PROLOGUE & Chapter One
Hagerstown Castle, Northumberland, England, late September 1306
It was a horrible, wicked lie! And had she not been eavesdropping on the two tiring women retained by her father to watch over her, Joan Comyn would have told them exactly that.
It couldn’t be true. No knight could do that to a woman. Not even Edward of England, the self-proclaimed “Hammer of the Scots,” could be so cruel and barbaric.
A fresh stab of panic plunged through her chest. Though she never cried, her eyes prickled with tears as she slipped out of the alcove where she had been reading a book and trod soundlessly down the winding staircase of the castle that served as their temporary lodgings in the north of England. She wanted to put her hands over her ears to block out the offending words echoing in her head. Punish . . . traitor . . . cage.
No! Her heart raced and thudded wildly as she ran across the spacious Hall—ignoring all the curious faces that turned to stare at her—to her father’s private solar. She pushed open the big oak door and burst into the room. “It can’t be true!”
Her father’s frown was dark and forbidding enough to make her start. She sobered, cursing herself for forgetting to knock. John Comyn, Earl of Buchan, hated to be disturbed, and though her father rarely turned his terrifying temper on her, the threat alone made her heart beat a little faster.
“You forget yourself, daughter. What is the meaning of this? As you can see”—he gestured to the half-dozen knights and barons seated around the table—“I am very busy.”
She was instantly contrite. Clasping her hands before her, Joan bowed her head and did her best to look modest and respectful—the two qualities her father valued in women (and twelve-year-old girls who hadn’t yet reached womanhood).
She lifted big eyes to his pleadingly. “Please, Father, I’m sorry to interrupt. But I heard something . . .” She lowered her voice, knowing well the risk in uttering the words. “About mother.”
She quickly looked down again, but not before seeing the bolt of rage strike her father’s handsome features. In the best of moments, her father was irrational on the subject of his soon-to-be-set-aside wife, and in the worst he could become belligerent and unpredictable.
The room went deathly quiet. Tension and discomfort were thick in the air.
“Leave us,” her father said sharply to his men.
They were only too eager to do his bidding, shuffling out quickly without looking at her. Not one of them would meet her eyes.
Her stomach dropped. Oh God, what if it was true?
Tears burning behind her eyes, she looked up at the man seated behind the large table. She would never have described him as warm and loving, but the cold, angry, bitter man he’d become over the past six months was nearly unrecognizable.
“If you speak of the treacherous bitch’s punishment”—she flinched at the crude word no matter how many times he said it—“it is undoubtedly true.”
Whatever blood Joan had left in her body drained to the floor. She swayed, lowering herself to the recently vacated bench opposite her father to prevent her legs from giving out. “But it can’t be. I heard them say that she’s been imprisoned in a cage high atop the ramparts at Berwick Castle . . . like an animal.”
Her father’s gaze hardened, his eyes two pinpricks of onyx with the unmistakable shiny gleam of malice. “It is true.”
Horror made her forget herself. “But that is barbaric! Who could have thought of such a thing? You must do something to help her! The king will listen to you.”
Even in England, the Scottish Earl of Buchan was not without considerable influence. Her mother, too, was important in her own right. Isabella MacDuff was the daughter of the previous Earl of Fife and the sister of the current earl—one of Scotland’s most ancient and revered families. It was inconceivable that King Edward of England could punish any woman like this, but a lady—a countess—of her mother’s position . . . surely her father would be able to put a stop to it?
His face turned florid and his eyes sparked with an unholy fervor.
Joan shrank back in the face of the temper she had unwittingly unleashed.
“I won’t do a damned thing! The whore is getting no better than she deserves for what she’s done.”
Joan’s throat choked with tears. She’s not a whore! She wanted to scream in protest, but fear held her tongue.
