Unlacing the Lady in Waiting, page 1
Unlacing the Lady in Waiting
Lady Helen Frasier thought Highlanders were barbaric—until she shared an intimate encounter with her betrothed, James McKerrigan. Though their families were enemies, the Highland lord roused a surprising passion in Helen. Then she was chosen to become a lady in waiting to the queen, and their engagement was broken.
Now, Helen has returned to Scotland and her jilted lover, who has vowed to take revenge and claim his promised bride….
As a history enthusiast (to say the least; my less-nice friends call me a history geek!) I’ve long been fascinated by the complex and tragic life of Mary Queen of Scots, and I was so happy to have the chance to use her as a secondary character in Unlacing the Lady in Waiting. I knew quite a bit about her later life in English captivity, but not much about her early days back in Scotland after years in France. I also loved getting to use Scotland as a setting for the first time (but not the last! Look for a full-length novel in the near future, where we glimpse Helen and James as a married couple…).
If you’d like to read more about the period, here are a few sources I enjoyed:
—John Guy, The True Life of Mary Stewart, Queen of Scotland (2004)
—Roderick Graham, Mary Queen of Scots: An Accidental Tragedy (2009)
—Antonia Fraser, Mary Queen of Scots (1969)
—JS Richardson, The Abbey and Palace of Holyroodhouse (1978) (plus the guidebook to Holyrood now available at the palace, the photos were invaluable!)
“Lady Helen! Where are you? You know we can find you…”
Lady Helen Frasier ran faster along the garden path, one hand holding up the hem of her new white brocade gown. She clapped her hand hard over her mouth to keep from laughing aloud. Despite her dismal mood that day, it gave her great pleasure to evade her attendants. They wouldn’t find her—she would make sure of that.
She ducked into the narrow entrance of the maze, and the high, prickly green walls of the hedges closed in around her. She couldn’t hear the calls of her maids any longer, or the noise from the house as her father’s servants prepared for the banquet. She couldn’t even hear the faint rush of the sea just beyond the estate’s high walls.
She could only hear the sound of her own breath as she gasped for air in her stiff, embroidered bodice, and the crunch of her shoes on the gravel pathway. The pale gray sky arched over her head, full of shifting clouds that promised rain later, rain that would surely ruin her father’s plans for torch-lit dancing in the garden.
Helen didn’t care if the whole cursed party was ruined, if the house fell down and the garden drowned. She never wanted tonight to come. She never wanted to leave this maze at all.
Stopping to catch her breath, she pressed her hand to the stiff bodice over her abdomen, feeling the pearl beadwork press into her palm. The wind felt colder now, and bit through her thin gold tissue sleeves and over her bare shoulders. This was the finest gown she had ever worn, and usually she would revel in the fine fabric and stylish cut. It had come all the way from France, as had the garden designer and the cook who labored now in the kitchens to prepare the sumptuous banquet.
She hated the new gown today. She wanted to rip it off.
But she just took in another breath, as deep as she could, and shook back the heavy length of loose auburn hair from her shoulders. She was alone now; they couldn’t find her. This maze was her own world, where she wasn’t forced to say or do anything she didn’t want.
In her dreamworld, she didn’t have to marry any blasted McKerrigan.
Helen leaned her palms on her knees, bending over to let the sudden sick feeling pass. The brocade skirt slid against her palms. She closed her eyes tightly, but the memory of what happened a few days ago wouldn’t be dismissed.
She heard her father’s stern voice again as he told her she would marry the son of their old family enemies the McKerrigans, felt again the cold panic that washed over her, drowning her. She saw his bearded face turn scarlet at her protests.
“None of us want this match, girl!” he had shouted as she burst into tears. “For a Frasier to wed a McKerrigan—it’s an abomination. But if we’re to survive it must be done. So cease your wailing!”
And she felt again his slap across her face, knocking her to the side.
All her life she had been told the McKerrigans were wicked barbarians, nothing but cattle thieves and murderers, the enemies of the Lowland Frasiers for decades. And now, for reasons she could not fathom, she was to marry one.
All her girlish dreams of dances and masques, of romance and splendor, were dying in the face of a bleak future with a crude McKerrigan. She had spent all her life at the mercy of her father’s cold will, feeling alone in his house, alone in the world. Now she would be alone in the home of a McKerrigan. When would she ever be herself? When would she ever have her own life?
Helen pushed herself upright again, stiffening her shoulders, swallowing her tears. Very well—if the McKerrigans insisted on having her, she would make them very sorry. She would be the worst wife ever. She would find a way to make her own life even if she was trapped with them.
She heard the faint echo of a shout from behind the maze, and abruptly she remembered where she was and that time was growing short. Her betrothal banquet was only a few hours away, flying closer with every minute. Soon she would have to go back to the house or her father would be furious.
But not yet. Please to God, not yet!
