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We are so, so close to the release of MARIN’S PROMISE, book 1 in the Borderland Ladies. Can’t wait? You can read the first chapter here, right now.

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Chapter 1

 

July 1333

Brackenhill, England

 

Lady Marin Barrington was used to attacks from the reivers. As the eldest daughter to the third Earl of Werrick, the English West March Warden, she was even used to acting as his unofficial constable in his absence.

Threat of an impending battle in Berwick had resulted in the earl bringing a majority of his forces with him to go to King Edward’s side. The remaining soldiers looked to her for guidance, to ensure the people within the castle remained properly defended and safe.

The castle had not been breached, not in the last eleven years when the last raid forced them to erect fortified curtain walls so great no marauders could get penetrate them to reach the castle within. Not until this moment.

Marin kept her arrow nocked and pointed toward the dark-haired man below. The blonde girl in his arms did not move. It was that last fact which made Marin’s heart chill.

“Open yer gates,” he shouted.

The army around him was larger than the one remaining to defend the castle. Well over one hundred men. If the gates were opened, her forces would be easily overwhelmed.

“Open yer gates, or I will kill yer sister.” The man leapt from his stocky reiver’s horse and dragged Catriona with him, her hair streaming in the summer wind like a banner of gold.

As soon as his feet hit the ground, Catriona jumped to life, launching her elbow at his face. He jerked hard to the side from the impact but kept his hold on her.

Marin lowered her bow and edged to the castle wall.

“Don’t give in to him, Marin—” Cat opened her mouth to say more, but the reiver snagged her around the waist and pulled her toward him. A knife flashed at his side and pressed to her neck.

He sniffed hard, the way one often did when a blow to their face resulted in a bloody nose. “Open the gate or I will kill her.”

Marin’s heart plunged into her stomach.

It was in moments like this that she wished Father was not in Berwick. As Warden to the West March on the English side, he would typically have been home. Yet as one of the king’s wealthiest earls, he was with their king. When she needed him most.

She was glad Geordie was with him. It would cut the lad to the quick to see Cat in such a predicament.

Sunlight glared down on her and did nothing to quell the bite in the air while she wrestled with her decision, with the life of her sister as well as the lives of all her people.

“Marin, please.” Marin did not have to turn to see her sister’s face. She could read the horror and fear in Anice’s voice.

“If we let them in, every man, woman and child will be at their mercy,” Marin said numbly.

Anice and Cat were the only sisters Marin had permitted thus far on the battlements. Now though, Marin regretted having Anice to join her. And she especially regretted allowing Cat to go out and pick flowers that afternoon.

Cat, who always saw the best in people, who always knew how to lighten any dark situation, whose bright smile was for everyone no matter how awful a person might be. A girl of only sixteen whose life had not yet had a chance to blossom. If it were Marin below instead, Cat would have nocked an arrow and killed the reiver in one shot.

Marin did not possess such a skill. But she would cut out her own heart if it would save her sister.

Only it was not her heart the reiver wanted.

“My lady?” Sir Richard regarded her. As the knight with the most experience and Werrick’s Captain of the Guard, she often looked to him for advice. His kind brown eyes were bright with concern.

Marin shook her head, unsure what to do, unsure what to say. Her soul was on fire with indecision. How could she choose between sacrificing her people, or seeing her sister murdered?

“We can fight,” he said levelly.

“Aye,” Anice agreed quickly. “Let us fight. I’ll get our swords. We can tell Ella to get her axe, and Leila to get her daggers. Please, Marin.”

The reiver jerked Cat harder against him and pushed the blade closer. Cat did not make a sound, but Marin cried out as if she had been struck.

God help her and her people, for she was not strong enough to endure this.

“There are too many of them to fight,” she said weakly. “Let us keep this as peaceful as possible. Open the gates.”

“Open the gates,” Sir Richard bellowed with such readiness, Marin knew he had been hoping to hear those very words.

She didn’t wait to see the reivers amass below on their anxious mounts. Nay, she ran down the stone stairs to the gatehouse with Anice close at her heels. If they came in with weapons raised, she could at least head them off, give the women and children an opportunity to flee.

“My lady, please.” Sir Richard followed Marin down the stairs. “I do not trust them.”

“This was my choice,” she replied, her decision made. “I will be the first to face the consequences. Take Anice back into the castle.”

