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THE SCOUNDREL

 

by

 

Claire Delacroix

 

 

Dear Reader:

 

It is true that I acted boldly, brazenly, wantonly…and I confess, I have only myself to blame. I knew what sort of man I was dealing with, knew Gawain Lammergeier was a rogue and a thief. Yet when I schemed to seduce him and reclaim what was rightfully mine, I never imagined I would succumb to the charms of this reckless, golden-haired scoundrel.

 

Make no mistake, I took what I came for - the sacred relic stolen from my father that can restore the fortunes of my keep. I should have been content then, to return home with my prize. Alas, I let desire rule me. For I have dared to tempt Gawain - to best me, bewitch me and even bed me, in pursuit of my treasure.

 

—Lady Evangeline of Inverfyre

 

* * *

 

Praise for THE SCOUNDREL

 

 

“Original and cleverly plotted, with many twists and turns.”

Romantic Times

 

“A delightful romp through medieval times in a game of cat and mouse…The Scoundrelis an enjoyable read; mixed with passion, humor and an unexpected plot that kept me turning the pages.”

Romance Junkies

 

“Ms. Delacroix has written an enthralling and compelling story.”

The Old Book Barn Gazette & TheBestReviews.com

 

“The highly talented Ms. Delacroix is a first-rate writer. She tells the story from each character’s point of view, in first person! She has taken a task that can oft fall flat and has made it phenomenal. She takes you in and keeps you there. Her pages are filled with full-bodied characters and real-life happenings. The pages of this book are filled with one believable event after the other. Can you tell I liked it?”

Romance Readers’ Connection

 

“Claire Delacroix has woven another romantic tale and thrown a twist of the mystical into it. A thoroughly enjoyable read.”

HistoricalRomanceWriters.com

 

The Scoundrelis worth reading and re-reading.”

Bookloons

 

* * *

 

Dear Reader;

 

The Scoundrelis a book very close to my heart. After writingTheRogue, I wondered whether love could redeem a lost soul. Shouldn’t love conquer all? I didn’t think Gawain was entirely bad, although he was certainly naughty. Could the right woman turn him around? I began to wonder what kind of woman would compel Gawain to change – because I quite liked his James-Bond-variety of audacity and derring-do – and Evangeline, a fiercely passionate woman, presented herself to me. I had a wonderful time writing this book, redeeming a previous villain and showing that love could indeed conquer all, and I’m delighted to make this book available to readers again.

 

Once again, I’m excited to send this book out in the world with a wonderful new cover – and once again, that cover is the work of the talented Eithne O’Hanlon of Ni Anluain Designs. I think she’s done a terrific job with this cover illustration, as well.

 

As with all of my re-releases, I’ve chosen not to revise this book, but to republish it essentially as it was published in the first place. All three of the Rogues of Ravensmuir medieval romances are now available in both new digital editions and new print editions like this one. This month, all three of the Rogues of Ravensmuir medieval romances are becoming available in new print editions. The linked series, The Jewels of Kinfairlie, is already available in new print editions. You can learn more on my website.

 

I’ve also returned to Kinfairlie and Ravensmuir and am happily writing medieval romance again.The Renegade’s Heart, the first book in a new four-book series called The True Love Brides, will be published in May 2012. This new series picks up the story from my Jewels of Kinfairlie series, following four more of the siblings at Kinfairlie as they meet their romantic matches and find their happily-ever-afters.The Renegade’s Heartis Isabella’s story and I’m very excited to have the chance to finally tell her tale. Visit my website for more information about this series and other upcoming releases.

 

I’ve enjoyed revisitingThe Scoundrel, and hope you enjoy reading it, as well.

 

Until next time, I hope you are well and have plenty of good books to read.

 

All my best,

 

Claire

http://www.delacroix.net

 

* * *

 

The Scoundrel

 

By Claire Delacroix

 

 

Copyright 2003, 2011 Claire Delacroix, Inc.

 

 

Cover Design by Eithne O’Hanlon of Ni Anluain Designs

http://www.nianluain.com

Cover Design Copyright 2011 Eithne Ni Anluain

 

Digital Edition

 

The scanning, uploading, printing and distribution of this work without the express written permission of the author is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized versions of any work, and do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.

