Alluring and dangerous, the Hawk of Inverfyre came to rest at my father’s house, his motives unknown. His seduction was breathtaking. I resisted him, this enigmatic warrior, but his kiss transported me to a time and place where his relentless pursuit and my passionate surrender made perfect sense.
’Twas then I erred. My defenses harried, I was tricked into marriage by the Hawk and taken by force to his lawless castle. I have vowed to flee: The grounds abound with rogues and whores, and the servants whisper of murdered wives. And yet, his dizzying touch hints that we have lived here before – he as the castle’s intrepid founder and I as his betrayed lover.
Am I the bride who will break the spell of Inverfyre? Or have I been captured by a scheming sorcerer, only to be ravished and discarded like so many before?
—Lady Aileen of Abernye
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Read an excerpt from The Warrior:
Does a hare know when the hawk’s gaze lands upon it?
Aileen knew the moment the stranger spied her. She first glimpsed him from the top of the stairs, but was so unsettled to find his gaze upon her that she immediately looked away. She feigned undue concentration upon her descent to the raucous hall.
The hair on the back of her neck prickled and her face burned under the weight of his regard, though she knew he would soon glance elsewhere.
Curiosity could only compel so long a perusal, especially for so plain a maiden as she knew herself to be. She held her head high and crossed the hall to the high table, fighting her desire to turn and look.
“Such a notorious guest!” whispered a maid as she arranged the skirts of Aileen’s new stepmother, Blanche. This was yet another kirtle Aileen had not seen before, the silken cloth richly gleaming in the light of the torches. It was trimmed with fur that must be ermine, and embroidered with gold.
Whatever Blanche had expected when she seduced Aileen’s father, she could not have anticipated the simple austerity of Abernye, with its pastures and sheep and rough hall. From whence had the coin come for yet another kirtle? Aileen did not imagine it had been Blanche’s own purse.
Though her stepmother had been rumored to have a fat dowry, it was the treasury of Abernye that seemed to pay for all her fripperies.
“The Hawk is said to have killed a thousand men to claim Inverfyre,” confided another maid on Blanche’s opposite side, her hands just as busy as her tongue.
Aileen’s fears were momentarily forgotten. Their guest was the Hawk of Inverfyre? She knew his name and repute, of course—who did not? She struggled to suppress her urge to glance his way.
“It is said that he stole it from its rightful lords, slaughtering those who opposed him, and without remorse!” the first maid added gleefully.
“He is a thief.”
“A murderer without morals.”
Blanche’s eyes gleamed with interest as she openly watched their guest. She was finely wrought, this prize fetched from the English court, her pretty features and delicate build making Aileen feel all the more tall and ungainly.
“All this and handsome, too,” Blanche murmured with satisfaction. “What fortune brings us such an intriguing guest! I forbid you all to mention such rumors in his presence.”
At that, Aileen could not help but steal a glance, certain the Hawk’s attention would be diverted.
She sorely miscalculated. The man in question watched her avidly. She should have demurely dropped her gaze, she should have looked away, but Aileen could not. She found herself snared by his bright gaze, helpless as the proverbial hare. Indeed, her heart nigh stopped and her mouth went dry, though not simply because of his looks.
The Hawk was tall, his shoulders were broad, his hair was dark with a touch of silver at the temples. He was tanned to a golden hue that spoke of vitality and he moved with a warrior’s resolve. He was handsome, that much could not have been denied. There was an ease about him, a grace uncommon in the fighting men of Abernye yet beguilingly male all the same.
Yet he was a warrior, of that Aileen had no doubt. This man had made choices, he had swung his blade, he had decided who would live and who would die.
He did not appear to be burdened by regrets.
He was garbed in blackest midnight, a hue so dark as to draw the light of the hall and devour it. His boots were high and similarly dark, his tabard was devoid of insignia or embroidery. She decided that he would not be a man who favored embellishment. Three cohorts flanked him, warriors just as fearsome and just as darkly garbed, though there was no doubt in Aileen’s thoughts who ruled them all.