“My lady, your mother—” he broke off before digging deeper into a wound that had not healed in any of them these past eleven years.

Anice’s mouth opened as if to protest.

“I am not my mother,” Marin replied. “Take Anice into the castle.” She lifted her head and turned from him. Her steps were confident as she strode to the gatehouse. No doubt the reivers could smell fear. She would not give them the satisfaction.

The heavy metal portcullis gave great groaning squeals and protests as it rose and revealed to her the force of an army. Still it was not enough to cover Anice’s pleas to remain.

But Marin was not focusing on Anice. Not when Cat was locked against the man with a blade set to her neck, defeated, her face ruddy from silent tears. “Marin, please don’t do this,” she said miserably.

But it was already done.

“Ye dinna have enough men to fight us, so dinna bother trying.” The reiver removed the blade from Cat’s throat and shoved her forward on stumbling legs. Marin caught her second youngest sister before the girl could fall. Cat clung to her, her slender body trembling.

“Do you mean to attack us?” Marin pushed Cat behind her and regarded the reiver who had craftily forced his way past their fortifications.

He was tall with deep set eyes of the most intense, dark brown she’d ever seen. His black hair fell in messy waves to his shoulders from beneath his steel helm and an unruly beard covered his entire jaw. A trail of blood showed beneath his sharp nose from where Cat had struck him.

“Who are ye?” He sniffed hard again and wiped at the injury. Marin’s lip curled in disgust. The man was a beast. And so was the younger man, barely more than a lad, standing stoically next to him.

“I am Lady Marin, eldest daughter of the Earl of Werrick.” Marin spoke with strength and authority. This man would not intimidate her. “We are mostly women and children here. We do not want to fight.”

“Ye mean ye dinna want to die.” The dark eyes scanned up her body and came to rest on her face, assessing.

She wasn’t wearing her chainmail and hated her own vulnerability. Her simple blue kirtle was of fine Italian brocade with bits of silver thread embroidered at the ends of her sleeves. It was a poor substitute for chainmail and a solid sword in her palm. She straightened as tall as she could and stared directly back at him.

She could assess as well, and he had been found wanting.

“Are ye the mistress of the castle?” he asked.

“Aye,” Marin replied.

“Cede the castle to me, or we attack.” He folded his arms over his chest while the whole of his army pressed at his back.

Cede the castle? Marin nearly blanched. And yet…there were too many of them. Even if she gave the order for the portcullis to be closed, it wouldn’t be done in time to block out the storming reivers. Her own men would be not strong enough to defend Werrick Castle. It could not be like last time the castle had been taken, not like with the Grahams.

“Nay, Marin,” Cat whimpered behind her. “Please.”

Marin gritted her teeth. Better to give her castle without a fight than allow all of them to be killed. She squared her shoulders with determination. “I will cede my castle only on the condition that my people remain unharmed.”

The reiver lifted his brows. “Ye’re negotiating with me?”

“Aye.” Marin was in no position to do so, and they both knew it, but she refused to back down. “If you do not agree, we will be forced to attack.”

He smirked. “Ye would lose.”

“And many of your men would die.” Marin crossed her arms over her chest as well, mirroring his easy confidence.

He gave a mirthless chuckle. “Verra well, my lady.” He bowed mockingly. “Cede yer castle and I give ye my word yer people willna be hurt.”

The word of a reiver held as much honesty as a basket held water, but she had no choice.

“Then I cede Werrick Castle to you.” She infused her capitulation with all the force of her bitterness.

The cur grinned at her, a flash of brilliant white teeth beneath his dark beard.

Cat sobbed, a gut-wrenching cry.

Marin spun about to her younger sister. “Are you injured?”

“You should have let them kill me,” Cat cried.

Was there blood? An injury Marin could not see?

She cupped her hands around her sister’s face, turning her this way and that. Aside from wide eyed terror and the moisture of shed tears, Cat appeared otherwise unharmed. Even the blade to her slender throat had not left so much as a mark. Thanks be to God for such a gift.

“I could never let anyone kill you, Catriona. I love you too much.” Marin’s voice caught.

Our of the corner of her eye, he dark-haired reiver’s approach.

She released Cat and shifted to put herself between Cat and the fiend. In no way would Marin allow her sister to become this man’s victim once more.

“I’ll have supper for my men.” He gestured behind him. “And lodging for our horses.”

