His powers could save her from ruin, or guide her swiftly to it.
Lennox Taskill is a dissolute rogue, a powerful witch who some say even trades his enchantments for profit when it pleases him. His only loyalty is to his coven, his disdain for humanity sealed by the searing memory of his mother burning at the stake. So when the wife of a wealthy landlord comes seeking his help, the beguiling Chloris Keavey unwittingly presents Lennox with his greatest opportunity for distraction...and retribution.
By failing to produce an heir, Chloris faces a terrible threat: being turned out by her heartless husband. Now, she vows to get with child, even if it means surrendering her body—and soul—to Lennox's seductive magic. But with a witch hunt brewing, Lennox and Chloris are soon risking everything for their forbidden nights of ecstasy...and to protect the secret that could cost them their lives.
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It is the combination of potent eroticism and strong storytelling that has become the leading characteristic of award-winning author Saskia Walker's novels and novellas. She writes across genres, often incorporating elements of history, paranormal and fantasy, and her work has now appeared in over one hundred anthologies. Nowadays Saskia is settled in Yorkshire with her real-life hero, Mark, and a houseful of stray cats. You can visit her website at www.saskiawalker.co.uk.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Saint Andrews, Scotland 1715.
Even as she urged her mount through the forest, Chloris Keavey questioned her judgment and sanity, for the place she sought was an ominous, gaunt dwelling where those who practiced witchcraft gathered under the protection of their leader. It was a dangerous undertaking, and when she caught sight of the building a shiver ran through her. Stone built and covered in ivy, the house merged into its setting as wild and foreboding as the forest itself.
"I pray that my quest is not ill-fated," she murmured, steeling herself for what she might encounter. Chloris approached with a mixture of wariness and determination, for it was both a last resort and a terrible risk. The people who gathered there practiced forbidden magic, despite the threat of persecution and death that hung over their kind. Who was most insane—those who defied the law laid down by King James VI of Scotland over a hundred years earlier, or her for willingly seeking them out?
A breeze swept up around her, stirring the tall trees that surrounded the dwelling. Early spring leaves and blossoms were more abundant at this spot, which meant the trees cast the building in shadows as they swayed in the breeze. Evening was on its way. A candle set in a small window to one side of the heavy wooden door was the only welcoming sign she saw.
Dismounting, she looped her horse's reins around the branch of a tree then approached the house. Now that she was closer she saw the barns and wooden outhouses beyond, nestled deeper in the trees. It was there that the commerce was undertaken, the cart and carriage construction. The work that proved a respectable mask for the other practices that went on there. Over the door she saw that a word had been carved into the wooden plinth. Somerled. It did not sound like a warning, but neither was she clear on its meaning.
When she rapped on the door a young woman appeared. The woman lifted the candlestick from the window, held it aloft and eyed Chloris with caution. "What or who is it that you are seeking?"
Was she a servant, or was she one of them? Chloris wondered. There was no cap covering the woman's head and her hair was hanging loose about her shoulders. Her eyes were unusual, being a misty-gray color. In all other respects she appeared none other than a normal young woman.
"I have been advised that a..." Witch. Chloris paused. She knew she must avoid saying the word. "...that a knowledgeable one abides here. Someone who might be able to advise me on an intimate matter."
"What intimate matter might that be?" The young woman looked beyond Chloris, as if checking she was alone.
Chloris had been told she would have to state her cause to gain entry, so she was prepared. It was hard to voice the nature of her problem, however, especially to a stranger. The sense of discomfort she felt was great, and yet the woman before her scarcely blinked when she said it aloud. "I've been told that your leader can influence a woman's...fertility."
"Who told you this?"
Mention of her contact by name drew a nod from the woman. She stood back and ushered Chloris into the hallway. "Wait here a moment and I will announce you."
Chloris stood in silence and then looked back at the door. Evening was already closing in. She would have to be back at Torquil House in time for dinner or her absence would raise suspicion. It was still possible to leave, to disappear into the encroaching evening and return to the safety of her cousin's home. No. I need to be here. They might be able to help me. The risk was great, but her options were few. Anything, absolutely anything, was worth an attempt, and Chloris Keavey, wife of Gavin Meldrum of Edinburgh, was determined to be a brave soul.
Before she had the chance to think on it any longer the young woman returned, nodded and led her into a parlor. Chloris followed, warily. Once inside she discovered it was far from what she might have expected, being both pleasantly furnished and warm, with the fragrant aroma of a peat fire filling the room.