 

* * *

 

The Scoundrel

Table of Contents

 

Prologue

 

An Unwitting Pawn

I

II

III

IV

V

VI

 

A Cornered Queen

VII

VIII

IX

X

XI

XII

XIII

 

An Unlikely Knight

XIV

XV

XVI

XVII

 

Endgame

XVIII

XIX

XX

XXI

XXII

 

An Excerpt from THE WARRIOR

 

* * *

 

The Scoundrel

by

Claire Delacroix

 

* * *

 

 

Prologue

 

 

Inverfyre, Scotland - All Hallow’s Eve, 1371

 

When darkness fell and the shadows in her chamber took vaguely human shapes, Lady Elspeth of Inverfyre understood that the dead had come to add her to their company.

It was a night that might have come from an old tale. The sky was blacker than black, the stars obscured, nary a sound carrying through the windows but the murmur of the wind in the trees.

It was the festival Samhain and, though the church had forbidden the celebration, the land heeded its ancient rhythms. On this night, legend told that the veil betwixt the worlds drew thin and that the dead came to visit the living. Elspeth, come to this land from the court of Burgundy, had never given much credence to local tales, not until now.

Indeed, she had no choice - she could see the dead, clustered ’round. Their phantom whispers rustled in the darkness, telling her a truth she did not want to hear.

Elspeth took a painful breath, relieved that it was not quite her last. She still had one deed to perform, one she had avoided in the hope that she would not be required to do it at all. Exhaustion filled her every sinew, just as pain racked her very bones. It would be blissful to be free of the agony, and Elspeth did not care at this point whether hell or heaven was her fate. No pain could be more fearsome than what she had already borne.

Still she would have borne it longer, if that might have made a difference. She closed her eyes and listened to the sounds of her daughter arguing yet again with Fergus.

“You should release Aphrodite,” Evangeline said, referring the gyrfalcon recently granted to Fergus as a gift. Her daughter’s tone was precisely right, in Elspeth’s opinion, neither pleading nor insistent. Fergus could take no insult from such reasonable speech. “She yearns to return to her nesting site. It will only drive her mad to deny her instincts, and a mad falcon is of no value to hunter or falconer.”

It was a reasonable argument, one Evangeline had presented with respectful persistence. Elspeth held her breath, as she listened for the reply, though she suspected already what it might be.

Fergus laughed, his manner mocking. Elspeth winced. Had there ever been a man more given to ignoring good sense?

“Oh, you have a whimsy, Evangeline,” Fergus said in the manner of one indulging a stupid child. “Only a woman could believe it wise to cast away a prize such as this!

“But…”

“I will never let Aphrodite fly free - what fool would spurn a bird fit for a king? You may rest assured that whatever her instinct, she will learn to prefer my hand.”

“She will lose heart.” Evangeline was persistent, though Elspeth guessed that her daughter understood the battle to be lost. “A falcon is most clever, more clever than a hound. A haggard falcon, taken long after its infancy, is never a good captive. This is why we have never captured haggards at Inverfyre.”

“You capture no falcons at Inverfyre, to my knowledge. That is why it is so delightful to be granted a gift such as this bird.”

“Aphrodite must be permitted to return to her nest, wherever it is, there to meet with her partner.”

“And who are you to grant me counsel?” Fergus mocked. “Remember your place, Evangeline. You may be a beauteous woman, but beauty is less pleasing when accompanied by a viper’s tongue.”

There was a pause and Elspeth suspected that her determined daughter had to grit her teeth. “I think only of the value of the bird to you, Fergus,” she said with a deference that must have been feigned. Truly, Elspeth had taught the child well! “I would not have your prized gift wither - how impressed would the donor be if Aphrodite died?”

“She will not die! What do you know of gyrfalcons?”

“I am the daughter of the laird of Inverfyre, baron of the greatest falconry in all of Christendom,” Evangeline snapped. Elspeth averted her face, disliking that her daughter’s pride could not be better confined. Fergus would take affront. “I am born to a centuries-old lineage of falconers. It could be said that I know something of falcons.”

“To be born at Inverfyre does not grant one innate knowledge of falcons or falconry,” Fergus retorted. He was wrong, more wrong than he could know, but Elspeth knew this man could be taught nothing. “Fear not - Aphrodite will be smitten with another male.”

“Falcons mate for life.”

“No, Evangeline, they do not. That is the kind of whimsy I expect to hear from a woman prone to chattering nonsense.”