“You wish me to treat you as though you are guests?” she asked incredulously. It was nearly an hour until supper. How could there possibly be time to accommodate so many men?

“This is my castle.” He cocked his head arrogantly. “And yer people are unharmed.”

Marin balled her hand into a fist within her skirt. “I will see to it.” She drew a deep breath to still her frantic pulse. “I wish to speak with you alone later, as well.”

The reiver’s gaze dipped to her body. “Aye?”

Her cheeks flared with heat. “To discuss your intentions.”

He made an agreeable humming sound and strode forward, toward the keep. A black cat trotted from the stables and wound his way around the man’s feet. Fitting. Bixby always did have an affinity for rats.

Marin did not wish the little feline to be kicked by a man so brutal, and quickly stepped forward to shoo Bixby away. Before she could reach him, the reiver lifted the animal into his arms and scratched at the place Bixby liked best, right between his ears.

Very well. She would leave the rat-lover to the rat.

Marin put an arm around her sister’s shoulders to gently indicate they should follow. A splash of red on the skirt of Cat’s pink cotehardie caught Marin’s eye.

“Is that blood?” Marin pulled at Cat’s gown, fanning it out to reveal the spot. “Are you hurt?”

The reiver stopped and looked back at them.

“It’s Eversham’s blood.” Cat’s lower lip trembled, but she bit it and held back the tears swimming in her large blue eyes. “He came out with me to ensure I stayed safe.” She stared down at the blood on her skirt. “He’s…he’s…” She sucked in a hard breath and her body began to shake.

Marin brushed Cat’s hair from her pretty face. As often as she’d wished Cat’s incessant chatter would cease, she realized now that was far preferable to seeing her younger sister rendered mute by fear and sorrow.

“Marin, it was my fault,” Cat whimpered.

“Aye, it was,” the reiver said.

Marin shot him a dark look. “Don’t listen to him.”

“Nay, it was my fault.” Cat shook her head miserably. “It was so lovely outside and I wanted to see if there were more of those yellow flowers Ella loves on the other side of the hill.” Cat turned her luminous gaze on Marin. “You said it was fine so long as I brought a soldier.”

“Then it was yer fault.” The reiver looked to Marin. “Marin.” He said her name as though he were testing it out, and Marin didn’t like it anymore than she liked the implication of wrong doing on her part.

Lady Marin.” In truth, she did not remember allowing Catriona to go outside. She recalled dealing with the ledger of the accounts she’d gone over with the steward; then there had been the inventory of the larder.

Ah, yes. There it was in her memory–Catriona spinning about the room with a little song and asking if she might pick flowers for Ella. Marin had half-heard the silly request and flippantly agreed so long as she took a soldier to attend her.

In truth, she merely wanted Cat out of the room so she might finish the growing pile of work in peace, before one of their other three sisters came to ask for something.

And now Eversham was dead and their impenetrable home breached.

The reiver continued toward the castle, nonplussed, with Bixby contentedly curled in his arms.

Marin gently rubbed Catriona’s slender back. “There now, you needn’t blame yourself. It is not your fault.”

And it wasn’t at all her fault. Nay, the danger hovering over them all, threatening violence and fear and death–it was entirely Marin’s fault.

#

Bran Davidson strode into the keep like he owned it. And he did, at least for now. He lowered the black cat to the ground where it continued to follow him, trotting at his feet.

“Drake, see to the men,” he said to his most trusted reiver at his right. The young man had joined Bran three years back when he was barely a lad and had been invaluable ever since. He never questioned his tasks and was always willing to do anything to earn his keep, as he had a mother and several sisters back home that he supported.

For the first time since Bran had known Drake, the young man paused. He regarded the figures of the sisters behind them, the older one with her arm around the younger, and a muscle clenched in his jaw. Drake didn’t like this any more than Bran did. But he knew what he’d agreed to. The same as Bran. And he too knew what was at stake.

Finally, Drake gave an obliging nod and disappeared to follow orders.

Bran gave his own final glance back at the ladies. Catriona who had bowed into her sister’s embrace, and the bonny Marin. And damn, but she was so bonny. Only a blind man would not have noticed her angelic beauty with her pale blonde hair and wide blue eyes. Even with the barely suppressed rage she afforded him, she was lovely.

Guilt stabbed at him for having used the younger girl to gain entrance into the castle. But with the walls so damn high and well built, it had been his only option. He’d taken considerable care to ensure the girl wasn’t hurt.