Perhaps guessing her thoughts, he slammed his fist down on the table. The whole room seemed to shake—including her. “As if putting a crown upon the head of her lover wasn’t enough, she is said to have taken the most notorious pirate in the Western Isles to her bed. Lachlan MacRuairi,” he bit out disgustedly, spittle foaming in the corners of his mouth. “A bastard and a brigand. If she’s being confined like an animal, it is because that is what the rutting bitch deserves.”
Joan loved her mother more than anyone in the world. She refused to believe what they said about her. They were lies meant to discredit her and explain what people thought was unnatural bravery in a woman. They needed an explanation for how a woman would dare defy not only her husband, but the most powerful king in Christendom to crown a “rebel” king.
But Robert Bruce had been like a brother to her mother—not a lover. As for Lachlan MacRuairi . . . Joan remembered the scary warrior who had appeared in her chamber in the middle of the night not long after her mother had left Balvenie Castle for Scone to crown Bruce to explain why she’d been unable to take Joan with her as she’d wanted to. He had been in charge of the guardsmen sent for her mother’s protection, that was all.
“She will freeze to death,” Joan whispered weakly, probing for any ounce of mercy that might remain for the woman he’d been married to for thirteen years. The woman he’d loved so much he could barely let her out of his sight and always had her under guard to keep her safe.
At least that’s what Joan had thought before. But maybe it was what her mother had wanted her to think. More and more, Joan was beginning to realize that something hadn’t been right in her parents’ marriage—that something wasn’t right with her father—and her mother had tried to prevent her from seeing it. What Joan thought had been love didn’t feel like love anymore. It felt like rabid possessiveness, control, and jealousy.
“Let her freeze,” her father said. “If I had my way, I’d see her hanging from the gibbet. I told Edward as much, but the king is reluctant to execute a woman—even one who is deserving. Instead she will serve as a warning, a reminder to all who might think to support the usurping ‘King Hood.’”
It was the name the English had given Robert the Bruce—the outlaw king. Nothing had been heard of Bruce and his followers in weeks. They were said to have fled to the Western Isles. They were hunted men. How long would it be before King Edward caught up with them?
Joan knew that help for her mother’s predicament would not come from that direction. Robert Bruce and his men were too busy trying to save their own lives to rescue her mother.
Nay, it was up to her. If anyone could help her mother it was she. Her father cared for her, the “beautiful” girl who so resembled him. She had to get through to him, even if it made him angry.
Joan might be quiet and reserved, but she wasn’t a coward. She had the blood of two of Scotland’s most important earldoms running through her veins. Taking a deep breath, she tried to clear the tears from her throat and lifted her eyes to meet his. “I know you think she betrayed you, Father, but she was only doing what she thought was right.”
“What was right?” her father exploded, jumping to his feet with enough force to cause the bench he’d been seated on to fall back with a resounding crash. Circling around the table, he grabbed her by the arm and hauled her to her feet. “How dare you try to defend her!”
Maybe she was a coward after all, because she was scared now. “I w-wasn’t—”
But he was deaf to her pleas. “I will show you what is ‘right’ lest you be tempted to follow in your whore of a mother’s treasonous footsteps. I wanted to spare you from this, but now I see that my coddling has only served to confuse you about where your loyalty lies. A daughter of Buchan—a Comyn—will never see anything right about a Bruce on a throne.”
He dragged her across the Hall. One look at his face was enough to turn even the most curious of gazes in the other direction. She tried to calm him down, tried to apologize, but he was too angry to listen.
The cold blast of autumn air penetrated through the wool of her gown as he pushed open the door and pulled her down the stairs. He called for horses, which were quickly brought forward.
She realized what he meant to do. “No, Father, please. Don’t take me there. I don’t want to see—”
“Not another word,” he bit out angrily. “You will do my bidding or I will see you punished with the lash. Would that I’d taken it to your mother and flogged the defiance out of her. We might have avoided this dishonor and blight upon our family.”
