Book 2 in the d'Vant Bloodlines series
1233 A.D. – A young woman forced to command her father’s battered Highlander army upon his death. Her only hope in saving her home, and her life, is with a fearsome mercenary called The Red Fury.
Josephine de Carron is a young woman with a massive legacy weighing on her slender shoulders. As heiress to the Earldom of Ayr, she is a cousin to the king through her mother, and the king considers her a most valuable bargaining tool in the politics of Scotland. But Josephine isn’t a willing pawn for the king – she’s only concerned with saving her family home, Castle Torridon, from the repeated attacks of a former ally. After a particularly nasty siege, Josephine realizes that they cannot withstand another and she is forced to summon the most feared mercenary in Scotland, a man known as The Red Fury.
Andrew d’Vant is a paradox – an English knight, he escaped his wicked brother years ago and fled to the highlands of Scotland, forming one of the most rag-tag and fiercest mercenary armies the world has ever seen. He has become very rich by fighting – and winning – other men’s battles. Summoned by Josephine, Andrew’s price is too high for the beaten castle but his instant attraction to Josephine has him accepting the task for far less than his usual fee. There’s something about the strong, battered, and beautiful woman that draws him in.
But The Red Fury gets more than he bargained for.
A simple task of defending a castle becomes an enormous and complex tale of adventure, suspicion, royal intervention, and dark family secrets. When Josephine is thrust into the king’s politics in spite of her resistance, she finds herself pledged to none other than Andrew’s wicked brother. Now, Josephine finds herself at the heart of the Kingdom of Scotland and deeply in love with Andrew, and he with her. Andrew must join with former adversaries in order to save the woman he loves from the man who ruined his life.
The Red Fury is in for the fight of his life with the prize being Josephine.
Read an Excerpt:
Five miles southeast of Ayr, Scotland
September, 1233 A.D.
“Lady Josephine! Watch!”
The warning came in the nick of time. Lady Josephine de Carron brought her heavy sword up with amazing speed and grace, stopping what would have surely been a deathblow from the avenging Dalmellington soldier.
With a grunt, she dropped to the ground and rolled directly into the soldier’s legs, throwing him off balance enough to topple him. Leaping to her feet, which was no easy feat considering the heavy chainmail she wore, she pounced on the man and drove her sword into the leathery skin of his neck. Withdrawing the blade with a grunt of effort, she charged towards the outer bailey, not waiting to hear the enemy soldier’s last bloody gurgle of death.
Here she was, again, facing a battle.
God, it was a nightmare. The outer bailey of Castle Torridon was in shambles. If it was wood, it was burning. If it was stone, it was crumbling. The sounds of death and destruction assaulted her senses, and the smell of smoke and blood filled her as she searched for her second in command. Fatigue pulled at her body and mind as her eyes scanned the yard.
But it was more than exhaustion she felt; it was devastation. The battle had been long and bloody, and the anger at the Dalmellingtons for yet again another attack on her home of Torridon Castle was eating at her. They seemed determined to destroy what they could not have. The Dalmellingtons had once been allied with the House of de Carron, a long time ago. But that was so long ago, and times had changed.
Changed from the glorious alliance that had once been in place, now reduced to ashes.
It hadn’t always been like this. Gazing over the destroyed bailey, Josephine retreated to those times when her home had been peaceful. It all started with Josephine’s father, Hugh, when he had left his home in the north of Scotland and traveled south to Dalmellington to stay with his mother’s cousins when he was very young. Several years and several colorful campaigns later, including the granting of an earldom from King Alexander, Hugh had been given a small stronghold. He had taken the stronghold, renamed it Torridon Castle from his home in the Highlands, and built it into one of the most powerful fortresses in Scotland.
With the title, Earl of Ayr, came the usual privileges, and Hugh in his prime was courted by the father of every eligible woman in Scotland. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Hugh was distinguishingly handsome and had a tongue from whence flowed words of honeyed wine. Women seemed to swoon at the sight of him. Eventually, he was courted by the king himself on behalf of the king’s niece, Afton. Hugh hadn’t been too keen on the match until he saw the lady.
One look was all it took.
