"I expect you to show my friend just how grateful you are. Your willingness is everything.”
With those harsh words, the hated Sasanach earl decided Bríghid's fate. Her body and her virginity were to be offered up to a stranger in exchange for her brother's life. Possessing nothing but her innocence and her fierce Irish pride, she had no choice but to comply.
But the handsome man she faced in the darkened bedchamber was not at all the monster she expected. His green eyes seemed to see inside her. His tender touch calmed her fears while he swore he would protect her by only pretending to claim her. And as the long hours of the night passed by, as her senses ignited at the heat of their naked flesh, she made a startling discovery: Sometimes the line between hate and love can be dangerously thin.
Read an excerpt below...
Romantic Times Book club — 4 stars !!“Ms. Clare writes a sizzling captive-captor romance reminiscent of classic Johanna Lindsay, a story steeped in sensual fantasy, strong characters and intense emotions. She carefully treads the line between romance and erotic romance, fulfilling readers' desires for a more sensual read without going beyond the boundaries.” —Kathe Robin
“Ms. Clare has gifted us with yet another story so beautiful, so compelling, so heart-rending, sometimes I forgot to breath. I laughed, wept, cheered and celebrated. Carnal Gift is a balm for the soul, a triumph of the heart. Begin your journey with Sweet Release , the first in this spellbinding trilogy, then read Carnal Gift . And then look forward, as I am, to the final chapter by this master storyteller. In one word: perfection!” —Suzanne Tucker, Old Book Barn Gazette
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November 10, 1754
"Cén fáth a' chuirfeadh Dia a smacht ar bhás linbh?"
Why would God let a baby die?
Bríghid slipped the worn, leather brogues onto Aidan's feet, distressed to see how big the holes in the toes had become. "Only God and His saints know the answer to that, a phráitín."
She stood, took the little woolen coat from its nail in the wall, and helped Aidan put it on. Its sleeves were too short by several inches. She'd taken the hems out as far as they could go last winter. He was almost ten now, she reminded herself. He'd need a new coat, and a warmer one, as he now spent more time outdoors with Finn learning men's work. He'd need a new pet name, too. A young man would hardly find it fitting to be called "potato" in front of the other boys.
"I feel bad for the baby." Aidan wrapped his red woolen scarf around his neck.
"Aye, me too." She felt just as bad for the babe's young mother. Muirín had labored three long days to bring her first child into the world. Bríghid, though unmarried, had gone to help, bringing herbs to soothe and calm the mother. There had little the women could do to ease Muirín's suffering. They'd held her hand, given her sips of tea, wiped her brow, offered silent prayers, called for the priest. But the child had slipped into the world blue and lifeless, the cord tight around its neck. Muirín's husband had died some months back of a fever of the lungs, and the child was all she'd had of him.
The babe's stillbirth had touched Aidan deeply, and no wonder. His mother had died birthing him. Though his father had tried to raise him, he'd been killed in a skirmish with the hated English when Aidan was four. Only twelve at the time, Bríghid, who'd lost her own mother to famine when she was two, had taken him in and had raised him with the help of her brothers — and, for a time, her father.
Now it was time to bury the babe and consign its soul to God. With no church, Father Padraíg had called a Mass at the Old Oak. It was remote enough that their chances of being caught and punished were slim. Mass was usually said discreetly in someone's home or in a cowshed, but all the neighboring families were coming to pay their respects to the child they never knew — and to help Muirín cope with her grief. There wasn't room for them all indoors.
Though Bríghid had seen a church from the outside — grand buildings that seemed to reach up to Heaven itself with windows of precious colored glass — she had never been inside one. She'd been born long after the sasanach had taken away the churches and made it a crime for a Catholic to pray. More than once she wondered what it would be like to speak to God within those high walls.
