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Authors: Gather the Stars

Cates, Kimberly

Gather the Stars by Kimberly Cates

HE WAS A LEGEND OF THE HIGHLANDS, A MASKED RIDER NO SOLDIER COULD CAPTURE, HER SWORN ENEMY ... HER BELOVED

Rachel de Lacey, the clever daughter of Lord General de Lacey, was about to embark on her own private war. She had been kidnapped in the midst of a British officer's ball and carried to the forest lair of the infamous Glen Lyon. Prepared to face the Scottish rebel who had become a legend, Rachel vowed she would defy him with her last breath. But when the blindfold was ripped from Rachel's eyes, she saw Gavin Carstares, earl of Glenlyon, for what he really was.

A strong yet gentle man, haunted by secrets, Gavin was the hero Rachel had always dreamed of. Now she became his pawn in a desperate game to save the women and children of Scotland from the slaughter waged by Sir Dunstan Wells -- Rachel's own fiance. But in Gavin's battle he had never envisioned losing his heart -- and then breaking it when forced to give Rachel back to the man he hated most. As the heathered hills caught fire with their passion, Gavin and Rachel forged an everlasting bond that swept them toward an ecstasy worth defying a king's army ....

 

"Show me, Gavin," Rachel pleaded. "Show me how it feels to be kissed as if I were an angel."

"I can't," Gavin ground out, the words torturous in his smoke-seared throat.

The words wounded, yet Rachel lifted her chin, allowing him no retreat. "Why can't you?"

"Because if I did, I would never stop. And I can't have you, Rachel. I can never have you."

"It's only a kiss, Gavin. You say a man should cherish me. But I don't even know what that is. Show me, so that I'll be able to tell once this is all over and you're back in your glen, alone. It isn't fair to send me away with the dreams you've spun in my head and in my heart, not knowing how to capture them."

A soft groan tore from Gavin's throat. His battered hands framed her face, his touch so tender that an answering ache shuddered to life in Rachel's heart.

His mouth drifted down, strong and firm, tasting of flavors Rachel had never known. Hunger and regret, worship and hopelessness, awe and loss. His lips melted into hers, seeking, as if on a holy quest, clinging, as if he were a drowning man, and she were a tiny thread of sanity in a raging sea.

A Pocket Star Book published by POCKET BOOKS, a division of Simon & Schuster Inc. 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020

Copyright © 1996 by Kim Ostrom Bush

ISBN: 1-4165-0313-7

Pocket Books, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020

This Pocket Books paperback printing May 2004

Printed in the U.S.A.

To Paula Jolly, with love. Thank you for being a light in the darkness.

When, in disgrace with Fortune and men's eyes,

I all alone beweep my outcast state,

And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,

And look upon myself and curse my fate,

Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,

Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,

Desiring this man's art and that man's scope,

With what I most enjoy contented least;

Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,

Haply I think on thee, and then my state,

Like to the lark at break of day arising

From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;

For thy sweet love rememb'red such wealth brings

That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

— William Shakespeare

CHAPTER 1

From the time she lisped out her first words, Lord General Marcus de Lacey's daughter had proclaimed she would wed only the bravest man in Christendom. Tonight, the incomparable Rachel swept across a ballroom littered with the defeated masses of her admirers, Sir Dunstan Wells's betrothal ring encircling her finger.

She should have been elated, triumphant— amused, at the very least, by the sight of so many of England's finest soldiers sulking like thwarted schoolboys robbed of a coveted treat. But the sparkling music couldn't banish the restlessness that crackled along her spine.

Rachel shook out the folds of her linen robes and straightened the golden laces that had turned her into Helen of Troy for tonight's festivities. An appropriate costume, her maid had said, tittering, since winning Rachel's hand had become the contest of the century. Yet had the legendary queen felt such odd emotions when sailing off with handsome Paris? Rachel wondered. An unexpected knot of panic lodged behind her breastbone, a niggling sense of disappointment that the chase was over, and more than a little dread at the thought of what would come after. Not that she herself had caused a tidy little war—that prospect would be too delicious. Rather, what unsettled her was the knowledge that her bed would be his to share, her body his to claim, and that instead of being a wild, headstrong queen ruling her own kingdom, she would be expected to bend to his will for the rest of her life.

Thunderation, this is madness,
Rachel berated herself fiercely, dodging past a rather short Sir Lancelot locked in a minuet with a stumbling swan. Dunstan had hardly kidnapped her and forced her to become his bride. After his bold exploits against the rebels, no one could deny he was the hero of Culloden Moor. This was what she had always wanted, wasn't it? The bravest hero ever to wield a sword?

But it wasn't doubts about her upcoming marriage that were plaguing her tonight. It was Scotland that unnerved her, with its wild hills and half-savage people.

She shivered, her toes cold in their delicate sandals, and she wished for stout leather shoes or familiar satin slippers, something more substantial to separate her from the floor beneath her feet.

It was as if the Scots soil had soaked up the fires of the recent rebellion, the wind carrying echoes of screams and battle cries stilled by the blade of the conqueror's sword. And nothing, not the elegant manor house taken captive by the British forces, or the frenetic gaiety of those around her, could blot out the wildness, the untamed echoes of this place.

Rachel twisted the heavy betrothal ring around her knuckle until her fingers stung, wishing that the night was over. But there was no escaping—a bevy of officers' wives and their male admirers swept toward her.

"Mistress de Lacey?" the insistent shrill of Sergeant Bevin's portly wife raked her frazzled nerves. "I was just telling Lieutenant Pringle here what a pity it is that your betrothed could not be here tonight to celebrate his victory in winning your hand in marriage."