Elspeth grimaced at Fergus’ dismissive tone. The pain chose that moment to revisit her, and she gasped at the vigor of its bite.

Immediately, her daughter was leaning over her, eyes filled with concern. “Mother? How do you fare?”

“Not well.” Elspeth coughed and caught her breath. She laid a hand over her daughter’s hand, so much younger and smoother than her own. “This night will be my last.”

“Do not say as much!”

“It is the truth, Evangeline.”

“Nonsense! A healer comes from Edinburgh even now. Do not lose heart so readily as this.”

Elspeth sighed, knowing she could not persuade her daughter of what she knew to be unassailable. “Then, aid me to sit up, if you please.”

Evangeline pushed pillows behind her mother’s back and smoothed the hair back from her brow. Elspeth noted that Fergus lingered in the doorway, the gyrfalcon Aphrodite perched upon his gloved hand, though he clearly wished to be elsewhere. He stroked the bird’s back with a bejeweled hand, his gaze assessing. The bird’s hood was splendidly wrought of green leather, embellished with gold and topped with a crest of peacock feathers.

Fergus himself was finely attired as well, seemingly every gem of Inverfyre’s treasury stitched onto his clothes. Fergus’ fine garb, however, could not hide his age. He was elderly, vain, and not terribly clever. Not for the first time, Elspeth wondered why Gilchrist had chosen Fergus as his successor. Her husband had had many failings, but she had always admired his ability to judge character.

Until Fergus and his honeyed tongue came to Inverfyre.

“Evangeline speaks aright,” Elspeth informed Fergus, uncommonly bold in her last moments. “If you do not release the bird by midwinter, she will be useless in the spring. It is always thus with birds snared after their second moult. They are captured too late to avoid their instinct becoming habit.”

“More counsel from women,” Fergus said with a roll of his eyes. “How fortunate I am this night to be privy to such wisdom.”

“Fergus!” Evangeline whispered, but Elspeth waved a hand.

“Go then, and leave us to our womanly whimsy.” She yearned to say more, but bit her tongue. There was oft a glint in Fergus’ eye that made Elspeth wonder whether he was as weak as she believed.

He left, with nary another word.

“I am sorry, Mother. He does not know what he says.”

Elspeth smiled and touched her daughter’s cheek. Here was the one jewel she had wrought in all her days. Evangeline was a beauty, with the blue eyes and fair skin of her father and the black tumbling curls of her mother’s younger days. There was more than beauty to Evangeline though, for she had a will of iron, not unlike that of Gilchrist and his warrior kin.

What a leader Evangeline could have been!

“You should have been born a boy,” Elspeth murmured, before she could halt herself. “If you had been shaped as a man, your father would have died at ease.”

“I doubt that I should have met his standards even then,” Evangeline said with unexpected bitterness.

Their gazes met for a heated moment. Then Evangeline smiled primly, as if she had made a jest. Her eyes had revealed the truth, though, and Elspeth was ashamed.

“All couples yearn for a son, Evangeline. There is no sin in desiring an heir and stability.”

Evangeline lifted a brow and looked away. She stroked her mother’s hand, her gaze searching the shadows.

“Do you see them, too?” Elspeth asked hopefully.

“Who?”

“The souls in the shadows.”

Evangeline smiled, as if she believed Elspeth to be losing her wits. “Be calm, Mother. There is no one in the shadows.”

“You should speak more with Adaira. She will teach you things I failed to teach you.”

“You said she was mad. You always forbade me to speak with her!”

“I was wrong. Ask her.”

“Ask her what, Mother?”

Elspeth was distracted by one shadow separating itself from the others, then astonished when she discerned its features. It was Gilchrist, yet not Gilchrist, Gilchrist as if he had been touched by the wand of the frost elves.

Her heart nigh stopped as he paused beside her bed, his gaze searching her own. Gilchrist always had looked into her eyes before he spoke, had done so with a marvel in his own expression, as if he could not believe she was his bride. It was this gesture that persuaded her of this shade’s identity. Silver glimmered along his silhouette, shone in his beard, crested his hair and spiked his eyelashes. Only his eyes remained the same vivid sapphire she knew so well.

Elspeth caught her breath, for she knew full well why he had come. He reached out to her and she hesitated to take his hand, fearing he would be displeased that she had not fulfilled her old pledge to him.