In truth, he wouldn’t have killed her, but Marin need not know. God, how he hated this whole damn thing. Kerr had better uphold his end of the bargain after this was done. One never knew with that crooked warden.

Bran entered the keep and stopped short. He’d heard rumors of Werrick’s wealth from the Grahams, but he hadn’t believed it. After all, who could really afford tapestries sewn in silk to cover the walls, and thick carpet lining the cold stone floors, as well as so much furniture? Even the hallways were furnished and decorated.

Apparently Werrick could. No doubt money scraped from those who barely had enough to give, extorted from those who were too poor to be anything but vulnerable.

The scent of savory meat and herbs hung in the air. Bran’s mouth watered with hunger. How long since he’d last eaten a solid meal? Aye, a bit of cheese and bread here and there as he could afford, but a real meal–hot and running with juices that hadn’t congealed or gone rancid?

Too bloody long.

Maybe this task wouldn’t be as bad as he’d thought. After all, he’d been able to take the keep with only having caused one death.

Only a few days observation of the castle had revealed no additional troops were returning to guard the high walls. It was left as theirs for the taking. No doubt Kerr had suspected as much when he’d sent Bran.

A peasant woman leapt in surprise at his presence, and ran, slamming a door behind her. Another stab of guilt thrust into him. The people within the keep would be scared for only a short while, until they knew Bran meant no harm. At least until Kerr and his men arrived.

Bran made his way deeper into the castle, each hall and room seeming more opulent and ostentatious than the last. A waste, the lot of it. The coin used could have fed an army for a lifetime. With some to spare.

For the whole of his life, he had survived. Not lived, survived. Every damn day brought a new struggle to find food or shelter or both. It ground away at him until he could scarcely take another day of hunger or danger. Suddenly taking the castle held a note of vindication.

He climbed the stairs to the second floor and wandered into a room luxuriously decorated with tapestries of unicorns and lions. The rich furniture was polished to a high shine and shelves filled with books. Paintings of animals and flowers and whorls covered the great wooden beams along the ceiling in a colorful array of blue and red and green and yellow.

Sunlight poured in from a leaded window, each pane of glass carefully constructed in a circle, like the bottom of a bottle, and cast in iron. The light cast pure warmth against his hand where it touched him. He’d seen glass in a chapel once, several years back, but he had never seen it up close. He hadn’t realized castles now had glass windows.

He stepped closer and was startled to discover a woman sitting on the cushioned bench under the glass window. She’d been so still, and he’d been so awed by the room, he hadn’t noticed.

Her legs were curled toward her with a book resting on her knees. She had her fingers daintily propped on either side of the leather-bound cover and her blonde head leaned over the pages.

The mother? Another sister?

He cleared his throat. She held up a finger and did not bother to raise her head.

“A moment,” she murmured.

He waited. She turned the page and sighed to herself, a whimsical little hum of a sound. She slid a ribbon to the center of the book before closing it and lifted her brows with mild impatience. “Aye?”

She was young, but not as young as the girl he’d held hostage only moments ago. Another sister, then.

“I’m in charge of this castle now.” He stood with his feet planted wide.

She tilted her head pensively. “I heard no battle.”

“There was no battle.”

“Then you must be quite clever or quite bold.” Her eyes narrowed slightly in obvious assessment. “I think bold.”

The saucy chit. He opened his mouth to protest but was interrupted before he had the chance.

“You should come to supper.”

Bran turned toward the feminine voice and found yet another golden-haired sister. She was older than the one he currently spoke to, a woman more his age, and stunningly beautiful. Her hair was lighter and hung in glossy waves, her eyes larger, her lips fuller, her curves more apparent.

She waved him toward her, the movement graceful and beguiling. There was not the steely exterior about her that Marin had possessed. This one might be a good lass for bed sport, if she was willing. It’d been longer than he liked since he’d had a woman in his bedroll.

He drew off his helm and grinned at her. He knew his smile to be one of his finer attributes, not just for enlisting new reivers to his side, but also winning over ladies. His teeth were white and strong, and he still had them all.

The new sister did not return his gesture. “You threatened to kill Catriona.” A hardness touched her almond-shaped eyes and she appeared more likely to run him through with a sword than allow him in her bed. A massive dog came from behind her, a beast so tall, its haunches came higher than her waist. It regarded him with glittering black eyes from a face of drooping brown fur.

