Isle of Mull, Scotland
May 2, 1567
It was one thing to fall—it was quite another to be shoved from the ledge of a second-story window.
Thomas Wentworth landed flat on his back with an ominous thud, his head saved from the rocky ground by a thick patch of herbs. Light exploded before his eyes as the breath left his body in a whoosh, and blessed blackness beckoned.
For several long moments, he fought for breath. Just as sweet air swept in to reassure him that he wasn’t dead, a lilting voice exclaimed softly, “Och, I’ve killed him!”
Low and husky, the voice flowed over him as rich as sweet cream. The grass rustled as someone knelt beside him. “I’m cursed for certain,” she murmured. “’Tis an ill omen to kill the finest man you’ve ever seen.”
The luscious voice demanded his attention. Wincing, Thomas forced his eyes open and focused on the figure kneeling above him.
“Blessed Mother Mary, you’re alive!” She smoothed the hair from his forehead with a feather-soft touch.
The moon made a nimbus around the thickest cloud of hair he had ever seen. Luminous in the moonlight, her hair streamed in waves and curls, frothing in abandon across her shoulders.
The end of one persistent curl brushed his ear and he weakly swatted it. “Aye, I live,” he muttered, struggling to rise.
Before he could do more than lift his shoulders, the wench pressed him back to the ground. “Don’t get up ’til we’ve certain you’ve no injuries.” Warm hands slid lightly over his arms and legs.
He caught her wrists and pushed her away, the rough wool of her sleeves telling him her position within the castle was menial. He forced his aching body upright. “Leave me be,” he growled unsteadily. “I am well.”
There was a long pause and then she said, “You’re a Sassenach.” A faint note of accusation hung in the air.
Thomas silently cursed. His throbbing head had made him forget to disguise his voice with a Scottish accent.
“You, sirrah, are no simple thief.” She brushed a hand over his shirt. “Your clothing is too fine.”
A flicker of annoyance increased his headache. He had chosen his dark garments with the utmost care to blend with the shadows should anything go awry.
The thought brought a twisted smile. In truth, little had gone right with this venture. From the second he’d crossed into Scottish waters, the famous Wentworth luck had been tested to the breaking point.
First his ship had run into a gale off the rocky coast and had barely managed to get to safety. Once in port, Thomas had discovered that his horse had been severely bruised by the rough crossing and it had taken several days to find a suitable replacement.
And now this: shoved from a window and accosted by a saucy wench. ’Twas yet another delay in his carefully laid plans.
Delays caused risks, and risks were something he rarely took without exquisite preparation and consummate attention to detail. Hurried plans inevitably ended in failure. Thomas Wentworth never hurried, and he never failed.
The woman rested back on her heels, her head cocked to one side. “What are you doing so far from your home, Sassenach?”
“’Tis no concern of yours,” he returned curtly.
“I cannot agree. ’Twas me who opened the shutters and bumped you from the ledge. I have a responsibility for you now.”
He frowned. “Who are you? A housemaid?”
“I belong here, but the same can’t be said of you, Mr. Thieving Knave—or whatever you are.”
Her lilting voice tantalized even as her words challenged. Thomas leaned forward and sank his hand in the silken softness of her hair. Ignoring her surprised gasp, he tilted her face until the moon slanted cold rays across the smoothness of her cheek.
He glimpsed a small, straight nose and a pair of very kissable lips before she shoved his hand away, her voice full of breathless outrage. “Stop that! What were you doing, perched on the window ledge like a big chicken?”
Despite his aches and irritations, he couldn’t help but grin. “I prefer to think of myself as a more noble bird, like a hawk.”
“I’m sure you do. But you flew more like a chicken than like any hawk I’ve seen.”
He chuckled. “Point taken.”
“You still haven’t answered my question, Sassenach. Why were you on the ledge?”
“I don’t remember.” For emphasis he rubbed his head, which still ached a bit.
She stood, her skirts rustling. “Aye, ’tis known that Englishmen have delicate heads made of eggshells.”
“No doubt you heard that from some heathen Scotsman wielding a claymore the size of a tree.”
“Testy, are you?” She patted his shoulder in a kindly way that was more insulting than spitting at him would have been. “I daresay that’s because your soft English head is aching.”
It was tempting to challenge her, but he couldn’t allow himself to get distracted from his real purpose. He put a hand on his pocket, the reassuring crackle of paper calming him.
She eyed him and said in a voice tinged with disapproval, “You were a fool to try to enter the castle through the upper window. ’Twould have been easier to climb in through a lower one.”
Though she didn’t know it, he had been climbing out not in, when she’d knocked him from the window. “I suppose a Scottish thief would have walked in the front door and not taken a craven entry like a window?”
She chuckled, the sound husky and warm like good Scots whiskey. “I’ve known one or two as would. There’s more gold and silver to be had in the lower floors, too.”
“You seem to know a lot about the castle.”
“I should. I’m the laird’s—” The silence was as complete as it was abrupt. “That’s not important. What is important is that you need to improve your thieving ways before you attempt such a fortified castle.”
