Harlequin Historical #1026
When Malcolm McNair sees the ethereal beauty on the battlements, wielding her crossbow, he swears he’s been bewitched by a powerful fairy queen. But Rosalind of Beaumont is definitely all woman, a lady of fierce determination, ready to do all it takes to safeguard her home from invasion.
Never has Rosalind seen a warrior equal to Malcolm McNair, and her resolve to hide her attraction to this burly Scott proves impossible. But she is English born— a guarded truce is all she can hope for. Why, then, does Malcolm’s merest touch promise so much more?
2006 Beacon Finalist
2005 Cataromance Reviewer’s Choice Award
2005 eHarlequin Reader’s Choice Award
“Deliciously steamy… an enormously entertaining read from beginning to end.” — Historical Romance Writers
“The Laird’s Lady is one book not to be missed.” — Romance Junkies
“A breathtaking medieval tale of romance and adventure.” — Cataromance
“Captures your heart and sets your senses on fire…” — Missy Andrews, Barnes & Noble
Married women never had these problems.
Barbarians swarmed at Beaumont’s gate, and the unwed daughter of the house was the only person who would lift a finger to stop them. Rosalind of Beaumont pounded her fist in frustration, causing all the miniature flower-filled urns on her worktable to jump.
Where was Gregory Evandale and his promise of marriage when she needed a man to lead her people to battle?
Rosalind’s steward burst into the solar, scattering her thoughts. The man’s sprint across the rushes belied his fifty years as he skidded to a halt a scant step from her. “The brutes demand to speak with the Lord of Beaumont, my lady.”
“Too bad Beaumont Keep has no lord.” Rosalind massaged her throbbing temple, willing an idea to manifest. It was a well-kept secret that the ruler of Beaumont was not a son, but a daughter. After the fire that had devastated their lands three short years ago, Rosalind’s loyal people had helped her perpetuate the notion that her brother had not perished in the blaze along with their parents. The guise had been a matter of safety until she could one day petition the king to wed her father’s former squire and all would be well again.
To compound her troubles, she had awoken this morning plague-ridden with a fever and headache.
“We have nigh twenty knights within the walls,” John, the steward, reminded her. He leaned over her table to right an urn that had fallen over when she’d banged the table.
“Knights?” Rosalind scoffed. “Most of those untried men you call knights have never seen battle. And what good are twenty knights, when the heathens at my door have— how many men would you say?”
“Over one hundred, my lady.” He mopped up a small puddle of water from the spilled flowers with his tunic.
“— when the Scots have over one hundred men?” She turned to her audience, which had grown from John to half her household in a matter of moments.
The people of Beaumont had been attacked by Scots before, and all were terrified of another massacre. Saints protect her, she could not allow them to suffer anymore.
John cleared his throat. “Who shall speak with the invaders?”
A single answer came to Rosalind’s mind. Only one person could talk to the Scots savages in lieu of the lord.
She sighed to think of Gregory, far away when she needed him desperately. The son of a neighboring lord, Gregory had been like a brother to her during the years he’d served her father. In the weeks following the fire that had claimed her family, Gregory had vowed to wed her as soon as he could procure the king’s blessing so they might one day restore Beaumont. Until then, they had agreed to allow the world to believe her brother yet lived, a fiction that protected Beaumont from a harsh lord of the king’s choosing. The story hadn’t been all that difficult to perpetuate given the king’s preoccupation with battles throughout Scotland followed by his recent death.
Still, Rosalind longed for the security of marriage to Gregory after three years of sorrow and fears. Why wasn’t her champion here now to defend her people from this threat? She grew so weary of fighting all her battles alone. Until she could get word to him, she needed to protect the keep herself. She had not safeguarded her father’s beloved holding this long only to lose it to the scourge of the north that nearly burnt the whole keep around her ears a few scant summers ago.
“Gerta, attend me in my father’s bedchamber.” She called to the maid warming her hands by a dwindling blaze in the hearth. “John, accompany us and wait outside the door for consultation.“ Rosalind resolved herself. There was no other way.
“But—” John and Gerta began.
“I will speak with the Scots savages as the Lord of Beaumont.” Rosalind silenced their mutual protest with a meaningful glare. Her raised chin defied any to argue with her.
