Authors: A Touch So Wicked
NEW YORK CITY
“Vixen,” he said in a low, driven voice. “While you batter me with words, your body bids me welcome. Do you enjoy teasing me?”
Elissa blinked. Why did she let him do this to her? He seemed to take great pleasure in leading her down the path of betrayal. She had to be more vigilant in the future. The darkly seductive Demon Knight mustn’t be allowed to destroy her pride, her very honor.
Shaking her head to clear it of Damian’s seductive scent, Elissa fought to free herself. “Go away!”
Damian laughed as his arms closed tightly around her. “Not yet,” he growled.
She closed her eyes as his mouth took hers. Clutching awkwardly at his shoulders, she fought his desire as well as her own. She couldn’t…shouldn’t want him. She’d spent most of her life hating Englishmen. What made this man different?
Abruptly Damian broke off the kiss and stepped away, his expression strangely tender. But his voice held a hard edge as he said, “We’ll see who can hold out longer, my lady. Compared to me, you’re a novice at this game.”
Elissa regarded him with derision. “I’m playing no game, my lord.”
Damian Stratton knelt before his monarch, his dark head bent, his broad shoulders rigid. Though still a young man, he had fought bravely for this honor. Damian was proud of the way he had saved his foster father’s life at the battle of Culloden when a savage Scotsman had aimed a claymore at Lord Farnsworth’s unprotected back, and now he was to be knighted for his courageous deed.
Damian felt the heavy weight of a sword on his shoulder and concentrated on King George’s words. The monarch’s strongly accented English made understanding extremely difficult, but it mattered not to Damian. He had finally earned knighthood, and he couldn’t be more pleased. At the age of seven Damian had been fostered by Lord Farnsworth, and he looked upon the man as a second father.
“Rise, Sir Damian Stratton,” the king said in thick, guttural English. “Your country has need of your sword and your courage. Go forth and distinguish yourself for the honor and glory of England. Serve me well and one day you will be rewarded.”
Damian rose, bowed deeply, and backed out of the Presence Chamber.
“Sir Damian. Might I have a word with you?”
Damian gave Lord Farnsworth a welcoming smile. “My lord, I am at your service.”
“What say you, Sir Damian? Will you go on to greater glory as a captain in the king’s army?”
Despite his youth, Damian knew where his destiny lay and did not hesitate to accept the post. “Aye, my lord. I am a landless knight, without family or direction. I am willing and eager to serve my country for as long as it has need of my services.”
“King George is not an ungrateful monarch, nor does he easily forget those whose services are vital to our country. Someday you will receive the recognition, honor, and rewards you so richly deserve. You are young yet. In a few years you will be a seasoned soldier and ready to accept greater challenges.”
At two and twenty Damian had already survived the bloody battle at Culloden. He was strong and disciplined and ready for more formidable ventures. He would fight for king and country willingly and gladly, and perhaps one day in the not too distant future he’d receive the reward he’d been promised.
The battle-weary warrior stood on a ridge, his broadly muscled shoulders braced against the wind, his long legs firmly anchored to the gorse covered earth beneath his feet. He pushed his thick, black hair away from his strong, angular face as his silver-gray gaze made a sweeping survey of cliffs, valleys, and mountains.
After the fateful battle at Culloden, Sir Damian Stratton had served in King George’s army in Scotland, quelling hotbeds of resistance in the Highlands. The rebellions had been fueled by Highlanders who had been deprived of their lands and routed from their homes with nothing but the clothing on their backs. Those defeated Jacobites still held out hope of placing Bonny Prince Charlie on the English throne.
After five years Damian was thoroughly disgusted with the militant Highlanders who continued to plot and connive for a hopeless cause. Nevertheless, he’d done whatever was required of him by his country as he worked his way up to the rank of captain. He’d looted, plundered, and killed for England; he’d never forgotten that his father had been slain by Highlanders.