“He did what?” The other sister exclaimed from behind him.

“I dinna hurt her.” He held up his hands. If he wanted her in his bed that night and didn’t want to end up that beast of a dog’s supper, he’d need to approach the topic with diplomacy.

In truth, if Lady Marin hadn’t opened the portcullis when she did, the situation would have been a difficult one to navigate. He didn’t hurt women or children. Ever.

His men had all been warned off ever hurting them as well, upon punishment of death. And it was one he would readily mete out. He didn’t care if he took the life of a man, especially one who preyed upon the weak.

“You could have hurt her,” the younger sister said. She moved to his side. The curious interest in her eyes had frosted over with icy disdain.

“Come now if you want food, or don’t and starve.” The older one departed with her dog, leaving only her swirling hem trailing behind her.

Bran strode quickly to follow and found the younger sister at his side. “What are you called?” he asked.

“A scholar.” She lifted her chin. “And you?”

“A reiver.” If she wouldn’t answer him with naught but a quip, he could do likewise.

Ahead of him, the older sister and her giant beast led at a ridiculous pace, her leather shoes far quieter than the wooden patens of his. She did not slow, not until they reached the great hall where his men had settled in. Conversations buzzed around him, heavy with the baritone of his reivers. The inhabitants of the castle were easily detected by their soundlessness. As if those who had dared to attend supper might remain safe by remaining quiet.

The ceiling of the great hall had similar paintings across the great wooden beams stretching out overhead. Unicorns and lions and flowers and graceful arcing whorls throughout. Had the sisters done them, or had they come at an exorbitant price as with everything in the castle?

Servants laid out trenchers filled with steaming food on the tables. So much food. Root vegetables roasted and steaming, thick slabs of meat drenched in gravy, and loaves of crusty bread as big as his forearm.

Never had he seen so much food in one place.

The younger sister disappeared from his side and the dog trotted off toward a servant who waved the beast over. The one who had led him there swept past him, intending to leave as well. He caught her hand. It was soft, her fingers slender and dainty.

She stopped and her lashes lowered as she regarded their joined hands. Her palm was warm, and she had a delicate floral scent about her. It was pleasant and he liked the thought of smelling her on his skin the next morning.

“What is yer name?” He brushed her wrist with his thumb, a suggestive caress to imply so, so much more, and released his hold on her.

Her eyes narrowed in a way that said Bran wouldn’t get her name, let alone her favors.

Rejection.

He’d expected nothing less. The wealthy always thought themselves so above everyone else.

“May I show you to your table?” Marin stepped from the doorway and wedged herself in front of her sister.

By comparison between the women, Marin held an authoritative demeanor and unquestioned confidence. A challenge. He decided then and there liked her the best. Bran nodded for her to lead him to the table, and she did, skirting the edge of the great hall to the front. To the dais.

He wouldn’t sit at the head of the great hall, like some overprivileged noble. “Nay. This is fine here.” He indicated the bench as she turned to face him.

There was a strength about her, a fortitude which drew him. Everything about her indicated she would be supple and sweet, and yet her influence, her tone, all suggested she was nothing fragile.

“Will ye join me?” he asked.

Marin’s lips curled into a slow smile of obvious interest. “I was hoping we might dine together.”

She stood nearly a head taller than any of her sisters, her stance proud. Candlelight sparkled off her glossy hair and something enticing glittered in her blue eyes.

His gaze slipped to her full, kissable lips. No doubt they’d be supple beneath his mouth, sweet.

“I know what men like you want.” Her own stare dipped in assessment of his body.

He was sure of what she thought she knew. Mayhap of what she’d even seen living on the border. He frowned. “I dinna take women by force.”

She stepped closer, bringing with her the clean scent of lavender. “What if she comes to you by choice?”

Her face was flawless, lovely, most likely soaked each night in milk that could feed families instead. He should hate her for it, and yet he found all he wanted to do was stroke her to see if she would be as smooth as she looked, caressing such creamy skin, having her flush with passion…

“Depends.” He cocked his head to the side. “Is that woman ye?”

Marin’s tongue darted between her pink lips, leaving them glistening. “Aye.”

“I was hoping ye’d say that.” He winked and her cheeks went pink. Aye, he would have the bonny lass tonight, after a meal fit for a king, in a castle he’d taken with only one death.

This was the best damn day of his life.

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