Aoife MacNeill is a beauty and a prize, a former heiress who wants to marry for love, but her father has arranged her marriage to Nigel Armstrong, the oldest son and heir of the Hawk of Inverfyre. One look confirms that Nigel will never possess her heart—although his cousin, Ross of Kinfairlie, is another matter. Aoife knows she cannot escape her fate, but yearns for one last adventure: she will flee Inverfyre and hope that Ross will be sent in pursuit. She tells herself that one kiss will be sufficient…
Ross of Kinfairlie is a mercenary with a blade for hire; a knight without the coin to claim a bride. When his cousin’s betrothed flees, he lends chase, for the Hawk of Inverfyre trained him. Ross suspects that Aiofe plays a game, but her ploy is dangerous—the treacherous MacLaren clan, always seeking to undermine Inverfyre, take her captive. In the course of rescuing Aoife and ensuring her safety, Ross finds himself captivated by the fierce and beautiful maiden. How much will Ross surrender to guarantee Aoife’s safety? And how much will Aoife offer to protect the man who has captured her heart?
An excerpt from The Runaway Bride
Ross was surprised by the change in his cousin’s appearance. Though he had heard in the village that the Hawk had been ill, the older man had always been so vital and hale that Ross had thought little of it. He stood in the great hall with his older brother, Alexander, who was Laird of Kinfairlie, and considered how little the hall had changed since he had trained there under the Hawk’s hand.
When the Hawk descended to the hall, the truth was plain to see. There had been silver at the Hawk’s temples before, but his once-dark hair was heavily streaked grey, and he leaned upon a cane when he crossed the hall to greet them. He was followed by his son, Nigel, a handsome and competent man of some twenty summers. His lady wife, Aileen, as slender and vigilant as ever, watched him with concern.
“Aye, you are shocked and no wonder,” the Hawk said after Alexander and Ross had been welcomed. He sank into his great chair with obvious relief, wincing slightly as he settled there. The fire had been stoked up and the chairs drawn nearer to it. The Hawk’s eyes twinkled when he met Ross’s gaze, though, and that was enough to prompt the younger man’s smile. “Cursed ague. There is nothing like a a winter illness to make a man feel his years. I have been wretched with it, but it is over and I am well rid of it.” He gestured and the two brothers sat opposite him. Nigel sat by his father’s side.
“And you have your strength to build again,” Aileen chided gently.
“My guests must have wine, mulled, if you please, Henry,” the Hawk said. “Open the spice chest to ensure that they know they are welcome.” He smiled at the two younger men. “For they are welcome, indeed. It is a fine thing to see you both.”
“This is the first day he has left the solar in a week,” Aileen informed the brothers.
“I could do no less when Alexander brings me the tidings I requested, and brings them himself.”
Wine was brought, steam rising from the pitcher, and sturdy crockery cups. Ross wrapped his hand around his cup, welcoming the heat in his hands. At the Hawk’s nod, he took a sip of the wine. Their ride on this day had been cursed cold, though he thought he felt it more because the inn had been chilly the night before. Either way, the warm wine was most welcome.
The castellan brought a cup of some steaming broth for his lord and the Hawk toasted them, his expression rueful. “I will join you in such pleasures soon enough,” he said, then they drank together and to each other’s health. The Hawk reached out and clapped a hand on Ross’s shoulder. “We must find you a bride, Ross. You grow no younger.”
Ross smiled. “And no richer, either,” he jested, though it was true. He had no means to support a wife and family.
The Hawk waved off this concern. “We shall find you an heiress then,” he said and they laughed easily together. It was good to be back at Inverfyre, for it was a place Ross loved almost as much as Kinfairlie.
Perhaps more, for there was a wildness about Inverfyre that he welcomed, while Kinfairlie was nigh in the king’s lap.
Which, of course, was why they had been invited.
“Tell me of our king,” the Hawk invited Alexander, his voice dropping low. “What trouble would he make now?”
“Less than one might expect,” Alexander said, leaning closer to the older man. “He seems to have lost his vigor for the fight after releasing Alexander of Islay two years ago. The battle has moved north, you will be glad to know, but his forces have been less successful.”
“His treasury runs dry,” the Hawk said and shook a finger at Alexander. “Never under-estimate a foe who is cornered or has naught left to lose.”
“He could lose the crown,” Alexander said and the two lairds conferred over this matter. Nigel leaned close, his eyes bright as he listened. He would make a good laird, for he had his father’s prudence and the wits of both his parents.