"Sir Dunstan is hunting down the last of the rebels to pay for their crimes, no doubt," Lieutenant Alfred Pringle chortled. "No one is better fitted for the task, I assure you. Your betrothed takes the greatest delight in avenging all the fine English lads who had to sacrifice their lives driving Bonnie Prince Charlie out of this accursed nest of sedition. A deplorable loss, those fine, gallant soldiers."

"You needn't fear for the future of the king's army."

Rachel started at the gruff voice behind her, turned to find the Duke of Cumberland approaching, the commander of the English forces and her papa's longtime friend eyeing her with the same eager anticipation he would accord a particularly promising brood mare who was about to come into season.

"Lord General de Lacey's daughter and brave Sir Dunstan shall attend to their duty the instant they are wed. It was her father's dying wish that she provide us with an entire battalion of strapping boys to fill up the ranks, eh, Rachel?"

Rachel's cheeks burned at the knowledge of what would have to transpire between her and Dunstan to conceive those sons—secret, mysterious, vaguely shameful acts she must endure with the stoic silence of a good soldier.

She squirmed inwardly, excruciatingly aware of the curious press of eyes upon her, the sudden lull in chatter as those surrounding her waited for her answer.

The only noise was the rhythmic stumping of a crutch upon the floor drawing nearer. The sound started a shiver of discomfort that spread to the very tips of her fingers, and she glanced up to see Lord Nathaniel Rowland.

Nate—once her childhood friend, now a stranger. He'd been the first impetuous youth bold enough to ask her to dance, but he would never lead a partner onto a ballroom floor again. He limped toward her, pale-faced and leaning on a crutch.

Guilt stung her with the knowledge that she'd barely spoken to him in the three days since she'd arrived in Scotland. Yet she couldn't bear to face the changes in him. Bitterness was etched deep in his once-laughing features, as was a taut desperation.

"Well, girl?" Cumberland groused. "I asked you a question. Will you give us a battalion of lads to shed their blood in Britannia's name?"

Rachel turned away from the disturbing scene and tossed her sable curls. "I am certain any woman should be proud to give her sons to the greater glory of England," she said.

"Do you truly believe that?" A woman hovering near Cumberland inquired. "It would break my heart to sacrifice either of my boys even for the most noble of causes." The woman peered at her and smiled with sad indulgence. "But then, of course you are blinded by the glory of it all. A bright, beautiful young girl like you, so sheltered from the ways of the world. What can you know about a mother's love?"

Rachel winced, the woman's words slipping into a raw place in her soul, hidden, nearly forgotten.
What can you know about a mother's love? Nothing
... a little girl's wistful voice echoed inside her.
Nothing at all...

The duke's lip curled in distaste as he regarded the other woman. "I can only be grateful that Sir Dunstan's betrothed is not given to such womanly vapors. Mistress de Lacey has been raised to know her duty."

The scraping of the crutch stopped, a familiar yet slurred voice breaking into the conversation. "Yes, you know your duty, do you not, Mistress de Lacey?"

A low throb of alarm gripped Rachel as she turned to face the drink-bleared gaze of Lord Nathaniel Rowland.

"N-Nate... my lord..." Rachel flinched at a merry trill of laughter, and tried desperately not to notice how Lord Nathaniel's pretty young wife, garbed as Joan of Arc, tapped her toes with impatience on the other side of the room, her eyes roving in blatant invitation to a gallant Hessian captain.

"Poor Rachel," Nate commiserated. "Your papa, the general, made sure you knew it was your sworn duty to wed only to the bravest man in England. And after that? You were to give yourself up to breeding cannon fodder to spill their blood in Britannia's name."

"Rowland, that's enough," Lieutenant Pringle bit out.

"I am but offering Sir Dunstan's bride-to-be a worthy bit of advice," Nathaniel snarled. "Rachel, if you're determined to take this course, just make bloody well certain that your sons
die
in Britannia's name. It's dashed awkward when they come limping back, unsightly monsters minus an arm or a leg or an eye."

"You shame yourself," Pringle snapped. "A soldier sniveling over a paltry wound."

"I recall you sniveling copiously yourself when fair Rachel became betrothed to her paragon of courage and bravery. And yet, perhaps she was too hasty in her choice. If Lord General de Lacey's daughter still wants the bravest man in the realm to sire her sons, she should have chosen someone from the other side."

"Please, Nate." Rachel lay a restraining hand on Rowland's arm. "You've obviously had too much to drink tonight. You don't know what you're saying."

He blinked at her, a lock of hair tumbling boyishly across his brow, his eyes overbright and hard. "I am merely trying to aid you in your quest, Rachel. There is a Jacobite rogue called the Glen Lyon whom no man has been able to capture—a highwayman who steals rebel scum from beneath English noses, and ships them off beyond the reach of British justice."

Lord, why not just fling wine in the officers' faces and be done with it?
Rachel thought.
The effect would be the same.

"I've heard of this Glen Lyon," she gave a dismissive wave of the hand. "Absurd tales—"

"Blast it, Rowland," Cumberland blustered, his features an alarming shade of red, "I'll not have a lady subjected to tales of such a rebel cur."

"And why not, your grace? Do you fear the Glen Lyon will snatch her from beneath our very noses?" Nate taunted, then turned to Rachel. "The Glen Lyon is a will-o'-the-wisp, as impossible to capture as lightning. The Highlanders see him as savior. By God, I think they're making him a bloody legend. That's what your papa convinced you you want between your sheets, isn't it? A damn legend instead of a man who might lose his accursed leg."

"Rowland, if you weren't a cripple, by God, I would call you out!" Lieutenant Pringle roared.

"Call me out! Put a damn bullet in my brain. I've thought about doing it myself often enough." Nate's gaze swept with searing misery to where his wife was now engaged in fervid conversation with her Hessian, blushing and breathless and beautiful.

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