She stifled a shiver, shocked to her marrow that she was still the focus of Hawk’s attention. It was the intensity of his regard, the fixedness of it that put Aileen in mind of his namesake, the predatory hawk. He was so still that she was certain he neither blinked nor breathed, his gaze so intent that he might have been touching her.
Even as she felt a desire to cross the floor to his side, Aileen understood instinctively that this man was dangerous. A thousand prickles raced over her flesh and her color rose hotly, she held her ground but still she could not demurely look away.
“I heard that his own peregrines are trained to hunt men,” the first maid whispered. “That they tear out the very hearts of their prey, and that when he looses them from Inverfyre’s towers, the skies turn dark with their many wings.”
“Fool! It is the eyes of his enemies that the birds devour!”
The corner of the Hawk’s lips quirked, offering Aileen the barest ghost of what might have been a smile. He could not have heard the nonsense repeated by the maids, for he was too far away, but his expression was so knowing that she wondered. Her heart thumped with painful vigor, yet still she could not avert her gaze.
He savored her predicament, her awareness of him, and her inability to behave as she should. Aileen knew this. Indeed, the air seemed to crackle between them, as if they were old adversaries met again.
But they were not. Aileen had never met this man before.
All the same, she was not some shy maiden unafraid to speak her thoughts. Aileen lifted her chin and held his gaze with defiance, even as the rumors of his deeds echoed around her, and his smile broadened ever so slightly.
Perhaps he savored his own dark repute.
Perhaps he did not care about her own reputation. Aileen’s pulse quickened at the prospect.
“You know, of course, that he is the spawn of a family who made their livelihood in the theft and sale of religious relics,” the first maid clucked.
“Unholy vermin!” breathed the second, though her tone was not as scathing as it could have been. “I heard that his desires cannot be denied.”
They giggled together at this morsel. “His blade purportedly cannot be turned aside,” continued the first, “and he refuses to be denied whatsoever he seeks.”
“Yet he cringes from no deed, no matter how foul, if it will see him sated.” The maids sighed in unison and Blanche’s dark brows arched high with interest.
Why had the Hawk come to Abernye? Aileen had a dark premonition in that breathless moment, though her good sense dismissed the possibility with ease. No men come to her father’s hall to hunt her hand any longer. He must be making a jest by feigning fascination with her, the icy daughter of the Laird of Abernye.
That realization made it simple for Aileen to turn away, even as her wretched heart sank. The Hawk’s companions laughed loudly and she was convinced it was at her expense.
Aileen knew that she was old for a maiden, she was tall, she was plain of face, she was outspoken. She knew that she had recoiled from a man’s kiss too often for her distaste to not be noted. She had had her faults so oft recounted that she know them as well as a clerk knows the debts in his accounts.
The Hawk was cruel beyond belief to mock her in her father’s hall. Aileen added “rude” to the list of his dubious attributes and fairly marched in her haste to reach the far end of the high table. She would sit away from the viper her father had been so fool as to wed, she would eat with haste and then retire.
The pair of Blanche’s women nudged each other as Aileen passed, no doubt noting her high color. “So, even your frosty womb can still recognize a man,” the first maid whispered with a malice that made the other cackle.
“Do not set your ambitions so high, dear Aileen, lest you die of disappointment,” added the second. They laughed together, these two evil old crones, though Aileen gave them a look so sharp it might have left a bleeding wound.
Her father’s new wife, of course, did not defend her from her servants’ insolence. Stepdaughter and stepmother had long past dispensed with pleasantries and Aileen tried to avoid any discussion with her father’s new bride.
She felt compelled to be polite, though Blanche did not apparently feel the same desire. Aileen had no doubt that Blanche would have had her cast from the gates if that lady had not feared that the laird himself might object.
Aileen was not certain he would. Her father was so smitten that it seemed Blanche could not err in his estimation.
