“Alfred?” Clara didn’t flinch at the use of her boy’s name. Over the past years, she had grown accustomed to answering to it. “Where were you?” Toren handed the reins to a groom and lowered his voice as he approached. He knew that she was no squire at all, but a woman in disguise. She’d first come into the chief’s acquaintance when he’d hired her—“Alfred”—to squire for him at a tournament designed to bring men from both sides of the border together in a peaceable display of skill. The chief had even offered her a position in his household. “I. ” She stumbled on her words. “I fled,” she finally mumbled. But of course, he already knew as much, and he likely knew why. She’d run from the fear that he would spread her secret. She’d run even though he’d assured her that she still had a safe place in his household. All along, she’d known she was playing a dangerous game, posing as a lad—one that could end badly—yet it was better than the alternative.
It was better than getting caught. A rustling sound reminded her that they were far from alone. Everyone gathered in Bristol’s courtyard was watching them, bearing witness to her shame. If only she could have sought the chief out privately. But by the time she’d learned that he would be here at Bristol Manor with Lady Juliette, Toren Kerr had already been preparing to leave for Scotland. And, despite everything, she dearly wished to go with them. The thought of making her way, alone, to the next tournament was nearly unbearable. “Do you still wish to come to Brockburg with us?” Toren whispered for her alone to hear. She peered up at his wife, Juliette, who was already mounted and prepared to leave for her new home. “Come with us,” Lady Juliette said. She looked as if she meant it. Clara nodded, afraid to say too much.
She had been a fool to run away. Toren and Juliette would help her. If nothing else, they would get her across the border safely. “Come,” he gestured toward her mare, and without assistance, she quickly mounted before he changed his mind. This one would take her away from her homeland. A good thing under the circumstances. Any distance she could add between her and her past was welcome indeed. “Fare thee well,” called out the lady of the manor, Toren’s sister. Toren and Juliette waved in parting. With that, their small retinue, which included four of Bristol’s men, began the journey that would bring them into Scotland.
Following a well-worn old Roman road north, they met no resistance other than the lack of clouds on an unusually hot day. Clara tried to push away thoughts of how she would remain in disguise at Brockburg. She’d simply make it work. By the time they stopped to water the horses and eat a light repast, Clara was grateful for the splash of river water that served to cool her down, if only temporarily. One of Bristol’s men, a burly knight who had hardly spoken a word all day, brought a handful of water to his face. “A small one, you are.” As was her custom, Clara nodded. Speaking little and deferring to all who didn’t appear to be a threat was her primary means of survival. The more she spoke, the closer she came to people, the more likely they would realize the truth. “You’d do well to use that water on your face,” he said in parting.
She didn’t dare. The smudges of dirt that she’d spent years perfecting were her only defense against exposure. Clara stood, intending to blend into the countryside until their party continued their journey, when her savior approached from behind. “Alfred?” the chief said in his deep, intimidating voice. “Aye, my lord?” Though she looked at him, Clara kept her head bowed and did not meet his gaze. “I feared you were dead.” Not yet . and with any luck, the protection he offered would keep her alive longer than she expected. “Nay, my lord.” He reached into the river once more, and Clara couldn’t help but long for the same sweet relief.
To remove the cap that hid her woman’s locks and cool her face with the cold water. “You were scared of something.” “Aye, my lord.” He ran his hands through his hair, clearly exasperated with her short responses. But Clara had learned to be short with words. Once, after Gilbert was killed, she’d attempted to play the mute. In the end, it had been too difficult to obtain employment without speaking, so she’d reverted back to speaking only when necessary. “We need to discuss your position at Brockburg.” He glanced at the others and smiled at the beautiful woman who stood at the center of the men. Clara was truly happy for the chief.
She’d witnessed the beginnings of their courtship at the tournament. In all likelihood, she’d recognized he was in love before he himself had known. And it was Lady Juliette who’d first discovered Clara’s secret. “Alfred,” the chief said now, “when we return to Brockburg, we would like for you to stay with us. Serve Clan Kerr.” She whipped her head up to look at the battle-hardened Scot. “Nay, my lord—” “Before you refuse, as I suspected you might, think on it. I don’t know your story or why you are so afraid to reveal yourself.” “I—” “Nor do I care.” Clara exhaled.
Was he really not going to ask? “You served me well at the tournament, and my initial offer stands. When you disappeared . ” He shrugged. “’Tis your right to keep your own counsel. We will not reveal you, and both Juliette and I will forever be grateful for what you’ve done for us.” She’d hardly done anything at all. Mayhap a push in the right direction. She’d seen their love for each other and had given them counsel. “But I offered you training when I thought you a lad. My brother is unrelenting.