Over the years Damian had lost all hope of gaining land of his own, a small piece of England where he could take a wife and raise children. Despite having distinguished himself many times over in England’s defense, Damian had yet to receive a reward greater than recognition as a fearless warrior and king’s champion.
The Demon Knight, the name Damian had justly earned for his relentless courage in battle, mounted his faithful steed, Cosmo, and returned to his barracks at the military outpost of Inverness.
A young soldier ran up to take the reins as Damian dismounted. Damian could tell by the boy’s eager expression that something important had happened in his absence.
“What’s amiss, Private?”
“A messenger from the king, Captain,” Davey sang out excitedly. “He’s awaiting you in your quarters.”
Deep in thought, Damian entered his cramped room, wondering where he and his men were needed next in the cursed Highlands. He was weary of his post in Scotland and wished the country would drop off the face of the earth. At seven and twenty he had naught but a modest war chest, an exaggerated reputation, and a trail of women he had tumbled and forgotten.
The king’s messenger jumped to his feet. “Captain Stratton?”
Damian eyed the rolled up parchment the messenger held in his hand with wary curiosity. “Aye.”
“A message from London, sir. I’m to wait while you read it.”
“Very well,” Damian said crisply as he broke the royal seal and unrolled the parchment. Where was he to be sent now?
A puzzled expression crossed Damian’s handsome features as he quickly read the message. “The king wishes me to attend him?”
“That is my understanding,” the messenger said.
“Who are you, sir?”
“I am Lieutenant Ralph Thornsdale of the king’s Black Watch.”
“Do you have any idea what this is about, Lieutenant?”
“I do not, Captain, though I was instructed to tell you to make all possible haste to London.”
“’Tis late,” Damian sighed tiredly. “I’ll leave at first light tomorrow.”
“Nay, sir, you must leave now, within the hour. I was told that every minute counts.”
“But the men under my command…”
“They will be transferred to another command.”
Though Damian had little respect for the Hanover king who spoke little English, he was a staunch defender of England. When king and country called, he obeyed.
King George reposed in a chair in his Privy Chamber, watching avidly as his Prime Minister, Lord Pelham, spoke to Damian.
“’Tis the king’s wish,” Lord Pelham intoned dryly, “that Sir Damian Stratton be rewarded for his faithful service in England’s defense.”
Damian cocked a dark, sardonic brow. “Has His Majesty finally recalled the promise made to a young knight?”
“Ja, ja, we did not forget,” the king said, nodding vigorously. “You have fulfilled the promise of youth and have become a man we can trust. Now we wish to reward your loyalty.”
“Over the years you have proven your courage and fealty,” Lord Pelham said. “England has need of a man with your experience and strength. Intelligence has uncovered a plot to unite two Highland clans. The united clans have the potential to become a powerful force in Scotland and a threat to England.”
Damian’s attention sharpened. “Does His Majesty wish me to destroy the rebellious clans?”
“Nay, there is more to it than that,” Pelham said, waving his hand imperiously. “We do not wish to start another war. Given the remoteness of the land in question, we paid scant heed to it in the past. But suddenly the situation has the capability of exploding. We learned that a marriage between the Gordon laird and Maiden of Misterly is to take place at Misterly fortress. It’s located near the village of Torridon, on Loch Torridon.
“Until recently we’ve had little reason to suspect anything was amiss there. The deceased Lord of Misterly, the great Alpin Fraser, and his male heirs fell at Culloden, and since we had little use for a fortress situated on the edges of nowhere, we paid it little heed. But should the Gordons and Frasers unite, our hold in the Highlands could be threatened. All those loyal to the Frasers and Gordons will rush to join forces against England.”
“Lord Pelham,” Damian interrupted, “how does this involve me?”
“Tell him, tell him,” the king urged gruffly.
