Black Falcon's Lady (Celtic Rogues Book 1)

BOOK: Black Falcon's Lady (Celtic Rogues Book 1)
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BLACK FALCON’S LADY
Kimberly Cates
Kimberly Cates Books
BOOK DESCRIPTION: BLACK FALCON’S LADY

B
LACK FALCON’S LADY
: (1718)
Shy English heiress, Maryssa Wylder, is exiled to the wilds of Donegal when she defies her heartless father. In a land where supposed “‘savages”’ are eager to slit any English throat, she encounters The Black Falcon, an Irish highwayman who curses everyone with the name of Wylder— and holds the key to her heart. Tade Kilcannon is the closest thing the embattled Irish have to a prince. Heir to a proud Irish Catholic family dispossessed by the English, he rides as the Black Falcon, bedeviling the English and protecting the Irish. To love Maryssa is to betray all he believes, yet even an outlaw must follow his heart.

B
e swept
to the wilds of Ireland with Kimberly Cates’ unforgettable CELTIC ROGUES series!

B
LACK FALCON’S LADY
(formerly NIGHTWYLDE under the pseudonym Kimberleigh Caitlin)

HER MAGIC TOUCH
(formerly MAGIC)

BRIAR ROSE

STEALING HEAVEN

LILY FAIR

Chapter 1
Ireland 1718

T
he Donegal hills
lay dark secrets, the mists drifting toward the full moon whispering of rebellion, torment, and wars centuries old. The screams of the innocents felled by Cromwell's fiery sword seventy years before echoed upon the wind with the long-stilled clash of Irish blades crushed under the heel of Protestant William of Orange forty years after. The same winds carried with them the keening of a nation whose faith even now lay bleeding beneath laws designed to cut from Ireland's heart the Catholic religion, which the beleaguered isle had cherished over a thousand years.

Yet despite the agonies of souls long dead, despite the shattered lives of those who still struggled to wrest a livelihood from beneath the British stranglehold, the spirits of the mountains seemed to accept nothing but courage. The very peaks demanded that all who dwelt on the stark lands defy their conquerers until even the night sounds held menace. The sky itself seemed an embattled warrior, poised to drive its death-blow between its enemy's ribs.

But to Maryssa Wylder, huddled on the seat of the coach winding along the treacherous Donegal road, it was as though an Irish blade pressed against her own slender throat, cutting with another blade, far more terrifying to the young Englishwoman than the mountains that crowded in all around her. For in an hour's time she would be at the mercy of her father.

Her fingers dug into the squabs of the jouncing coach seat as the equipage lurched over another rut, the jarring spilling a wealth of mahogany curls over delicate features and eyes a blend of blue, green, and gold. Dashing the tumbled tresses away from her pale cheeks, she fought the urge to stuff her peacock-feather muff into her maid's prattling mouth. For five months she had been subjected to the woman's viperish tongue as though Maryssa were the servant and Celeste Ladonne a chatelaine. And for Maryssa the past weeks, closed in a ship's belly or in the dim interior of a coach with the woman, had proved a torture worthy of Spain's Inquisition.

"A devil's moon," Celeste whispered, her stubby fingers fluttering toward the Irish night sky, "a moon for raiding, plotting, brigands at prey. Rogues who would cut out your heart and serve it at feasting."

Maryssa bit her lip, closing her eyes against Celeste's bloodthirsty eagerness as the woman recounted yet another eerie tale of this strange, hostile land. Stories of mysteries, murders and spirits long dead who stalked the wild Donegal hills. Stories Maryssa wanted to block from her mind, holding her hands over her ears as she had as a child to shield herself when she could no longer bear her father's tirades.

Father... Maryssa shivered, the maid's chatter fading into the same vague background as the clack of the horses' hooves in the wake of real terror far greater than any witch's tale. What would Bainbridge Wylder say when he learned that she had been shunted back to him in disgrace, the cause of a scandal the whole of London was buzzing about? What would he do to her when he read the indignant letter Lady Dallywoulde had stuffed inside her trunk before packing her onto the first ship bound for Ireland?

Nay, Maryssa thought numbly, she'd had no choice but to act the way she had. No choice... Her fists clenched. She struggled to banish the dread that washed over her, fought to cling to her certainty that she had done the right thing.

Even before Maryssa had spoken, there in the crowded assembly room, she had known what the result of her folly would be—known that Sir Ascot Dallywoulde's wrath and the scorn of all of their horrified peers would crash down upon her. But to save her soul, she could not have held her tongue that night with the loathsome knight or his despicable, comrade, Lord Newley.

