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The young maiden Cait has always lived a simple, secluded life in the Scottish woods. Then, in her eighteenth year, she’s summoned to Aberdeen and informed with cruel disdain that she’s the unwanted daughter of the king. To deal with this “problem,” Cait is forced to marry a forbidding stranger, Duncan, the Devil of Inverness, who has already buried one wife.
She travels to the Devil’s castle reluctantly, in dread, and Duncan is none too pleased to welcome the pale, dark-haired creature as his wife. But the two soon realize they are more perfectly matched than either suspected. His deep desire to dominate and discipline his new wife is matched only by her bravery and willingness to submit to his perverse demands and desires.
But a phantom threat stalks Cait, and Duncan is troubled by her secret and mysterious past. Can Duncan protect his vulnerable wife? Will their powerful and unusual brand of love prevail?
Cait shifted on her horse. The endless journey was growing more and more difficult to take. If she only knew they were near, she could bear it better, but none of the soldiers talked to her or so much as looked her way. It felt like she was traveling to the end of the world; that wherever they were going got farther and farther away. She’d lost count of the days now, although she guessed it was nearly two weeks she’d been on the back of a blasted horse.
Patience, Cait , she could hear Erma saying quietly in her ear. It was as if her nurse was still there beside her even though it had been nearly a month since she passed. If only. If only. If only Erma hadn’t died, she might yet be living happily in their cozy cottage in the wilds of Aberdeen, instead of traveling to Inverness to be wed to a man she’d never met.
Her hair stood up on the back of her neck as it always did when she remembered. She was traveling to be married, married to a stranger with the unfortunate name of the Devil of Inverness. Cait had no desire to marry at all, much less be married to a devil, and for that reason she remembered as infrequently as possible that she was traveling to be made a bride. But forgetting didn’t make anything different. Forgetting didn’t make any of it go away.
She wished she could forget Erma dying. Forget that lonely journey to find help, only to learn at Aberdeen’s castle that she was the king’s own daughter. The king’s bastard, unwanted and despised. His eyes had narrowed when she’d been hauled before him. He hadn’t looked on her with anything akin to fatherly love.
“I thought you died,” he’d said. “I was told you died. Your mother tells lies.”
“I don’t have a mother, sir.”
“You certainly do,” he’d snapped, “and that noxious slut glories in making my life miserable even to this day. Even to this hour,” he said, looking down his long nose at her, his lips twitching in disgust. “I’ve no doubt you’re as much a meddlesome slut as she. What is your name?”
“Caitlyn, you are old enough to be married, are you not? That will get you out of my hair,” he added under his breath, turning to look at a nearby advisor.
“The earl of Inverness, the younger. Douglas’s son. His name escapes me, but they call him the Devil. You know of whom I speak?”
“No, the other. The bastard son with the white hair.”
“That’s the one. Did he not recently lose a wife in childbirth?”
“Very well. Send this girl to Inverness to take her place. Tell the Devil earl I order him to wed her. A bastard for a bastard.” He laughed coldly. “They will understand each other, will they not?”
“Yes, sire,” said the advisor, his eyes flicking briefly to Cait and then away. “I’ll arrange for transport of your daughter at once.”
“Yes, at once,” the King demanded. “I want her gone as soon as possible. Her strange looks disquiet me. And do not bother with a big retinue. She is not valuable to me. If I get my wish, Duncan will dispatch this one in childbirth too, then this thing will be done which should have been done long ago.”
Cait listened to all this kneeling before him, listened to the soul-numbing words from the mouth of the man who had fathered her. She’d never known he existed until this awful day. Of course she had imagined sometimes what sort of man her father was. If he was a kind man. If he ever wondered where she was. Now she knew the truth about him and wished she didn’t. It hurt her to hear him call her mother a slut, and to wish Cait gone so coolly. The entire conversation had hurt, but nothing quite so much as his cold, plain hatred for her existence.
Cait was not a vain girl. She knew she was no beauty. She knew her looks were unappealing and strange. Her hair was so black, her eyes so light; her skin so pale and translucent. She had not a trace of her father’s golden blond hair and deep brown eyes. But must he hate her so without even knowing her? She tried to be pleasant and agreeable to everyone she met. She had cared for her old nurse Erma like her own mother. She could garden and keep house. She tried to keep busy and live happily and hurt no one or nothing on earth. She had never been hurt either, not as her father had hurt her that day. She’d never been cut so carelessly and so deep, and to have it come at the hands of her own father was terrible. She cried for hours afterward though no one took notice. Before nightfall she’d been lifted summarily onto the back of a horse.
And now here she was, journeying endlessly to Inverness. She doubted the men with her cared whether she lived or died. For a long while she’d feared they would ride out with her some distance and kill her and leave her body for the wolves, at her father’s command. It soon became obvious, though, that they would never journey this far just to slay someone and leave them to rot. Perhaps they were riding with her into the wilderness to abandon her, to let her wander lost and starving until she died. As it was, they barely took a care for her needs, or fed her. If one of them spoke to her, it was little more than a grunt. If she reached her future husband’s keep alive it would be a miracle. Some days she wished she’d never reach his keep at all.
