Kiss of the Moon

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9780671739249: Kiss of the Moon
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Lady Sorcha of Castle Prydd, a mischievous and beautiful young woman who bears a fateful birthmark, finds true love with Lord Hagan of Erbyn, an avowed enemy of her family, when she tries to rescue her kidnapped sister. Original.

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About the Author:

Lisa Jackson is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of both historical romance novels and contemporary suspense. Her most recent books include See How She Dies, Hot Blooded, and Cold Blooded. She lives in Oregon.

For more information, visit www.lisajackson.com.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

Castle Prydd

December 1296


"Leah, please, take my place," Sorcha begged of her younger sister as they passed by the dovecote and scattered seeds for the birds. In a flutter of feathers, the doves picked through the frozen gravel of a path running through the bedraggled garden.

"I know not," Leah said, shaking her head as she threw another handful of seeds onto the ground.

Sorcha's cloak billowed in the icy wind blowing across the sea, and she felt more than a twinge of guilt, for it was her turn to sit through one of Father William's long masses and pass out alms to the poor. "I promise next week I'll do the same for you."

Leah rubbed her tiny chin thoughtfully. Her eyes, green as the forest, were unreadable. "And what will Tadd say?"

Sorcha's lips turned down at the thought of her brother. "I care not."

"If he catches us?"

"I shall take all the blame," Sorcha replied, anxious to be off. Leah could be so stubborn sometimes. "Asides, we won't be caught. You'll wear my cloak and ride my mare. Only the soldier who guards you will know the truth, and Sir Henry is easily bribed."

"I like this not. Tadd -- "

"Curse Tadd." Sorcha couldn't hide her disgust for her older brother. He'd tormented her for as long as she could remember, tricking her into making a fool of herself, laughing at her expense, treating her as if she were somehow no better than the manure in the stables. For years she'd endured his torture. He was seven years older and had convinced her at the age of five to try and suckle milk from the mother cat's teats, then, in the company of the other young boys, laughed at her. When she was seven he'd shorn her head under the guise of letting her become one of the boys, then made fun of her ugly scalp. Just after she'd turned twelve, he'd sold her to a sixteen-year-old stableboy whom she'd had to kick in the groin to escape.

But things had changed. Sorcha had realized that to protect herself from Tadd's cruelty, she had to become more devious than he. By befriending several of the knights in her father's service, she'd learned how to ride a war-horse, how to shoot arrows as straight and true as any archer in the castle, and how to use a knife to defend herself. Still she hadn't been convinced that these skills alone would keep her safe from her brother's treachery, so she'd taught herself how to use a whip and a mace and even the heavy military flail. However, it was her wits upon which she relied. Though Tadd was stronger and swifter, he wasn't as smart as she, thank the good Mother Mary.

Leah, as if reading her mind, bit down on her lip. "While Father's away, Tadd's the lord of the castle."

"Remind me not," Sorcha replied, unable to hide her disgust for her older brother. Ever since their father had ridden off to fight the bloody Scots, leaving his eldest in charge of the castle, life in Prydd had changed. Some of the knights neglected their duties, preferring to roll dice, drink wine, and seduce the kitchen wenches. Surly and often drunk, they seemed to have forgotten Baron Eaton and his strict moral code. Only a few of those who remained could be trusted. "If Mother were alive, Tadd would dare not to put the castle in such jeopardy."

"But she's not." Leah threw the rest of the seeds to the wind, brushed the dust from her gloved hands, and turned back to the great hall.

"I'd not ask if it were not important."

Leah smiled and tucked a strand of hair beneath the cowl of her cape. "'Tis Sir Keane you're meeting."

Sorcha's heart nearly stopped. She'd been so careful, and yet Leah had guessed the truth.

"It is, isn't it?"

"Aye," Sorcha admitted with a shrug, as if her secret romance were of no great concern. Truth to tell she cared for Keane, but knew that she didn't love him. "Is there gossip?"

"Not yet. But I've seen him watching you. You needs be careful or Tadd will get wind that you fancy Sir Keane."

She didn't have to say more. Tadd was sure to make life miserable for anyone interested in his sister. Why Tadd despised her, she knew not, but only guessed his hatred was because of her cursed birthmark. His feelings for Leah were not as bitter. But then Leah had always been the kind one, the pious one, the saint in the family, and Sorcha had been a thorn in her father's side from the day of her birth.

"Will you help me with the accounts?" Leah asked.

So simple. "Aye."

Leah scowled darkly. "I know not why Father insists we learn the duties of the steward. All those numbers...Ah, well, if you will do the work."

Sorcha couldn't help but smile. The accounts were easy for her, no task at all. "'Tis done," she said.

Within the hour, Leah had explained that she, too, wanted to attend mass, and Tadd, interested in a new dark-haired kitchen maid, waved her aside. With Sir Henry for protection and Leah's maid, Gwendolyn, as companion, they rode through the forest on the main road. Once Castle Prydd was out of sight, the two sisters exchanged cloaks and horses.

