Outraged that her beloved brother’s soul is to be the Fae tithe to Hell, Elizabeth knows that she must save him. She is the only one in her family who can see the Fae, after all, and is already cursed by their king herself. Malcolm may have offered to replace his comrade out of honor, but Elizabeth knows who better deserves to live—and it is not the handsome rogue, Rafael, who is concerned with his own welfare alone. It should be easy to make a wager with a mercenary, especially as Elizabeth does not care about the cost to herself. To her surprise, though, Rafael proves to be the man who not only takes her dare, but banishes the Fae king’s curse with kisses that turn her blood to fire. Could this hardened warrior, who appears to have no heart, be the destined love she has awaited?
At first glimpse, Rafael believes Elizabeth to be an angel sent to judge him—and he knows what her verdict will be. He has made choices in order to survive, and is not proud of them. But Elizabeth dares him to change, with an audacity that awakens a nobility of purpose that Rafael has forgotten he possessed. Can this bold maiden heal the wounds of his past? Can Rafael earn the right to grant her the life she deserves—and do so before the Fae king springs his trap, making Elizabeth his captive forever?
An excerpt from The Warrior’s Prize:
An angel had set foot on the earth.
The sight struck Rafael in the heart he had forgotten he possessed, a blow as piercing and sharp as that from an arrow.
He knew she could not truly be divine, but Rafael could conceive of no other explanation for the beauty who approached with Malcolm. She was looking up at Malcolm, as yet unaware of Rafael, which gave him time to stare.
Rafael had never believed that angels were beings of perfect beauty. He had always assumed that having witnessed both good and evil would leave a mark upon them, and this angel looked haunted by a sorrow that had scorched her soul. The combination of beauty and devastation was more alluring to him than he could have believed possible.
It made him think they had seen much of the same in this world.
He wondered whether she had come to judge him, or to smite him. He suspected that no judgment of his soul would be favorable, but did not shirk from the knowledge of all he had done.
He had survived and that had some value.
The strange thing was that even though he expected this woman would scorn him, he did not want to avoid her. She moved so smoothly across the ground that she seemed to float above it, and he was certain a creature so lovely could not tread upon the earth like any other mortal. She wore a kirtle of crimson as red as blood, its hems embroidered with the gold of the sun. A silver circlet graced her brow, her ebony hair bound beneath a veil of finest gold. Her skin was as fair as ivory and Rafael stared, like a man struck to a pillar of salt for daring to gaze upon such magnificence.
To his surprise, Malcolm escorted her directly to Rafael. Only in his comrade’s hall could he be in any proximity to such a maiden, clearly nobly born and yet unwed. He knew she was no angel in truth and feared she was the one Malcolm had sworn to marry. Rafael did not want to see this angel weep in disappointment to learn that Malcolm was already wed.
Oddly, her presence made him recall the accusation of Malcolm’s wife, Catriona. She had charged him with being a poor comrade and a poor friend for letting Malcolm take his place and pay his debt to the Fae. Theirs was a fair exchange, and Rafael knew it well, a bargain that repaid the debt Malcolm owed to him. But as he watched this angelic being approach, Rafael could not evade the truth of Catriona’s words. It was the mark of angels to shine light upon the deeds of men, to not shirk from the acknowledgment of the truth, no matter how unsavory it might be.
Catriona was right: no man of merit would let another die for him. No man who called himself a friend would let that man take a blow for him.
Yet he and Malcolm were partners in arms, comrades, not friends.
“Malcolm, you must not keep your oath,” she whispered, her voice as sweet as the honey of Rafael’s homeland. Her eyes were a clear green, he saw, a green as clear as the ocean’s curl, and her lips both full and rosy. Her words were so close an echo to Rafael’s own thoughts that he was startled. “They cannot claim your soul!”
Malcolm glanced quickly down at her, as if he would silence her, then gestured to Rafael. “Elizabeth, this is my comrade, Rafael Rodriguez. Rafael, my sister, Elizabeth.”
Rafael nigh swooned with relief that she was not the earl’s niece, Jeanne. He bowed low, not daring to touch her hand or step closer. He knew his place in the court of a nobleman—and actually his place was not in that court at all. It was in the stables or the bailey or the armory. They exchanged polite greetings.
“Where is Catriona?” Malcolm asked him.