It was a long walk to the Old Oak, but it was the safest place for so many people to gather, and it was holy ground, consecrated by priests and those who came before. The ancient remains of a holy well stood near the base of the tree, where some women still left offerings. 'Twas said Saint Padraíg himself had prayed beneath its branches when Ireland was a pagan land.
Finn wouldn't be joining them, as one of the cows had taken sick with the milk fever. They needed her milk, and the butter, curds and cheeses that came from it, to make it through the winter. Finn would spare no effort to see the cow cured. He would pay his respects later.
Bríghid put more peat on the fire. Finn would grow chilled working in this weather, and she didn't want him to find the hearth grown cold when he at last came in to rest. Poor Finn did the work of two men now that Father was gone—or three, as he had taken on Muirín's outdoor chores when her husband died. He never complained, never said an angry word. But Bríghid could see how tired he was each night. She fed him the best pieces of meat from the stewpot to help him keep up his strength, but often he was so weary he could scarce finish his supper before falling asleep.
Aye, Ruaidhrí did his share of hard work, too, but at sixteen he hadn't the patience for farm work that Finn had, nor the knowledge. Hot-tempered and restless, he hurried through his chores, his mind always somewhere else.
Ruaidhrí had been hit hard when the sasanach took Father away. He'd been only thirteen when the old iarla's men had caught Father in the shelter of a nearby hedgerow teaching a group of children their letters. They'd beaten Father and dragged him away in chains before Ruaidhrí's eyes. The happy and gentle boy Ruaidhrí had been had vanished overnight.
Bríghid and her brothers had never seen their father again. The breakfast she'd cooked with such care that morning had been the last meal he'd shared with his family. Soon after, he'd been put on a ship and taken to Barbados to be sold as a slave alongside other Irish the sasanach deemed criminals — teachers, scholars, priests, fighters. 'Twas said plantation owners worked their slaves to death in the cane fields and that if hard work didn't kill the slaves, strange and terrible fevers would.
But Bríghid would likely never know what became of her father. He'd been 51 when they'd taken him, no longer in his prime. She couldn't even be certain he'd survived the journey. She could not bear to think of her father in such horrid conditions, his back bent in the fields, his skin marred by the lash. A strong but gentle man, he'd always been more poet and dreamer than farmer. He'd never raised a weapon against the English invaders, never raised a fist to any man nor his hand to his children. That his life could come to such an end bespoke sasanach cruelty.
She missed her father, missed him so fiercely she felt as if her heart were being torn from her breast. She missed his sense of humor and gentle teasing. She missed the deep, warm sound of his voice. She missed the way he'd always made her feel safe, loved, special. Aisling, he'd called her.
His dream. His vision.
When she was little, he'd held her on his lap and read to her until late in the night. He'd told her stories of the old days in front of hearth, taught her to sing the old songs. He'd comforted her in sickness. He had been her world. She'd gone to sleep every night, her dreams filled with faeries, fearsome warriors, beautiful maidens and powerful kings. She'd felt protected knowing that no matter what came with the sunrise, her father would be there.
But that was long ago. Every day since they'd taken him, she'd prayed to God and all his saints to watch over Tommán Uí Maelsechnaill and spare him from loneliness, disease, cruelty, death. Every night, she'd gone to sleep wondering whether he yet lived, whether he was suffering, whether he knew how much his children and the people of Skreen parish missed and loved him.
How different their lives were without him. Without his teaching to bring in calves, chickens, honey, hay and woolen cloth, they were poorer than ever. Finn worked until he was exhausted. Ruaidhríwas consumed by rage at the sasanach. Aidan had lost another father.
Had her life changed?
Aye, it had. By now her father would have found a husband for her, someone to love her, give her children, be a man for her. She was, after all, almost 18. To be the wife of a man who cherished her, a man she cherished in return, and to raise his children had been the only dream she'd allowed herself. 'Twas the only dream a poor Irish girl could hope to see come true — that and perhaps the dream of a full belly. Her heart ached for the loss of that dream.
