any trouble, she understood her parent’s hesitance to allow her to stray from the safety of the citadel. For the last few months, several clashes between her father’s men and English patrols from the south had induced her parents to insist Paden and Richard keep to the grounds. Fortuitously, however, today’s patrol had returned with no news of English soldiers about, so the rare permission was granted. They were to return in one hour, not a moment more.
Floating atop the flat surface of the loch, Paden noticed a lone pear clinging to the leafless bough of a withered tree along the shore. The tree, which drooped over the loch, began to sway as the gentle breeze yielded to a gusty wind. As its long tendrils twisted in the streams of air, it looked as if a giant, withered hand beckoned her to investigate. Loathed to leave the water, but mindful of her brother’s love of the sweet fruit, Paden crept from the chilly loch and gingerly navigated the slick stones along the shore to reach the tree.
Sweeping her gaze across the shores of the loch to assure they remained alone, and noting the stalwart nearby presence of her loyal brother, Paden placed her right foot against the trunk, grasped a low branch, and yanked herself up. Straddling the tree with her long legs, she climbed, clinging to the gnarled face of the dense trunk. When she reached the top branch, she loosed a hearty laugh, mindful of the absurdity of her present predicament. There she was, stark naked, clinging to a tree all in the quest of a piece of fruit! Still, her brother was her best friend and would surely do the same for her.
Her thoughts drifted back to the many happy days she whittled away her time cavorting in the woods with Richard. As children, he had always served as her protector, and she loved him dearly for it.
One particular memory coaxed a smile to curl her lips. One bright summer day, knowing his sister’s passionate fear of bees, Richard had stood guard as she gathered flowers in a glade. Each time a bee would fly near her, he would clap his hands and squash the bee in midair. One time, however, the bee managed to sting him before meeting its end. Richard simply gritted his teeth, shook off the pain, and continued to protect her.
Richard’s voice beckoned her back to the present.
“Paden, I must ask. Just what the devil are ye doing, and why does it sound like your laughter is coming from the bloody sky?”
“Ye will find out soon enough. Just keep your eyes open. I dinna relish the idea of anyone seeing me at this particular moment.”
At the proclamation of her absurd quandary, she found it impossible to contain her mirth and her effervescent laughter echoed amongst the towering trees.
Richard begged leave from his sister to investigate a noise he’d heard through the trees.
“What’s wrong, Richard?”
“’Tis surely naught. I’ll be back in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.”
“Very well. Just dinna linger,” she called after him.
Confidant they remained unwatched, Paden crept ever closer to the end of the limb that held the pear. With care, she pried back the last small branch that obstructed the view of her elusive quarry. It whipped back at her, sending a mass of her black hair into her face.
Huffing at the wayward tresses that draped before her eyes, she stretched her arm as far as it could reach; the tips of her fingers brushed the skin of the fruit. One more stretch and she would have it…
A crackle and snap heralded the death of the bough, hurling her through the air. She plummeted toward the loch, her eyes closed in preparation of a painful landing.
Though Paden was a proficient swimmer, the blow from the bough stunned her, and the water beneath the tree was deep and frigid.
Her last thoughts of her beloved family shredded her heart. Her mother, father and Richard, would surely be devastated by her untimely demise. And there was her sweet new puppy, Braw. Oh, how she didn’t want to leave them all!
But just as Paden sank into darkness, an iron fist clutched her long hair and yanked her up from the inky abyss.
A whoosh of water filled her ears as she rose from the depths. Suddenly, she was on the wet grass, naked and exposed to her gallant rescuer.
“Wake, lass! Please, come back!” the rich baritone beseeched as he wrapped the piece of cloth about her and turned her sideways.
The mysterious stranger was too frantic to notice Paden lift her heavy lids. Images sank into view, swimming in the drops that clung to her long lashes.
What met her eyes took her breath away.
The man who tended her in frenzy was an Adonis. His torn plaid revealed a taut, sculptured chest, which glistened as it rose and fell with each quickened breath. His broad shoulders, rippling and well-toned, tapered over rock ribs to a lean, narrow waist and hips. And, as hesitant as Paden was to confess she could even fathom such a thing after her brush with death, his ruggedly masculine patrician features bedazzled her. His hair was long, golden as spun wheat, cascading over his shoulders. His jaw was angular and etched with a cleft. His handsome face, bronzed by wind and sun, would be the envy of any god.
