"Campbell worries good Scotsmen in his teeth like a dog, and I can no longer stand with him," James replied, ignoring the king's sarcasm. "What I began as a noble venture has become a crass purloining of as much of my beloved homeland as he and his greedy lords can devour." "Oh my," Charles laughed, "such righteousness!" He looked to his footman, gesturing that chairs be brought to his side.

"Sit, sit." The king studied Rollo as he struggled into the chair, legs unbending. "What of you?" Charles asked him, skeptical distaste pursing his mouth. "I'm told your name is William Rollo."

Rollo gave a curt and wordless nod.

Charles turned to James and asked, "You bring me a cripple?"

"And none other." James clapped his friend on his shoulder, his easy smile a challenge to the king's doubt. "Rollo is an unrivalled horseman and the finest soldier I've known."

"It is my understanding that Aberdeen was your first rout." An oily smile split Charles's lips. "How many soldiers can you have known, James? No matter, no matter." The king's hand fluttered, shutting down James's response.

"Music!" he shouted to nobody in particular. "Bring Nicholas," he said to the first of many scattering attendants who caught his eye. "I'd have music."

Turning to James, he said, "We shall rival Parliament in more than our wisdom. We are men of taste!"

Charles carefully preened his moustache and goatee away from his lips. "I would have you raise Scotland for me." "And," James replied without missing a beat, " I would have your assurance that Scotland will retain the sanctity of her Kirk. Just as the clergy should concern themselves solely with matters of the spirit, the monarch should rule over matters of the state, and the state alone."

"Touché, young man." The king steepled his fingers at his chin, a calculating look wrinkling his brow. "I care not for bishops either. James. I shall grant your Scotsmen their ecclesiastical freedoms. You just subdue these rebel nobles and restore order to Scotland."

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Charles appeared distracted, watching his court musicians set up to play. "And now I've word of a Parliament-backed army to contend with."

James began to speak, and Charles stopped him with a raised hand. "Parliament has raised what they're calling the New Model Army. And James, here's the whimsical bit. They've donned matching coats of red. Twenty thousandmatching coats of red, to be precise." The king's patronizing smile didn't reach his eyes.

"You see, Marquis, you'd be wise not to be so dismissive. These red-coated soldiers are the jackals who will feast on the carcass your Campbell leaves behind."

Charles rose and looked down at them imperiously, his short stature barely clearing the heads of the seated Scotsmen. "A Campbell who, I might add, appears to have Scotland's nobles tumbling over each other to swear him fealty. Your Covenanters," he said, pointing at James, "now hold significant cities in the Lowlands."

"Held by the Covenanters?" James asked, voice like steel. "Or is it that the Lowlands simply lie in wait for a true leader?" He let the near-treasonous statement hang. "I' ll raise your standard," James continued, "by the same principles of liberty and self- determination that committed me to the Covenant. Just as you had no right to play politics with the religion of Scotland, Scotland has no right to depose her king. I'll rout the vermin who would destroy my country." James stood, towering a foot over the monarch. "The Highlands will stand with me."

"Give us men and horses enough to cut through to the north," Rollo said, his voice gritty. "We hold our line there." "I'm afraid you'll have but the mounts you rode in on." Charles wandered away from the men toward his court musicians, playing quietly in the corner. "I will spare you my Colonel Sibbald, an old military man who will prove helpful on the campaign. James, you shall be named my viceroy and captain -general "—

"No," James interrupted.

The king spun, his face blackened into a cold stare. "Respectfully, Your Majesty," James amended, "I decline your offer. I shall indeed raise Scotland for you. But I find I've become a man skeptical of empty titles."

James walked toward Charles and bowed with a flourish.

Raising his chin, he looked his king hard in the eye and said, "I need naught but my own name to fight for my country."

In his half- doze, he shifted yet again, having a remarkably difficult time getting comfortable for a man who'd spent the past two weeks sleeping on the ground. A tense day followed by a sickeningly lavish meal with the king had left James exhausted, and yet Magda's face kept rousing him, appearing in his mind, denying him a deep sleep.

Back in Aberdeen, James had felt privy to a prized secret. Only he had held Magda close enough to discern the yellow flecks that brightened the emerald green of her eyes. And surely only he had noticed how the sun had pricked light brown freckles across the bridge of her nose, a faint dusting of color to soften the sharp lines of her features.