She swallowed her sorrow, felt ashamed. Finn at 26 was of an age to marry as well, but he never complained about it, or the deep loneliness Bríghid knew he felt, as he was now the man of the house. So much depended on him. If Finn could put aside his own dreams, then so could she. Her brothers and little Aidan needed her. Who else would cook their meals, darn their socks, heal their sicknesses?
She put her grief aside, turned to Aidan. "It's cold out today. Are you sure you won't wear your cap?"
Aidan shook his head, ran his fingers through his unruly red hair.
Bríghid donned her cloak, fastened it with her grandmother's brooch. Taking Aidan's hand, she opened the door and stepped into the cold autumn air.
Ruaidhrí was waiting for them outside by the barn, slapping his arms to warm them. He hadn't had the sense to wear a cap either, his blonde hair tousled by the wind, his cheeks red from the chill. "So it was today you were plannin' on leavin'?"
Her little brother had virtues, but patience was not among them.
Jamie Blakewell reined his stallion to a halt and surveyed the surrounding countryside — or what he could see of it. He'd ridden to the crest of a broad hill. Beneath him, a cold, white mist spread like a blanket across the rolling landscape. Only hilltops and the bare treetops of the forest were clearly visible, though Jamie thought he could make out the dark shapes of hedgerows and tenant cabins in the distance below.
Strangely, something about this country, so foreign to him, reminded him of his home in Virginia. Perhaps it was the open and untamed feel of the land. Despite the patchwork of fields and low stone walls that criss-crossed the countryside — proof that people had worked this soil for centuries — it seemed wild, somehow unspoiled. Lord knew it wasn’t the climate that reminded him of Virginia. It had rained every day since he’d been here, save today, and he hadn’t once seen the sun. It was a wonder the entire land wasn’t a lake.
He patted Hermes’ neck with a gloved hand. The stallion's breath lingered in clouds of white, slowly rose and dissipated in the chill air. Jamie was grateful for the thick warmth of his woolen greatcoat, which kept out both wet and cold. Winter was coming, and fast from the feel of it.
For the first time since he'd come to Ireland, he felt the tension begin to drain from his body. It felt good to be outdoors again. He'd spent the past five days cooped up with Sheff in the manor Sheff's father had acquired as the family's hunting retreat. The board had been lavish, the wine excellent, yet Jamie had felt wary from the moment he'd arrived.
The sound of hooves approached from behind, slowed, stopped beside him. “You call this hunting?” Jamie's tone was light, but his disdain was not entirely feigned.
“It is what gentlemen call hunting.” Sheff retrieved a small flask from a pocket inside his greatcoat, pulled out the cork, drank deeply.
“I see.” Jamie grinned. “The hounds do the actual hunting, whilst we gentlemen ride along, talk politics and drink, then shoot whatever the dogs drag down. Hand me that, will you?” Jamie accepted the flask and drank.
The liquor scorched a path to his stomach, warmed him.
“To whom will the trophy belong — us or the hounds?”
“I had forgotten you had a Red Indian for a nurse. I suppose you think it more manly to crawl through the muck on your belly clad in animal hides with a knife between your teeth.”
Jamie laughed and handed the flask back to Sheff. “I don’t know about the knife between the teeth, but the rest of it sounds good.”
“You are a savage, Jamie, old boy. Whatever shall I do with you?”
Servants hurried past them on foot and on horseback, barking commands to the hounds, which bayed and strained against their leashes, already hot on the scent. A ruddy-faced man with broad shoulders rode up to them. “This seems as good a place as any to release them, my Lord.”
“Very well then. Get on with it, Percy.”
Sheff’s father had passed on only two months past. With his father’s last breath, Sheff had become Sheffield Winthrop Tate III, Lord Byerly, an earl with a host of estates and titles that read like a map of Britain. As much as Jamie had known his friend would one day assume his father’s noble titles and lands, Jamie was still entertained when anyone referred to Sheff as “Your Lordship” or “My Lord.” He was, after all, still Sheff. Jamie had known him since their college years at Oxford, where they’d drunk too much, lost immoderately at cards and spent more than a few nights between the thighs of lovely courtesans.