The men, well, you hardly belong among such brutes. We would be happy to have you among us as a lady . mayhap as a lady in waiting to my wife.” Clara did not require any time to consider her options. She would not reveal herself. “If that is a condition of my retention—” The chief didn’t allow her to finish. “It is not. The original offer still stands.” The idea clearly made him uncomfortable, but she knew him to be a man of his word. “Then I shall serve you and your brother well.
” Clara meant it with all her heart and soul. She would do anything not to worry about her next meal. Or wonder if she would be discovered by someone unscrupulous. Toren Kerr nodded, but his expression remained skeptical. “I must at least tell my brother the truth.” “Nay!” she shouted, and all eyes turned toward them. “My apologies. I should not have—” “Alex will know soon enough.” So he did not want her apologies. Clara had seen noblemen give servants black eyes for speaking thusly.
The Scot was truly the man she thought him to be. “He will not know,” Clara rushed to explain. “Your wife is perceptive. I’ve learned to stay away from women.” She belatedly realized how that sounded. “I mean no disrespect. That is to say—” His laugh forced a smile from her. He was not insulted but merely amused. “Then your secret shall remain safe.” His gaze shifted from her to Lady Juliette, who was now making her way toward them.
“Alex and his men care little for anything other than training and battle. But if you’re intent on remaining a squire, I shall do my best to protect your secret.” As Lady Juliette approached the bank of the fast-moving river, her husband moved protectively toward her. “You will not consider becoming my lady in waiting, Alfred? Or. what shall I call you?” “Alfred, my lady. Your offer is very kind, but I must respectfully decline.” She could say much more—and part of her longed to—but Clara had long since trained herself not to reveal more than necessary. She knew Lady Juliette was trying to protect her from the men. The gesture was appreciated, but she would be at a much greater risk if her secret was exposed, even in part. “Then we will do more than try to keep your secret safe.
” Lady Juliette bent down by the river and thrust her hands into the water. Clara watched longingly as the cool water splashed her cheeks. The chief was all but standing atop of her now—prepared to catch her should she tumble into the river. Lady Juliette’s hands stilled suddenly as the chief leaned in even closer. What was she doing? He jumped back abruptly as the splash of water reached his face, the lady laughing at her successful attempt at soaking him. Clara watched their interactions and began to feel as if she was intruding. She had started to back away when Lady Juliette stopped her. “I could not resist,” she said. “But I do wish to ensure we are very clear, Alfred.” Clara froze, not sure what the lady meant by that.
“Toren told you he will do his best to keep your secret.” Lady Juliette paused, waiting for Clara to meet her eyes. Clara had to remind herself they already knew. There was no reason to avoid the lady’s gaze. The chief’s wife was so lovely. Golden blonde hair streaked with brown and eyes so large their guileless expression was impossible to ignore. “And as I said, we will do more than try. None will learn from Toren or I that you are not the young squire he hired at the tourney. I owe you that. We owe you as much and more.
But know that if you ever change your mind, there will still be a place for you in a less. intimidating position. You need only speak your mind.” Their kindness reminded her of Gilbert, of the man who had kept her safe these past five years, until . She would not think of him. She would not cry. She had abundant experience in fighting tears. Biting the inside of her cheek, she looked down once again. “Thank you,” she finally managed. And before she embarrassed herself, Clara turned and fled for a thicket of trees nearby.
The Scotsman and his wife had offered her protection, and Clara would not do anything to make them regret it. B 3 rockburg Castle, Scotland “Get down, Reid.” Alex glowered at his younger brother, albeit by only one year. At five and twenty, Reid was every bit a man, although it was difficult to think of him as such at times like these. He sat high up in the oak tree beneath which Alex and the Brockburg men stood gathered, in the dense forest at the edge of Brockburg’s northern border. “I fear I’m unable, brother. You’ll have to fetch me.” The other men looked at him and waited for his reaction. Alex hesitated only briefly. As the chief’s second, it was his job to ensure the men of Clan Kerr were always prepared both for counter-raids or full-scale battle.
This close to the border, either could threaten at any moment. He took their training more seriously than anything, but they’d already finished for the day. Surely there would be no harm in. He scaled the tree so quickly he almost caught Reid then and there. At the last possible moment, his brother ventured onto a thick branch of the oak and then swung himself onto the tree’s leafy neighbor. Alex followed. It was a game they’d played as children, which had the added benefit of toning their arms. As the trainer of Brockburg’s men, Alex would take any opportunity to hone their skills and strength. Even if it meant chasing his damn fool brother from limb to limb high above the other men. By now the men were clapping and cheering.