Joan’s eyes widened in disbelief. A lash? Her father had never raised a hand to her. But whatever regard he had for her had been forgotten by her defense of her mother. Not doubting that he meant what he said, she stopped protesting as he tossed her up onto a horse and they rode through the Northumbrian countryside the five miles to Berwick Castle.
By time they passed through the gate, Joan had never been in such a state of misery in her life. She hadn’t spoken a word since they left. Her father seemed a stranger—a dark, angry tyrant like the English king he defended.
It was dusk, and since she’d been forced from the manor house without a hooded cloak or gloves, her hands and ears were frozen.
What must it be like atop the tower in a cage?
She shivered or shuddered—maybe both.
Oh God, she couldn’t do this! To see her mother suffering so horribly . . .
But any thought she had of pleading with him one more time fled as he plucked her off of her horse. Their eyes met, and she knew he was beyond reason.
She kept her head down as long as she could. But eventually, amid the crowd of gaping onlookers, her father ordered her to look.
She forgot her fear long enough to beg. “Please, Father, don’t make me—”
“Look, God damn you!” He grabbed her chin and forced her gaze up to the ramparts. “See what happens to traitors and whores who betray their family to support false kings.”
For a moment her mind refused to let her see the horror and barbarity of the sight before her. But the self-protective blindness could only last so long. Like the specters of a nightmare, the shapes began to materialize through the hazy mist of nightfall.
The wood latticed bars . . . the iron frame . . . the tiny square of a prison that was barely enough space to stand and open to the elements and the scorn of onlookers.
No! An involuntary cry escaped her lips as she saw a movement inside the cage. “Mother!” she sobbed, lunging toward the tower as if she would free her. Every instinct in her body screamed to go to her. To do something. To put an end to this travesty. How could they do this to anyone? How could her mother possibly survive? Oh, Mother, I’m so sorry!
But she’d barely taken a few steps before her father caught her and pulled her away. She started to scream and kick, but he quieted her with a warning. “You are only making it worse. Do you want her to hear you? Do you think she wants you to see her like this?”
She knew her father was only trying to prevent a scene—he didn’t care about her mother’s feelings—but it worked. Somehow she knew that it would kill her mother to know her daughter had been forced to stand witness to her suffering.
But she couldn’t give up. She had to do something. Her mother needed her.
Past the point of caring about her father’s anger, she tried again. “Please, Father, I’m begging you. Please do something to help her. You can’t leave her like this.”
But he could. And that’s exactly what he did, dragging her sobbing and pleading from the castle.
Joan had never felt so helpless in her life. She’d failed. Her knees collapsed, and she would have slid to the ground had her father not been holding her up.
The pain and devastation on her face had finally penetrated the black haze of his anger.
Too late he seemed to realize that he might have gone too far. He held her up against him as if she were one of the pretty poppets he used to buy her as a child. “I’m sorry you had to see that, daughter. But it was for your own good.”
She looked at him as if he were mad. How could that possibly be for her own good? She would never forget it. Just as she would never forget his cruelty in bringing her here.
What he saw in her expression must have alarmed him. He looked truly uneasy as he wiped some of the hair back from her face. Feeling the chill on her skin, he jerked off his plaid to wrap around her. “Your mother is dead to us both. We will not speak of her again.”
He was right in that. They didn’t speak of her again. But it wasn’t her mother who died, it was her father, who didn’t rise from his bed after a fever struck him down two years later.
She didn’t mourn him. He’d been dead to her since the day he’d taken her to see her mother hanging in a cage. Her father had taught her a lesson that day, although not the one he intended. The image of her mother treated so brutally and Joan’s inability to do anything to stop it would stay with her forever, as would her hatred toward the king who’d put her there and the man who had refused to lift a finger to help her. She never saw her father in the same way again.
She would never see many things the same way again. No longer was she a spectator in the war between Scotland and England. From that day forward, seeing Edward of England defeated and Robert Bruce on the throne became all that mattered. She’d failed to free her mother from the cage, but she would do everything she could to ensure that her mother’s suffering had not been in vain.