The Prime Minister bowed graciously to the king and continued. “You have served the king and England faithfully, Captain. For your years of devoted service, His Majesty wishes to reward you with Misterly Castle and all the lands that accompany the holding, including the village of Torridon and those serfs and freemen tilling the soil.”
Damian went still, his silver eyes narrowing in disbelief. He was to be given land and a fortress in the remote regions of Scotland? He wanted land, but he’d hoped, nay, prayed, it would be on English soil. He had little liking for Scotland and those savage Highlanders. To refuse, however, would be foolish as well as dangerous.
“In addition,” Lord Pelham continued when Damian remained silent, “you will be rewarded with a title and the small estate of Clarendon in Cornwall. However,” the minister cautioned, “His Majesty expects you to reside permanently at Misterly and maintain order in that remote area of the Highlands. What say you, Damian Stratton, Earl of Clarendon, Lord of Misterly?”
An earl! He was being given a title and land in England! For years the most he’d hoped for was a small piece of land to call his own; he’d had no reason to hope for a title. Now he owned a title, immense lands, a village in Scotland, and an English estate. Perhaps one day, when order was restored to the Highlands, he could retire to his English estate and let a steward manage his holdings in Scotland. In truth, he wanted naught from his Highland estate save its rents and tithes.
Damian’s attention sharpened on Lord Pelham as the Prime Minister pointed out what was demanded of him. “His Majesty is depending upon you, Lord Clarendon, to prevent the Maiden of Misterly from marrying the Highland laird Tavis Gordon. A strong man is needed to control the warlike Gordon clan. They are rebels and outlaws. The king is giving you temporary command of twenty of his own Black Watch to escort you to Misterly, but he expects you to hire your own mercenaries for the permanent protection of your holdings. Just remember, England stands to lose valuable lands once considered firmly under our clutches if an alliance is formed between the Gordons and the Frasers.”
“I understand,” Damian said gravely. “Neither the Gordons nor the Frasers will cause England trouble so long as I am Lord of Misterly.”
“We trust you, Lord Clarendon,” King George said. “The Demon Knight has earned our respect as well as the title and lands we have bestowed upon him.”
Damian was elated, though somewhat disappointed that he must remain in the Highlands in order to collect his title and lands. Suddenly a thought occurred to him.
“What are your wishes concerning the Maiden of Misterly, Sire? Shall I have the Black Watch escort her to London?”
“Ah, the Lady Elissa,” the king said. He gestured at the Prime Minister. “Tell him, Lord Pelham.”
“Our sources tell us that Lady Elissa resides at Misterly with her mother, Alpin Fraser’s widow. Both her brothers fell at Culloden. His Majesty has decided to send both mother and daughter to St. Mary by the Sea Convent, a day’s journey north of Misterly. The convent has already been notified of their arrival and will comply with His Majesty’s wishes. Under no circumstances are you to allow Lady Elissa and the Gordon laird to marry or even communicate with one another.”
“I understand,” Damian said. “Your Majesty’s generosity overwhelms me.”
The king beamed his approval.
“One more thing, my lord,” Lord Pelham said. “You will need heirs. The king intends to search for a proper heiress for you. Misterly must have a mistress.”
“I’m to be given a bride? An heiress?” Damian repeated. He wasn’t sure he approved of taking a wife sight unseen, but he wasn’t going to quibble. It mattered not whom he married; everyone knew a man took a wife to bear his heirs and looked elsewhere for sexual gratification. He bowed deeply. “I am most appreciative, Your Majesty.”
“So you should be,” Lord Pelham replied. “Do not fail England, Lord Clarendon. If a marriage between Misterly’s maiden and the Gordon laird takes place before you can stop it, all will be lost, including your lands and title.”
Damian understood perfectly, and he wasn’t about to lose everything he’d ever yearned for. Damian executed a courtly bow. “I shan’t fail you, Sire.”
The king waved him off. “Then be gone, my lord. I will look for the return of the Black Watch once you have everything in hand.”