She picked up her skirts and ran again. She hurtled around corners, scarcely knowing what she was looking for. She only wanted to go faster and faster, and never be found again.
She skidded around another corner—and ran into a solid, strong mass.
Helen cried out in shock and felt herself tumbling back toward the hard ground. Her feet in their fine new velvet shoes slid out from beneath her. She reached out blindly, grabbing for something, anything, but she snatched only cold air.
A hard arm looped around her waist and caught her just as her feet swept away from her. She was lifted up and up and braced against a muscled chest.
A man’s muscled chest. The rush of fear from the fall and from the sudden realization that she was not alone in the maze made her heart pound and her head spin in dizzy fear. She struggled within the arms that bound her, kicking out at him through her skirts and twisting wildly.
She opened her mouth to scream, but one arm released her waist and a long-fingered, callused hand clamped over her mouth.
“Minx!” a man’s rough voice hissed in her ear. She felt the warm breath on her cheek and it made her shiver. “Cease your wriggling and I’ll put you down.”
She heard the drawled vowels of a Highland accent, hoarse and strained. This wasn’t one of her father’s servants! Was he a kidnapper, seeking a rich ransom? A murderer and rapist, as she had heard all Highland Scots were?
She twisted harder in his iron grip, and tried to bite his hand.
“Don diabhal leat!” he cursed. And she felt something hard and huge press against her belly through her gown.
Z’wounds! The villain was aroused by her struggles.
Helen immediately went still. She couldn’t breathe or move; she couldn’t even think. Suddenly all she could do was feel.
He was very tall, his shoulders broad and strong with muscles. He easily held her with one arm above the ground and his hard chest moved with his breath. His heart pounded against her
The fear turned and sharpened, tinged with feelings that were new and strange to her. Her cheeks felt hot, and her skin tingled with acute awareness of every inch of him pressed against her.
She thought she felt the warmth of his mouth pressed to her neck, and her breath caught in her throat. Somehow when he touched her she didn’t feel alone any longer. She felt safe. But the fleeting caress slid away, and he tilted his head back from her.
And Helen felt another strange emotion flood through her—disappointment.
“I will not hurt you, minx,” he said, in a low, soothing tone, as if he spoke to a skittish mare. “I’m here for the banquet, and I only sought a quiet spot for a moment.”
So that explained it—he was here with the McKerrigans, come to witness her humiliation. Her cheeks burned hotter that she had already given him reason to laugh at her as she ran around like a wild hoyden.
She gave a jerky nod, and his hand slid slowly away from her mouth. Very slowly, his rough fingers trailed down her throat and over the bare skin above her beaded neckline before falling away to close around her waist again.
That dizziness came back over her, stronger than ever, and she felt so giddy she feared she might laugh. She braced her palms on his shoulders and felt their hard strength under her touch.
“I wanted a quiet moment, too,” she whispered.
“Then you won’t fly at me if I put you down?” he said.
Helen shook her head.
“And you won’t run away?”
Run away? This was surely the most interesting place she had ever been. She certainly had no desire to go back to the house and what waited for her there. She wanted to explore what this man made her feel. Wanted to feel not alone for just a little while longer.
“I will not run if you don’t,” she said.
A hoarse, surprised laugh broke from his lips, echoing against her from where their bodies were pressed together. Helen found herself smiling at the sound, her fear forgotten and the perils of the future far away for a moment.
He slid her down along his body, so slowly she could feel every tall, hard inch of him against her, until she stood on her feet again.
Then he stepped back from her. Without his warmth, she felt the bite of the wind through her sleeves and shivered as she rubbed at her arms. She suddenly felt strangely bereft.
“Och, woman, what are you doing out here with no cloak?” he said. “You’ll freeze in that fancy gown.”
Before Helen could answer, he swept off his short cape of thick black velvet lined with purple satin and covered her bare shoulders with it. Suddenly she was completely wrapped in his heat and that clean sea-smell of him.
And for the first time since her father told her she would marry, she felt warm and—and safe. This man made her feel safe. And bold.
Helen held the cape around her with one hand and used the other to push the tangled strands of hair back from her brow. She blinked up at her unexpected rescuer in the pale gray light. She had to look far up, as she was a small woman and he was quite large.
He wore fashionable doublet and breeches, all in black and darkest purple, and tall leather boots. A short sword was strapped at his waist along with a jewel-hilted dagger. He had close-cropped hair, so dark it was almost black, and a face that was all sharp angles and planes. A dark shadow swept over his hard jaw, and outlined lips too beautiful and sensual for a man.
But a slightly crooked nose, and a white scar on one cheek marred his perfection. She slowly raised her eyes to his, and their bright jade-green color pierced through her. It was as if he could see straight to her very heart, and the intensity of his stare made her fall back a step.
Those dark brows drew down, and Helen remembered her resolve not to be afraid any longer.
She pulled his cape closer around her shoulders and remembered his words when he gave it to her. She smiled up at him. “Why, sir? Do you not like my gown?”