Nimble for their large size, both he and Reid were evenly matched in most feats of strength. Save one: Alex was quicker, and Reid always seemed to forget that fact. Taking advantage of Reid’s position, perched precariously between the branches of two trees, Alex climbed too quickly for his brother to react. He touched Reid’s arm and shouted in victory to the spectators down below. Both men made their way to the ground amidst laughing and applause. “Well done, Alex,” someone said. “You’ll have to move quicker than that, lad,” another added. Alex laughed at Reid’s expression, his younger brother not hiding his displeasure at the nickname meant to remind him of his status as the youngest Kerr brother. “Do try to keep up,” Alex shouted over his shoulder, already running toward the keep. Giving the men one last challenge, he moved more quickly than usual, knowing none would be able to catch him.
Slashing through branches, hardly noticing the cuts and scrapes appearing on his muscled arms, Alex chanced a look over his shoulder. Only Reid was close. Alex ran through the open field, past the training yard, and through the sole curtain wall that separated Brockburg Castle from the castleton below it. Built on a rocky crag that afforded spectacular views on a clear day, even into England at times, the ancient castle had been in his family for generations. It was both well-fortified and one hell of a climb, especially at this pace. The guards hardly glanced at him. They were accustomed to the sight of the middle Kerr brother putting his men through one final grueling exercise as the sun set over the mighty Brockburg Castle. By the time Alex arrived at the foot of the hill that gave the castle its impressive vantage point, he was far ahead of the others. He ran to the top, ensuring the men would curse him by the time they finished. Only a visiting merchant packing his goods looked his way.
The man and his assistant were about to say something, but Alex held a finger to his lips to silence them. Regaining the same brutal pace he’d set earlier, Alex moved toward the small building adjacent to the main keep. This was the realm of the most important member of Clan Kerr. their cook, a Frenchman who had been serving their family for longer than Alex had been alive. He turned the corner and placed his back to the cold stone of the building behind him. And then waited. Reid should already have made it up the hill, and by now the other men should have also made their way to the castle grounds. But he was as impatient as he was quick, so when no one appeared, he stayed in the same spot. His brother was hoping to sneak up on him, just as he’d suspected. With the delicious smells emanating from the building that lent him shelter, Alex suspected his brother would soon be pressured into giving up his game.
When he heard the old door of the kitchens creak open, Alex somehow knew, without looking, that Brockburg’s priest would be joining him. Father Simon spent as much time in the kitchens as he did in the chapel, and the cook and his assistant and the maids would be too preoccupied preparing the evening meal to venture outside. “You’ve the devil’s look in your eye, Alex.” As he’d suspected, it was Father Simon’s brogue. “How would you know, Father?” Alex did turn then, not surprised by the man’s bemused expression. Only a few years older than Toren, Alex’s elder brother, Father Simon was more a member of the Kerr family than he was their priest. “’Tis a common expression for you, Alex.” Alex put up his hand again, effectively stopping the father’s next words. Someone was coming. “Damn you, Alex Kerr,” Reid said, walking around the corner of the building.
Alex stepped away from the wall and walked toward his brother. “For the run or for effectively evading your not-so-subtle scouting party?” Reid rolled his eyes. “Both. And pardon, Father.” While he’d enjoyed proving, yet again, his younger brother was no match for him, he was extremely hungry. “Bernard is anxious to start the meal,” Father Simon said. Alex and his brother turned toward the priest. “Bernard, is it?” More likely it was the priest, not the cook, who was eager for the repast. Father’s appetite was legendary. Alex knew the castle inhabitants waited on them for the evening meal, but he’d been too eager to best Reid to concern himself with that.
“Aye, well. ” Simon shrugged. All three men laughed. “It’s a wonder to me that you stay so lean, Father,” Alex said. While he and Reid ate with an equal amount of enthusiasm, they spent the majority of their days in training, while Father Simon’s habits were much more sedentary. Even so, it didn’t take a toll on his looks—his lean frame, shoulder-length brown hair, and wellformed features made him the target of many sideways glances from women who seemed to forget he was not theirs for the taking. He and Reid, however, had no such vows holding them back, and both enjoyed the attentions of the fairer sex. They’d often attempted to get Father Simon to admit he had made a grave error in taking his vow of celibacy, though he still had not admitted to any such thing. Alex turned to his brother. “So where are the men?”