After that surprising interview, Damian headed over to the Cock and Bull, where out of work knights and mercenaries were known to congregate. Though it would deplete his war chest, he had need of loyal men to help maintain order at Misterly once the soldiers departed.
The smoke-filled common room stank of stale ale and unwashed bodies. Damian spotted a close acquaintance seated at a table and cut a path through the crowd to join him.
Sir Richard Fletcher saw Damian and waved him over. “Damian! ’Tis good to see you again. Come join me. What brings you to London? Last I heard you were posted in Scotland.”
Damian greeted Richard enthusiastically and seated himself across the table from his friend. A barmaid appeared and he ordered two mugs of ale. The busty woman left and returned with two foaming tankards. Damian flipped her a coin, gave her a pat on her broad bottom, and eyed the enticing sway of her hips as she strolled away.
“Forget the barmaid, Damian,” Richard drawled, “you can wench later. You look pleased about something. Tell me your news.”
Damian returned his reluctant attention to Richard, who, if his ruddy face and slurred speech were any indication, was already deep in his cups.
Damian had met Fletcher years ago and they had remained friends. During the intervening years they had lost track of one another.
“You are looking at the new Earl of Clarendon and Lord of Misterly,” Damian boasted.
“An earl!” Richard repeated, clearly impressed.
“If anyone deserves it, ’tis you. Where the hell is Misterly?”
“Ah, Dickon,” Damian gushed, using Richard’s nickname, “’tis a grand fortress deep in the Scottish Highlands. I’ll have vast lands of my own and a village filled with people to till the soil and harvest the crops.”
“I thought you hated Highlanders,” Dickon said. “Did they not kill your father?”
Damian scowled. “Aye, Dickon, but there are also a title and English lands thrown in.”
“Ah, so Clarendon is an English title.”
“My lands are in Cornwall, but they are inconsequential compared to my Scottish holdings. And though I care little for hostile Highlanders, I must reside at Misterly in order to keep my English title and lands.”
“’Tis about time the Demon Knight received recognition for his efforts on behalf of England,” Dickon lauded. “What does the Crown demand in return for so rich a reward?”
Damian shrugged. “I must prevent the Maiden of Misterly from marrying a rebel Highland laird and maintain order.”
“Surely you don’t intend to go to Misterly without an army at your back,” Dickon said.
“I am to have temporary use of twenty soldiers of the Black Watch. I also intend to hire mercenaries to defend my lands and protect my lady wife.”
“Your lady wife?” Dickon repeated. “When were you wed? ’Tis news to me.”
“The king promised me an heiress to become mistress of Misterly.”
“I hope she isn’t overly stout,” Dickon guffawed. “All joking aside, I’m at loose ends right now and would be pleased to join your service. Mayhap I’ll find a feisty Highland lass to warm my bed.”
“Don’t count on it. She’s more like to stick a knife in your heart,” Damian jeered. “Have you forgotten that Highlanders hate our guts?”
“Nay. Have you forgotten that I am a great lover?” Dickon bragged.
“You may be a handsome devil, Dickon, and a favorite with the ladies, but it will take more than fancy words to win a Highland lass’s heart.”
“I don’t want her heart,” Dickon protested. “I’m more interested in what’s between her legs.”
Damian loosed a shout of laughter. “Ah, Dickon, I look forward to having you with me, for I suspect I will have need of your lighthearted spirit.”
“When do we leave?
“Then I’d best get back to my lodging and pack.”
After Dickon left, Damian glanced about the room for likely candidates willing to hire themselves into his service. His gaze found several battle-scarred soldiers scattered about the room.
Two hours later, Damian had hired twenty mercenaries grateful for the opportunity to serve the Demon Knight. He took an immediate liking to Sir Brody Clements, a grizzled knight who claimed neither land nor wife and had seen more than his share of battles. When he learned that Sir Brody could read and write, Damian appointed him Misterly’s steward. Sir Brody eagerly accepted the position.