He pushed away the memory of that soft, broad mouth crushed beneath his. and rolled onto his belly, pressing himself into the bed, seeking relief from the hardness that seized him.

With her, he'd had the sensation of being on the brink of some great unknown. It wasn't in his nature to turn from such tremendous possibility. Walking away from her had been like abandoning another life, relinquishing it to a sort of eternal stasis, forever unlived. James felt Magda's loss keenly, their parting no less tragic for its necessity. Mercifully, the mad pulse at his groin dulled to a distant ache, and James fell, finally, into a fitful sleep.

They began as flashes in the gray half light of dreams, fragmented images, and his subconscious snatched hungrily at them. His body began to hum, as his fantasies slowly bloomed with color, and texture, and taste.

Magda walking toward him, inexplicably illuminated under a black sky. Her sheer shift rippled close against her breasts as she walked, nipples tight in the night breeze, and her arms opened to him, face open and serene.

Then Magda was in his arms, facing away from him, cradling his hands at her belly. There was a bright sun overhead, warming his shoulders and infusing him with a sense of equanimity, pleasant and right. The smell of her rose to him, a rich musk, and he became a hard ridge at her back. A knowing laugh was quiet and low in her throat as Magda turned to face him.

James stood, now in Montrose, looking out the windows of his room, watching the sun glint off the sea. He felt the distant rumble of the surf on sand reverberate through the core of him, and was content. He knew Magda lay on his bed at his back, heard her naked skin slip against the sheets. He turned to face her. a presence lingering bright just out of his line of vision.

Now she straddled James, finally naked above him, grass rustling at his sides, tickling the backs of his knees , the fresh smell of it filling his senses. Magda laughed, musical and joyous, and he reached up to cup her breasts. Her body was out of focus, but the feel of her was soft and full in his rough, callused hands.

It was dark now, and her image was robbed from him. But his other senses were amplified, and the sounds of their breath, heavy and close, filled his head. The scent of their mingled bodies and the velvety expanses of thigh and stomach sliding under him raised him to a fever pitch. Her wetness enveloped him, and it was like succumbing to some primal force, hot and magnificent, drawing him in to drown. James pinned her hands beneath his and leaned to taste her, and the remembrance of her was a visceral thing, her breath in his lungs, the rough and smooth of her tongue. A hard bolt of desire impaled him as he drove into her, ravenous and fierce with want.

And James was freed, finally, with glorious release.

He slept hard until dawn, when he was taken again by restlessness, images of Magda once again colorless fragments haunting his sleep. She had disappeared from him, and James was riding hard to find her. The Scottish Highlands stretched cold and desolate along the horizon as the crest of every hill, and the sunlight at the end of each stand of trees, brought glimpses of yet more emptiness.

And James rode on, hard, until he bolted upright from his nightmare. Awake, confused, body drenched and heart pounding, he asked, "What have I done?" as the emptiness echoed in his soul.

Chapter 17

Magda fingered the button, hard and cold in her palm. Curves of navy blue enamel formed a simple decorative pattern, thick and smooth atop the gold background.

"I don't understand." For the first time in her life, she'd been captivated by a man. Magda had found someone she admired, who was also capable of sending delicious shivers through her body. She felt connected to James. She'd found an easy intimacy with him that led her to believe that she could, for once, shed her armor to let a little life in. And he'd gone away, leaving her a button. What was she supposed to do with that? He was off, his death likely on the horizon, leaving her to navigate the seventeenth century with a button?

"Nor do I, lass," Napier conceded. "Though I was fairly hoping you might be able to e nlighten me."

He took the button from her hand and held it to the window, and the late afternoon sunlight shimmered along its surface.

"Our James, when he gets an idea in his head…" Napier shrugged. "We shall return to Montrose forthwith."

She studied Jame s's brother-in-law. How his tight, upturned moustache exaggerated the sharpness of his features. His eyes, measured and earnest. It was a face that, she'd noticed, softened only at the mention of his wife. "You're anxious to get back to Margaret, aren't you?"

"Aye," Napier admitted. "I am that."

"That's nice." She choked up, and turned as if to stare out the window. Magda had thought she had found someone too, but she had apparently been fooling herself. Maybe she'd imagined their shared connection. James had gone off, endangering himself once again for his cause. If he didn't face his death on this foray, it was sure to come eventually. The thought made her tears spill hot on her cheeks.