Maryssa's fingers crushed the edge of her muff as scenes from the party seemed to snag on the windswept branches of the scraggly trees whisking by. Images of richly embroidered cloth from India and bewigged dancers swirled across the floor of a chandelier-lit ballroom. Despite the enveloping darkness of the coach and the sick dread that lay like cold clay in the pit of her stomach, Maryssa's teeth clenched even now as Dallywoulde and Newley's sneering words raked across her memory. For an hour the two had pontificated on the necessity of crushing evil—evil, Maryssa thought with a chill— in the form of a honey-curled girl child with huge, frightened eyes.

It was too easy a death for the devil’s mistress, Ascot's harsh voice had grated. The ballroom had seemed to tilt beneath Maryssa's feet, the heat from the chandeliers shifting into rapacious flames consuming a wooden stake, the orange blaze devouring the screaming child bound in its agonizing embrace.

Maryssa had battled to block out the sound of Ascot's preaching. But his voice had hammered within her brain until she could bear it no longer; some unseen thread of caution inside her had snapped. Acting before consequences could fully register in her mind, she had hastened up to the two men and the crowd of adoring fops gathered about them, and she had labeled both Dallywoulde and Newley that which they were—monsters, with souls hideous as Lucifer's own.

A grim smile caught the corner of Maryssa's mouth, pleasure cutting through her fear as she remembered the shock on the two men's faces and the horrified expressions of those around them. Yet that horror had not been directed at the two noblemen gloating over an innocent child's death, but rather toward Maryssa—a woman who had dared to interfere in the affairs of men, a woman who had dared to defy one of the most honored holy men in all England.

The coach slammed over a deep rut and Maryssa's shoulder crashed into the inner wall, but she scarcely felt the bruising of her tender flesh. Holy? No, Sir Ascot had more the air of the dark angel, his eyes chill with a fanaticism that struck terror through Maryssa. He was a man who would crush anyone who dared oppose him and then take an unholy glee in watching their sufferings. And for the woman who had publicly humiliated him... for her there would be no mercy.

She shuddered at the memory of features contorted in fury, the cruel mouth a slash of hatred as his cold eyes pierced her with the promise of revenge. Icy fear trickled down Maryssa's spine, mingling with a primitive instinct to flee. A desperate need and a hopeless one, for no matter how far she might attempt to run, she knew she would never escape either her father's fury or Sir Ascot's.

She possessed no skills, no money, and, Maryssa thought with a twinge of self-loathing, no courage. By the time spring burst into bloom at Carradown, Sir Ascot would have the power to exact from her whatever retribution he chose. For then he would be her husband.

Until that time she would face a prospect almost as terrifying—exile in this savage land, where she would be a prisoner until Sir Ascot chained her to him as wife.

She let her fearful gaze rove over the moonlit landscape, the night painting eerie shadows across the wilds. The very thought of Ireland, perilous and untamed, had always made Maryssa's palms grow damp with sweat. The months her father spent attending to the estate in the wilds of Donegal were the only times Maryssa had been grateful, even glad, that Bainbridge Wylder had held her all but a prisoner on the grounds of Carradown, the land he held in England. Never once in all her nineteen years had she seen the castle at Nightwylde or the hills around it, which had been ground beneath the conquerer's heel. But with each lurch of the wheels along the Irish roads, she drew nearer to stone turrets she had heard were mortared with Irishmen's blood. Blood that could well be mingled with her own before the sun rose.

Her spine stiffened with the memory of a score of cruel lashes dealt by her father's hand whenever she had displeased him. He had accorded the switch he used more care than he had ever given Maryssa, soaking the supple length of hickory in vinegar so that the lashes burned like raw fire while failing to leave any lasting marks. She shut her eyes, trying to blot out the memory of that switch searing her bare legs.

He had not beaten her for years now, preferring to practice more subtle forms of torment instead. Yet she had never done anything more certain to draw his fury down upon her. She had not only defied the man he had chosen to be her husband, but she had endangered the alliance of Dallywoulde's assets and Bainbridge Wylder's vast wealth.

"Father, I had to say something," Maryssa whispered, pretending to stare out the coach window as misery washed over her. "The child . . . the child died. And they were laughing. I didn't mean to anger you."

Didn't mean to? A sick laugh rose in Maryssa's throat. When had that ever mattered to Bainbridge Wylder? Even her appearance had never satisfied him, and he had railed at her, as if the very force of his displeasure could change the hue of her curls from mahogany to gold and make her odd eyes remain an insipid blue. As a girl she had spent hours before the silvered glass in her bedchamber, searching her features to discover the inherent flaw her father found so repulsive.

But she had only seen a silky mass of sable curls, thick, sooty lashes fringing wide, anxious eyes, their changeable depths sprinkled with flecks of sea blue, green, and gold. Her nose was small, her cheeks pale in a face that seemed to whisper of fairy wraiths—delicate, fragile—while her lips were the soft pink of the roses in the gardens of Carradown.

