Geordie Strafford was going to die.
He tucked his legs against his chest in the dank, cold cell under Werrick Castle and clamped his teeth to keep them from chattering. All of him was shaking. He’d like to tell himself it was due to the chill in the air, but he knew better.
It was fear.
The thought of such a cowardly emotion stung at his eyes. He would not cry. He would face his death like a man. After all, age seven is when boys passed into manhood. If a thief could lose a hand then, he could lose his life.
Footsteps shuffled in the hall outside his cell. They were coming for him. He squeezed his slender arms about his tucked legs until the strength threatened to give way.
A key rattled in the lock, clicked, and the door flew open. Geordie leapt to his feet and braced his legs wide to meet the man who would kill him.
The Earl of Werrick, Warden of the English East March strode in, looking every bit the way Geordie imagined a warden would: lean body held straight as an arrow, a face seemingly carved with a steady hand from wood, golden hair made glossy by a servant’s ministrations, and ice blue eyes with no feeling.
Geordie’s heart tried to scramble from his chest.
“Your father lied to me,” Lord Werrick said in an even tone.
Geordie said nothing. He had expected as much might happen when he was put to Lord Werrick’s household as collateral. He had expected as much, but he had hoped for more.
Even at such a young age, Geordie knew his brother’s birth made his own life expendable. A man had need for only one son, and Geordie had been an easy offering to clear his father from the trouble with Werrick.
Now it was Geordie who would pay the price of his father’s perfidy.
“Papa,” a little singsong voice echoed in the dank air.
Lord Werrick turned abruptly, too late to stop a small girl from entering the room. She had the same golden hair as her father, but her wide blue eyes were as warm as her father’s were cold. She regarded Geordie and blinked.
“Why do you have a little boy in your dungeon?” she asked.
A little boy? Geordie bristled. He was a man.
Lord Werrick put a hand to his daughter’s shoulder in an attempt to keep her from getting closer to Geordie. “His father sent him to me with a promise he did not keep.”
The girl’s stare remained fixed on Geordie. “You aren’t going to hurt him, are you?”
Geordie could scarcely breathe for fear of missing the answer. Would the earl hurt him? Kill him, as anticipated.
A muscle worked in the man’s jaw. “I don’t know what to do with him.”
The little girl’s eyes went wide. “You can’t hurt him father. He’s a little boy as much as I am a little girl. If I went to someone else’s household, would you expected I would be harmed?”
“Of course not,” the earl said. “But this boy’s father…” He glanced at Geordie and trailed off.
The words didn’t need to be said when they were so apparent. Geordie’s father did not love him as the earl clearly loved his daughter.
“I think we should let him go.” She stepped toward the bars of Geordie’s cell and carried with her the clean scent of sunshine and flowers.
He tried to tamp down the hope flaring inside him lest his composure break if her efforts were unsuccessful.
“Catriona, that is close enough.” The earl’s tone was hard, but still tender. “Someday he will be a man, one fixed on revenge.”
Geordie clenched his fists. Squeezing, squeezing, squeezing the hope away.
“But he is a boy now, paying the price of a man for a crime he did not commit. That’s not fair.” She tilted her head, considering Geordie.
He liked the thoughtful expression on her face, the way her lips turned up gently at the corners as though perpetually ready to break out in a smile.
He liked her name too. Melodic and feminine.
“We should keep him here, to live with us.” She turned back toward her father and Geordie could no longer see her face. “You said the other day you needed a squire. Could he not take that place?”
“He is born of a man who is my enemy and a liar. What would recommend him as a squire?”
Geordie could not believe Catriona’s father was even entertaining her questioning. His own father would have knocked him aside at the first objection. And yet the earl was truly listening to what his daughter had to say, with genuine interest.
“He is brave.” Catriona turned back toward Geordie. She had very long lashes and they swept up and down as she took him in. “I do not think I could be so brave as him if that was me, Papa.”
“If I let him go,” the earl said slowly. “He will be your responsibility. Can you handle that?”
Catriona’s face set in a determined expression with thinned lips and an uplifted chin. “Aye, Papa. I will not let you down.”
Geordie’s chest rose and fell with a frantic breathing he could not control. The earl’s gaze met Geordie’s, once more cold. “If you harm my daughter in any way, I will make an example out of you, Boy. Do you understand?”
Geordie looked at Catriona. “I would never hurt her,” he whispered earnestly. For how could anyone ever consider hurting something so beautiful?
“If you prove yourself worthy, I’ll consider you for my squire.” The earl waved a hand for Geordie to follow.
“Thank you, Lord Werrick.” Georgie strode forward on legs that threatened to buckle. “I’ll not let you down.”
“I was just picking flowers near the courtyard. Would you like to join me?” Catriona put her hand in his and tugged him toward the stairs.
Geordie’s mind still reeled with what had just happened, at how swiftly events had changed. Catriona’s hand was warm against his palm, and soft. She pulled him outside, to the heat of golden sunshine, to soul-quenching freedom.
The world around him was beautiful. She was beautiful. Geordie would never forget the day his enemy had given him more consideration than his own father had, and young Catriona who had saved his life.