The sound of a man screaming awakened her from sleep.
Marguerite de Montpierre jerked upright, clutching the
coverlet as she stared at her maid Trinette. "What was
Trinette shook her head, her eyes wide with fear. "I
don't know. But we should stay here, where it's safe."
Marguerite moved to the tower window, staring outside at
the darkened moonlit sky. The man's screams had fallen into
silence now. Already, she sensed what that meant.
Stay here, her mind ordered. Don't interfere. What could
she do, after all? She was only a maid of eight and ten.
Both her father and Lord Cairnross would be furious if she
went out alone.
But if someone needed help . . . what right did she have
to remain in her chamber? Fear shouldn't overshadow the
need for mercy.
"I'm going to find out what it was," she informed her
maid. "You can stay here if you want."
"My lady, non. Your father would not allow this."
No, he wouldn't. In her mind, she could imagine her
father's commanding voice, ordering her to remain in her
bed. She took a breath, feeling torn by indecision. If she
remained behind, she would be safe, and no one would be
angry with her.
And someone could also die. This wasn't about obedience;
it was about trying to save a life.
"You're right. The Duc would not allow me to leave. But
he's not here, is he?" Marguerite murmured. She prayed her
father would return as soon as possible, for with each day
he was gone, her life became more of a nightmare.
Guy de Montpierre, the Duc D'Avignois, didn't know what
was happening here, for her betrothed husband had behaved
with the greatest courtesy toward their family. The Duc was
a man who valued wealth and status, and Gilbert de Bouche,
the Earl of Cairnross, would provide a strong English
alliance. A youngest daughter couldn't hope for a better
But although the Earl had treated her with respect and
honor, his cruelty horrified her. He was a man who firmly
believed the Scots belonged in servitude. He'd captured
several prisoners of war, and she'd observed them building
walls of stone for hours on end.
Trinette shivered, looking down at the coverlet. "I
don't think you wish to anger Lord Cairnross by leaving
Marguerite didn't disagree. But the prisoner's cry
haunted her, digging into her conscience. She'd seen
Cairnross's slaves, and the men were so very thin, with
hopelessness carved into their faces. Two had already died
since her arrival. And she suspected, from the screaming,
that another man lay dying.
"I can't stand by and do nothing," she murmured.
Otherwise it made her no better than the Earl.
She pulled on a closely–fitted cote with long
sleeves, a rose–colored surcoat, then a dark cloak.
Her maid gave a resigned sigh and helped her finish
dressing before she donned her own clothing.
It was past midnight, and soldiers were sleeping along
the hallways and in the larger chamber of the main wooden
tower. Marguerite kept her back to the wall, her heart
trembling as she stepped her way past the men. Her father
had left half–a–dozen soldiers of his own as
her guards, and no doubt they would stop her if they
She left the wooden tower and moved towards the inner
bailey. There, she saw the cause of the screaming. A man,
perhaps a year older than herself, was lying prostrate upon
the ground. Blood covered his back, and his ankles were
chained together. Long dark hair obscured his face, but she
saw his shoulders move. He was still alive . . . for now.
Marguerite whispered to her maid. "Bring me water and
soft linen cloths. Hurry." Though she didn't know who the
man was, she wouldn't turn her back on a suffering man. He
needed help, if he was to live through the night.
Trinette obeyed, and after the girl disappeared,
Marguerite took tentative steps forward. When she reached
the man's side, she saw him shudder, as if he were cold.
She didn't want to startle him, but whispered quietly in
English, "Would you allow me to tend your wounds?"
The man tensed, his palms pressing into the ground.
Slowly, he turned his head, and his battered face was
swollen and bruised. But the man's dark brown eyes were
empty, as if he felt nothing. She knelt down beside him and
saw his blood staining the ground.
"I am Marguerite de Montpierre," she said, switching to
Gaelic in the hopes he would understand her. Though she was
good with languages and had been learning the language of
the Scots for the past year, she worried about her
speech. "What is your name?"
The man studied her, but didn't speak. Pain darkened his
expression, and he eyed her with disbelief, as though he
couldn't understand why she would show pity. A lock of hair
hung down over his eyes, and she reached for it, moving out
of his face.
It was meant to help him see better, but the moment she
touched him, his hand captured hers. Though his palm was
cold, he held her hand as though it were a delicate
The gentle touch startled her. Marguerite's first
instinct was to pull her hand back, but something held her
in place. When she looked past his injuries, she saw that
the planes of his face were strong, with the resilience of
a man who had visited hell and survived it.
She waited again for him to speak, but he held his
silence and released her palm. It made her wonder if Lord
Cairnross had ordered the prisoner's tongue cut out. She
lowered her gaze, afraid to ask.
When Trinette brought the wooden bowl of water and soft
linen cloths, Marguerite saw the man's shoulders tighten
with distrust. "Stay back," she whispered to her maid, "and
call out if anyone approaches."
Marguerite dipped the first cloth into the water and
wrung it out. Gently, she laid it upon the prisoner's
bloody back, and he expelled a gasp when she touched
it. "Forgive me. I've no wish to harm you."
Though his mouth clenched at her touch, he made no move
to push her away. Marguerite tried to wipe away the blood
and dirt, hoping the cool water would soothe him. She'd
never tended wounds such as these, for her father did not
allow her near the soldiers when they were injured.
