Wicked Passions – Nicola Davidson

NO ONE RELİSHED the downfall of a wayward woman like a group of wealthy old men. Lady Isla Sutherland lifted her chin against the malicious smirks and cold sneers arrowing her way from the courtiers in the lavish royal presence chamber. She had broken their rules, been caught, and now would pay the price: her greatest joys torn away. Henceforth, the blood-heating thrill of steel kissing steel as she vanquished an opponent with her longsword…forbidden. The freedom of linen shirt and woolen hose over itchy velvet gown and heavy gable hood…forbidden. Nothing could adequately express her fury and frustration. Her despair. But a swordfighter understood the value of strategic retreat as well as advance when important decisions were to be made. Especially when standing in front of a man who held the power of life or death; their anointed sovereign, King James IV of Scotland. “You sent for me, Your Grace?” said Isla as she sank into a deep curtsy. James leaned back on his carved oak chair, bejeweled fingers tapping his knee as he studied her. The king wasn’t a tall man, nor brawny, his dark brown hair rested fashionably on his shoulders, and he wore well-tailored clothing made of costly fabrics from France. But foes underestimated him at their peril, for James had proven himself both a brilliant scholar with an uncommon gift for languages and a brave, ruthless warrior on the battlefield. He had to be; each day forced to wrangle a spoilt fourteen-year-old wife in Margaret Tudor, her wily father King Henry across the border in England, the changeable French, volatile Scots nobles, and clans who were ever eager to fight one another. Right now, James looked weary.

Understandable when he’d only just returned to Stirling after quelling a border rebellion. This was probably the last matter he wished to pass judgment on, but her wretched clan had demanded an audience—not even the king would risk offending the powerful Earl and Countess of Sutherland. “Lady Isla,” he said with a faint sigh. “What am I to do with a troublemaker who tells her family she travels to the holiest place in Scotland to learn pious ways, and instead disguises herself as a lad to hone sword fighting skills under the tutelage of my champion?” Isla bit her lip. Now was not the time for a jest about applause. Or to point out that she had been the great Sir Lachlan Ross’s best student by far, proving beyond all doubt a lass could wield a sword equal to any lad. The humiliating truth was, her grand plan to triumphantly return from St. Andrews to the north as a fierce and skilled warrior like her father and brothers, had failed. Instead, she would remain the unwanted seventh child with the strange name. The annoyance.

The burden. Worse still, she had caused strife for those who deserved it least. Sir Lachlan had seen through her disguise, as had his sweet wife Lady Marjorie and their fiery lover Lady Janet Fraser. But all three had kept her secret, challenging her to work harder and be better, and she’d thrived. Until the fateful day a damned rabbit bounded into the ring and tripped her. Falling awkwardly had dislodged her wig and padding, and the viciousness from the lads at discovering a woman had bested them so often had been terrifying. Only Sir Lachlan’s intervention saved her life. “Please, Your Grace,” said Isla. “Do not punish others for my deeds. There are none better than Sir Lachlan, Lady Marjorie, and Lady Janet in the realm save yourself.

” James nodded. “I know. That is why I ponder what must be done with you and not them. How old are you now? Nineteen or twenty summers?” “Twenty,” she replied cautiously. “Hmmm. Clearly you are ill-suited for a nunnery. But I cannot allow valuable heiresses to run wild, therefore the best solution is to find you a husband. At once.” No! While she’d known this would probably be the outcome, it still struck like a blow. The sound of ribald cheers, stomping feet, and gleeful chatter exploding in the presence chamber only rubbed salt into the wound.

Two-faced hypocrites. These men would condemn her all day, but that wouldn’t stop a single one angling for her substantial dowry and an alliance with the Sutherlands. They would gain everything from the union and she would gain nothing; certainly not love or passion or the indulgence to continue what brought her joy. This might have been easier to bear if she didn’t know that some marriages were happy. But she’d seen couples who were tender. Who accepted and supported each other fully, and scampered away to a bedchamber to indulge their lusts whenever they could. Saints alive, she’d even witnessed a trio who did this, so marriages could be exceedingly successful even when unconventional. Bah. In this so-called enlightened time, why did noble daughters still have to be pawns in the careless games of powerful men? Why could she not decide her own destiny? Her stomach roiling with hurt and anger, Isla glanced around the presence chamber, searching for a friendly face to bolster her spirits. She certainly wouldn’t get that from her family; her older brothers and sisters, and their spouses, had stayed away claiming they were too mortified by her conduct to come to court.