The year she'd turned seven, she had crept down to where Lucy, the stout kitchen wench, had been dying the season's wool in huge iron kettles. When the old woman had been called away, Maryssa had dragged a chair up to the fireplace and tried to dip her hair into the bubbling dye. Even now, at nineteen, the memory of her father's fury when he saw her ruined curls made Maryssa wince. And the tiny crescent scar the kettle rim had burned in one hand was a tangible reminder of a wound that had seared far deeper.

"—tails, Miss Maryssa. Miss Wylder." Celeste's affronted voice cut through Maryssa's reverie, and she turned her guilty gaze to the woman who stared at her in disdain.

"Tails . . . Uh . . ." Maryssa flushed. Struggling to pick up the threads of conversation that had slipped through her consciousness, she grasped at the Frenchwoman's interest in the latest coiffures. "I'm sure they're lovely with ribbons on them."

"Ribbons?" Celeste yelped.

"Or . . . or flowers. I'm certain—"

Celeste's lead-painted cheeks puffed out, her thin lips pursing in outrage. "You think it jest, these heathens and their devil tails? The Marquess of Bitner's grandfather fought under Cromwell, and he assured me every one of the rebels he dragged from the ruins of Drogheda had a tail a full six inches long!"

"Tails?" Maryssa felt a quiver go through her, the absurdity of Celeste's claim warring with her own vivid imagination. Unbidden, visions of wild red-haired Irishmen leaped through Maryssa's mind, satanic tails protruding from their ragged breeches as they whirled around writhing flames. She shook her head. "That’s ridiculous," she said a bit more shakily than she intended. "You can't truly believe it.”

"Oh, can't I? Wait and see when one of those savages cuts your corset strings! But then, you probably won't need to concern yourself." Celeste let her disparaging gaze sweep a path from the ruching on Maryssa's camlet hood to the toes of the shoes that peeked from beneath the cinnamon ruffle of her petticoat.

Maryssa plucked at the overskirt sweeping back from the quilted satin, and gave Celeste a steady look. "I assume even the Irish have some taste," she said quietly. "Of course, why you have deigned to stay in my company is another question.”

"I've not deigned to do anything! Lady Dallywoulde paid me an exorbitant stipend or I would never even have attempted to deal with someone as hopeless as you!
Make Miss Maryssa into a beauty
, her ladyship said.
Pah! I'd have better spent my talents on Carradown's charwoman!
"

Celeste sniffed. "As if that disgusting Sir Ascot would notice a woman if she stood before him in silver gauze, with that long nose of his forever poked in God's ear."

Maryssa paled, a sick feeling stirring in her stomach as her cousin's priggish features rose in her memory—the vicious mouth whose lines took no pains to hide their cruelty, the eyes, like slivers of ice in the Thames. She touched the tiny swan pendant at the hollow of her throat as if it were a talisman, but she still couldn’t keep the quaver from her voice. "I would prefer Sir Ascot didn't notice me at all."

"Oh, he'll pay enough mind to you to fill you with his heir, no doubt. Duty, you know." Celeste poked Maryssa's stomach, her long nose crinkling in distaste. "Between the two of you, your marriage bed should be fit to freeze Hades's toes."

"Stop! P-please." Maryssa shuddered as she thought of Ascot's bony white hands on her body. She bit her lip to keep from crying, but even as she steeled herself against the tears that burned her eyelids, she saw the glimmer of triumph in the maid's close-set eyes.

"Ah, yes, I'm sure Sir Ascot will devise many a way to make you pay for what happened."

All my life I've paid
, Maryssa wanted to cry,
but I don't know why. What horrible sin have I committed?

At Lady Dallywoulde's ball, for the first time in her life, Maryssa had fought back against the pain others inflicted on her, fought the ignorance and slights, and what had she gained?

With trembling fingers she drew the curtain at the coach window wider, staring into the night as if seeking something, someone who cared. But the darkness lay empty as a madman's soul, the late-summer fragrance of wildflowers doing nothing to soften night sounds that echoed through the hills like the moans of the damned.

She braced her feet against the coach floor as the vehicle lurched again, the sound of the iron-rimmed wheels on the rutted road changing subtly, the shadows blurring past the window becoming more clear. Slivers of candlelight glowed through the wind-gnarled trees, the bulk of a tumbledown building outlined in the scant moonlight.

"Nightwylde? I . . . somehow I thought it would be bigger." Maryssa turned to Celeste, dread lying heavy in her throat, but for once even the maid was silent, eyes wide as she, too, regarded the light.

BOOK: Black Falcon's Lady (Celtic Rogues Book 1)
6.8Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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