Apart from the fire there was only one candle, the one that was held by her escort. The young woman nodded beyond the fireplace. "I'll leave you to your dealings."
She was gone inside a blink, taking her candle with her.
As the door clicked shut Chloris looked about the room. With only the glowing embers in the grate to see by, it took a few moments for her eyes to adjust. Then she noticed that the parlor was comfortable, with solid wooden chairs arranged around the fire and a well-stacked bookshelf at the nearside of the hearth. On the far side she spied a generous stack of peat. The flagstones in front of the fireplace had been well polished and glinted in the firelight.
Almost immediately she knew she was not alone.
There was someone sitting in the gloomy shadows beyond the fireplace. It was the feeling of being watched that alerted her to the presence. Shrouded in darkness as the seat was, she could not discern the person, nor did the person make it easy on her by revealing themselves. Instead they remained hidden, watching her.
Chloris clasped her hands together so that they did not tremble. Never let them know you are afraid, her father had taught her when she was a bairn. She swallowed, reminding herself that she was not easily frightened. Despite the lurid tales she'd heard told about the nature of witches, the house indicated some level of sophistication. Grandeur, even. Perhaps the old woman would be kindly. Something had kept her and her coven safe for a number of years, after all. Chloris could only guess at what it might be. She had come here with little information other than what she'd overheard the servant girls discussing. When she'd taken Maura aside and asked for the whereabouts of the local coven and its leader, she did so out of desperation. Now that she was here, the stories she'd heard about witches over the years came to mind and made her uneasy. Chloris did not want to be afraid. She'd made the decision to come here and she stood by that.
She coughed aloud and took several paces forward, closing on the fireplace. Peering into the gloom, she tried to discern features of the person sitting in the armchair. "Good evening," she said, her voice faltering.
The figure moved in response, long booted legs stretching across the floor toward her.
Chloris peered in disbelief. It was a man. How could this be?
She had expected a mature woman who could aid her with her problem, or at least speak with knowledge about women and the problems of their sex. Instead it was a man who sat before her, languid—yet poised as a nobleman.
She struggled to maintain her composure, but her heart beat erratically. This was so far from what she had expected, and she had thought on it at length. Chloris was practical by nature, and whilst she had her doubts about how much their forbidden craft could achieve, she'd felt sure an older woman would have some sage words about fertility.
"Good evening." His voice was deep and resonant.
It sent a shiver through her, because she could not see his features clearly in the gloom. In his hand she saw that he nursed a crystal glass halffull with dark wine.
"Please take a seat and speak with me about your concerns." The man leaned forward in his chair.
Chloris inhaled sharply. The firelight cast his face in stark relief. There was a wild look to him for he had harsh, angular features and dark winged eyebrows that barely shaded the brilliance of his strange blue eyes. The firm outline of his mouth and the rakish look in his eye were evidence of a sensual nature. That left her in no doubt the rumors she'd heard about the carnal nature of those who practiced witchcraft were indeed true. On a woman she might have been able to ignore any blatant signs of her wanton ways, not so this man. She was scarcely able to look away, though, despite the fact that she felt the urge to run. "Forgive me, sire. I have made a mistake in coming here."
Frowning, he rose from his chair. "Why so?"
Chloris stepped back into the shadows.
His eyelids f lickered and he scrutinized her more intensely.
Chloris attempted to lower her gaze, but still found herself compelled to consider his impressive personage. He was built large and wore a skirted coat in dark red, with a fitted waistcoat beneath. The lace at his cuffs was well made but not overly extravagant. His knee breeches emphasized his build, tightly fitted about the thighs as they were, and his woolen stockings and buckled boots also displayed his stature. His clothes were finely made and stylish, but he wore no wig and his dark hair was loose and hung to his shoulders. In sum, he was dangerously attractive.
She mustered a response, forcing her gaze back to his. "On reflection I am not sure you are the right person to help me."
A knowing smile passed over his handsome mouth. He stepped after her. "If a soul calls to me I am obligated to assist, if it is within my power to do so. In coming here, you have already called to me."
"No." The more she backed away the closer he seemed to be, looming over her, bright eyed and determined.
"Why not?" His manner was blatant to the point of rudeness. He swigged from his glass, draining it, and set it down on a nearby table. Devilment shone in his eyes. It was almost as if he was aware of her discomfort and its cause.