It was Sheff who'd taught Jamie the joys of debauchery when Jamie had been 19 and new to England. While Jamie was already familiar with the pleasures of a woman's body, there had been much about life he hadn't known. England had seemed a different world from his tobacco plantation on the banks of the Rappahannock River. Sheff had introduced Jamie to that world, and the two had become fast friends despite the fact Sheff was the heir to an earldom and Jamie merely the well-to-do heir to a tobacco plantation.
Six years had passed since they'd completed their studies at university. Jamie had spent those years in Virginia, and Sheff had joined his father in London. Now Jamie had come back to Britain to handle some delicate business on behalf of his brother-in-law, Alec Kenleigh. Alec had stayed behind in Virginia to be with Cassie, Jamie's sister. Cassie was again with child and nearing her time. Despite the pressing nature of this business, Alec had refused to leave her.
Jamie had taken advantage of the trip to arrange a visit with his old friend. Truth be told, Jamie needed Sheff's support — and his connections. War was brewing in the colonies. In fact, most colonists considered themselves to be at war already. Ever since the French had forced Washington to surrender at Fort Necessity last summer, the call from Pennsylvania to Virginia had been "Join or Die." George, a fellow Virginian only a few years younger than Jamie and a friend, had lost thirty-one good Englishmen in that battle, men with homes and families.
While many people still felt the war could be fought and won on land, some prominent colonists — Benjamin Franklin among them —felt sea power would be the key. Control the great rivers and lakes of the north, and Britain could cut off French supply lines. Waging war on the water would also draw French troops away from the frontier, where unprotected British families farmed the land.
Alec was ready to provide specially built ships for the endeavor, but so far Parliament seemed more concerned with affairs on the Continent and had little consideration to spare for the Colonies. Jamie had come as an official representative from the Colonies to encourage the use of naval vessels and to urge Alec's contacts in Lords and Commons to move toward a declaration of war. The French had proved their complete lack of respect for British claims in the Ohio wilderness, and something needed to be done to protect the English families living there.
Jamie had arrived in Ireland all but unannounced, and Sheff had welcomed him openly. Yet Jamie sensed something was different. There was a hardness to Sheff now, a sharp edge. At first Jamie had attributed it to the new burdens Sheff carried. Sheff was now a husband, a father, and a peer of the realm, with vast estates and political affairs to manage. But there was more to it than that. Or perhaps less.
Sheff drank more than was good for him. He hardly seemed interested in politics beyond the petty power struggles among peers in the House of Lords. He had refused to discuss the problem of the French in any detail. He'd left his wife behind in London and openly bedded servant women. Though class had seemed to matter little before, Sheff now seemed to take every opportunity to point out their differences. While Jamie might be Sheff's equal when it came to wealth, he was but a commoner.
Jamie turned his thoughts back to the landscape. "The countryside is more fair than I'd imagined from your stories of it."
Sheff gave a noncommittal grunt, adjusted his hat and the powdered wig beneath it. "It would be fairer still were it not full of barbaric Irish. It's a pity Cromwell didn't kill them all. Then again, who would pay my rents if he had?"
Jamie bit back his retort, chose his words carefully. "I've met my share of Irishmen in the colonies. They seem as civilized as Englishmen of their class."
Sheff chuckled. "I knew you'd say something like that."
Percy, the huntsman, shouted commands to the servants who restrained the deerhounds, and the dogs were loosed. Amidst a din of yaps and howls, the animals dashed downhill toward the forest.