In truth she wished her mother and father had abandoned her also, for then she wouldn’t be subjected to their icy wrath each day. In this second painful defeat, she was truly alone. Isla forced herself to respond. “I will obey my king and wed as you wish.” “Good,” said James with a faint smile. “Then I say—” “Your Grace!” All heads turned to see Lady Janet barrel her way through the crowd and curtsy. The bold redhead was perhaps the most infamous woman in Scotland, once the king’s longtime mistress, still his beloved friend. Only she would dare to interrupt a royal decree. James raised an imperious eyebrow. “Something to say, Jannie?” She grinned.

“Always, my king. I wonder if Lady Isla has had sufficient opportunity to meet men of suitable rank and fortune. I am a firm advocate for marital joy; and as the whole realm knows you to be a gallant, perhaps you might grant a wild but loyal subject the boon of an occasion here at court to form an attachment.” Occasion. The word turned over in Isla’s mind. What she indeed required was time, and a far better selection of potential husbands than the rotten weasels on offer in this chamber. A grand feast? No. Too short. Accompanying the king and queen on a royal progress? No. Too costly.

A tourney? Isla’s heart leaped. Such an event would bring together many men. Strong, salt of the earth warriors who might even admire her gift with a sword. In that group, surely at least one with a good and faithful heart. And skilled at bedsport… She took a deep breath. “Your Grace, I humbly suggest a tourney.” Gasps echoed around the presence chamber. The stares of the courtiers grew even more disapproving. Yet Lady Janet winked and the king looked…interested. “A tourney?” he mused as he adjusted his heavy purple mantle.

“Go on.” “If it pleases you,” Isla said slowly. “Send word to the four corners of Scotland that a great royal tourney is to be held. All who enter must be of suitable rank, with a squire to assist. The prize would be…my hand in marriage and all that entails.” Silence greeted her announcement, surely the longest in history. But with her entire future at stake, she forced her gaze to remain on the king. Eventually, James nodded. “I know my queen would enjoy such a spectacle. And there are many in my realm who would value the chance to win the hand of such a fair maiden.

” Isla nearly snorted. The king was a gallant, but she held no illusions over her charms or lack thereof. Unlike her mother and sisters, all flaxen-haired, buxom beauties, she had her sire’s pitch-black curly hair and moss-green eyes. She was neither tall nor short, with narrow hips, coltish limbs, and breasts barely big enough to fill a bodice. Yet as she well knew, her looks were by the by. It was money and an alliance that mattered, and the last Sutherland heiress would tempt even a reluctant suitor. “Thank you, Your Grace,” she said politely. James stood and clapped his hands together. “Let it be known…a week hence, Stirling shall host a grand tourney open to all unwed men ranked knight, lord, or laird. There’ll be five events, determined by me.

The victor wins Lady Isla as his wife, and shall receive her dowry, the friendship of the Sutherland clan, and a gift of cloth from the royal household. I look forward to an event celebrating the best of Scotland. That is all.” Isla curtsied again, near-giddy with anticipation. While it would take a miracle for a handsome, honorable man to enter a tourney without knowing the events, and be skilled at them all, and have good fortune throughout, at least she now had a sliver of hope for a happy future. Far, far better than no hope at all. Glennoe Castle, on the shores of Loch Etive Western Highlands Failure. As he stared out the second-floor window of the small stone castle he called home, the word pounded Callum MacIntyre’s head like a battering ram at the gates. In the past, when the cares of being a young laird threatened to overwhelm him, he’d been comforted by this view: the cold, deep waters of the sea loch, and the craggy, imposing presence of Ben Cruachan, the mountainous guardian of the glen. Not anymore.

The coffers were nearly empty; the weaving house—source of most of the clan’s income—razed to the ground in a brutal raid; and the mighty neighboring clan, the devilspawned Campbells, continued to circle and swoop like a golden eagle toying with a plump field mouse. Since his reckless father’s death six months ago, Callum had tried his best to heal the breaches, to make peace and expand trade. But he was an oddity in the Highlands: a nondescript laird of twenty-five summers, average height and lean build, fair hair and gray eyes, the reserved scholar who preferred negotiation to swords. His rule had always been precarious. Now it seemed the whispers were growing even louder to get rid of him: our laird should be a true Highlander. Not a cursed halfling, spawn of an Englishwoman who calls herself healer but is really a witch… “Callum. Are ye listening? Now is not the time for daydreaming!” Stifling a growl at the disrespect, he turned to gaze upon Rory ‘Red’ MacDonald. Red was pure Highland stock; a tall, strapping, battle-hardened bull with flaming auburn hair. As he was also laird of his clan branch, the son of Callum’s aunt, and ten years older, many viewed him as the true leader of the MacIntyre clan. Callum tried not to hate anyone.