"I do not wish to discuss my intimate matters with a man." A man who was several years younger than her, by the looks of him.
"We are equally able to help you, man or woman. I will treat you no different for being a woman, if you treat me no different for being a man." Humor danced in his eyes. "We are equal in our humanity, are we not?"
His statement shocked her. It went against the rebellious ways she expected of his sort, and it was certainly nothing she ever expected to hear a man say. In her experience men were all too ready to demean a woman for their own aggrandizement, not elevate her to their own status. Shocking her was, no doubt, his purpose.
He circled her as he continued to speak, eyeing her from head to toe, his gaze lingering particularly on her double-breasted riding jacket as if he was able to discern her figure beneath. "I am aware of the matter that has brought you here. You described your problem to Ailsa, did you not?"
Chloris felt her face heat. Presumably Ailsa was the woman who had opened the door, and she had gone into the parlor to announce the visitor. That meant he was already fully informed of her problem. That and his bold inquisitive stare as he circled her, looking her up and down with total candor, made her situation verge on humiliation. She was desperate for help. Nevertheless she could not discuss matters of her marital bed with a young man, a man who some would say was in league with dark forces.
It was a mistake. She regretted coming and turned away, heading for the door.
He closed on the door quickly, striding over to bar her way.
Chloris drew to a halt. Her breath was trapped in her lungs. Cornered as she was, she defended herself. "Aren't you afraid that someone will reveal the presence of your coven here, so close to the royal burgh of Saint Andrews?"
It had been an attempt to divert the nature of the exchange on her part, but it only seemed to amuse him. A lazy smile passed over his handsome face. "Coven?" He gestured around the room, where he was her only host. "What coven?"
The man's manner was infuriating. "I know that people come to you for assistance," she explained, "for your knowledge of." Magic.
"The old ways." He grew serious for a moment and she caught sight of a weary look in his expression. "What we believe in and practice are simply old ways, passed down from mother to child." His eyes darkened. "It is time for the Church and its slaves to cease the persecution of those who differ from them."
Chloris felt oddly moved by his comments, and her mood leveled. "But I have heard that people like you are still hunted down. Surely you take a risk every time someone comes into your home for help."
He considered her thoughtfully. "Those who come to us in earnest have little cause to be angry and oust us. Is that your intention?"
Remembering her own need and its intimate nature, she shook her head in shame. "No, I."
He cocked his head to one side, as if considering her comment. "You think I should be more cautious than allowing a strange woman into my home?"
Somewhat affronted, she rounded her eyes at him.
He laughed softly then bowed his head. "Perhaps you are right. Perhaps I should be more cautious. It was Maura Dun-bar who advised you to come here. I do not recognize you. In what way are you an acquaintance of Maura?"
Chloris immediately regretted her comments, for they had drawn her into a deeper conversation. "She is a servant at the home of a friend of mine."
More accurately, Maura was the servant of her cousin Tam-has Keavey, with whom she was visiting. Chloris was unwilling to draw her cousin into it. Tamhas was a prominent landowner and a member of the town council of Saint Andrews. He would be appalled to know she was here with people who he thought should be strung up for their beliefs and practices.
The man studied her then nodded thoughtfully. "Intriguing." His eyes glittered darkly. "As you are known to Maura I will choose to trust you to stay a while longer in my home."
Again Chloris's face heated. She had the feeling he was more than a little amused by their exchange. Before she could respond he moved, quick as lightning, and reached for her hand. His action took her by surprise and she was unable to react before he unfastened her kid glove, tugged it off and touched her bared hand.
"You wear a wedding band, I see."
He rested her glove over the doorknob.
Chloris stared at it. She knew what it signified. He no longer barred the door. If she picked up the glove she would be on her way.
"Tell me," he continued, "do you wish to be with child, or to avoid that situation?"
Still he held her hand, keeping her close to him. She should have been affronted by his forthright questioning, and yet he was so strangely compelling that she whispered her response. "I wish to...to be with..." It was his stare, so bold and suggestive, that made her falter. Pulling her faculties together, she braced herself. "I wish to fall pregnant with my husband's child."
He considered her at length. All the while he stroked the tender skin on the inside of her wrist with one finger, softly, drawing her to him.
Try as she might, she could not summon the will to pull her hand free.
"Tell me your name." His voice was so melodic, so seductive.
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