The Renegade’s Heart

The Renegade's Heart, #1 of the True Love Brides series of medieval Scottish romances by Claire Delacroix

She would risk everything to save his soul…

Released from the captivity of the Fae, Murdoch Seton wants nothing more than to forget his lost years. Undertaking a quest to recover treasure stolen from his family seems the perfect solution – but Murdoch is not counting upon a curious maiden who holds both the secret to the theft and his sole redemption.

Isabella is outraged to find her brother’s keep besieged by a renegade knight—especially one who is too handsome for his own good or hers. After a single encounter, she becomes convinced that his cause is just and decides to unveil the true thief, never imagining that their single shared kiss has launched a battle for Murdoch’s very soul.

As the treacherous Fae move to claim Murdoch forever, Isabella seeks to heal the knight who has stolen her heart. But will Murdoch allow her to take a risk and endanger herself? Or will he sacrifice himself to ensure Isabella’s future?

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Excerpt from The Renegade’s Heart:

Murdoch Seton rode for home as if he had escaped the very gates of Hell. The moon was new and his heart was filled with fear. What would he find on his return to Seton Manor? He has seen so much since his departure, so much that defied belief, and he no longer knew what to believe.

Had the Elphine Queen truly released him from the realm of the Fae?

At what price?

Or was this merely an illusion, a jest made at his expense? No man escaped the Fae once he had been claimed, not after he had gazed into the fathomless eyes of the Elphine Queen.

Was Murdoch an exception, or a pawn? He knew well enough how the Fae loved a jest, particularly one played at the expense of a mortal.

Each step, each day, made his release seem more plausible. He scanned his surroundings for evidence that he was actually in the mortal realm. The hills rose just as high as he recalled and the sky overhead was as vivid a blue. The forest was devoid of laughing faces, strange lights, and sounds that had no mortal source. He could not see the dead, even in the darkness and solitude of deepest night.

Could the Elphine Queen have kept her pledge? He had offered to trade her any thing in exchange for his freedom, and had been stunned when she had simply returned his belongings. His steed, Zephyr, was none the worse for wear from their time among the Fae, and his armor had been well–tended.

His leg was still healed.

It all seemed too good to be true.

How long had he been gone? He could not say. It felt like the blink of an eye, but he knew the tales of those held captive by the Fae well enough. It could have been a year. A decade. A century. The possibilities were terrifying. What had changed in his absence? A river’s reflection had revealed that he did not look any different, save perhaps for a new wariness in his eyes.

But that might have been the ripple of the wind on the water.

He would know when he arrived home, for better or for worse.

Finally, the road bent ahead of him in a familiar curve and Murdoch’s chest tightened in anticipation. His home and family should lie around that bend. Would his father welcome him back? Would all be as he recalled? Or would his existence have been forgotten? Murdoch’s suspicions redoubled, for this should be the moment that any Fae trick was revealed. He almost could not bear to look.

But he had to know.

Murdoch dismounted and walked his horse. It could not be a mile to the keep where he had been born and raised—if it was there. His pulse was racing. Indeed, if this was a trick, if the Fae leapt from the shadows laughing from every side when he saw the truth, Murdoch feared the disappointment would kill him. There had long been a hollow ache where he felt his heart should be, and he was terrified that his sojourn had changed his life forever.

Home. It was all he had yearned to see again.

Indeed, he had never wanted to leave. And he did not return with the wealth he had hoped to gain, the wealth that would have ensured the survival of the holding he loved. Would his father cast him out as a failure? Would he be spurned? That last argument rang in his ears, tormenting him with their sour parting.

Uncertainty made Murdoch stop just before the tower should come into view. Zephyr nickered, stamping a foot with impatience. He watched the beast sniff the air and flick its ears. The palfrey behind, lightly loaded, was alert and unafraid.

Murdoch chose to trust.

There was a lump in his throat when the keep came into view and he was unwilling even to blink. The high square tower was there, as solid and tall as he recalled, and Murdoch stared in wonder.

Seton Hall was exactly as it had been.

Even though he was not.

He studied the scene, greedy for details, seeking clues that it was an illusion. Smoke rose from the roof, undoubtedly smoke from the fires in the kitchens. There was a bustle in the village clustered against the outer walls of the keep, and more than a few fires burning there. He could hear the clanging from the blacksmith’s shop and wondered whether old MacCarthy was as opinionated as ever. Murdoch could smell bread baking and fish curing in the sun, and hear the millstones grinding steadily in the distance.

The lake glimmered like a mirror behind keep and village, reflecting the perfect blue of a clear sky. Beyond that and to the left was the spring long rumored to be a source of healing waters.

The winter sunlight touched the stones of the tower with gold, making his home look as precious in truth as it was to Murdoch. In reality, he knew it was less than a rich holding, but it was home as nowhere else could ever be.