Her confidence failed several minutes later when she climbed on the windy battlements of the outer bailey, dressed in her father’s aged garb. Assailed by doubts, Rosalind wondered how she could disguise her voice when she shouted down to the enemy. Perhaps her hoarse and scratchy throat would prove useful on this one occasion at least.
What if the leader demanded they meet face to face? Her ruse might work from afar, but she could never pass for a man at close range. Her father’s garments hung from her pitifully, and her smooth complexion made her look like a young boy once she concealed her long hair under the collar of the tunic.
It did not help that Rosalind shivered with alternating chills and fever.
“My lady, it is not too late to get someone else to play this role,” John hissed in her ear for the third time since she donned her father’s raiments.
Rosalind shook her head, having already dismissed that idea. She couldn’t risk this confrontation going awry. She must be the one to speak for her people.
Grudgingly, John extended his hand to lift her up to the walk at the top of outer ward wall atop the gatehouse. Their positions were far enough above the Scotsmen to keep them safe, but close enough to be heard.
“Is there any way I can look down first, without showing myself?” Rosalind whispered, her voice betraying her trepidation.
John nodded. “Chances are they won’t have their eyes trained up here anyway. Just stay low.”
Gingerly, she raised herself up and peeked over the smooth, lime-washed stones of the parapet.
“Oh.” She gasped at the spectacle below. Cold fear swept through her, chilling her far more than her fever’s icy grip. John had said there were over one hundred men, but Rosalind would have guessed there to be twice that many.
Scots warriors congregated en masse at Beaumont Keep’s front gate. Many of them bore blue painted faces, a tradition passed down through their fearsome Pictish bloodlines. Even from Rosalind’s high perch, the men looked monstrously big. The brutes, she amended, recalling the fire set by Scots rebels three years ago. The flames had taken everything she held ear— her kind-hearted parents, a young brother, servants she loved, and nearly Beaumont itself.
She shook her head to clear her mind of the haunting visions. No time for that now.
On more careful inspection, Rosalind decided there were indeed just over one hundred Scotsmen. Their size, along with the war paint and animal skins they wore, enhanced their savage aspect.
Although most of the combatants blurred into a sea of blue muscle, one man in particular caught Rosalind’s attention. Dark hair brushed his shoulders, the black locks as unrestrained as Rosalind’s own tresses. Broad shoulders supported a long leather cape that had been clamped about his collarbone by a silver brooch.
Flanked by two warriors wearing a similar device, the man in the center stood a bit shorter than the hulking giant to his left, a bit taller than the more refined knight to his right. All three possessed a proud nobility amidst the hectic siege preliminaries, but Rosalind’s gaze repeatedly fell upon the Scotsman in the middle. He wore a mantle of authority as easily as his cloak, and something about him called forth a trembling sensation in the very core of her being.
Fear. He could be the man responsible for this siege.
Forcing her eyes from the dark warrior, Rosalind concentrated on measuring the might of the gathered force on the sunny fields surrounding the keep. They didn’t have many horses, but then again, neither did Beaumont. The Scots had a huge battering ram, though, and Rosalind had no doubt the weapon could shatter their portcullis with a few of the immense invaders wielding it.
Slipping behind the shelter of the wall again, Rosalind sank beside John.
“It is the battering ram I fear most,” she confided, picking at loose pebbles along the rock partition. “If not for that, we might be able to stave them off until they ran out of rations.”
“What if we were to concentrate our efforts over the portcullis? The men could shoot flaming arrows, and the women could haul boiling water and whatever else we can find to dump on their heathen heads.”
If she hadn’t been scared senseless, she might have smiled at the notion. Her people would relish the opportunity after being denied the opportunity to retaliate after the fire three years ago.
“Do we have many rocks stored up here that the younger boys might throw?”
“Of course.” John nodded eagerly. “That is one of our few well-maintained defenses. Gerta often sends boys to gather stones for throwing over the battlements. It is a chore mischief-making children relish.”
“Hmmm…” Rosalind considered their choices as time ran out. She would have to speak with the invaders any moment. Should she begin preparing her people for battle, risking their lives to protect her home? Or should she relinquish her keep quietly and mayhap risk more lives to the Scots’ famed brutality?
She glanced in John’s direction, wondering what his advice would be. His grim expression told her all she needed to know. He’d lost his wife to the fire three years ago. He knew the same fears as Rosalind.
And the same determination to live in spite of them.