“I appreciate your assistance, Mistress Saucy Wench. I suppose you are a master thief, to offer such advice?”
She shook her head, moonlight flowing across her hair like firelight on a rippled pond. “Not a master. Tonight was my first effort at reiving, and ’twas not near as exciting as I’d hoped,” she said wistfully.
She was a thief? Had he heard her right?
“’Twas dull work indeed ’til I knocked you from the ledge. ’Tis amazing, but you didn’t make a sound on the way down. You fell like a great rock, with nary a cry ’til you landed in the garden. Then you went ‘oof’ like a—”
“For the love of Saint Peter, cease your prattle,” Thomas hissed, casting an uneasy glance at the looming castle.
“Pssht. Don’t fash yourself about being heard. There’s no one home but the servants; Laird MacLean’s gone.”
“Aye, he’s been traveling these last two months.”
“Nay, he returned last week.”
“What?” Damn it, my sources were wrong. According to the information Thomas had been given, the laird wasn’t to return for another fortnight.
“Aye, but then that witch sent him a letter that crossed him. He stormed out immediately to enact vengeance.”
Thomas frowned. “MacLean left again because of . . . did you say ‘witch’?”
“Aye. The White Witch Hurst. I’ve never met her, but she’s cast her spell over MacLean until he doesn’t know if he’s coming or going. She gave the local magistrate some ancient documents that lay claim to half of the MacLean lands.”
“Good God. No man would stand for such.”
“Especially not the MacLean.” She shook her head, her mane of hair fluttering about her. “But I think ’tis lust as draws him to her. I hope he has a care. She’s a powerful witch, though Duncan claims that she’s but knee high to a goat.”
“I don’t believe in witches or curses.”
“I do,” she said simply. “I believe in all sorts of magic.”
“I’m quite aware of the Scots’ love of all things mystical.”
“And I know of the English love of coin.” She shrugged, an elegant motion that dismissed him. “We both have our weaknesses.”
He clambered gingerly upright, his head swimming as he spaced his feet far apart to balance the swaying earth. Bloody hell, he felt as though he were on the deck of the Glorianna in a full gale. A warm hand tucked into the crook of his arm. “Are you well enough to be walking?” Concern filled her voice.
“I’m fine,” he said curtly, shaking off her hand.
Thomas wished he could see her expressions. Since the moon was behind her, her face was in shadow. On impulse, he grasped her arm and turned her so the moonlight spilled across her.
For a moment he could only stare. His earlier glimpse had suggested she was comely, but he had never seen such beauty as he now faced. Her dark eyes sparkled, surrounded by a thick tangle of lashes, and her full lips begged to be tasted.
Perhaps I believe in magic after all, he thought numbly.
She yanked her arm free and hefted up a large bag that clunked and clanked. “I’ve wasted too much time here. If you’re of a mind to get caught, Sassenach, then stay where you are. The laird could return any time and I, for one, will not be here to greet him.”
Some foolish part of him wanted to feel her honey-smooth voice a little longer. “You surprised me when you thrust open the shutters at this time of the night.”
She’d already turned away but now paused. “I was trying to decide if I should climb out the window like a proper thief or take the stairs. After watching you fall, I thought ’twas very possible I could have dropped my bag during the climb down and broken and dented my reivings, and then all of my efforts would have been for naught.”
Her casual attitude toward her less-than-honorable profession made him smile. “You are a saucy wench,” he said with grudging admiration.
She laughed softly, the sound curling inside him and heating him in unexpected ways. “That’s exactly what Duncan says.”
For a second, Thomas envied the unknown Duncan. “What’s your name, little thief?”
“Fia.” She shifted the bag to her other shoulder. “I just took the best candlesticks. I think they’ll be easier to sell than heavy plate, don’t you?”
She turned and made her way down a faint path that led toward the black forest, saying over her shoulder, “We should hurry, for Duncan returns this morn.”
Thomas accepted the unspoken invitation and fell into step beside her. “Who is this Duncan?”
“Why, Duncan MacLean, the Earl of Duart and laird of his clan.” She quirked a disbelieving brow his way. “Surely you knew whose castle you were stealing into?”
“Of course I knew. I just didn’t think of him as ‘Duncan.’” This woman knew MacLean well enough to use his given name. Who was she, then? She’d said she was “the laird’s”—and then hadn’t finished the sentence. She must be the laird’s mistress, then.
Refusing to examine the irritation that swelled at the thought of such beauty being sullied by a possible traitor, Thomas tried to focus on the return of his good fortune. Since Fia was within MacLean’s inner circle, she would be privy to valuable information.
He stepped into the shadows of the forest, pulling her into his arms.
Though she struggled, he held her easily. “I’ve a wish to know more about you . . . and this Duncan.”
“Why should I tell you anything?” She twisted, attempting to stomp his feet with her muddied boots, her bag clanging noisily.
Thomas pushed aside the wild abandon of her hair, his fingers encircling her neck. “Hold still, comfit,” he whispered. “I want to know everything about Duncan MacLean. If you tell me, I’ll release you.”