His gaze darkened and slid down the length of her body, and something terrible came over Helen. No one had ever looked at her that way before, so intense. She was just Lord Frasier’s annoying little red-haired daughter to most people. But this man watched her as if he was a hungry wolf about to snatch her up and carry her away.
After all the fears and worries of the past few days, the dread of tonight’s banquet, it felt—good. Right. Even though she knew it was wrong to be here with him, it felt like exactly where she should be.
A warmth rushed over her skin, and she couldn’t feel the cold wind at all. She smiled at the man and took a step closer, brushing aside the edges of the cloak. She ran her fingers over the beaded edging of the bodice of her gown and his stare followed the movement.
His eyes narrowed.
“Aye, I like it—too much,” he said in that low, rough voice. Helen shivered at the sound. “That is the problem.”
“Problem?” She glanced down at the gleaming brocade and held up her skirt a bit, just enough to reveal her shoe and a bit of her white silk stockings. “’Tis the latest fashion from Paris.”
“I wager no French woman could wear it quite as you do.”
Helen almost laughed at the tone of grudging admiration in his voice. He certainly sounded as if he didn’t want to like her in the gown, but the dull red flush over his sharp cheekbones, and the way his hand fisted on the hilt of his sword, told her he did like it.
She did not want to like the look of him, either, didn’t want this tug of heat between them. Why would she at last find a man she was attracted to now, when her dreaded betrothal was only hours away? But she could not resist those feelings. They were her last chance at a moment of bright freedom before she was doomed to a cold, dark life at the mercy of a McKerrigan.
She pushed the cloak all the way off and slid the loose fall of her hair down her back. Slowly, she moved even closer to him, one step then another. His jaw tightened, a muscle flexing in his cheek, but he didn’t leave.
She licked her suddenly dry lips and tried to remember how Margaret, her father’s bold, beautiful mistress, behaved. She reached out and trailed one fingertip down the jet buttons of his doublet. The fabric was rough-soft under her touch, the chest beneath hard and hot. She heard his breath hiss, and rested her palm flat at his waist. Was she doing this right? It certainly felt right.
“You are quite the picture of fashion yourself,” she whispered.
“Diabhal,” he groaned. Before she knew what was happening, his large, rough hands caught her bare shoulders and pulled her flush against his unyielding body. He dragged her up on tiptoe and that dizziness came back over her as she was surrounded by the heady scent and burning heat of him.
She reached for him to steady herself, looping her arms around his neck. Her fingers brushed the soft hair at his nape, and his skin felt delicious under her palms.
His head bent toward her, and his mouth swooped down to claim hers. His lips were firm but soft as they moved over hers, hungry and insistent. His arms closed around her, not letting her go as he masterfully took her mouth.
Helen had been kissed before, but never like this. Z’wounds, but he was good at that! The feeling of his lips on hers, his breath mingling with hers, his body against hers, soft breast to hard chest, was—wondrous. It swept away everything else.
His tongue pressed past her lips to taste her deeply and she moaned at the fiery sensation. His hand slid into her loose hair and wrapped a long strand around his fingers. He tugged her head back to give him even deeper access to her mouth.
Helen arched back her neck and tangled her tongue with his. His other arm moved to her waist and pulled her into his body until she felt the unmistakable proof of his desire through her clothes.
Damnable clothes! Why did people wear them anyway? She wanted to feel his bare skin.
As if he also felt that hot, primitive urge, his
She was so startled by the rush of pleasure she nearly bit his tongue.
His lips slid from hers and his head reared back. “So the wildcat has teeth,” he muttered.
“And claws,” Helen whispered back. She dug her nails into the back of his neck and laughed when he growled. Oh, this was fun!
“You’ll pay for that,” he said, and tugged her head back again. His open, hungry mouth trailed over her jaw and along the arched line of her neck. He nipped at the pulse that pounded at the base of her throat and Helen gasped.
His hand moved from her waist up the length of her torso until he grasped the top of her bodice and tugged it down along with the thin chemise. For an instant she felt the chill wind on her bare breast, but then it was surrounded by the heat of his mouth. He drew in her nipple between his teeth and suckled it deeply.
Helen cried out and cradled the back of his head as she pressed him closer. The close-cropped black strands felt soft in her hands, and her head fell back in giddy pleasure.
Then something unpleasantly cold hit her fevered cheek. A raindrop, then another. The threatened storm had arrived.
That cold seemed to snap her out of the hot, sensual dream the stranger wove around her so effortlessly. Her hands tightened convulsively in his hair before she let him go. She gave her head a hard shake to try and clear it.
He seemed to sense it, as well, the end of their too-brief fantasy. He released her nipple slowly from his mouth, and she nearly wept with the sudden bereft feeling that swept over her. He blew on the dark pink, puckered flesh lightly, making her shiver, before he drew her bodice up over her and stepped back.
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