Hugh and Afton had a love match from the start and their first child came less than a year later, a son named James. Their happiness only seemed to take on an increased dimension when, the following year, Afton gave birth to a daughter, Josephine, and two years later, a daughter named Justine.
But with Justine’s birth, something went terribly wrong. After the midwife delivered the lusty infant, Afton began to hemorrhage. Within minutes, she was gone, leaving Hugh with three very small children and a grief that ate at his very soul. He never recovered from his lovely Afton’s death, and he never married again.
Instead, he preferred to lavish attention on his children, especially Josephine, for she was a mirror image of her mother. Whereas James was a strapping and handsome blond and Justine a dark-haired beauty, Josephine had a beauty so uncommon that it brought a sigh of joy from any man who was fortunate enough to lay eyes on her. She was perfection.
Hugh took comfort in his daughter and in his children in general. Life, for the most part, was good. When James de Carron had reached sixteen years of age, he was betrothed to young Marie Dalmellington. It was a very desirable contract, for the Dalmellingtons were very wealthy, as were the de Carrons, and it promised to strengthen an already strong family bond. Fortunately, James and Marie liked each other very much, and the contract looked as if it had created a love match.
But it was not to be. That very reason was why Josephine was standing in her bailey, looking at the destruction and agonizing over the cause behind it. Two years after James and Marie’s betrothal, James de Carron drowned trying to save a young peasant from the river that flowed near Torridon Castle.
Hugh had been devastated, as had been Josephine and Justine. They felt his loss to the core of their existence, but to Hugh it was much more. He had lost his male heir and feared for the continuation of the de Carron line. His only choice, though he loathed the very thought, was to take another wife and produce another son.
Young Marie Dalmellington had taken the news of James’ death with no outward emotion. After accepting the news from her Uncle Colin, who was the head of the House of Dalmellington, she quietly excused herself to her room. Once inside the chamber, she went immediately to her great cedar chest and withdrew the bejeweled dirk her grandmother had given her. Without as much as a prayer, she plunged the blade deep into her chest, and was dead before she hit the ground.
In that action, Marie cemented a permanent rift between the Dalmellingtons and the de Carrons, for Colin openly blamed the de Carrons for her death and set out to destroy his cousin.
There was blood on his mind, as bloody as the dirk in Marie Dalmellington’s chest.
But he was too late. Hugh de Carron, on the road to Edinburgh to see the king and discuss the death of his heir, was attacked and murdered by common bandits. He, one of his knights, and three men-at-arms succumbed to the group of outlaws that swarmed upon them like vermin on a dog. Hugh had fought valiantly, but even his strength and experience wasn’t enough against their sheer number.
In an instant, he was gone.
Now in command of Torridon, Josephine dealt with the deaths of her brother and father in her own way; silently and stoically for the benefit of her subjects. But as time passed, she realized she must take the reins of power decisively so that none would question who truly ruled Torridon. Her father had worked exceedingly hard for this magnificent fortress, and she felt his spirit filling her with courage. She’d been born with the will of ten head-strong men, and with the intelligence to accomplish most anything she set out to do, and she was determined to carry on in her father’s stead. She firmly believed that he would’ve wanted it that way, and she swore that none other than a de Carron would rule Torridon while there was breath left in her body.
If nothing else, she was foolishly determined. But she had to start somewhere.
Summoning her courage, she’d had Sully teach her the finer arts of swordplay and fighting. At her initial request, the man had had been speechless. Sully Montgomery was her father’s closest friend as well as the captain of his guard. He was also a soldier to the core; the only women he had ever seen fight were more man than most men, not refined ladies like Josephine de Carron. But when he opened his mouth to refuse, he caught a look of such resolve in her eye that he promptly shut it.
If his lady wanted to learn to fight, then so be it.
Josephine spent the next few weeks intensely training with Sully and the other knights; from sunup to sundown. Sully had never seen anyone work harder and struggle against difficult odds. When she was knocked down, she would bounce back up again. And when she was hit, she wouldn’t shy away. Josephine knew she had to be strong, especially in the eyes of her father’s men, because she needed their respect not just as their lady, but as a warrior.
She got it.
Sully and the other knights’ opinion of Josephine de Carron doubled and they looked at her with new eyes in those weeks of training, and swore new loyalty to her. Only Hugh de Carron’s offspring could fight with such raw courage and awakening tactical intelligence. It was a good thing, too, because, soon enough, the trouble started to come.