She turned back to Evangeline and was surprised to spy tears forming in her daughter’s eyes. The first fell like a gem, glittering in the lamplight until it splashed upon their hands.

Elspeth reached for her daughter and caught her close, closing her own eyes as Evangeline began to weep. “I can linger no longer, Evangeline.”

“I would never have asked you to endure the pain for so long as you have. But I shall miss you sorely.”

“And I you.” Elspeth stroked the dark silk of Evangeline’s hair, remembering all their former embraces, remembering the babe, the child and the young girl that this woman had been. This would be the last embrace they shared and she never wanted its sweetness to end.

“I never wished that you were aught other than you are,” Elspeth confessed softly. “Not once you were born, not once you smiled at me. Do not imagine otherwise.”

Evangeline wiped her tears and might have said something, but Elspeth hastened to tell her tale while she could. “I have waited five years for the right moment to share a tale, but this moment shall have to suffice. Promise me that you will share this revelation with Fergus when the moment is right, that he may act upon it.”

“Of course.”

“In all your lessons of birds of prey, did you learn of the lammergeier?

Evangeline shook her head.

“It is a sheep vulture. It is not a noble hunter like the peregrine, the falcon or the gyrfalcon. It is not even of the lesser predators like hawks. The lammergeier is a scavenger.”

Elspeth could not help but sneer. A lifetime at Inverfyre had made her as discriminating about birds of prey as Gilchrist had been. “The lammergeier feeds upon plunder and carrion. It will not kill its own prey - it prefers to steal a kill from another, or to consume what has been discarded. They are to be reviled.”

“I have never seen one.”

Elspeth smiled, for she knew this was not quite true even if her daughter did not. “Do you know how your father died?”

Evangeline patted her mother’s hand, clearly certain that Elspeth’s thoughts flitted from one subject to another. “He took a fit and fell down the stairs. It is five years in the past, Mother.”

“And what caused his fit?”

Evangeline shook her head. “It is not of import. Do not excite yourself with this matter now, Mother…”

Elspeth held her daughter’s hand more tightly. “A man by the name of Lammergeier - an apt choice on the part of his forebears - sent a missive, offering theTitulus Crocefor purchase.”

Evangeline’s flicking gaze revealed that she did not know what to say. “But the relic is in the chapel,” she began cautiously.

“No, it is not. We lied to you, your father and I lied to all of Inverfyre.”

Evangeline sat back, but Elspeth would not be halted now. “TheTituluswas stolen years ago. Your father knew that he had failed his people and his forebears in allowing such a theft to occur.”

Evangeline was curiously aloof, but no one liked to learn that she had been deceived.

“What choice had we had but to guard our secret closely?”

Evangeline arched a brow. “Then, surely Father would have paid any price to retrieve theTitulus.”

“So thought Avery Lammergeier.” Elspeth swallowed. “And the price he set was more, far more, than your father ever could have paid. It infuriated Gilchrist beyond belief, for as a matter of principle he believed he should not reward a pirate to return his own birthright.”

“Yet still he desired theTitulus.”

“He believed its return was the sole thing that could save Inverfyre.” Elspeth held her daughter’s gaze steadily. “It is far more cruel to be offered a solution to your failure at a price you cannot pay, than simply to have failed in the first place. Your father’s fury overcame him when Avery wrote that another nobleman would pay double the price he had initially asked.”

They watched each other in silence for a long moment, Evangeline’s grip tight upon her mother’s hand. “And his fury prompted his mis-step, and thus his fall,” Evangeline said quietly. Elspeth nodded. “You never said as much.”

Elspeth frowned. “Further, it is the responsibility of your father’s successor to avenge his death.”

“You will wait long for Fergus to do as much.”

“I have waited as long as I can. The burden now lies with you. You are the bough, Evangeline, the bough that will bear the prophesied fruit of the seventh son. You must ensure that your son has his due, that theTitulusCroceis here to legitimize that son’s suzerainty and bring prosperity to Inverfyre.”

“These are the workings of men, Mother. A relic, however holy, will do little to aid in such a goal.”

“Is that so, daughter mine?” Elspeth spoke sharply as seldom she did. “Tell me then: why are the falcons barren? Nary an egg is there to be found since theTituluswas stolen. TheTituluswas granted to your forebear, Magnus Armstrong, by divine favor and brought with him to found this keep. His holding prospered, because he kept his bargain with God. The relic must be here, the grace of God must be upon us, or Inverfyre is doomed forevermore.”