But his cousin made it difficult. “I heard you, Red,” he replied evenly. “Once again insisting I wed a MacDonald lass and bring my clan under your protection.” “’Tis the only way! Unless you wish further Campbell evil?” “It is not the only way. Just a plan to ensure my name ceases to exist. And I won’t have that, not when we fought so long to be recognized by the king and council and admitted to the Clan Chattan Confederation.” “What a proud fool ye are,” said Red, his lips twisting with scorn. “And who will pay for that? Your people. Any more bloodshed will be on your hands.” The sound of pewter goblet slammed onto wooden table made them both jump.

Callum’s mother, Maude, glared at her nephew, her violet eyes flashing. It was said a glance from the Lady of Glennoe could welcome a soul into paradise or purgatory; at this moment his cousin would be travelling directly to a much warmer place. “Pray remember you are on MacIntyre land and speak to its laird.” Red bowed mockingly. “Aye, madam. As neither of you will listen to reason about an alliance, I’ll take my leave. Just remember, Glennoe, you can only hold the wolves at bay for so long.” “If an alliance is needed so badly by the MacDonalds,” said Maude, her gaze icy, “perhaps you should find a wife.” “I’ll be wed soon enough,” said Red with a shrug. “I have my eye on a great prize in Stirling, and travel tomorrow to win it.

Farewell.” When his cousin’s heavy footsteps were no more than a faint tap on the stairs below, Callum sighed and slumped into a chair beside the library fireplace. “Do not say a word, Mother.” “Who, me?” she replied archly, adding a piece of wood to the fire before stepping back and smoothing her cream velvet gown. With her pale skin and long fair hair, those violet eyes were even more startling. His father had seen her at an English tourney and been so captivated by her ethereal beauty he’d brought her home. Callum arrived nine months later, but no other children followed. Knowing how miserable the marriage had been, he could easily understand why she didn’t seek another husband. In time perhaps she might seek a lover, and he would support her happiness wholeheartedly. “Yes, you.

” “I only speak up because Rory grows in confidence and supporters. Be wary, my son. Why would he travel to Stirling?” Callum frowned. “I don’t know. It is a long distance for someone who always picks the lowest hanging fruit. And if he had an audience with the king, he would brag of it.” “Exactly. Let us hope dear Alastair brings news when he returns from the market.” He looked away, so his mother might not see his true heart. It was getting harder and harder to conceal his feelings for Alastair Graham.

Twenty years prior, Maude had rescued a starving, sickly boy abandoned by a roving clan. Once Alastair had healed, Callum had begged for him to be allowed to stay. They had become close friends, and after years of playing, exploring, and studying, Alastair was appointed his official squire. Eventually they fought and drank and wenched together, although sometimes Alastair bedded men instead. Callum had never quite known how to feel about that. The clergy said lust between men was wrong, but Alastair held no shame or guilt about it, and sometimes the need that coursed through Callum’s veins when he thought about his squire shocked him. As the laird’s heir, he could do nothing about it, and they had remained just the best of friends. Until the night Callum’s father was buried. Overwhelmed with regret at things unsaid and the heavy burden now on his unworthy shoulders, Callum had paced his bedchamber for hours. Yet when Alastair’s awkward words and soothing massage turned into intoxicating kisses, Callum had discarded all good sense and pleaded to be taken so he might forget his cares for a little while.

His squire had been tender and gentle to start, then rough and demanding with mouth and hands and cock, leaving Callum sore and so thoroughly pleasure-sated he’d actually slept with a measure of peace in his soul. But as the first rays of dawn inched their way through the tapestries, he made the hardest and worst decision of his life: telling his lover of one night that it could never happen again. That they must never speak of it. And they hadn’t. Except he couldn’t forget. Now he knew the firmness of Alastair’s lips, those huge callused hands that could grip like a vise or stroke like a butterfly wing, the sweet burn of thick cock inside him, no other would do. Rather confusing for a man who desired women and enjoyed the taste and silken clasp of wet cunt; terribly unhelpful for a laird who needed to wed and sire an heir. He did not have the luxury of following his heart; certainly not to love a penniless squire. His future was naught but cold duty, for the only way to save his people and lands was to wed a Highland heiress from a clan powerful enough that the Campbells would never encroach again. But what grand lady would marry an unimportant laird in an isolated glen? “Good afternoon, laird.