The first Dalmellington attack came five weeks after the death of Hugh de Carron. Colin Dalmellington decided that two females running Torridon made it ripe for the picking. His arrogant mind decided that Torridon Castle should rightfully be his through his dead niece and her departed betrothed, the heir to Torridon. Colin’s mind became twisted with his only niece’s death, and he vented his rage on Torridon. But what he didn’t count on was the unity between Hugh de Carron’s daughter and the knights of the castle, and the fierce determination they possessed to defend what was theirs. He withdrew the first time, but he kept coming back again and again, like an evil plague.
And they were back, again, on this day.
That was why Josephine found herself standing in her destroyed ward yet again. It seemed like these attacks never ended, as if there had always been battles between the de Carrons and the Dalmellingtons. Two years after Hugh’s death, Josephine could hardly remember a time when there was peace. She was a seasoned soldier after all of these battles. As she stood in the demolished outer bailey of her home, she reflected upon those days of peace when her father was alive and the hell that had followed in the wake of his death. There was still fighting going on around her as the sun set, giving the courtyard a ghostly atmosphere as gray figures continued to grapple. Soon it would stop, the dead would be hauled away and the wounded tended, but then it would start again at some point soon.
But today, she’d lived to fight another day.
Shaking off her sense of reflection and focusing on her duty, Josephine caught sight of Etienne, the master French swordsman, over the by outer wall as he toyed with an inferior Dalmellington soldier. She headed directly towards him, calling his name. He heard her, and finished humoring the enemy by driving his sword into the man’s abdomen. He then went immediately to his lady.
“My lady.” His heavy French accent was edged with concern. “You are well?”
“I am,” Josephine replied steadily, trying to mask her weariness. “Where is Sully?”
Etienne shook his head, only his eyes and mouth visible through his helm. “I have not seen him for some time.”
Josephine glanced about the fading battle and let out an exhausted sigh. She was tired of death this day, tired of fighting yet another battle. Every time she fought, she felt as if she lost another piece of her soul.
As if another piece of herself chipped off and died.
“You will find him and send him to me,” she said. “I am going to see to the wounded in the great hall.”
Etienne saluted smartly as she marched off, watching her pass into the inner bailey. He knew how tired she must be. She had fought hard since early morning. Now that the Dalmellington army was either retreating or dead, she was retreating to the castle and leaving the clean-up to the knights.
Etienne strode off on his long legs in search of Sully with his mind still thinking of his pretty, forbidden mistress.
The woman with the heart of a soldier.
Sully Montgomery had seen his mistress head into the inner courtyard, having no idea she was looking for him. He, too, was weary from the battle, and the sight of his lady lifted his sagging spirit and boosted his sapped strength.
Tipping his helm up, he wiped the sweat and dirt from his brow, letting out a heavy sigh as he surveyed the damage to the outer walls. Anger and disgust were partners in his chest at the thought of rebuilding the wall again. With a heavy heart, he began to head towards the inner ward and the keep.
Sully had seen thirty summers and two. He was not large, but was rather average in height, but he was exceptionally muscled and was stronger than he appeared. His jaw was square and his face handsome. He also possessed ice-blue eyes that were piercing enough to send fear into any man who should have the misfortune to provoke his wrath, yet he could look at his Josephine with such tenderness that his eyes could melt the soul. His receding blond hair was cut very close to his scalp, and was as prickly as a porcupine.
Sully’s respect was hard-won, but once held, he was loyal until the end. That was why Hugh had held Sully with such high esteem – Sully very nearly worshipped the ground his lord walked on. He had been guilt-ridden that he had not accompanied Hugh on his trip to Edinburgh, for Hugh had explicitly forbidden him to leave Torridon at that time. He wanted his trusted captain overseeing the castle in his absence. Hugh’s trust in Sully was what had saved his life.
But there was some guilt in that. Now, he felt obligated to stay, and knew that he would always remain at Torridon, despite Hugh’s death. Some of the other knights spoke passingly of leaving to seek their fortune elsewhere, but not Sully. He had been with Hugh too long, and Torridon was as much in his blood as it was in the blood of the de Carrons.