They'd ridden far from the manor this morning on the trail of servants who'd been tracking a suitable stag all night. Their path had led them to this hilly region with hedgerows and patches of dark forest. Somewhere out there, the stag waited. Did he sense danger? Would he be able to elude the dogs or find refuge? Or would he collapse from exhaustion and, too weak to defend himself with his grand antlers, be torn to bits by the hounds?
Jamie hoped it was the former. Not that he disapproved of hunting, of course. He rather enjoyed the sport. Even more, he enjoyed what it brought to his dinner table. But growing up in Virginia, he'd learned a very different type of hunting, one that pitted man against animal in a contest of skill and instinct. To chase an animal down with dogs and dispatch it from horseback hardly seemed worthy of a grown man.
"Jamie, my friend, tonight we shall dine on venison." Sheff smiled and spurred his mount forward with a shout.
Jamie loosed his stallion's reins and urged him on. "Time to show him what you can do, old boy."
The stallion lunged forward and within seconds passed Sheff's mount. Arabian blood flowed through Hermes' veins. He loved nothing more than to run. Jamie felt cool air rush over his face as Hermes raced downhill in pursuit of the dogs. Mist closed in around them, cool and wet against Jamie's skin. The fog was not as dense as it had seemed from above, and he found he could see some distance through the trees. Still, Jamie gave Hermes his head, knowing the horse would better sense unseen obstacles than he.
He felt the stallion's stride shift and instinctively bent low over Hermes' back as the horse sailed over a fallen log. The horse's muscles tensed, and Jamie tightened his grip on the animal's flank as Hermes swerved around a deep thicket of gorse.
Jamie felt a smile spread across his face. He loved to ride as much as Hermes loved to run. He'd grown up on horseback, learning the skill from the age of four. He'd inherited the best stables in Virginia from his father, stables that Alec, who'd been Jamie's guardian, had done much to expand. Together, he and Alec spent much time, endless talk and no small fortune on horseflesh. This was why, thought Jamie, as wind whipped through his hair.
From ahead came the sound of splashing water. Jamie thought he could make out the dark shadow of a creek's bank. He felt Hermes' stride shift again, bent low. The horse soared over the water as if on wings.
The sound of hooves approached from behind. The hooves faltered, stopped.
The air was sharp with the sound of Sheff's curses and splashing as Sheff's mount waded across the stream.
Jamie rode over hedgerows and through islands of forest for what seemed the briefest time, but which might have been ten minutes or more. The stag was seeking shelter, trying to go to ground. Jamie knew it would be allowed no such reprieve.
He rode just behind the hounds now, Hermes at a comfortable gallop. The dogs disappeared into a dark growth of forest just ahead, and Jamie ducked to avoid overhanging branches.
Women and children screamed.
Men shouted, cursed.
Jamie urged Hermes forward. He broke through the trees into a clearing and reined the stallion to an abrupt stop.
There before him, huddled together in the shelter of an ancient, gnarled oak, stood a group of frightened peasants — men, women and children. Some of the peasant men gestured excitedly toward the south, the direction they said the stag had gone. But most stood as if frozen, a mix of dread and loathing in their eyes. Standing in front, arms spread as if to shelter the rest, stood an old man clad in black.
A Catholic priest.
On a crude table beside him sat a wooden goblet, a basket, and a tiny, wooden coffin.
Some of the hounds had closed in on the little crowd and growled menacingly. The rest meandered through the clearing, noses to the ground, sniffing.
Through it all rode Percy, the huntsman, shouting angrily at people and dogs alike.
Jamie had just enough time to take in the scene when Sheff rode up behind him. "I was about to order Percy to call off the dogs," Jamie shouted over the clamor.
Sheff's face was pinched with rage. "Call off the dogs? They're bloody fortunate I don't command the dogs to rip them to pieces! They've interfered with the hunt."
"Not intentionally, I'm sure. It appears our hunt has ridden into them and interrupted a funeral mass.";
Sheff glanced coldly at the priest. "So much the worse for them."
That's when Jamie saw her.