She should have taken the lashing. At least those scars might have had a chance to heal.
Carlisle Castle, Cumbria, England, April 16, 1314
“You are driving me wild,” the young knight said as he frantically pressed his hot mouth all over her neck. “God, you smell so good.”
Joan wished she could say the same, but as Sir Richard Fitzgerald—the second-in-command of the Earl of Ulster’s Irish naval forces—had cornered her after the midday meal, he smelled distinctly of smoked herring, which needless to say was not her favorite.
When he tried to press his mouth on hers again, not even the prospect of learning the movements of the entire English fleet could have stopped her from turning her head. “We can’t,” she said softly. The slight breathiness in her voice was not from passion, but from the effort of fending off a determined would-be lover tired of hearing no. “Someone might discover us.”
Which was why she’d chosen this as a place to meet. It was private but not too private. She never left herself without a means of escape.
Deftly twisting out of his tentacle-like embrace with the ease of someone who’d had practice escaping men with hands like a hydra many times before, she looked around anxiously as if to prove her point.
They stood in a quiet section of the garden in the castle’s outer ward, where she’d announced that she was going to take a stroll after the long meal. As she’d intended, Sir Richard had followed her there and had pulled her behind one of the rose trellises.
The young captain scowled, his face flushed with frustrated desire. With his light eyes, blondish-red hair, ruddy, wind-burned complexion, and sturdy build, he bore the marked stamp of his Irish forebears. He was not unattractive. Not that it mattered. She’d lost her weakness for handsome young knights a long time ago.
“No one would discover us if you would agree to come to my room. My squire can sleep in the barracks for the night.”
“I couldn’t,” she said, as if the suggestion shocked her, though it was hardly the first time she’d heard it.
His smile might have been charming to someone with less experience in the ways of men. “Nothing untoward will happen,” he assured her with a gentle brush of his finger on her cheek.
Right. Every time she heard false promises like that, it became more difficult to feign wide-eyed innocence. With some effort, she managed. “Are you sure?”
He nodded, his voice turning husky. “We can just spend a little time alone together. I thought you wanted that.”
She gnawed anxiously on her bottom lip, as if contemplating the illicit offer. His gaze heated as he obviously contemplated equally illicit things about her mouth.
“Of course I do,” she said. “But it’s too risky, and there is plenty of time—”
“No there isn’t,” he snapped, losing patience with the two-week-long seduction that he no doubt thought would have progressed much further than a very few stolen kisses by now. She was supposed to be easy prey. “I received orders yesterday. I’m to leave in three days.”
Finally, the information for which she’d been waiting! Joan had begun to despair of ever hearing anything of import from him. Young knights were usually so eager to boast and brag—which is why she targeted them (that and they weren’t married)—but Sir Richard had been frustratingly closemouthed.
She hid her excitement and relief behind a mask of concern. “Orders? You are leaving? But I thought you had until June to muster at Berwick.”
“I’m not going to Berwick.” He sounded distracted. His eyes had dropped to her chest again—a frequent occurrence. “God, you are so beautiful. There isn’t another woman like you.”
As he looked like he might try to kiss her again, she shuffled “nervously” and spoke quickly. “You’re not? Has the war been called off then?”
He glanced up from his lustful study of her breasts. She hoped he thought her as stupid as she sounded. If his amused but slightly patronizing smile was any indication, he did.
“No, the war hasn’t been called off. But my duties are on the sea in advance of the army.”
Which is why she was here with him. It was rumored that the Earl of Ulster—Sir Richard’s commander who was currently in York meeting with King Edward—would be in charge of supplying the castles in advance of the English invasion. King Robert the Bruce would love to know of their plans. Though Ulster was Bruce’s father-in-law, he was Edward of England’s man.