“Our guest had best sit directly beside me,” Blanche said smoothly, stroking the spot Aileen’s father usually occupied.
Aileen halted, shocked that her stepmother would be so bold. She knew she should leave the matter be, but guessed that her father would not protest such an uncommon breach of protocol. “Father will be displeased by such uncommon arrangements,” she said simply, though she longed to say more.
Blanche smiled with a confidence that made Aileen’s blood boil. “He will not deny my will.”
“But surely a laird should be shown respect in his own hall?” Aileen demanded. “Surely it would be unwise to show such a warm welcome to a man of such dark repute, especially when his mission here is unclear?”
Blanche sniffed, her gaze cold. “When I have need of your counsel, daughter, I shall ask for it.”
Aileen let her gaze drop to Blanche’s slender waist. They were nigh the same age, daughter and second bride. “You surely know as I do, Blanche, that you are not my mother in truth.”
“Unfortunately for you,” Blanche whispered, her accent suddenly more pronounced. “For you are burdened with, how do you say, the taint of your mother’s blood.”
“She possessed no taint!”
Blanche’s dark eyes narrowed and she might have said something vicious, but Aileen’s father cleared his throat, revealing his unexpected proximity. He halted behind his wife, looking hale and hearty for all his years. Blanche turned one of her honeyed smiles upon him and Aileen was disappointed to see how her father fairly glowed.
“What is this I hear of you seating our guest at your very side?” Aileen’s father asked, his manner genial as ever. Aileen was certain, however, that she could detect a similar uncertainty in their guest’s motives.
Her father had taught her when to be suspicious, after all.
“One would not wish to insult such a powerful guest, Nigel,” Blanche cooed. When Aileen’s father did not immediately agree, Blanche dropped her voice beguilingly. “You may be certain that I will offer compense for your inconvenience later, my lord.” She ran a fingertip up his arm and licked her lips so overtly that Aileen felt obliged to glance away. The maids giggled.
The Lord of Abernye flushed. “Oh course, Blanche. Whatsoever you desire is my will.” He ceded to his new wife’s demand as readily as that, much to Aileen’s disgust, looking more like a besotted boy than a man of fifty summers. Her father was a large and genial man, cursed to see the good in the hearts of others at the expense of being blind to their flaws.
Blanche stood testimony to that.
Aileen addressed her own toe, driven by this exchange to remind her father of all he had once claimed to believe. “Forgive me, Father, but I am confused. Is it so that even if your guest comes with no stated intent or invitation, even if he travels beyond far for no apparent purpose, even if he is the most dreaded man in Christendom, Blanche must not be denied her whim in courting his favor?”
Blanche granted Aileen a look fit to curdle milk.
“Aileen, you see danger in no more than shadows,” her father said heartily. “A man’s repute is not the fullness of him.”
“It was you who counseled me that smoke oft warns of a flame.” Aileen reminded him quietly and her father had the grace to color.
“This is not the same, Aileen…”
Aileen continued, feeling a strange compulsion to warn her father. She could not dismiss the sense of foreboding she had had when she held the Hawk’s gaze. “Father, this man, rumored to be both violent and reclusive, has ridden across all of Scotland to visit Abernye, unannounced and uninvited. Why? He is neither liege nor vassal to you, his lands do not abut ours, and further, the spring weather is unruly.”
Aileen heard her voice rise slightly in the face of her father’s discomfiture and Blanche’s resolve. “You do not hunt, so he cannot be seeking trade for his famed peregrines. You have naught that such a man might wish to buy and no associations held in common. I find his presence most suspicious, even if you do not, and I do so by the lessons you yourself taught to me!”
Aileen felt a sudden heat at her back and her heart sank to her toes. The false welcome that claimed her father’s expression and the sudden brightness of Blanche’s eyes told her more than she wished to know.