"You'll not be doing this," Henry insisted as he began to understand that he'd been played for a fool in part of a girlish scheme.

"M'lady, please, 'tis not a good idea," Gwendolyn agreed. A tiny woman with light hair, she worried far too much.

"'Tis all right." Sorcha slipped the hood of Leah's purple cloak over her head.

Henry reined in his horse. "No good will come of it. I forbid you -- "

"'Tis not for you to forbid," Sorcha cut in, and Leah stifled a giggle as she adjusted the folds of Sorcha's crimson mantle around her slender body. "Asides, I'll see that you get some of the baron's best wine on our return."

Henry's heavy face folded upon itself. "'Tis not drink that I need. 'Tis assurance that you'll be safe. With Castle Erbyn left in Sir Darton's hands while Lord Hagan is off fighting the war, no one is safe."

"Erbyn is far away," Leah said, though she seemed a little anxious.

Both Hagan and Darton, the twin brothers, were harsh men who ruled with cruel hands, but Hagan, the baron, was the more levelheaded of the two, and he had once traveled to Prydd to make peace with Sorcha's father. Sorcha had not been allowed to meet Hagan, as he was considered the enemy, but she'd hidden herself in the minstrel's loft and gazed down upon him as he'd walked arrogantly into the great hall. A big man with dark hair the color of a falcon's wing and eyes that were set well back in his head, he strode into the great hall and nodded curtly to her father. Hagan's nose was not straight, but his features were bold and chiseled, and he had an air about him that caused most of the guards to keep their distance. His shoulders were wider than her father's, and he towered above the older man. For the first time in her young life, Sorcha doubted her father's ability to command an army against so formidable an opponent.

Commanding. Assured. As if he were ruler of Prydd, he warmed himself by the fire and spoke in low tones that Sorcha, try as she might, could not overhear. He came in the company of soldiers, all wearing the green and gold of his colors, and there was another man with him, at his right hand, who looked much like the baron, though slightly smaller in stature and not quite as handsome. His twin, no doubt. Though she was but ten at the time, she knew, as she gazed at Hagan of Erbyn, she would never see a more powerful man.

Danger seemed to radiate from him, and when he glanced up, she gasped, giving herself away. His green-gold eyes focused on her, and the lips tightened a bit as his gaze caught hers for but an instant. At that moment Sorcha gleaned what it was to be a rabbit caught in the archer's sights.

Her little heart pounded, but rather than hide, she stood defiantly, tossing her hair off her shoulders, and met his arrogant glare with her own prideful stare.

"Who is the waif?" he asked her father, and Baron Eaton glanced upward, grunting as he recognized his daughter.

"Sorcha -- get down from there!" Eaton ordered.

The twin brother eyed her with interest, but it was Hagan who said, "Sorcha? Ahh...so she does exist. I have heard of you, little one." His eyes glinted in a kind mockery. "Some of the peasants -- the people who believe in the old ways -- have told me that you are to be the savior of this castle."

Sorcha lifted a brow and shrugged, trying not to notice how handsome a man he was. " 'Tis true," she replied, not knowing where her courage came from, but squaring her shoulders a bit.

"'Tis a lie, the mutterings of a crazy old midwife who thinks she be a witch," Tadd interjected as he hurried down the stairs, his face flushed in the seething rage that seemed to be constantly with him. Always spoiling for a fight, he eyed Hagan and the soldiers from Erbyn with obvious loathing.

Hagan ignored him and continued to stare up at Sorcha. "Will you strike me dead?" he asked. Again the gentle ridicule in his voice.

"If you ever try to capture Prydd. Yes, Lord Hagan, I will cut out your black heart myself."

He laughed then, and the harsh lines of his face disappeared. "Well, little waif, I quiver in my boots, as does the entire castle, just knowing that mayhaps your wrath will be cast in the direction of Erbyn."

"Hush this nonsense!" her father bellowed. "Go see to your lessons, Sorcha. Lord Hagan and I have a truce to discuss. Tadd come along with us. 'Tis time you learned how to bring peace to the land..."

Sorcha had never seen the baron again. Now, as her breath steamed in the cold winter air of the forest outside of Prydd and Sir Henry looked as if he were ready to strangle her for her impudence, she wondered if Lord Hagan or his brother or their men really did consort with outlaws and thieves as was rumored.

"Worry not about Sorcha, Sir Henry. She'll be in good company," Leah said, her nose wrinkling as she chuckled. "Safe in the arms of -- "

"Rest assured, Sir Henry, that I'll be fine, and breathe not a word of this to a soul." Sorcha climbed into the saddle of Leah's bay jennet as Leah tried in vain to scramble onto Sorcha's feisty black mare.

"This horse will be the very end of me," Leah said as she finally settled into the saddle.