She took a deep breath, steeling herself for a fight she’d prayed she would never have to face. At least not alone. “I will try to discourage them, but failing that, we fight.”
John nodded and scrambled down the wall faster than many men half his age could have done. Rosalind looked after him, thinking how much she had grown to love him like a father. All the survivors of the Beaumont fire were family to her now. She could not bear to lose any of them.
Rosalind swallowed hard and whispered a hasty prayer. At least today she had an option of fighting. The last time the warmongering Scots had come, they attacked in the dead of night, and retreated as the fire waged their battle for them. Now, she saw the chance to meet them head on and have a hand in determining the battle’s outcome.
Struggling to stand in spite of the headache that threatened her balance, she drew herself up to her full height and faced the invaders.
Now Malcolm sat tall in the saddle, bracketed by his brothers as he had been at birth. His McNair kin had accompanied him on this siege— Ian to escape the memories of his dead wife, Jamie to quench his thirst for adventure. After ten years away from his family seat, Malcolm had proven useful to his family. His battles gave his brothers a place to belong until they sorted out their lives.
Ian McNair, the burly oldest of the trio, nodded in the direction of the keep, where a slight man had appeared on the battlement. “It seems the rat has emerged from his hole. He looks as the Bruce thought he might— an inexperienced wee lordling.”
Malcolm narrowed his gaze in the sunlight to see the young lord positioned between the squat towers of the northern gatehouse. A small head swam above ridiculously large robes. The man’s features were indistinct from this distance, but the face looked to be that of a boy, smooth and white.
Beaumont was held by a young son who had come into the holding upon the death of his father. Ever the clever strategist, the Scots king had known the sprawling stone fortification would be an easy target.
Malcolm expected no fight from the border keep.
“Aye. This should be an easy day,” Malcolm agreed, striding forward against a mild summer wind to speak for the Scots. The McNair banners snapped in the brisk breeze while his men quieted to wait for the confrontation.
“I am Malcolm McNair,” he shouted. “I come to claim Beaumont in the name of my king, Robert the Bruce.” The yard became still as they faced one another, the silence broken only by the occasional snort of a horse.
Finally, a response tripped down from the parapets.
“I am William, Lord of Beaumont, and I do not recognize this king you claim.” The young man shouted in a voice scarcely beyond puberty, but the lad stood tall against the relentless chill of the wind, his stance defiant. “Scotland and England share but one sovereign, Edward II, and your presence here is an insult to his Royal Highness.”
“And I tell ye, young sir, we willna leave until Beaumont is held in the name of Robert the Bruce.” Malcolm pressed his claim with calm authority, convinced his cause was just. If the English king possessed a shred of common sense, he would never have left a prize such as Beaumont to be guarded by this wee lordling alone. “If ye surrender to us peacefully now, ye have my solemn oath that none of yer people will be harmed.”
The young man’s face twisted with raw emotion. Was it anger? Fear? When he continued, his voice rasped, more high-pitched and charged with feeling.
“No harm will come to my people? And I am to take your solemn oath on that fact?” The voice above dripped with disdain. “I trust the word of no Scotsman, least of all one who would camp uninvited at my gate in direct defiance of our king.”
The raw emotion in the Lord of Beaumont’s voice did naught to sway Malcolm’s resolve. He would hold Beaumont within the sennight, whether the young man said yea or nay.
“I have explained to ye that I dinna share yer king. And ye might question yer own loyalty to a sovereign who would abandon his people at a time of such great civil unrest. Yer young King Edward willna be here to help ye any time soon, as he has made it clear the borderlands will have to fend for themselves until spring.”
There was a pause from above, and Malcolm hoped maybe his words swayed the lad.
“I do not believe it will be so long until our new king comes to settle this dispute,” the Beaumont lord returned finally. “But it does not matter, because one way or another, you will leave my grounds.”
Damn. Malcolm did not particularly wish to cross swords with an opponent scarcely older than a squire. After ten years of battle, Malcolm craved peace. But he would do whatever he must to secure the holding for his king and his clan.
“I have made it abundantly clear that I willna, sir, and I am afraid I canna afford to give ye more than a quarter of an hour to change yer mind, or ye will feel the brunt of our convictions in this matter.”
“Then I accept that time, sir, to confer with my people in regard to your proposal.” The younger man disappeared once again, leaving Malcolm confident as to what the outcome would be.
