Authors: Gerri Russell
Abigail came to stand beneath the tree and looked up. "My child, get down from there! You'll hurt yourself."
Brianna gathered her skirts in her hand, then made her way back down to the ground.
"Ladies don't climb trees, Brianna."
"My apologies. Old habits die hard," she said softly, studying her toes with great intent. She'd tried to let that part of her life go. Lord knew her father had made her suffer enough for wanting something different than what she'd been allotted by life. Brianna swallowed back pain and schooled her features into a look of calm acceptance before she met Abigail's searching gaze.
There was a slight frown on Abigail's face. "My child, I know this is hard for you, but you must try."
Brianna nodded. She did try. She tried every day, but some deep-seated need in her heart always brought her back to the tree, to those bedamned silver spurs and the memories she should let die.
Her thoughts moved to the one man she blamed for her current situation. He'd taught her everything she needed to know about fighting and warring, yet he'd also been the one person who had crushed her dreams. In her mind's eye she saw not a vision, but a memory of Simon Lockhart the day he'd discovered her ruse…
They'd been training all day, sparring with each other. She'd taken him to the ground twice and his pride had been injured. That's when he'd pushed his attack harder than he'd ever pushed it before.
He'd brought his sword down, inside her defenses. Then, with an upward stroke, he'd sliced through her tunic and the bindings that held her breasts into place. He'd seen for himself that she was no boy as she'd pretended.
Had they been closer to Scotland, Brianna would have been sent home. Instead, Simon had offered to serve as her guardian when her own brothers would have nothing to do with her.
Simon had made her his squire and allowed her to keep her sword, more for her own protection than anything else. The other Templars were angry with her for her falsehood. And everyone except Simon went on ignoring her even after Teba.
Brianna shivered as she swept the memory from her mind.
"Come inside. I need your help. We have guests," Abigail's tone grew light. "Knights. I thought perhaps you'd be interested," she teased with a quirk of her brows.
Brianna offered her old nurse a tight smile before she followed her inside the cottage. Torture and punishment. That's what the next few hours would be. She'd be confronted with a life that was denied her by one cruel man — Simon Lockhart.
In the small kitchen, Abigail handed Brianna a thick cloth and waved her toward the steaming iron pot near the hearth that contained mutton stew. "Take that in and serve it to the men while I gather bread and cheese."
She would serve the men because she had no choice. Yet she had wanted to serve her country in another way ... by following the visions that haunted her dreams. But so far, her visions had only led her to a life with no purpose.
She'd had a vision last night, one she did not understand. It seemed so real — more real than any vision she'd ever had before. A man she did not recognize appeared in her chamber dressed in a white tunic that bore a Templar's cross. He'd leaned over her and taken a lock of her hair.
Her fingers strayed up to her unbound tresses. A shiver of foreboding rippled through her. The odd thing was, a hunk of her red hair
gone. But such a thing was impossible. Dream apparitions did not steal locks of hair. Unless it was no dream?
Brianna forced the thought away. 'Twas only a dream. She wrapped a cloth around the warm iron handle of the pot Abigail had indicated. She took a deep breath and moved toward the dining area with exaggerated care. Knights? Here? Why? The click of her leather boots on the wood floor broke the silence as she moved through the doorway, prepared for the battle with her own spoiled hopes and dreams.
She stepped up to the table where two men sat with their backs to her. Focusing on her task, she dipped the ladle into the kettle and scooped out a hearty serving for the man on her right. She glanced at the stranger and her throat went dry. She stared, gape-mouthed at the man she'd hoped never in her life to see again.
Handsome, elegant, yet rugged. Sir Simon Lockhart.
Brianna swallowed roughly. His voice sounded as she'd remembered, like the darkest ale — rich and smooth. Her heart thundered in her ears. "Get out!"
His expression darkened.
Good. That frown dulled some of his perfection.
"You can't mean that," he said slowly, fixing her with a steady, searching gaze. He looked at her, through her.
Brianna set her shoulders back. He'd see no weakness in her. "But I do." Her teeth came together with a snap as the urge to say more swelled inside. Nay, she wouldn't give him the satisfaction of knowing just how deeply he'd hurt her.
His expression grew more intense. "I've spent the last fortnight looking for you. I went to Rosslyn Castle, but your father would not meet with me. He sent a message through his steward saying his daughter was lost to him. What did he mean by that?"
She tensed, but remained silent.
He leaned toward her. "'Twas the stable boy who told me where I might find you. He said when you left Rosslyn that you left with only a horse and a sword. Why?"
Memories flickered through her mind. A horse and a sword were all her father would give her. He'd tossed her out as if she were last week's pottage. She squeezed her eyes shut and forced the memories back into the deep recesses of her mind. "Get out." She repeated and snapped her eyes open.
"Brianna, you don't mean—"
With a slight twist of her wrist, the stew slipped off the ladle and into his lap.