Though Paden hadn’t swallowed any water and was able to breathe just fine, the impossibly gorgeous man covered her lips with his and blew air into her lungs. The scorching heat that seared her lips sent her heart hammering against her ribs. The touch of his full, sensual lips on hers sent a shockwave through her entire body. She was unsure as to whether she was ready to reveal to him that she was all right.
But Paden could hold her breath no more. She gasped. The man, sensing her breath return, mirrored her gaze for the first time. The eyes that stared back at her were of the deepest blue she had ever beheld. Specks of azure and sapphire mingled like gems. They were even bluer than the cobalt seas of the Firth of Forth. They seemed too fathomless to be real.
Utterly disjointed, Paden began, “Thank ye, m’lord. I assure ye I am quite all right now, thanks to ye. I realize it must look terribly foolish to be scaling a tree without any clothes, but I wished to procure a pear for Richard.” She grimaced as the last of the inane explanation drifted from her lips.
He must think I’m a mindless chit. ’tis bad enough he’s seen me naked in a tree, now I sound as if I’ve taken leave of my senses!
Though she blushed from his all-too-evident perusal, Paden sensed her rescuer was an honorable sort to have risked his own life to spare hers. And, too grateful to feel indignant, she wasn’t prepared to take up the issue with the man who was the very reason she still breathed.
Though grateful she had been blessed with a pleasing appearance, she bore her reputation as a renowned beauty as an insufferable burden. In truth, she recognized she had done nothing to merit it. Further, it seemed to solicit insincere, self-serving praise from the eager young gentlemen of the realm, and leering looks from the elder ones. She derived a greater sense of self-worth from her sharp wit and self-sufficiency. Not that this handsome stranger could detect any of that from her blithering, idiotic explanation.
Evidently noting the crimson cheeks, which betrayed her acute embarrassment, the man offered, “This Richard, whoever he may be, should be honored that ye would go to such lengths to please him. I ken that I would.”
Paden smiled. That words escaped her at this moment was puzzling. She was seldom without a witty retort, a clever observation.
”Ye flatter me, m’lord. But I suspect t’was my own foolishness, more than my devotion, that prompted me to scale that tree.”
”Oh, I doubt that, m’lady.”
“Ye have no reason to doubt my assertions. Verily, ye dinna ken me at all.”
“No, not yet. Not yet.”
”Unhand her and ye shall live!”
The man and Paden swung round in time to see Richard raise his claymore and fix his gaze upon the stranger.
”And where the devil have ye been?” Paden demanded.
“I thought I heard a horse. It seems I heard a horse’s arse instead.” Richard’s tone crackled with venom.
“Dinna be hasty, young master,” the stranger quipped.
“I shan’t warn ye again, knave. Release her and step away.”
“Richard, it’s no’ as it seems,” Paden sought to explain.
“Oh? Just how is it then?”
“She’s right, brave lad. I merely helped her out of the water.”
Eying the stranger warily, Richard inched closer.
This near, Paden could see the sweat beading her brother’s brow and the hands that shook as they held his sword. While she didn’t sense any danger for herself, she recognized she had to diffuse the situation before Richard did anything rash.
“She’s fine...Real fine as a matter of fact,” the stranger continued with a chuckle.
“She’ll be better when you get your hands off of her.”
“Very well, as ye insist,” the stranger ceded as he uncoiled his beefy arms from Paden’s slender waste and adjusted the torn tartan he’d wrapped around her that scarcely covered her breasts. “Ye are no more than five and ten, and yet ye raise your sword against me so valiantly. This must be your sister?”
“Aye. And who the devil might ye be?”
The stranger leaned back on his hands, took a deep breath, and smiled. His teeth were straight and gleaming white, a stark contrast to his sun-bronzed skin.
“That is no important right now, my brave friend. What’s vital is that your lovely sister lives. I’m sorry, I now ken the reason ye left her was to check on what ye had heard, and I was the source of that distraction.”
Turning to Richard and then Paden, the handsome man beseeched, “Please, accept me humble apology.”