“She tends to Avery,” Rafael confessed, referring to the babe that Catriona had delivered just days before, and who now was Malcolm’s heir.
When her brother glanced toward the solar, Elizabeth looked fully upon Rafael for the first time. He had braced himself for her disapproval, but her gaze brightened with an awareness that made his own heart leap. She glanced over him and flushed slightly, as if she liked what she saw of him. Rafael dared to be encouraged that she might not condemn him with a glance.
She was even more beautiful at close proximity, and he admired how fearless she was in meeting his gaze after her survey. She was not a fool, for he knew she recognized what he was. Her gaze hardened then as she surveyed him, her disapproval so clear that he wondered whether he had imagined that glimpse of admiration.
She might not be an angel, but she had the audacity of one, which Rafael liked well enough.
“Would you escort my sister to the board while I make Lady Jeanne and the earl welcome?” Malcolm asked and Rafael could only comply dumbly.
The weight of Elizabeth’s hand on his arm was like a feather, her touch as cool as a river. He felt the curve of her breast brush against his arm and was aware of no other soul in the hall. She held her head high and did not look directly at him. Rafael caught the scent of her perfume and all within him clenched tightly.
It was not simple lust that fired his blood, though. He was smitten with no more than a glance, just as his hero Mìo Cid had been. For the moment, he simply savored the mingled sensations of desire, admiration and a keen awareness of the lady, for he expected only trouble from the choice of his errant heart.
Lady Elizabeth was Malcolm’s sister, which made her a noblewoman, and no man of property—even Malcolm—would let a man such as Rafael court his sister. It was a strange twist of fortune that allowed him to escort her as he did in this moment, and Rafael was a clever enough man to know that it might never happen again.
This might be the closest he ever stood to her.
This might be the sole time she ever touched him.
He savored every single step. She might speak to him. That would be the sum of it. At best, he might catch a glimpse of her again. Their paths could never be tangled, much less joined. He would never touch her more than he did in this moment—and for the first time ever, Rafael regretted what he had become.
He had had no choice, to his thinking, but still.
“Are you the one my brother replaces on Midsummer’s Eve?” Elizabeth asked just before they reached the high table. Her dislike of the notion was more than clear, and again he admired that she was so undaunted. Her gaze locked with his, her disappointment in him evident.
One censorious glance from this maiden and all his life seemed to fall short of the measure, a measure Rafael had not guessed held merit for him. All this she had kindled within him with a look and a single question. He should have been terrified that a virtual stranger could have such power over him.
Still Rafael welcomed the fact she had any curiosity about him. Confirming her guess could only show him poorly in her view, yet she would not have asked if she had been one to avoid the truth. In this moment, he felt ashamed of his own weakness and could not meet her gaze.
“I am,” Rafael confessed with reluctance, then continued with a rare honesty, “for he is a better man than I.”
If he had expected her to argue his merit, Rafael was doomed to be disappointed.
“Indeed,” she said, though her condemnation was less scathing than he had expected.
Did she see that there was hope for him? It was an unexpected and compelling notion. Rafael dared to meet her gaze and his heart skipped that the lady did not turn away from him.
Her words were low, but ardently spoken, her clear gaze locked on his own with a resolve that made his heart pound. “I understand that when a man is given a chance, he is a fool not to seize it.”
Rafael was shocked that she fairly dared him to do differently. Elizabeth watched him closely, even as she challenged him to change his ways, then she lifted her chin and turned away, taking her place at the board.
It was unthinkable that Rafael should trade places again with Malcolm, that he should decline Malcolm’s offer and put that man back in his debt. It was neither reasonable nor fair to break a wager willingly made, but Elizabeth’s manner made Rafael feel a new guilt about the bargain he had struck.
How remarkable that a maiden like this, one who should have shunned him on sight, was the one who saw there was promise in him. How like an angel to peer into the secret heart of a man and find a glimmer of light. Suddenly, the land Rafael had come to despise showed such uncommon appeal that he doubted he would leave Scotland any time soon.
No matter how much it snowed, no matter how cold the winters at Ravensmuir, it was worth enduring any physical discomfort to linger near a maiden such as Elizabeth.
Indeed, she might take pity upon his condemned soul.
Excerpt from The Warrior’s Prize
Copyright 2014 Deborah A. Cooke