She acted as if the news of his leaving was devastating. “But where are you going? When will you be back? Will it be dangerous?”
Whether he would have answered her questions, she would not find out. The sound of approaching voices put a quick end to the conversation. Leaning over, he pressed a quick kiss on her lips that she could not avoid. Herring.
“Meet me later,” he whispered before slipping away.
Not a chance in Satan’s garden, she thought with a shudder. At least until she had a means of escape.
Cursing, knowing she might not have another opportunity like this again, she walked out from behind the trellis to greet the ill-timed interruption as the group of ladies came around the corner of a large hedge that surrounded some of the raised flower beds.
Joan had been so close. But her contingency plan had worked too well. She hadn’t wanted to risk being alone with him too long. She didn’t know how much longer she could keep putting him off. It was a dangerous game she played, and she knew only too well what a fine line she walked.
This was not the first time she’d encouraged a man to get information. She’d been spying for Robert the Bruce for almost six years now.
Shortly after her father’s death, the Bishop of St. Andrews, William Lamberton, a loyal supporter of Bruce’s who was being held in England at the time, had approached Joan to see if she would be willing to serve as an intermediary between Bruce and his imprisoned wife. Queen Elizabeth had been captured along with Joan’s mother, but she’d been spared a cage for confinement under the supervision of Sir Hugh Despenser the elder—Joan’s newly named guardian.
The bishop’s offer was exactly the opportunity Joan had been waiting for to do something, and she’d agreed immediately. Although admittedly, at the time, she had no idea what she was getting into. Over the years her role had grown increasingly more important—and more dangerous—shifting from messenger to spy after she’d falsely been declared illegitimate, dispossessed of her inheritance, and sent to live with her cousin Alice Comyn, who had married Sir Henry de Beaumont, one of King Edward’s most important barons in the north. Joan’s position in de Beaumont’s household had given her unexpected access to important information—and important men.
With her “tainted” blood, infamous mother, and no one to defend her, Joan had been easy prey. Men had targeted her for their unwelcome attention since she was fifteen. She’d been too young to protect herself then, but eventually, she’d turned it to her advantage.
Although some men—like Sir Richard—had a hard time hearing no, over the years she has learned to handle even the most determined of pursuers. Thanks in large part to the man who’d served as her personal sentinel since he’d first learned of her work for Bruce.
Lachlan MacRuairi, who’d freed and then later married her mother, had taught Joan how to move around without being seen, how to extract herself from unwanted situations, and, if necessary, how to defend herself. It was because of him that she’d been made a secret member of the elite Highland Guard, Bruce’s highly skilled team of warriors who had been recruited for the most dangerous missions. Only Lachlan knew her identity; the other members of the Guard simply called her the Ghost.
The name fit, probably more than they realized. Most of the time she felt like a shadow. There, but not really there. Seen, but unseen. Unable to touch or be touched, and incapable of feeling.
The ladies stopped to return her greeting but did not invite her to join them on their walk. As this is what Joan expected, she wasn’t disappointed. It was a lesson she’d learned a long time ago. If you don’t expect much of people, it won’t hurt when they don’t give it to you. Her father had been her first example, but many more had followed.
Realizing that it was getting late, and that her cousin would be looking for her soon to help her pick out what to wear for the evening meal (a process that seemed to take most of the afternoon), Joan started to make her way over the portcullis of the interior moat to the inner ward.
As the guardian of the castle for the king, de Beaumont had been given the largest suite of rooms on the top level of the new two-story tower that only had been completed a handful of years ago. As companion to her cousin, Joan had a small antechamber off the “lord’s chamber.” It wasn’t large, but it had a window directly overlooking the countryside beyond the east wall, and most important . . . it was private. Unfortunately, her cousin intercepted her, and it was hours before Joan was able to seek the solitude of her chamber.
At first, she didn’t notice anything amiss. She tossed the plaid she wore around her shoulders on the bed, kicked off her slippers, pulled the pins from her hair, and threw them on the small dressing table before moving to the window.