A devil living at the edge of the earth. A bastard son with white hair and one wife already dispatched in childbirth. She wondered how old he was. If he had white hair he was advanced in age, and if he was frail and old enough he couldn’t pose her much harm, devil or not. She wondered what kind of home he lived in. A small cottage like the one she’d shared with Erma was easy to tend. If he was a bastard son and not well in the king’s favor, he probably had a simple domicile, and she could try to live a simple life with him.
If he hated her, if he despised her for her looks or her personality or her parentage, well, she would bear it as well as she could. None of those were things she could change, any more than she could change this new path her life had taken.
* * * * *
The messenger arrived at Inverness Keep just before nightfall and looked around the hall for the man they called the Devil. Lochlan hoped he wouldn’t be overly angered by the news he was charged to impart. He was kept waiting some time as the earl was fetched from the practice fields and elected to bathe and take dinner before granting audience to his guest. When at last Lochlan was admitted before him, he worried that the subject of the message would arrive before the actual message did.
“My esteemed Lord Duncan, the king sends his greetings.”
The Devil nodded, not looking up from his meal. Lochlan peered at him to be sure he was paying attention. Otherwise he was soon to be in for a surprise.
“Go on then, man, relay the message,” Duncan prompted. “I’m listening, but I’m a busy man and I must eat. Sit if you like and eat with us.”
“Oh no, sir, thank you but—”
“The message then, quickly. What does the king require of me now?”
“The king wishes you to take a new wife.”
Duncan laughed, taking a deep draft of his drink. “You may thank the king for his good wishes, friend, but I’ve less than no desire to be married again.”
Lochlan hesitated, unsure of the best way to reveal the news. “My lord, your new wife arrives presently. This very night. This hour perhaps.”
Duncan paused, his face growing hard. “What the hell did you say?”
The messenger swallowed, watching the Devil’s hands curl into fists. He had expected a more sinister looking man, dark and strange like the bride they brought him. But the Devil earl was fair-haired with stormy grey eyes, as grey as the sea that surrounded the keep on three sides.
While he wasn’t as dark and devilish looking as Lochlan expected, he was certainly angry. He feared the earl would toss him into that very sea before his message was fully told.
“The king has discovered a...lost daughter,” Lochlan said delicately. “He finds her an inconvenience at court, and wishes her to be married at once. To you, my lord,” he added. “And she arrives this night.”
Duncan sat a long time, his face darkening more with each passing moment.
“Connor, what do you make of this?” he finally murmured to the man on his right.
“I think you are about to become a bridegroom, my friend.”
“I do not wish it. I would rather send her back.”
The messenger raised his eyebrows in alarm. “My lord, the king commands—”
“Yes, the king commands me as he commands every Scotsman, but if he wants to know if I welcome his bastard as my wife, the answer is no. How old is she?”
“Uh, hmm...I know not exactly,” said the messenger. “Of an age to be wed.”
“Well, that’s something. What else does the king request?”
“That is all, my lord. Just proof of a marriage to be conveyed back to him.”
“Proof?” The Devil frowned. “What kind of proof?”
Lochlan blushed. “I believe a signed document will suffice. Have you a priest in your keep?”
“There is one in town proper.” He nodded to his man, who stood and had some quick words with a servant by the door. He turned back to the still-reddening messenger. “And you will wait here for this document?”
“I am ordered to do so, my lord.”
“Well,” said Duncan, his lip curling distastefully. “We must all do as we are ordered, must we not?”
* * * * *
Duncan strode through the corridor cursing under his breath. His servants and men-at-arms all wisely stood clear. By God, he wanted to take somebody’s head off. Again, a wife. His last one had nearly driven him insane.
Duncan was not a god-fearing man. In fact, there was very little in life that Duncan feared, but by some cruel joke of the universe, or the king more like, he had found himself wed to the most insufferably religious shrew in Scotland. Judgmental, obsessive, ridiculously stupid. It was cruel of him, perhaps, to still regard her that way even after she’d died trying to bear his child. But Lenore had been a demon sent to torment him, perhaps from the devil himself.
She’d been beautiful enough on the outside—blonde like sunshine, with wide green eyes that sparkled like emeralds. She’d smiled at him the day of their marriage and been the most biddable of brides until he’d taken her to his bed. From that moment she’d turned against him and nothing, nothing he did or said to her could have turned her back. It wasn’t as if he’d been cruel to her, as if he’d done anything that first night any man wouldn’t have done to his wife. She called him coarse, and lowborn , and degenerate, any insult at all that she thought might keep him away. But he used her anyway, as any man would have, not even exposing her to his coarser desires.