Lady Maude.” The familiar low, rasping voice jolted Callum from his thoughts, and he turned to see Alastair enter the room. God’s blood, he was handsome. Everything about his squire roared dominant rebellion; untamable shoulder-length brown hair, piercing blue eyes, and a build so tall and brawny it was forever threatening to destroy the clothing that encased it. Several noble houses had offered Alastair good coin to be a bodyguard, and while he’d refused them all so far, even the thought of losing him was terrifying. “Dear boy,” said Maude fondly, stepping forward to smooth a lock of Alastair’s windswept hair, as she’d done since they were children. An act he’d always longed to do, but never dared. Instead, Callum took a deep breath to quell his arousal and relief at Alastair’s nearness, and smiled in greeting. “What news from the market? Red just informed us he travels to Stirling on the morrow to win some prize. Mother and I hoped you might know more, for he would not say.

” His closest friend did not smile in return. In fact, he looked pained. “You must travel too, Callum.” “What? Why?” Alastair folded his massive arms. “Red goes to take part in the royal tourney that was just announced. All unwed men ranked knight, lord, or laird may enter, with a squire to assist.” “A tourney?” said Maude, her eyes gleaming with curiosity. “James has not held one in a long time. A boon for the queen?” “Nay, to decide the husband of a wayward noblewoman. The lady suggested it herself; the prize is her hand in marriage, substantial dowry…and the friendship of her clan.

” “Who is the lass?” asked Callum abruptly. “Which clan?” Alastair hesitated; his blue eyes stormy with an unnamable emotion. “Lady Isla Sutherland.” The last Sutherland heiress! His shoulders fell. Marriage to Lady Isla would solve all his woes, but he may as well wish to conquer the sky. Men would come from all corners of Scotland to compete for such a treasure. Skilled, athletic warriors, worthy of her hand. Devil take it. A failure he would remain. And his clan would be slowly destroyed.

After twenty-eight summers on this earth, he’d learned one thing: those he loved were destined never to love him in return. His mother and father. His clan. Callum. Alastair Graham leaned against the cool stone wall, just to keep distance between himself and his laird. Any closer and he would be tempted to gaze into those near-silver eyes that reminded him of spring rain, stroke his hair, and listen to his cares so he might thrash whoever had displeased or harmed him. But Callum didn’t want that; he’d made his thoughts quite plain after their unforgettable night together. Since then, a fierce battle raged within Alastair each day: to stay and endure this half-life or leave to no life at all. He always remained. Never would he abandon his laird, not when he needed him so much.

But plague take it, this choice was difficult to bear. If he had any regrets, it was that one night. Protecting his laird, assisting him each day would be so much easier if he didn’t know the heaven of hot kisses, the sweet sound of Callum’s pleasured moans, the feverish ride to release followed by the peace of embracing until dawn. Since his banishment from Callum’s bed he’d been in a terrible state, desperately needing the release of a good fuck and yet unwilling to take another, lass or lad. He couldn’t. Not after having Callum. Sometimes he wondered if Lady Maude guessed that the friendship between her only child and the lad she’d fostered had gone further. She never said a word about it; yet the clan healer saw far deeper into the souls of men than they liked or wished. Those fathomless violet eyes missed nothing. “Callum,” said Alastair eventually, when the silence in the cozy library stretched too long.

“You must try for Lady Isla’s hand in the tourney. Not just for the dowry and a friendship with the Sutherlands, but the lass herself. She’s bold and strong and would give you fine children.” The words actually hurt to say. But he had to set aside the frustration and jealousy at the thought of Callum with another, for the clan that had saved his life and given him the only home he’d ever known, were in the worst kind of trouble. He would do whatever it took to ensure the survival of the MacIntyres, even if that meant losing the man he loved forever. His laird sighed. “I fear it would be a wasted journey. What chance would I have?” “Every chance,” he said too-fiercely. Lady Maude glanced his way, but merely nodded.

“Listen to Alastair, my son. It won’t be one of the English tourneys that your father so loved. James is a modern king. A scholar, much like yourself. He won’t risk death or serious injury to the most important men in his realm, it will be a tourney in name only, an occasion for pageantry and color to show all comers that Scotland is not inferior, but a great kingdom.” “You think?” said Callum, looking unconvinced. “Aye. James uses force when given no choice, but at heart he is a gallant. Lady Isla could not have suggested a more pleasing idea, for in the guise of granting her a boon, he helps himself far more. You and Alastair must go.