She froze. The tiny piece of silk thread that she’d tied to the latch on the shutter had been snapped.
Excitement burst through her. Finally! She had him. It was a game between her and Lachlan. Known for his ability to get in and out of anywhere without being seen, he’d been surprising her for years—and she’d been trying to catch him.
Trying. Unsuccessfully, at least, until now. A rare smile turned her mouth. The feeling that filled her chest was so foreign she almost didn’t recognize it: happiness.
Moving swiftly to the ambry door, she pulled it open. “Hello, Father.”
Calling him Father had started out as a jest to make him feel old—he’d just turned forty to her twenty—but she knew it wasn’t just that anymore. The man her father had called a bastard, brigand, and pirate was much more of a parent to her than her own had ever been.
She heard a very un-fatherly curse before the big warrior materialized from behind her gowns. He scowled, although for a man with the war name of Viper there wasn’t much behind it. “How did you know?”
She folded her arms across her chest and quirked a brow the way he did to her. “You don’t expect me to tell you all my secrets, do you?”
Many people who knew him would be surprised to see how easily his mouth curved into a smile. The mean brigand with the black heart had changed, though he’d probably die before admitting it. He had a reputation to uphold after all.
“Not bad, little one. If all my men were so easily trained, my job would be a hell of a lot easier.”
She grinned. Then realizing that she might actually be beaming, she sobered. “As much as I look forward to our little family reunions, I’m assuming for you to have risked climbing through that window your reason for being here is important.”
He nodded and motioned for her to sit. She sat on the edge of the bed and he took a seat opposite her on the stone window sill. He shot a meaningful glance to the door. She shook her head. “My cousin and Sir Henry are still in the Hall.”
He nodded and continued. “Carrick plans to make an attempt on the castle tonight here along the east wall.” He gave her a dry look. “I know it goes against your nature—God knows it’s against your mother’s—but try to stay out of danger and not go running toward it, will you?”
She laughed. “I’ll do my best, and I appreciate the warning. But I hope the earl has a good plan. The English are tired of Bruce taking back all of his castles—they’ll not give up one of their most important without a fight. I don’t have to tell you how well defended it is.”
“Nay, I had a devil of a time—” He stopped, his eyes narrowing. “If that’s a trick to try to get me to tell you how I got in, it isn’t going to work.”
She blinked at him innocently, which he didn’t believe for a minute.
“Christ, now I know where she got it from!”
Her brows drew together questioningly.
“Your sister. Christina gives me that look every time she’s done something naughty—which seems to be a daily occurrence.”
Joan couldn’t prevent the tiny pinch in her chest. She’d never regretted the decision not to return to Scotland with her mother after Lachlan had rescued her—Joan had chosen her path and knew it was a solitary one—but she did regret not knowing her young half siblings. She had three now: Erik who would be five in a few months, Christina who was three and a half, and Robbie, who was almost eighteen months.
“You know what the Bible says: ‘as ye sow, so shall ye reap.’”
Lachlan shook his head with a sigh. “That’s what your mother says.”
He told her what he knew of Edward Bruce’s plan to take the castle, which in her opinion—and Lachlan’s from the sound of it—seemed to be more a “why not take a shot as long as we are here” than a well-thought-through operation.
“So the bulk of the men will attack the main gate, while a small force in black cloaks to blend into the night will attempt to slip over the curtain wall behind the kitchens?” she summarized. “It seems like I’ve heard something like that before,” she added dryly, referring to James Douglas’s taking of Roxburgh Castle and Thomas Randolph’s taking of Edinburgh Castle, which had used similar tactics.
Lachlan shook his head. “The king’s brother will never be accused of inventiveness. But I think he is tired of hearing about Douglas and Randolph and wants to have his own ‘miraculous feat of warfare.’ Just see that you are no where near the kitchens after midnight.”