Finally he managed to get her with child, and ceased performing his husbandly duties with her. Instead he found relief with the odd widow in the town only too happy to share herself for a bit of coin. Now, even that was taken from him. No woman would come near him with a moniker like Devil attached to his name. Attached forever to him, thanks to her and her shrewish screaming even in the throes of death.
She had died yowling and cursing him so the whole town could hear it. Devil, you’re the devil! Get away! Get away from me! she’d shrieked with the last of her breath. Black hearted, evil devil! She had raved on and on as the last moments of her life bled away. He’d been nowhere near, but he’d heard her screams. He’d heard her accusations against him just as everyone else in the town had, and so now that was his name. Devil. Deserved or not. He had buried the baby boy and his wife the next morning with an honor and reverence he did not feel.
Devil. She hadn’t known the half of it. There was a side to him Lenore hadn’t even seen, a side that would have sent her running home in hysterics to her father. Perhaps he should have shown it. Perhaps then she would still be alive.
He shoved thoughts of Lenore from his head and put his mind to his current problem. A bride, this night, and a priest on the way. A wedding to be performed and a document to be signed and delivered in good haste back to the king. He didn’t want the king’s oily messenger and contingent here any longer than they needed to be. He had a deep distrust of the king’s court and all who moved in it.
This wife on the way to him raised his suspicions too. He’d not once heard even a whisper of a bastard daughter to the king. Perhaps that was by intention, which made him wonder who the mother was. He would question this daughter when she arrived, question her thoroughly before they wed. He would not be a party to any intrigue or strangeness. He was just a simple man who wanted to be left alone, who fulfilled his duties to the king and took good care of his townspeople. Yes, he would sit her down when she arrived and get to the bottom of things before he again took on the plague of a wife.
“Duncan,” called Connor from the end of the corridor. “They’ve arrived. They are in the courtyard.”
“Tell them to wait.”
Duncan put on a fine black velvet surcoat. Pure vanity. But to meet a wife, even an unwanted one, a little vanity was allowed. He armed himself and strode back down the hall to the main entrance. He marched out the door as if going to battle and came to a sudden halt. His eyes swept the small assembly of rough-edged soldiers. He felt intense, inexplicable anger. Was his new wife so poorly regarded that she’d be sent across Scotland protected like this? He knew the low respect afforded to bastards, had lived with it his whole life, but it still provoked him to see it applied to someone who was to be his wife.
His stormy gaze swept over the small party and then back again. His anger was replaced by confusion. She wasn’t even there. They hadn’t even brought her as the messenger said.
But no, she was there. His eyes found her as one of the king’s men helped her from her horse. She swayed on her legs as if she might collapse. Her shoulders slumped and she was covered head to toe in grime and dust. A fit sight for a princess, even if she was a bastard one. If that could even possibly be her—she looked nothing at all like the king. But yes, perhaps in the shape of the eyes, the slant of the forehead. His gaze narrowed in distaste. Of an age to marry? If she was twelve years old he would be shocked. No matter. He had no intention of bedding her anyway. Not now, not ever.
“Bring her inside,” he said brusquely before turning his back on her and walking away.
* * * * *
Cait tried to swallow the knot in her throat, tried to will the tears from her eyes. She would not let him see her cry. She didn’t want him to know how his cool dismissal hurt her. She let the king’s soldier take her horse while she tried to find her land legs. No one else came to greet her in the gathering darkness.
And he was not old, no. He was not old at all, although white could certainly describe the pale blond color of his hair. He was quite young and strong, and hale enough to do her great harm if he wished it. From the look on his face, he wished it very much. He had scowled at her like he was the devil himself. She shuddered, remembering the coldness of his gaze.
He had looked at her in disbelief, as if she were so vile he could barely stand to look upon her, then turned from her and stalked away as if she meant nothing to him at all. She was unwanted by him just as she was unwanted by her father and everyone else.
At last an old woman came forward to herd her into the castle. So much for a cottage. The height of the great keep soared above her head, up over the banks of the firth, the pocked stone walls grey and bleak. The doors shut behind her with a crash and she blinked to adjust to the darkness. She heard his voice just a few feet away.
“The priest comes soon, Henna. Clean the girl up as much as you can. And if you would,” he added with barely veiled distaste, “be sure there are no lice.”
Cait was pained by the indignity of her situation. She knew she must look a sight after days on the dusty roads with no bath.
“Yes, I will, my lord. Every girl should be clean when she’s wed. What’s your name, then, lass?” the old woman asked Cait. She was a plump, cheerful matron with a broad smiling face and small but friendly eyes. Cait tried to smile back at her.
“Caitlyn. Cait,” she finally managed to say.
The woman nodded and patted her arm. “Her name is Caitlyn, my lord,” she said loudly to the earl. “You can call her Cait as well, can’t he, lass?”
“Yes, ma’am” she whispered, daring a glance up at the Devil. He looked strangely chastised by the old woman’s tone.
“When Caitlyn is ready, bring her to the Great Hall,” he said quietly.
Unwanted or not.