But it was more than that… he wouldn’t, and couldn’t, leave Josephine, not when she needed him the most. He had been unsure of his role at Torridon until Josephine made the announcement after her father’s death that she was now in command of Torridon. When her father died, and in the absence of any male heir, his title and wealth passed to her.
That was mostly why Sully had to stay.
To help Josephine in this strange, new world.
Colin Dalmellington, of course, had petitioned the king to make him the rightful Earl of Ayr, but his blood relation with Hugh was distant. Alexander hadn’t been apt to grant his petition and Josephine remained the Lady Josephine, Countess of Ayr. Josephine’s sister became her chatelaine, a seemingly odd arrangement, but never had Torridon Castle run so smoothly. Had it not been for Colin Dalmellington laying siege to Torridon every few weeks, Torridon would truly be a paradise.
But wherever Josephine was, as far as Sully was concerned, was paradise.
He was jolted from his train of thought as he passed through the remains of the inner gate and into the inner ward. Tall, blond, Etienne was calling his name and thoughts of Josephine faded.
“What is it?” Sully called to him.
“Lady Josephine requests your presence,” Etienne said as he approached. “She is in the great hall with the wounded. I am sure Dewey and Justine are with her.”
Sully shook his head. “I do not like Justine around the wounded,” he said warningly. “She is of virtually no help. All she does is pass from man to man with those damn cards and sheep’s knuckles to tell them their fortunes. If she tells a man he will not live, then they lose all hope and die anyway, even if their wound is but a scratch.”
“The men believe she possesses great power,” Etienne said faintly.
Sully snorted. “What she possesses is a gift for persuasion and storytelling,” he said pointedly. “She is no more a witch than I am.”
Etienne shook his head with a wry smile on his face, for he knew Sully spoke the truth. Sully caught his expression and laughed a little himself.
“I will attend her and make sure she does not steal the hope from the men,” he said finally. “You will see that the clean-up proceeds quickly. All Dalmellington bodies are to be burned. Leave no trace. And get the men on the outer wall immediately. We must rebuild the breach.”
“Aye.” Etienne was in motion.
Sully left him, marching on to the inner baily amongst the smells of the evening fires and the stench of the decaying corpses. Glancing over in the direction of the stables, he saw two of his knights directing some men-at-arms and a few villeins in the clean-up.
“Burl! Albert!” he bellowed.
The knights were to him instantly, ready to do his bidding.
“Round up as many men as you can,” Sully ordered quickly. “The main gates, I fear, are beyond repair. But see what can be done. And I want the entrance secured before the sun is gone from the sky, one way or another. Make your assessment and report back to me. I shall be in the great hall with the wounded.”
Burl was the oldest knight of forty and two years. Albert was considerably younger and darkly handsome in a lanky sort of way. They saluted smartly and were off.
Sully continued on through the mud until he reached the three massive steps that led into the keep of Torridon. Inside, the long foyer was dark and cool, and more torches were being lit by the servants as he passed through. His boots clanked sharply against the stone floor as he turned to his right at the end of the foyer and entered what was the great hall of Torridon.
The two massive stone fireplaces were blazing with a warming fire, illuminating the bodies strewn about on the rushes. Sully removed his helm, placing it carefully on the ground near the door. His weary eyes searched for his mistress amongst the servants tending to the sick and the dying.
Over the by south wall, he spotted ancient, decrepit Dewey. The man was old, perhaps having seen eighty or more years. He was the size of a large child, and was balding and bent, but his knowledge of herbs, flowers, and potions were limitless. How he came to be at Torridon, Sully didn’t know. Perhaps he had always been here, for he was as much a part of Torridon as the walls or the roof. Dewey’s reputation was legendary throughout Scotland, and even the king had tried to lure him away. But Dewey had declined on the explanation that if he were to leave Torridon, he would surely die; for he was too old to start elsewhere.
Not far from Dewey was Josephine, kneeling beside a soldier as she gently removed his armor. Sully felt a sense of contentment sweep over him at the sight of her, and his heart lightened as he approached her. She always had that effect on him. She stood up as he approached, wiping her hands on her tunic.
“My lady,” Sully greeted.
Her eyes flew up to meet his; she had not seen him coming. Her eyes locked with his, as each saw that the other had survived yet another battle. After a moment, Josephine smiled.