The sight of his blood bothered her, but she forced away
her anxiety, for this man needed her. As she cleaned his
wounds, she kept her touch light, knowing how it must hurt.
The whip lash had gouged his skin, leaving harsh ridges
that would form scars.
"Why did he do this to you?" she asked, soaking the
cloth again. She moistened his cheek with the cool cloth,
and he touched his mouth and throat, shaking his head as if
to tell her he couldn't speak.
"It was you who cried out in pain earlier, wasn't it?"
The man shook his head. Then he stretched out his arm
and pointed into the darkness.
And Marguerite saw the motionless body of a prisoner
with sightless eyes.
* * *
Every bone in Callum MacKinloch's body ached, his limbs
raging with pain. He couldn't move if he'd wanted to. The
English soldiers had beaten him bloody, and then continued
with twenty more lashes.
They hadn't killed him yet, but they would. It had
become a test of endurance. Although his body was weak and
broken, his mind had transformed into an iron band of
strength. He hadn't cried out in pain, for he'd lost the
ability to speak, almost a year ago. After all the
nightmares he'd witnessed, he supposed it wasn't
Another wet cloth covered the lash wounds, and he
shuddered. This woman had offered him compassion when no
one else would. Why? She was betrothed to the earl, a
noblewoman who shouldn't have left the sanctuary of the
keep. From his peripheral vision, he caught glimpses of
her. Her rose gown accentuated her slim form, and as she
leaned forward, long strands of golden hair hung from
beneath her veil.
Callum didn't deserve her compassion. He'd been locked
away for the past seven years, ever since he was a boy. His
father had died in the raid, and he'd been taken captive,
along with his older brother Bram.
He lowered his face to the ground, wondering if Bram had
escaped after all. It had been a while since he'd left, and
though his brother had sworn he would return to free him,
Callum didn't believe it. How could he?
No one would save him. It wasn't possible. He was going
to die, likely tortured to death.
Callum closed his eyes, wincing when Lady Marguerite
sponged at one of the deeper wounds. The feminine scent of
her skin cut through the fetid air, like a breath of mercy.
He held on to it, inhaling deeply, as if he could absorb
the memory of her.
When she'd finished, she lifted the cloths from his back
and tried to ease him to sit. Callum glimpsed her face and
wondered if he had died after all. Her clear skin and
heart–shaped face were fragile, with soft lips and
blue eyes that would haunt him forever. He'd never seen a
more beautiful creature in all his life.
"You're cold," she whispered, and removed her cloak,
settling it around his shoulders. Her scent clung to it,
along with her body heat. He smelled exotic flowers and a
hint of citrus, like she wore perfumes from a distant land.
As he stared at her, he took in the signs of her
wealth—not only the expensive silk gown, but also the
softness of her hands and her pale skin.
How could she marry someone like the Earl of Cairnross?
The idea of such a man possessing this innocent maiden,
made Callum's hands clench into fists.
You couldn't stop him even if you tried, came the voice
of reason. The whipping had nearly killed him last night.
He still wasn't certain why the soldiers had stopped.
They'd left him here, no doubt believing the exposure to
the cold air would finish his life.
Instead, Lady Marguerite had intervened. Though he
wished above all else, that she could help him to escape,
tonight it would be a futile effort. A dozen guards
patrolled the gate, and he lacked the strength. He could
hardly stand, much less run away from Cairnross.
Callum struggled to rise, but his knees seemed to fold
beneath his weight. Lady Marguerite reached out and helped
him balance himself. Though her face flushed at having to
touch him, she offered, "Let me help you."
He shook his head in refusal, steadying himself against
a stone wall. He'd rather crawl on his knees like a dog
than make her lower herself in such a way. She'd tended his
wounds and given him her cloak for warmth. He couldn't
understand why she would want to help a stranger and a Scot
Closing his eyes, he heard her murmur words of comfort
in her own language. He heard the softness of her French
accent, the soothing tones sliding over him like silk.
When he tried to take a step forward, his legs gave way,
and he nearly stumbled from his chained ankles. Lady
Marguerite moved to his side, bringing her arm around his
waist for support. He wanted to tell her no, for he was
filthy and bloodstained. She shouldn't have to endure
contamination from him.
But she walked at his side, guiding him across the
fortress. "You're going to be all right," she
whispered. "I'll come to you and bring food. Perhaps when
you're stronger, I'll petition the Earl for your release."
He sent her a questioning look. Why? Why would she spare
a moment for someone like him?
The troubled look in her eyes suggested that she didn't
know the answer. When he removed the cloak she'd given him,
his hand brushed against hers. Her lips parted, and he
wanted to kneel at her feet, like the goddess she was.
Callum didn't want her pity. Though his body and voice
might be broken, he wouldn't allow her to believe that he
was less than a man. His hands threaded with hers, the cold
skin merging with warm.
He brought her fingers to his ragged cheeks, absorbing
the warmth. A few strands of her golden hair slipped from
her veil, resting against her throat. And when he brought
her hand to his lips, she inhaled a gasp.
He released her instantly, expecting her to pull back in
disgust. Instead, her eyes were shining with unshed tears,
her fingers remaining upon his face.
"I won't forget you," she vowed, pulling her cloak
around her shoulders. Then she picked up her skirts and
disappeared into the night.
In the shadows, Callum caught a movement and turned his
head. The Earl of Cairnross was standing there, watching.
And fury burned within his eyes.