A curse left his lips as he shot to his feet, sending his chair flying backward. The wooden chair hit the floor with a crash. He brushed frantically at his lap.
"Merciful heavens," Abigail cried as she rushed into the room, a wooden tray with bread and a wedge of cheese balanced in one hand while she scooped the chair from the floor with the other. "Whatever is going on out here?"
Brianna dipped the ladle back into the kettle and took a quick step back. "Nothing of importance," she said at the same moment Simon replied. "Fool girl."
The memory of her father saying the same words to her upon her return from Teba darted through her mind. "
Your brothers are dead because of you. You'll never be a knight, you foolish girl. You'll never be anything to me again.
" The memory of his disapproving voice sent a new wave of old guilt and loss through her.
"You have no reason to be here. Please leave," she repeated with more politeness than he deserved.
"Brianna," Abigail gasped. "Of course he has a right. Whatever could you be thinking?" the older woman turned to Simon. "Pray forgive her, Sir Simon."
He straightened and something close to understanding flickered in the depth of his gaze. "I came to talk with you. To be civil. You owe me at least that for the fact that you are still, after all, alive."
He was right. His actions that day in Teba had saved her life. Brianna clenched her fists. He had dashed her dreams, but she hadn't given up. She would be a knight someday and prove to him and anyone else in her life who had ever doubted her visions that she wasn't mad, that she was as good as any man with a sword, that her life had a purpose.
Abigail remained silent, but her gaze spoke volumes. Once again feeling a sense of obligation to her benefactor, Brianna forced a smile. "Yes, your-knightliness, milord," she amended at Abigail's harsh glance. "Please be seated." She waved her hand toward the righted chair. "I promise not to accost you with more stew." As if to prove her point, she ladled the stew into both bowls, then stepped back. "There, see, it's quite safe, I assure you. Abigail cooked the meal, and the belladonna has yet to bloom."
Simon smiled. The effect was devastating. His features brightened, his eyes warmed, and against her will, her heart stuttered.
Brianna cleared her throat and looked away. "Sit down. You're safe with me."
Simon sat back down and accepted the length of linen Abigail handed him. He wiped himself off while keeping his gaze focused on Brianna. "Sit with us," he said when he was finished cleaning the stew from his leather tunic and breeches.
She thought about refusing until she turned to Abigail — a warning lingered in her eyes that dared her to refuse. Brianna dropped into the chair the farthest from him. His gaze held hers. An unexpected understanding, deep and penetrating, shone from the bottom of his dark eyes.
Brianna shifted in her seat. She didn't like the way he looked at her — like he searched her soul for secrets. God knew she had enough of them. She twisted slightly away, shielding herself.
Once Brianna had complied with Simon's wishes, Abigail placed the platter of bread and cheese on the table before the men. "Sir Kaden, would you be so kind as to help me in the kitchen for a moment?"
Kaden rolled his eyes and scooted his seat back. He followed Abigail, looking almost pleased to escape the non-verbal sparring that filled the small room with tension.
When they were alone, Brianna turned to Simon. "What do you want?"
"I need your help." At her startled look he added, "It's important."
Intrigue dulled the edge of her anger. She sat forward and fixed him with a stern gaze. "What could be so important that you would belittle yourself by coming to me?"
"The survival of the Templars."
She sat back. Again, he'd surprised her. "What?"
"I don't know how much, if anything, you've heard about the notorious Frenchman Pierre de la Roche."
She frowned. "I live in isolation. What could I possibly hear about the state of things?"
"I'm somewhat relieved to hear that," he said, his expression so serious that a lump of unease formed in Brianna's chest. "De la Roche came to Scotland with the sole purpose of annihilating what remains of the Scottish Templars and taking back to France whatever he can of the Templar treasure. He tried first to take the Spear of Destiny, but now that he has failed with that, he appears to be after the entire treasure."
Brianna eased back in her chair, stunned. "I'm sorry for the Templars he's deceived, but how can I possibly help you with any of that?"
He scooted his chair close to hers. Too close. "Disguising himself," Simon continued, his voice low so only she could hear, "De la Roche infiltrated what remained of our organization. He went on patrol with the men who were to guard the treasure until Lucius Carr could organize the men to move the artifacts."
"I still don't see how I can possibly help you."
Simon leaned closer. Brianna felt his soft breath against her cheek. She closed her eyes. Why did his nearness have to feel so reassuring and upsetting at the same time? When she opened her eyes she found herself staring into his dark-eyed gaze.
"Your visions, Brianna," he said slowly. "They seem to focus on things that are important to you."
"Aye," she agreed, still not understanding how she could help.
"We can use your visions to tell us not only what de la Roche looks like now, but where he is. Your visions can help us stop him from harming anyone else and aid us in locating the treasure he stole."
She opened her mouth to tell him no, when his finger touched her parted lips. The clean scent of lye soap filled her nostrils, and the words that formed on her tongue slid back down her throat. She stared at him in silence.
"Before you say anything, I want to make you an offer."