I beg you.” Silence again filled the library, and when Alastair sent Callum a pointed glance, the younger man sighed and held up his hands in surrender. Many would hear Maude’s words as no more than a motherly lecture, but they knew better. She’d seen something in the mist of her mind. It didn’t happen often, but her words always came to pass. He had more reason than most to be grateful for the gift; it was the reason he’d been found all those years ago and brought back here to the castle. “Very well,” said Callum. “But what of you, Mother?” “I shall remain here and guard your lands, of course,” said Maude in a lofty tone that suggested it had been a foolish question. Alastair almost smiled. The Lady of Glennoe might be English, but she was as bold and brave as any Highland woman.

If Lady Isla was of similar character—as she’d been caught disguised as a lad and sword fighting, he couldn’t believe otherwise—then a laird with complementary traits like an even temper, kind heart, and scholarly mind, might make a favorable impression at least. But success would all depend on what the tourney events were. “There’ll be men at arms to assist you, lady,” he said, more to ease Callum’s anxiety. Despite a fractured relationship with his father, he’d been grief-stricken at his death. But to lose his beloved mother as well…that, Callum would not recover from. “I shall go and advise them now,” said Maude, dipping into a curtsy. “Do not forget to take your satchel of herbs, salves, and poultices to Stirling, my son. On the morrow, I shall bless your journey and bid you both farewell with a glad heart. Good day to you. And you, Alastair.

” After she departed, Callum walked across the library to his favorite ‘thinking’ window. As he’d discarded his mantle in the warmth of the fire-heated room and wore only an embroidered doublet and hose, his unhurried gait offered prime viewing of his perfect arse. “A tourney in Stirling to try and win a rich wife,” Callum said, absently tracing a pattern in the cool stone with his elegant fingers. “Not how I foresaw my next few weeks.” Alastair moved closer, attracted like a moth to flame. “Leave such gifts to your lady mother. She is never wrong.” His laird nodded. “She did bring you home, after all. And also assumed you would travel with me to Stirling.

But I shall ask. Will you be at my side for the tourney?” At your side? Always. “Yes,” he rasped, placing one paw of a hand on his laird’s narrow shoulder. “Callum—” The younger man inhaled unsteadily. “I feel all at sea not even knowing what events I must take part in, and there’ll be men twice my size from all over Scotland eager to humiliate me on the field. After that, if by some miracle I win, my reward is wedding a stranger.” Unbidden, Alastair’s other hand rose to rest on Callum’s shoulder, and he kneaded the rigid muscles. Once upon a time his laird had welcomed regular massages; he had an unfortunate habit of sitting hunched over documents and manuscripts until his back seized up. But since that night, touch had become too much of a temptation, and Alastair rarely allowed himself the pleasure. “We’ll take each day as it comes.

But I will need to work on these slabs of stone—” “They are. I miss your massages,” said Callum softly. Alastair gritted his teeth. He missed giving them, for he preferred touch to words in demonstrating care. But for his own peace of mind, he couldn’t torture himself like that. “Well. You’ll need one after each event, or you’ll be too stiff the following day.” “Each event? Now that is confidence, presuming I will succeed. Far more likely I’ll be one of the unfortunates riding away in the dead of night after being soundly defeated in the first round.” “Continue thinking like that, and you will be,” said Alastair irritably, hating that Callum thought so little of his own abilities thanks to the long shadow of his late father.

“I doubt all events will reward brute strength. Some perhaps, but we know the king also values intellect and strategy. Besides, you really think all those trying for Lady Isla’s hand will be part mountain? Not everyone in the realm is Sir Lachlan Ross.” “Or you,” said Callum, tilting his head back to look up, his cheeks pink. Plague take it, he loved that blush. Callum was too-often bound by harsh reality, but his sweet soul always found a way to shine through. Yet another reason he craved his laird so helplessly. Alastair cleared his throat. “Speaking of Sir Lachlan, he is to be the chief judge, so at least the contests will be fair. He would never permit trickery…well, apart from letting a lass dress as a lad to learn sword fighting from him.

” “What?” “I should have said earlier. That is the reason for the tourney; Isla told her father and mother she traveled to St. Andrews to learn piety, instead she disguised herself as a lad for months and attended Sir Lachlan’s trainings. I hear she is uncommonly good with sword in hand; but she is not permitted to fight any longer. Poor lass. Imagine having great skill at something and being forbidden from doing it…” Like bedding my laird.


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