Scandalous Passions – Nicola Davidson

The knock at her chamber door sounded more battering ram than human. Powerful. Relentless. Deadly. Even before the heavy oak swung open, Lady Janet Fraser knew who it was. There was only one man King James IV sent when he had reached the end of his tether with a recalcitrant courtier: Sir Lachlan Ross, his Highland Beast. And she had been most recalcitrant, choosing to remain in the castle rather than leaving it, as the king’s other former mistresses and illegitimate children had been ordered to do when he wed the young English princess Margaret Tudor. Now Janet’s day of reckoning had come. And if James had sent the Beast, he was most displeased. “Lady,” Sir Lachlan growled. “The king will see you. Now.” Janet swallowed hard as she got to her feet, forcing herself to meet the warrior’s frigid brown gaze. Everything about Sir Lachlan was terrifying. She was tall for a woman, as tall as most men, but he towered over her by a full head.

His shoulders were massive, his chest broad, his arms thick with muscle after many years of expertly wielding a longsword in battle, and he always wore black from hat to hose, apart from a red doublet that many whispered was refreshed in the blood of his enemies. And while his pitch-black hair reached shoulder length, as was fashionable, he always wore it tied back with a length of leather. All the better to see the scar that dissected one slashing black brow and stretched to his ear. Terrifying. “Will he, indeed?” she retorted, pleased when her voice quavered only a little. Even after their affair had ended and the king married her off to one of his privy councillors, he had been kind to her. When her husband passed of a fever, he had been kinder still. Surely James would show her mercy today. Sir Lachlan scowled, one huge paw of a hand curving around her elbow. “Now.

” The jolt that raced through her at his impersonal touch was so startling Janet stumbled. Saints alive! Had she lost her wits? Clearly she needed a new lover in her bed if her body responded to Lachlan Ross. Especially when it appeared he wanted to snap her like a twig. Or heave her over the ramparts. It certainly wasn’t lust darkening those fathomless eyes. “One moment,” she said just to compose herself. “I need to…hook up the train of my gown.” Surprisingly, Sir Lachlan released her and stepped back, granting permission with a curt nod. Yet even as she bent down to gather up an armful of dark-blue velvet, she could feel his eyes burning into her, and it made her usually dexterous fingers clumsy. When at last she had finally conquered that task, adjusted her gable hood so it sat straighter on her head, and smoothed the wide fur-lined cuffs at her wrists, she again met his gaze.

“There. You may escort me to see the king,” Janet announced crisply. “Is he receiving many this afternoon? They are not long arrived from Linlithgow; I thought he and the queen might have tarried there longer. I’m sure she prefers Linlithgow to Stirling Castle.” “No.” Janet hesitated, forcing a laugh. “No? To which point?” Sir Lachlan’s lips tightened, and he took her elbow again, leading her across the comfortably furnished chamber and out into the torch-lit hallway. Even in summer the stone walls and floor held a cool dampness, and the row of torches sitting in their small wrought-iron cradles were a welcome source of light and warmth. “Only you,” he said. “And Lady Marjorie Hepburn.

” Confusion furrowed her brow. She well knew what her own sins were, but it was hard to imagine Lady Marjorie’s—the king’s beautiful young ward had only recently been released from imprisonment in a remote convent. Allegedly for her comfort and protection, but as Lady Marjorie’s father, Lord Hepburn, had been involved in the death of the king’s father at Sauchieburn back in 1488, it was hard to see it as anything other than punishment. “Oh.” “Fret not, lady. No harm will befall you. I swear.” Janet almost stumbled again. As soon as she returned to her chamber, she would throw those almond-paste comfits out the window. Bad enough the sweet treat had caused her to feel lust at the Highland Beast’s touch, but now she’d heard a faint note of tenderness in his tone? Impossible.

Thoroughly unnerved, she remained silent for the rest of their walk across the inner close. While Stirling Castle had stood for centuries, a brooch that fastened the Highlands and Lowlands together, James had made several improvements. The two newest buildings were the King’s House, where he entertained privately and listened to petitions, and the jaw-droppingly magnificent Great Hall. The King’s House had three principal rooms; on the ground floor there was a hall, where visitors and petitioners waited, and a great chamber for favored noblemen. However, up a turnpike staircase was his private chamber, where only his closest friends and advisers were permitted. This was their destination, and all those watching enviously knew it. Few had unfettered access to the king, but this day Janet would gladly decline the honor and return to her book of poetry. How angry would James be at her disobedience? In what way would he punish her? Hopefully not banishment to a convent. Virginal Lady Marjorie might have survived years in one, but Scotland’s most notorious sinner wouldn’t last an hour. At the foot of the stairs, two armed guards waited.

One inclined his head. “Sir Lachlan. Lady Janet. The king awaits you.” How she hated these stairs. Whether climbing or descending, the spiral made her dizzy, and the walls always seemed to press in on her. Oddly, with her escort behind her, she felt a trifle safer. Another armed guard opened the door at the top with a polite bow and ushered them into the lavishly furnished chamber. “Lady Janet,” greeted the king, his cool formality unnerving her further. “Your Grace,” she murmured, sinking into a deep curtsy.

James Stewart wasn’t a tall man or especially broad shouldered, but his fashionable, fiercely intelligent presence filled a room. Visitors were often lulled by his easy charm, humor, and gift for languages, but those shrewd brown eyes missed nothing. He’d won several decisive victories on the battlefield and lured back many Scottish nobles who had abandoned the court in disgust because the previous king had disastrously surrounded himself with advisers who were tailors and masons. “False meekness from my fiery lass is unbecoming,” he continued sharply. “Look at me and explain why you disobeyed my order. Do you know the trouble you’ve caused me? The queen is in a lather.” Janet bit her tongue, lest she comment on the tiresome lathers of a fourteen-year-old queen. The king had wed for duty, not love, and an unhappy wife could mean trouble with England. “Forgive me. I meant no disrespect to Her Grace.

” Her former lover sighed. “King Henry has at last sent Margaret’s second dowry installment. And money for her expenses. She and her retinue of English ladies are damned expensive…I cannot afford any unpleasantness. Our peace treaty is uneasy at best.” “Your Grace—” “You must leave, Jannie,” said James, his temper easing to familiar affection. “I’ve sent away all my mistresses. All my bairns. It claws my soul, but such is the burden of a king with an unsteady crown.” Her shoulders slumped.

To be forced to leave Stirling Castle, the only place that had ever truly felt like home, was a crushing blow. “When?” James took her hands and squeezed them, smiling sadly even as his relief shone through at her acquiescence. “Tomorrow, beloved.” So soon! Plainly, he would not be turned or teased in this matter. Rejection by the king, her former lover and dear friend, hurt more than words could express. “Where must I go?” “I am granting you land near St. Andrews. Fresh air, excellent hunting. I shall visit when I can. Sir Lachlan will escort you there and keep you safe henceforth.

” Janet froze. What?

.

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