He may have lost his taste for the battle, but he had yet to lose a fight.
She hadn’t fought a battle before, but it seemed she needed to win one today.
Rosalind cursed Gregory Evandale for deserting her in one breath and prayed he would come back soon in the next. Why hadn’t he married her before joining King Edward’s wars? He’d claimed he needed to acquire loyal men and the king’s approval for their marriage. Hadn’t he done so by now?
After descending the outer walls, she flew across the courtyard, the thin soles of her decorative slippers providing little protection for her feet against the hard stones. Men and women, young and old busied themselves making preparations to defend the keep. Several large fires were already lit to heat cauldrons of water. Men hauled rocks up the walls with pulleys, along with garbage from the kitchens and, Rosalind guessed, the contents of the chamber pots. Beaumont’s crude knights moved stealthily up the walls, positioning themselves with arrows to shoot at a moment’s notice.
Looking about her, Rosalind knew they were makeshift efforts, but that could not quell the immense pride she experienced to see their hard work. She was almost to the keep when John intercepted her.
“We have a quarter of an hour in which to confer.” Rosalind snorted in disgust, her heart still slamming erratically in her chest after her confrontation with the enemy warrior. “The arrogant Scot thinks we will give in to him and his band of heathens without a fight.”
“Your father would be proud of you today, Rosalind. I know it with every old bone in my body.” John clapped a reassuring hand on her shoulder before hastening off to continue preparations.
A wealth of emotion squeezed her insides, the familiar ache of loss accompanied by fear. Hope. Desperation. Heaven help her, she wanted to make her father proud. And her mother. And dear little William whom she’d adored…
Praying for strength, Rosalind darted inside to help Gerta in spite of the chills that wracked her weakened body. In all likelihood, their defense of the outer walls would not last long, maybe not even through the night. But the inner bailey and keep were much stronger and built to withstand a long siege.
Something bothered her. She tried to push aside the pain in her pounding head long enough to think clearly. To plan her strategy and plot for all possibilities. She could not shake the sinking feeling she’d overlooked something.
For the life of her, she could not remember what. Cursing her illness and muddled thoughts, she hurried to the great hall to see Gerta barking orders to everyone in sight.
“We have less than a quarter of an hour until we must defend ourselves,” Rosalind shouted over the din of villagers scurrying to carry crates of harvest fruits and root crops into the keep. Gerta hesitated for only a moment upon hearing the message, then redoubled her efforts to move foodstuffs and other provisions inside the inner walls.
Scrambling up the stairs to her chamber, Rosalind dispensed with the last of her father’s robes as she sailed through the door. Throwing open the chest at the foot of her bed, she rummaged through her few treasured possessions-a gown of her mother’s, a poem Gregory had penned for her long ago, her chest of herbs— and finally found her father’s jeweled dagger.
Although she doubted she would ever have use for a weapon meant for hand-to-hand combat, Rosalind felt more protected with Lord William Beaumont’s blade on her person. Perhaps she might gain a bit of her sire’s strength today when she needed it so desperately.
Glancing briefly into a small looking glass, Rosalind blinked in surprise at the banner of bright flaxen hair swirling about her shoulders. Since her parents’ deaths, she had worn her locks in a severe fashion, pulled tightly back in an intricate knot of braids. Even in her sleep, she’d kept the waist-length tresses plaited.
Her neatly dressed locks had not fit under her father’s head covering and she’d unfastened them. Now it was rather disconcerting to see the abundance of hair float around her body like a veil. For a moment, she almost resembled the girl she had once been before marauding Scots had robbed her of so much.
But she was that gentle girl no longer. The amethysts on the hilt of her father’s knife shone in the dull glass, reminding her how far she would go to protect her people. The fever that weakened her body gave her cheeks deceptively healthy color. Rosalind’s luminescent green gown shone none the worse for being crammed beneath her father’s heavy houpeland and outer robe. She remembered her mother’s lesson that in order to command respect, your demeanor must warrant it. And, although her hair floated recklessly about, all else about her person befitted her station.
Beaumont might not have a lord in place this day, but she remained mistress of the holding. As lady of the keep, she would not hesitate to take up arms to defend all that was left of her father’s dreams for his family and his people.
Thus armed with his blade at her side, Rosalind prepared to lead her people into battle…