A man touched the back of her waist with a heavy fingertip and she stiffened in outrage at his familiarity. Aileen knew, she knew who stood there, and she knew too that he had overheard every word of protest she had uttered.
“I see that my reputation has preceded me,” the Hawk murmured for her ears alone and Aileen felt herself flush scarlet at the intimacy of his tone.
Worse, she liked the low rich timbre of his voice and dared not glance in his direction when he stood so close behind her. She strove to give every appearance of ignoring him, though her flesh was all a-tingle. She would be scolded later for her rudeness, she knew it well, though in this moment she wished she might simply disappear.
Sadly, she could not flee, not with the weight of the Hawk’s fingers on her back. His touch seemed to sear her flesh, even through the thick woolen kirtle that she wore.
“Good evening, Laird of Abernye,” the Hawk said, seemingly untroubled that Aileen ignored him. His words were uttered slowly as if he pondered the import of each word—or sought to beguile his audience. “I am most honored by your hospitality to myself and my companions.”
Instead of demanding a reason for the Hawk’s arrival, Aileen’s father smiled like a fool. “A Christian host cannot do enough for a guest.” He inclined his head slightly. “I apologize for my daughter. She is cursed to be outspoken.”
Before the Hawk could reply—if indeed he had any intent of doing so—Blanche summoned his attention to herself. “Bienvenue, monsieur,” she said, offering her hand with the coy gesture Aileen so despised.
The Hawk stepped forward to bend over Blanche’s hand, Aileen’s back chilling when his hand was lifted away. “Enchanté,” he murmured, his accent perfect to Aileen’s rustic ears.
Aileen eyed him covertly, reluctantly acknowledging that he was more handsome close at hand. The hard planes of his features seemed softer when she could see the glint in his eye.
She took a step back, hoping to ease away, but the Hawk’s hand landed upon her elbow so surely that she was halted in place.
Blanche smiled and, typically, her accent became more evident as she sought to charm. “S’il vous plait, you must sit with me. It is not often that we have guests from afar, and I know that I shall savor the tales of your adventures.” She patted the place to her right.
Aileen’s father’s lips tightened with a displeasure he could not fully hide, though whether it was the prospect of being parted from his bride or the breach of protocol that troubled him more was unclear.
“It would be more fitting if I sat further down the board,” the Hawk suggested, his tone as smooth as Blanche’s had been.
“My motives could well be misinterpreted if I sat in the laird’s rightful place. And I would not cause gossip for the Lady of Abernye, not after such a gracious welcome.” The Hawk’s tone was so firm, his argument so sound, that Blanche could not have possibly protested.
Aileen was shocked to find him express the precise objections she felt, albeit more eloquently.
“But, of course.” Blanche smiled tightly, knowing she had lost, and Aileen felt a twinge of admiration for their guest.
Her goodwill was not destined to last, for her father beamed. “As we are equal beneath the king’s eye, I must insist that you call me Nigel, Nigel Urquhart.”
Aileen gaped at her father, marveling that he would put himself on such intimate terms with this man of whom he knew so little. Perhaps his wits had been addled in truth when her mother died!
“Michael Lammergeier. You must call me Michael in your turn.”
The men shook hands and Aileen dared linger no longer. She would say more, more that would be regretted, and she was best to depart.
She turned to deliberately lift the Hawk’s fingertips from her elbow. “If you will excuse me,” she murmured, hoping to slip away while the trio basked in mutual—and undeserved—admiration.
But the Hawk did not release her elbow. Indeed the grip of his fingers tightened, compelling Aileen to look at him. He was watching her again, his avid gaze all the more potent at such close range. His eyes were green, a clear piercing green, his lashes dark and thick for a man.
Aileen could not fully draw a breath and her flesh tingled beneath his touch.
“I fear we have not been introduced,” he murmured, that tentative smile melting her resistance.
“I am merely Aileen,” she managed to say, feeling as lacking in graces as Blanche oft insisted she was.