She stopped struggling. “You wish to know of Duncan? Why?”
“That’s none of your concern.”
Her mouth thinned into a stubborn line. “Everything about Duncan is my concern.”
“I can’t imagine that you care too much, to steal from him the minute he’s out of sight.” His mouth was but a whisper from hers, his thumbs resting suggestively at the delicate hollow of her throat. “Just tell me what you know; I ask for nothing more harmful than information.”
She dropped her bag with a noisy clank and, to his surprise, melted into his arms, her lithe body flush against his. “You’re quite strong for a Sassenach.”
He tried to ignore the sensations her warm body ignited in his own. Sweet Jesu, she is a snug armful.
“Och, I think . . .” Her breath was ragged, her gaze fixed on his mouth. “I think you mean to kiss me.” Her lips parted, and the edge of her tongue moved slowly across the fullness of the lower one.
It was almost more than he could stand; the stirring of excitement grew stronger yet. She should be terrified, damn it.
Instead, she tilted her face to his as if to accept a kiss he’d not thought to offer. He knew he should try to scare her more, to frighten her into submission, for there was far more at stake here than the desires of a Scottish wench.
He should have.
But he didn’t.
All he could think about was the promise of Fia’s lips, the warmth of her in his arms, and the delicate fragrance of heather that drifted from her hair.
Thomas kissed her with every bit of passion that welled inside him, possessing her mouth as he cupped her rounded bottom through her skirts and molded her to him.
She clutched at his loose shirt, her soft, yielding lips drinking hungrily from his.
His body flamed in response and all thought fled. He slipped an arm about her waist and pulled her firmly to him, brushing aside her entangling hair to taste the sweetness of her delicate neck. He traced the contours of her back and hips, stopping to pull her bodice from the waistband of her skirt. Sweet Jesu, her skin was so deliciously warm and inviting. He pulled impatiently at the ties at her waist, his mouth now ruthlessly possessing hers.
Through a haze of raw passion, something hard and cold intruded harshly into his awareness. Suddenly he realized that a razor-sharp point, cold and deadly, was pressed against his side.
Thomas opened his eyes.
Fia regarded him with a cool smile. “’Tis time you were on your way, Sassenach.” She moved away and he saw that she held a knife that shone wickedly in the moonlight. And in her other hand, she held his purse.
Damn the wench! He had played right into her hands. “Why, you little thief!” He ached with frustrated passion and harsh disappointment.
She brightened. “I am a good thief, aren’t I?”
Cold fury raced through him. Should he lunge for the knife? No; a bloodcurdling scream would awaken the servants.
Thomas swore. “You common, thieving—”
“Och, spare me your wild words. ’Tis your own fault, laddie.”
“Do you know who I am?”
“Nay, and it matters not.”
“I am Thomas Wentworth.” He waited. Even here, in the wilds of Scotland, the Wentworth name had meaning. His family was the wealthiest and most powerful in all of England.
But apparently someone had forgotten to mention that fact to this particular maid. Fia tucked his bag of coins into her bodice. “Well, Master Thomas, ’tis nice to meet you, but ’tis your own fault ’tis come to this.”
“It’s my fault that you robbed me?”
“I had no notion to take aught from you ’til you tried to seduce me.”
He laughed bitterly. “One does not seduce a trollop. One pays.”
Her hand tightened on the knife; her delicate brows lowered. “Have a care, Sassenach. You may have a tongue as sharp as a knife, but I hold a real one.”
“You wouldn’t use it.”
To his astonishment, she quirked a brow, cool and proud. “Why should I fear a poor Sassenach who can’t even climb into a window without falling on his head?”
He stepped forward and the knife flashed wickedly in the moonlight.
She eyed him warily. “Now, I shall go my way and you will go yours. If you’re as smart as you’d like to think you are, you’ll leave before Duncan arrives.”
“I will find you, wench,” he warned.
“That’s not likely.” Still holding the wicked-looking knife before her, she grabbed her bag of loot and slowly backed toward the shelter of the forest, her eyes fixed warily on his.
He smiled with cold menace. “Tell me why his lordship returns in such haste, and perhaps—just perhaps—I’ll allow you to leave in peace.”
“As though you had the choice of it,” she mocked, but her gaze darted toward the castle, the roof faintly agleam as dawn crept stealthily into the sky.
“Come,” he urged, forcing his voice to a calmer level. “A little information for the gold you’ve stolen. ’Tis a fair exchange.”
Fia regarded him soberly. “You won’t chase me into the woods?”
“Not if you tell me what I seek.”
After a moment, she nodded. “Fine, then. ’Tis only fair. MacLean is returning to marry.”
Damn it, his sources hadn’t mentioned a marriage. “Who is he marrying?”
She smiled, and he knew her answer before she even spoke.
“Me, Sassenach.” Her lilting voice taunted. “He comes to marry me.”
And with a rattle of stolen candelabras and a mischievous smile, she turned and fled, disappearing into the woods.
© 2010 Karen Hawkins