"She'll be your savior," Sorcha predicted as she dug her heels into the little bay's flanks and tugged on the reins. The mare whirled and broke into an easy gallop, heading north, away from the village and toward the meadow where Keane had promised to meet her.

"God be with you," Henry shouted over the cold wind that rushed at Sorcha's face and chilled her bones. It screamed past her ears and shoved the hood off her head to tangle in the long waves of her hair. Sorcha felt free, her spirit riding with her on the wind. She urged Leah's jennet ever faster, but the bay was not as swift as her own mare, and the little horse labored up the forested hill until the road broke free to a frost-covered meadow of dry weeds and bent, bleached grass.

Keane, as promised, was waiting, standing beside his gray destrier as the big horse tried to graze. Sorcha's heart still soared at the sight of the tall knight. No more than twenty, he was broad-shouldered and trim, his skill in tournaments already established. His blond hair ruffled in the breeze, and his eyes, deep brown, flickered in recognition as she pulled on the reins and hopped to the ground.

"So you did come," he said, his breath making clouds in the crisp winter air.

"Did you doubt me?"

"Doubt you? Nay, but trust you..." His teasing smile stretched wide. "That is a different matter."

"'Tis I who shouldn't trust you," she quipped, wondering why she could not agree to marry him.

"Come here."

She threw herself into his waiting arms and felt the warmth of his mouth close over hers. Her heart, already racing, beat even a little more quickly, but she knew that she'd made the right choice to tell him that she could no longer meet him this way. Lying to Tadd, trading chores with Leah, deceiving everyone in the castle, and putting Sir Henry's pride on the line were worth a few stolen moments with Keane to tell him how she felt.

His arms clasped more firmly around her, and she pulled away. "Keane, there is something I must tell you."

"I've missed you, Sorcha," he said quickly, as if he knew her thoughts, gently shoving the hair off her neck and kissing her behind the ear. He traced her birthmark with his finger.

"No, Keane, please listen to me. I cannot -- "

"Hush, little one. Each night I dream of you and -- "

THWACK!

Keane's body flexed in her arms. "Holy Christ!" He sucked in his breath. "Sorcha, run!"

HISS! THUNK! Again his body jolted, and this time Sorcha saw the arrow buried deep in his shoulder. Another had hit his thigh, and blood stained his breeches.

"No!" she screamed, trying to hold him upright.

"RUN!" He fell to the ground, his fingers scrabbling for the hilt of his sword, but Sorcha stood as if rooted to the spot. Her head swung around and she stared into the trees, the dark undergrowth where their attacker lay hidden somewhere to the south, cutting off the road back to Prydd. As if he'd been following her.

"Come with me," she pleaded, pulling Keane to his feet and helping him to his destrier.

"I'll stand and fight."

"And die!" she half screamed. Her heart was thudding with fear that they would both be killed. "'Twill serve no purpose. Come! Now!"

"But -- "

Desperate, she clung to him. "There is no honor in giving up your life like this. Come! I need you!"

Keane, his face white, took her lead. With a scream of agony, he yanked the shaft of the arrow from his thigh and threw it onto the ground. "Take the other one."

Swallowing hard, she stared at the arrow buried in his shoulder. " 'Tis not safe to -- "

"Do it!"

He leaned down, and Sorcha placed her fingers over the shaft. She tugged, but the arrowhead caught on flesh and wouldn't budge.

"Hurry!"

Fingers slick with blood, she pulled again, and the shaft of the arrow splintered in her hands. Blood smeared on the red folds of Leah's mantle.

Keane moaned, writhing away from her.

"Oh, God, I knew -- "

Another arrow screamed through the air, passing near Sorcha's ear.

"It matters not," Keane said raggedly, stains of scarlet discoloring his tunic. With an effort he whistled to his destrier. The war-horse was nervous, prancing anxiously, nose to the wind, his great ears flicking toward the woods. Keane hauled himself into the saddle as Sorcha climbed on Leah's little mare, yanked hard on the bridle, causing the jennet to rear as they turned.

"Run, you bloody nag," she yelled at the jennet. Her horse jumped forward, and Sorcha leaned low in the saddle, digging her heels into the mare's flanks, urging the tired bay to keep up with the longer, steady strides of Keane's charger.

The frozen ground whirled past and wind tore at Sorcha's face, bringing tears to her eyes. She could barely breathe, and fear grasped her heart in its terrible, clawlike grip. They couldn't die; not like this! Please, God, not like this!

Another arrow whizzed past Sorcha's shoulder and she glanced backward for just a second, long enough to see a band of outlaws moving out of the shadows. Filthy and ragged, five men she'd never seen in her life rode rangy horses, without using their hands. Bowstrings held taut, arrows in place, they took aim. "Oh, God, save us," she murmured, her throat constricting in terror.

"This way!" Keane shouted, turning into the woods again. The road they took w...

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