“Enchanté, encore.” The Hawk let his hand slide down her forearm and captured her fingers. His hand was warm and gentle for all its size and strength. He fair engulfed her fingers in his, and she was not a small woman.
His gaze locked with Aileen’s as he lifted her hand to his lips. Her heart skipped a beat. His lips were firm and dry against her knuckles, his very touch making her swallow.
Something flickered to life within Aileen, something she had never felt before, but which she might be tempted to call desire.
What a fool she was to respond to the Hawk’s touch!
Her father cleared his throat. “Aileen is my daughter.”
The Hawk remained solemn. Aileen felt he studied her, though she could not have guessed why. He did not readily release her hand, and his thumb began to move slowly across her flesh. It was a seductive move, one that put uncommon thoughts into her head.
“You cannot be the same daughter of Abernye reputed to be skilled with a bow?” the Hawk asked, his manner that of one truly interested.
“The very same,” Aileen said proudly, but Blanche spoke in the same moment and spoke more loudly.
“She pursues such inappropriate deeds no longer. I have put an end to such foolery.”
“Aileen learns finally to embroider!” her father crowed with pride. “Blanche reports that she makes fine progress.”
The Hawk’s expression was so conspiratorial that Aileen knew she had failed to hide her feelings about this change. “And which task do you prefer?” he asked quietly.
As intriguing as his manner was, Aileen knew this was an alliance that would be folly to pursue.
She spoke sharply, more sharply than she had intended. “It matters little, as the choice is not mine to make.” She pulled her hand abruptly from his. “How pleasant to make your acquaintance,” she said, her crisp tone implying otherwise. “Welcome to Abernye.” She inclined her head and would have stepped away, but the Hawk halted her with his words.
“Perhaps I might rely upon your hospitality, Aileen.”
Her name sounded like a caress upon his tongue, the sound enough to make her step falter. Aileen paused and glanced at him, seeing in his eyes that he was well aware of the impact of his voice upon her.
“I fear I lose my bearings in this keep,” he said, apparently confiding in her. “Though I would not presume to burden the laird and lady with a matter so mundane as my orientation, I would greatly appreciate your assistance.”
“Our hall is not so large and complicated as that,” Aileen said with a cool smile. She pointed helpfully to the two portals to the hall. “But two corridors are there, one leading to the kitchens and one to the stables.” She met the Hawk’s knowing gaze. “I should think a man’s nose could tell him which was which. Indeed, I would have anticipated that a man of your reputed cunning would have oriented himself quite readily.”
“Aileen!” Blanche whispered.
Some comment began to rumble in her father’s chest, but Aileen held the Hawk’s gaze, daring him to argue the matter with her.
That smile touched his lips for a heartbeat, then it was gone. “Perhaps you might take pity upon a man with such a poor sense of smell, then.” He spoke politely, but there was a thread of steel in his words.
Aileen saw his resolve. She knew she would not evade this deed readily. She did not need to glance her father’s way to feel the press of his insistence that she act in a hospitable manner. Indeed, she had the sense that the Hawk had cornered her as neatly and deliberately as he had evaded Blanche’s choice of seating.
There was a glint in his eyes, almost a challenge. He had heard what she had recounted of his deeds—did he taunt her for questioning his motives? She could not deny that she would like to prove to this man that she was not afraid of him.
“If you insist, of course, I can only comply.” Aileen smiled with a grace her mother would have applauded.
The Hawk left her no time to change her thinking. He folded his fingers around her elbow and held her so fast against his side that she could fairly feel the pound of his heart. She was dismayed to realize how she liked the heat of him against her, the solidity of his muscles against her hand. The top of her head came only to his shoulder and that in itself was a rare delight. He bowed his head to her father and Blanche, then fairly pushed Aileen across the hall.
“Perhaps we should begin at the gates,” he said with a resolve that brooked no dissent.
Excerpt from The Warrior Copyright © 2005, 2012 Claire Delacroix, Inc.