“Good, Sully, you are here,” she said with relief in her voice. “Tell me of the situation of my fortress.”
Sully followed her over to one of the giant hearths so they could take their business away from the men.
“I have Etienne on the outer wall blocking in the gaps, and Burl and Albert are on the main gates, although I cannot guarantee their repair anytime soon,” he told her. “It seems that most of the damage is confined to the outer bailey this time.”
She nodded, some relief in her expression. “Good,” she replied. “But what will we do tonight about the open outer entrance?”
Sully didn’t hesitate. “I will order the gates to the inner bailey secured and double the guard,” he said evenly. “I will post as many men-at-arms at the entrance as we can spare, while the work proceeds through the night.”
“Archers?” she inquired.
He crossed his arms. “They shall be tripled.”
Satisfied, she nodded. “Very well. Then I shall leave you to your duties.”
Sully could see how exhausted she was from the way she carried herself. He reached out and put a gentle hand on her arm. “You are weary, my lady,” he said gently. “Why do you not retire to your chamber?”
Josephine shook her head emphatically and almost lost her balance. Her beautiful hair was secured in a knot behind her head, and tendrils came loose and tumbled free to her mid-back. Irritated, she pulled out the remaining pins that stuck in the tangle. Sully watched her; God’s Bones, how he longed to run his hands through that hair!
“I cannot, Sully, you know that,” she said insistently. “I must make sure that every man is tended for the night. Then, perhaps, I will retire while Justine and Dewey keep vigilant watch.”
Justine. Sully’s ears twitched at the sound of her name. Ever careful, so as not to offend his mistress, he chose his words.
“My lady,” he said evenly. “I am well-aware of Justine’s… uh… powers but, mayhap, she should retire when you do. The men should sleep and not be distracted by Justine’s… skills.”
Josephine’s eyes flashed for a split second, and Sully feared he had upset her. But he soon discovered her anger was not directed at him.
“Justine’s only skill is annoyance,” she said. “But she is learning much from Dewey, and I wish for her to continue learning. And as for her powers… ha!”
Sully choked off a laugh at her last word and the expression accompanying it. Then they both glanced over at Justine, who was in the middle of the room sitting on the rushes between two wounded men. What she was telling them had their undivided attentions, as they watched her with intent awe.
“… and distilled rose potion will attract the woman you long for,” Justine was saying with great exaggeration.
“Aye? Is that so?” one of the soldiers said.
“Absolutely,” Justine said emphatically. “And then, root of mandrake will increase your virility once you have her. It never fails!”
Josephine shook her head at the topic of conversation. Justine, at seventeen years of age, fancied herself a physic as well as a mystic. She lacked any sort of modesty when it came to her knowledge of herbs and potions, as she was displaying with her open discussion of love potions and male virility. Her honesty and forthrightness were redeeming qualities in a girl who could quite easily be perceived as a lunatic.
But she had little tolerance for her sister. Josephine rolled her eyes in exasperation as she turned back to Sully.
“God’s Bones,” she muttered. “The woman has no shame. Fear not, Sully. She will retire when I do. Mayhap even before.”
Sully bowed graciously, but a grin was playing on his lips. “As you wish.”
As the weary captain of Torridon’s forces walked away, Josephine gave her sister a second glance. Justine’s hair was a rich brown color and her face was pleasingly oval. Her eyes were unspectacular in a shade of blue and her lips were sweetly curved. She was, at best, almost pretty. But she was skittish, selfish, and could be exceedingly odd. Yet, she made a superior chatelaine, in that she was a consummate perfectionist, and demanded the same from the servants. The servants, in turn, feared her because she was a self-proclaimed white witch. None wanted to find out on their own if she truly possessed the power.
But Josephine avoided her sister, at least at the moment. She hadn’t the strength to deal with her. With a weary sigh, she made her way over to Dewey to ask him the general condition of her men. It seemed she was always asking that question, always asking after the condition of men who were tested time and time again. She’d lost so many, but she hadn’t lost count. She still remembered their names and their faces. Knowing the cause of their death was something of such great waste, it made those deaths more difficult to bear.
But bear it, she did.
The long day was about to turn into a long night.