Ross found Lady Aileen beside him and guessed the root of her concern. “He looks to be recovering,” he said quietly to her.
She nodded. “Aye, though there were a few days…”
“This illness is fierce. We heard tell of it all the way from Kinfairlie.”
Aileen’s gaze drawn again to her lord husband. He and Alexander conferred, not heeding Ross’s conversation with Aileen. “It frightened me, Ross,” she admitted. “I could not bear…”
Ross covered her hand with his own. “You will not have to bear his absence. He is hale again. I see it in his eyes.”
She swallowed. “I will believe it when he calls for his horse and his falcon.”
“And I will stay until he does.”
“Thank you, Ross.” Aileen bent and kissed his brow, her grip tight upon his hand. “It has lit a fire in him to see the future assured, though,” she whispered. “There is more to this visit than a thirst for tidings from the king’s court.”
Ross had time to be surprised before Henry returned and bowed to the Hawk. “Visitors at the gate, sir. I believe Keanan MacArthur and his party are expected.”
“Keanan MacArthur is here? So soon as this?” The Hawk’s voice boomed with familiar vigor and more than a hint of pleasure. Nigel got to his feet hastily. “What fine timing. He made great speed, did Keanan. Summon him to me, if you please, Henry.”
“I shall bring the party to you, Papa,” Nigel said and strode from the great hall.
“How promising that he is so curious,” Aileen said under her breath and the Hawk cast her a wicked smile that Ross was certain he had not been supposed to witness.
He glanced at Alexander who appeared to be as mystified as he was.
They continued their conversation, though it was clear that the Hawk’s attention was upon the portal. At the sound of footsteps and Nigel’s voice, the Hawk rose to his feet again and this time, he declined the cane. Aileen went to his side and slipped her hand through his left elbow. Together they crossed the floor to meet the arrivals at the door.
The man escorted by Nigel was of an age with the Hawk, though his hair was golden brown and his features were ruddy. He was more stocky than the Hawk and looked more like a mercenary than a knight. His garb was rougher and Ross guessed by the length of plaid he wore that he was from the north or west. His companion wore a leather jerkin and a plaid and looked over the hall with open curiosity. Behind them was Reinhard, the Hawk’s Captain of the Guard, and another person Ross could not see clearly.
Henry bowed. “Keanan MacArthur, my lord, his brother, Murdoch, and his daughter, Aoife.”
Once again, Ross exchanged a glance with Alexander, who shrugged that he did not know the new arrivals. The brothers rose to their feet as the Hawk welcomed this Keanan.
“My old comrade,” he said heartily, then the two men embraced. Keanan’s brother smiled at the warm greeting between the pair, then shook the Hawk’s hand. He stepped aside in so doing and Ross finally saw the third person in their party.
His daughter Aoife.
The breath left Ross’s chest in a rush. He had never seen such an astonishingly beautiful maiden. She was slender, the laces on her blue kirtle tight enough to show her slender curves to advantage. Even though it was braided, he could see that her hair was the hue of sunlight. The braid fell down her back nigh to her knees. Her lips were ruddy and he guessed that her eyes were blue.
Though they snapped with displeasure when she glanced at Nigel. He wondered how she could have taken a dislike to the younger man and heir to Inverfyre so quickly as that—especially as Nigel was both handsome and charming.
“We have been summoned for a wedding, I believe,” Alexander said under his breath and Ross was shocked to realize it must be true.
A beautiful bride for the heir. Of course.
The Hawk beckoned to them and they stepped forward to be introduced, though Ross kept his gaze lowered. He shook hands with the men, feeling that the maiden watched him. When he bowed over her slender hand—noting that it was a little more tanned and far softer than he had anticipated—she cleared her throat. “Do not look new acquaintances in the eye, Ross of Kinfairlie?” she asked, her voice as clear as a bell. “It might be concluded that you have a secret to hide.”
Ross looked up, for he had no choice if he meant to keep from offending Nigel’s betrothed. Aoife was smiling slightly, her eyes alight with curiosity and cleverness, and her smile broadened when their gazes me. “I have no secrets to hide, my lady,” he confessed, his voice gruff.
“How refreshing,” she said and it took everything within Ross to pull his hand from hers and step back. The back of his neck was warm, for he was unaccustomed to receiving the smiles of lovely maidens.
But he knew his place.
He knew what he owed the Hawk.
And he would not interfere in his mentor’s plans.
Even if Lady Aoife was sufficiently beautiful to tempt a saint.
Excerpt from The Runaway Bride Copyright ©2018 Deborah A. Cooke