She fell back against the pillows, exhausted by this tirade. Evangeline looked down at her hands, her expression solemn. Fergus’ laughter rose from the hall below, the cries of the gyrfalcon tied to his wrist making both women wince.

“It may be too late,” Evangeline said quietly.

“You are the vessel!” Elspeth said fiercely. “You cannot lose faith or fail in your responsibility!”

Evangeline shook her head. “It has been five years, Mother. Even if I told Fergus of it now, even if he departed this very night, the relic could have traveled to any place in Christendom.”

“No. No, this is not true.” Elspeth mustered the last of her strength and sat up, despite her daughter’s attempt to urge her back against the pillows. “Avery Lammergeier died, not long after your sire. Murdered, he was, murdered by his own son, this I heard, and a more fitting fate could not have been found for that wretch. There have been no tales of such a relic being transported, and one would hear of it for it is a prize worth the bragging. The relic is still there, still at the Lammergeier abode of Ravensmuir.”

“Ravensmuir.” Evangeline rolled the name across her tongue.

“Ravens are carrion-pickers and foragers.” Elspeth fell back again, exhausted. “This felon named his eyrie well. The son must not know what he has, or he would have sold it by this time. Perhaps God favors our cause, I cannot say. But Fergus must go to Ravensmuir to retrieve theTitulus, and you must persuade him to do so.”

“You have seen how he heeds my counsel - not at all!”

“Promise me!” Elspeth felt the pain rise anew and feared the end came too soon. She seized Evangeline’s hands and her tears rose, so fearful was she that she would fail Gilchrist. “Promise me that you will find a way!”

Evangeline’s lips set to a firm line. She looked not unlike a peregrine now, her carriage proud, her gaze intensely blue. Even her pupils dilated and her lips thinned almost to naught. Her black hair gleamed like a bird’s plumage and she held her chin proudly.

The similarity to her father was startling. Gilchrist had taken this pose when he would not be swayed from his course, and the sight reminded Elspeth of an old legend. It had been whispered through the years that there was a curious kinship betwixt Magnus Armstrong, the forebear of the lairds of Inverfyre, and the falcons. Indeed, it was rumored that he had taken flight with them on moonlit nights, that he was one of them, that they had prospered in his holding because they were among kin.

Certainly, Elspeth had seen an echo of the bird’s savage determination in her husband, though this was the first time she had glimpsed it in her daughter.

“I promise that theTitulusshall be returned to Inverfyre,” Evangeline vowed. “No matter what I must do to see it so.”

Elspeth had no time to reply. The pain redoubled and seized her innards with sharp talons. She writhed, parted her lips to scream, and then saw the silver shimmer of Gilchrist’s proffered hand. She seized the shadow, welcoming whatever he offered.

A coolness like a spring stream flowed over and through her flesh, filling her with quicksilver, sweeping all earthly sensation away. It was like walking into the shade or dipping into a cool river, effortless and soothing. She saw a thousand shades of grey and silver that she had never imagined before, then drank of the gleaming sapphire of Gilchrist’s gaze. She slipped from her flesh as easily as she might have shed a garment in her mortal days, shaking off her pain like an old chemise.

One touch and all she had known, Elspeth abandoned. Her earthly life became no more than a distant dream. Inverfyre, Fergus, even her beloved Evangeline, was forgotten. Deaf to her daughter’s sobs, blind to the watchful presence of an old woman in the woods below the keep, Elspeth surrendered her past to embrace her future.

She held fast to Gilchrist’s hand, watched the wings unfurl from his back, then took flight at his side, as free as any falcon to ride the mists forevermore.

 

* * *

 

 

An Unwitting Pawn

 

Gawain

 

* * *

 

 

I

 

December 29, 1371

 

Only a fool rides at night in these times, especially with a burden so precious as mine. The sky was darkening as the shadowed walls of a burg rose beside of the road. It was York, not far enough from Ravensmuir to my thinking, but the darkness gave me pause.

It seemed that Ravensmuir breathed at my very back. Though my brother was dead, I had stolen from him and I half-expected his specter to demand some grisly compense of me. Though I am not a superstitious man, I would have preferred to have all of England and half the continent betwixt Merlyn’s corpse and I. The ominous shadows lurking on either side did little to ease my trepidation.