The siblings glanced at each other, smiled, and nodded their accord. Richard leaned his claymore against a large boulder and took his place alongside his sister.
The stranger stood and stretched his long arms skyward, then let out a sharp whistle. A rustling preceded the emergence of a hulking stallion from the thick brush.
Paden gazed upon the towering animal in awe. The destrier stood a good 20 hands. The black beast had a short back, densely muscled loins, and a well-arched neck. Even more noteworthy were its battle adornments. Rigid pieces of armor, fashioned of leather and steel, covered its head, body and chest. The armor upon the head bore a spiked horn, lending to the appearance of a monstrous black unicorn.
Gesturing toward the thick armor and etched hilt of the claymore peeking from under the ornamental trapper draped over the horse’s hindquarters, Richard asked, “Mayhap ye were anticipating a battle?”
The man chuckled. “Well, seeing as I was nigh drawn into battle with ye, my friend, call it foresight.”
“Should ye have manhandled me sister, I assure ye I would have been the least of your concerns,” Richard teased, eyeing his sister.
She rolled her eyes.
“Me father, the earl of this fine realm, taught her the use of a dirk and short sword to protect herself. Paden could also employ her own body as a weapon, if the need arose.”
“Paden? That beautiful name most befits her.”
“Mayhap. Yet, even the most beautiful rose possesses thorns which may prick those who fail to handle them properly.”
Paden watched the pair’s banter with amusement. Though she didn’t know the man’s true nature or disposition, she already had a good feeling about it. With her father’s help, she had developed a keen sense of a person’s character from a single meeting. Now, as she watched him mount his horse, she was already sad to see the handsome stranger depart.
“I truly wish I could stay and enjoy the view—I mean company. But, alas, I have urgent business to attend. If I dinna see to this particular situation, I fear I may never have the honor of making your acquaintance again. It has been a pleasure.”
“Please, m’lord. May I at least learn the name of the man who saved me life?”
“I’m sorry, but for reasons I canna reveal, my identity must remain secret for now. Besides, I’m sure your husband would no’ approve of the manner in which I restored your breath.”
“Oh, I’m no’ marr—”
“She is to wed Sir Patrick Fergusson within a sennight,” Richard interrupted.
Paden followed with a discreet nudge of her elbow to her brother’s ribs.
“Dinna pay me brother no mind. While ’tis true that me father has proposed it, I am hopeful he may yet change his mind.”
“May I ask why ye object to the gentleman?” the stranger queried.
“To be truthful, I have heard no ill of him. But I had always dreamed I would wed for love, much as my parents did.”
“Aye, love. ’Tis a noble and worthy ambition, but I’m no’ sure so easily found these days. Unless, of course, ye are most blessed to meet just the right one,” the man murmured as he kissed her hand, his vivid blue eyes never abandoning hers.
Paden blushed as the heat from his tender kiss traveled up her arm and effused her entire body. The kiss, though gentle, caused her emotions to whirl and skid. Something strange and wonderful stirred deep within her, prompting her to shift in place. Her breath catching in her throat, she watched as the handsome stranger spun his horse and cantered away.
Richard pointed toward the rear of the horse as it strode into the dense forest.
“What is it, Richard?”
“I canna believe I didn’t see it ’afore! Do ye see that crest embroidered upon the back of the trapper?”
“Aye. It appears to be two falcons facing each other on either side of a black M. What of it?”
“That’s the coat of arms of the Mac Courts. That man is an assassin, Sir Faolin Mac Court, the Black Knight!”
“Nonsense. Surely, ye have mistaken him for another.”
“I wish I had, dear sister. I verily wish I had.”
* * * * *
Drawing the reins of his hulking steed as he crested a craggy hillock, Faolin paused to gaze upon the rolling emerald hills of the realm of East Lothian. They seemed to stretch out forever, and he was taken with their beauty. He was wet, cold, and exhausted, but for the first time in nearly a year, utterly alive.
Shaking his head, he smiled. How could that beautiful wisp of a girl have stolen his heart so effortlessly? Was it her sublime beauty that stirred his lust, or the lengths she would go to please one she loved? One thing was for certain, however. Now that he had met her, his quest had taken on an even greater sense of urgency. He had less than a week to clear his name, restore his honor and lairdship, and win her heart.