To his relief, there were no Fae. There were no ghosts. No shadowy dead paused to stare at him. It seemed the Elphine Queen had kept her word.

Murdoch still feared trickery. But even this glimpse was more than he could have expected, more than he could have hoped to gain. There were tears in his eyes as he strode closer, and his step was lighter than it had been in years. Home! He dared to hope that he had not lost much time.

Zephyr tossed his head and pranced with new vigor. The palfrey quickened her pace, perhaps sensing a warm stable and a good brush, and cantered alongside the stallion. Murdoch laughed and broke into a run, his pace matched by the two beasts.

A man crossed the road ahead of him, heading from village to castle, and paused to glance back at the sound of the horses’ hooves. Murdoch couldn’t believe his eyes. It was Stewart, one of his father’s most trusted men–at–arms, grey of beard but still hale and ruddy.

Stewart froze and stared, as if Murdoch were a ghost.

The older man’s expression gave Murdoch a new fear. Surely, he was not the one who was dead? Had she taken his soul? What if Murdoch had become one of the shadows that could only be seen by the Fae? He had time to panic, then the older man laughed aloud.

“My lord Murdoch!” Stewart bellowed, with a volume only he could produce. He flung his hands into the air with joy and shouted with pleasure. “Against all expectation, my lord Murdoch is returned! Praise be to God!”

“Stewart!” Murdoch bounded toward the man he had known from childhood.

The older man laughed and caught Murdoch in a fierce hug, one that nearly cracked his ribs. Murdoch felt a tear on his cheek.

Home. He was home.

“We thought you a dead man, but here you stand, as hale as ever.” Stewart forced a smile and clapped Murdoch on the back. “Where have you been, lad?”

Murdoch froze. “I do not understand.” He feared he did understand. How much time had passed?

“The Earl of Buchan was here,” Stewart said with quiet intensity. “A year ago.” Murdoch’s thoughts flew. A year? He had left Buchan in France, that man intending to stay until the end of the war. Though it felt to Murdoch that no more than a fortnight had passed, here was proof otherwise.

Stewart continued. “He stopped on his way home to ensure that you had arrived safely.” Murdoch caught his breath. “He told of a fearsome injury you had, an infection in the wound that could not be healed.”

“All true,” Murdoch admitted.

“He said he had dispatched you for home.”

Murdoch nodded.

Stewart’s eyes narrowed and Murdoch braced himself. “Almost three years ago. lad.”

Three years! The Elphine Queen had stolen three years from his life. Murdoch had to avert his gaze for he felt dizzy. He had his answer but he did not have to like it.

What else had changed in three years?

He could not even ask. Stewart squeezed his shoulder and spoke quietly. “Your father took the tidings from Buchan badly. He died believing you dead, lad. Where have you been?”

Murdoch stared at his boots, sick with the realization that his father was gone, and that the harsh words they had exchanged would be the last they ever spoke to each other. “I was detained,” he said, knowing that no man would believe the truth. “Battle and bloodshed are best left behind.”

Stewart studied him closely, his silence prompting Murdoch to say more.

“I have seen more than a man should ever witness,” he said, meaning every word.

“Fair enough, my lord,” Stewart agreed in an undertone. “Your brother will be glad you are returned. There is much changed here at Seton Manor.” Stewart smiled. “But some matters remain the same.” He turned then and raised his voice. “Are you all deafened? The laird’s son is arrived home!”

People came running then, running from every corner of the keep and courtyard and even the village. They surrounded Murdoch, their faces familiar and filled with joy, their eyes alight that he had returned. He was clapped on the back, hugged and kissed, and had his hand shaken a thousand times.

Abruptly, a fierce wind swept over them, its cold making them huddle into their cloaks and its force making the small children stumble. Murdoch glanced back, into the teeth of the sudden wind, to see that snow was falling thickly on the road he had just traveled.

It had been dry only moments before and the sky had been clear. Now the trees alongside the road were coated with ice, each branch and needle encased in a glittering icy shell of hoarfrost. The sky was dark overhead, and that icy wind blew directly toward Seton Hall.

From a direction the wind never blew.

Murdoch was not the only one left shivering.

“You have brought the foul weather, lad!” Stewart jested and the others laughed. “Into the hall. The laird will offer ale to everyone to celebrate his brother’s return.” The crowd cheered and surged forward, boys leading Murdoch’s horses to the stables, others carrying his saddlebags.

But Murdoch looked back into the eye of the approaching storm, knowing that Stewart had inadvertently spoken the truth.

Something had followed him. Something that would take every sweetness from his homecoming.

Murdoch feared he knew what—or who—it was. He had promised any thing in exchange for the chance to return home.

Only now did he begin to fear what the Elphine Queen would demand.

Excerpt from The Renegade’s Heart
Copyright 2012 Claire Delacroix, Inc.