“No late-night snacks for me, I swear it. Even if the cook makes apple tarts.”
He shook his head and chuckled. “Now you sound like Erik. Don’t turn your back on your sweets with that one around.”
She smiled, but when their eyes met, she suspected he’d guessed what she was thinking—there was little chance she’d get that opportunity. At least not while the war was going on and while she remained undiscovered. She was too valuable here. If she were discovered . . . well, they both knew what would happen then.
“That reminds me. I have something for you,” Lachlan added.
“A tart?” she jested, trying to cover the oddly emotional moment.
It didn’t work. “Nay,” he said seriously. “This. You are one of us now, and since a tattoo isn’t appropriate, I thought this might suffice.”
He handed her a gold bracelet. It was about two and a half inches wide and in the shape of a cuff. It opened with a hinge on one side and two tiny latches on the other. It was beautifully designed with a carved ornate pattern on the outside that reminded her of the old crosses in the churchyards back home in Buchan in the northeast of Scotland. But it’s what she saw on the inside that made her gasp.
She looked up at her stepfather with her heart in her throat. The design lightly etched on the inside of the cuff was familiar to her, although she’d never seen it. The Lion Rampant and spiderweb was the mark tattooed on the arms of the members of the Highland Guard. Hers was personalized with something else that was important to her—two tiny roses. The pink rose had become a symbol among the people to protest her mother’s cruel and barbaric punishment.
She didn’t know what to say. She feared if she said anything, he would know how much this meant to her, but hiding her emotions was part of the armor that enabled her to do her job. “It’s beautiful. Thank you,” she managed. “This means . . . a lot.”
Maybe understanding more than she would have liked, he nodded. “Rock made it.” Joan had heard of the newest member of the Highland Guard—and the feat he’d performed in climbing Castle Rock to help take Edinburgh Castle. “I don’t need to tell you to be careful with it. Enough people know what that means.”
She slipped it on. “I will.”
“Leave it with the priest at St. Mary’s if you ever need me.” He looked at her for a few moments longer as if undecided about something. “I should probably go. The others are waiting for me.”
She nodded. It was hard when he left. She always felt so . . . alone. Most of the time she liked it that way. But the short, infrequent meetings with Lachlan were the only time she could talk to someone without being on guard.
Lachlan pulled something out of his pocket and handed it to her. “I probably shouldn’t be giving you this, but here is the powder you requested from Helen.”
Helen MacKay—known as Angel—was the de facto physician of the Guard.
Joan tried not to wriggle under his intense scrutiny, but those eerie green eyes had a way of penetrating. “I’ve been having trouble sleeping,” she explained.
She thought he might call her lie right there, but he refrained. “Helen told me to remind you not to mix it with spirits—the effects are intensified.”
“I’ll remember that,” she said blankly.
He wasn’t fooled. “You better be careful, Joan. If your mother finds out what you are doing . . .”
She lifted her chin. “I can take care of myself, Lachlan. I’ve been doing so for six years.” Eight if she counted back to when her mother left.
“I don’t ask you how you discover all this information—”
“Good,” she said, cutting him off. “It’s none of your concern.”
He ignored her warning. “But I’m hearing rumors.”
She stiffened and gave him a hard look. “You better than anyone know better than to listen to gossip.”
The lies that were spread about him were far worse than anything they might say about her.
“Maybe so, but I also know there is usually a little bit of truth to them.”
She pursed her mouth closed, signaling that she wasn’t going to talk about it anymore.
He sighed. “You keep your thoughts hidden better than any warrior I know—your mother used to do the same thing—but don’t think I haven’t noticed how sad you seem lately. I can’t remember the last time I saw you smile.”
“I’m fine,” she assured him. But seeing that she hadn’t convinced him she added, “I know you are worried, but you don’t need to be. I know what I’m doing.”
Whatever it takes so that no one else ever has to see her mother in a cage.