Excerpt from The Maxwell Ghost

Their destinies are intertwined with hidden passions and a love that will last for eternity.

No magic here...it's a love that lasts an eternity
5 Star Amazon review by NN Light said: “This is a prequel to Casie’s The Guardian’s Witch (which I highly recommend). Casie sucked me in from the first paragraph and I actually cried out when it ended.”
Appearing in Historical Serenade – Seven Tales of Romance
Available at Amazon
Excerpt - Chapter One:
A DOUR FACED James Maxwell Collins, in full regalia, rode atop his destrier, sixteen of his best men rode with him. They cantered through the forest. The metal tack on their mounts’ harnesses tapped out a rhythmic beat. He breathed in the heady aroma of damp leather, musty moss and fallen leaves. The rain drenched landscape turned the rutted trail into mud and forced them onto higher ground. Just as well. While he preferred to take his time to walk the woods between his home at Cumgour and the Reynolds’ Glen Kirk Castle at the edge of the Northumberland Forest, today he chose a more dangerous route. They’d suffer the bad weather no matter which track they took, and speed was of the essence.
     Richard Reynolds was dead, killed on a Welsh battlefield serving his English king.
Jamie and his men had spent the last eighteen months with Jamie’s uncle, Herbert The Maxwell at Caerlaverock Castle. They were both stunned when they heard the news. Richard was too young, too brave, too good to leave this world.
They had left immediately and spent three days riding hard to Cumgour where Jamie stopped long enough to change horses and inform his family of Richard’s passing.
Lord Wesley and Lady Darla had buried their only son before the news reached Caerlaverock. No time for Jamie to say a final good-bye to the man he knew from childhood, a distant relative, but closer friend.
“No other person could represent me better,” The Maxwell said. “I would go myself, however, with my obligations to the Parliament in Scone, the uproar here concerning the spoiled stores and ach, ghost I can’t possibly leave now. People and their superstitions drive me senseless, but I must stay. Instead of going with me, you’ll go for me. With your closeness to our cousin, Darla, and her family these many years, I couldn’t send a better man.”
“I completed my year of service six months ago. After delivering your message, I’d like to go back to my Cumgour, farm my land,” Jamie stated more than asked. This wasn’t a new request. He’d asked The Maxwell several times.
“I know you want to return to your home, but not now. Not with the problems with the grain and this damned ghost. You’re to return within the week.” The Maxwell held up his hand to ward off Jamie’s objections. “That will give you one day with the family and I’m sorry for it. Once this problem is solved, you can return home and be a farmer, although it is a waste of a good fighting man. You’ve served me well and earned your farm. Too bad you can’t bring Darla to us when you return. With her special gifts she would know how to quickly put this ghost to rest.”
Jamie didn’t believe in magic, but he would believe in the devil himself if that would help make things right at the castle so he could finally go home. He slowed his horse to a walk. 
“I’ll take four men and go on. You and the others wait here. We’ll be back by morning.” His captain inclined his head in acknowledgment and signaled the troop.
Twelve of Jamie’s men peeled away and rode toward the cliff where a dry cave would give them shelter. He was sensitive to Wesley and the situation. Tensions by the border were high and he would be on English soil. A larger traveling party could be… misinterpreted. Jamie and his remaining four men navigated across Bells Burn, the stream separating Scotland and England, then headed up the rocky pass through the dense Northumberland Forest.
Richard had been one of the best soldiers he knew. No one could stop the man. Jamie let out a bitter laugh. He understood his friend’s capability better than most, as many times as the two boys sparred without holding back. Every bout ended the same, no matter the winner. They laughed and shared a draft of Wesley’s fine ale.
What did that matter now? Richard lay cold in the ground. Jamie blew out a strangled breath around the knot in his chest. At least Richard hadn’t been left to rot on some forgotten battlefield as so many others. For all the man’s faults, Bryce Mitchell did the decent thing and brought his friend home.
He snapped a low hanging branch as he passed, wishing he held the neck of the man who killed Richard. Over and over again, Jamie berated himself. He should have been with Richard, protected his back. Except, his allegiance lay with Scotland, not the English or their king. Jamie pulled his wool around him. The light drizzle that added to his misery had stopped and the small party trudged on.
He stopped at the forest’s edge. Glen Kirk Castle stood tall and welcoming across the broad meadow. Jamie gave the signal to the tower guard then trotted across the field and through the gate. The hollow clop of their horses’ hooves on the wet cobblestones echoed through the empty bailey. No rousing greetings. A somber mood permeated the grounds. Even the castle dogs that usually ran to greet him were nowhere to be found. If not for three horses equipped for a long journey tied near the stable, he would have thought the place deserted. Jamie dismounted. The stable boy appeared and took his horse’s reins.
“Jamie. The guard told me you were here.” Lord Wesley’s captain came out of the gatehouse.
“Gareth.” His somber mood lightened at the sight of his old mentor.
Weathered with thinning salt and pepper hair, he remained tall and straight, his eyes clear and wise. This was the old warrior who instructed the young squires in soldiering. Jamie, along with Richard and Bryce, practiced and battled while Richard’s sisters, Laura and Lisbeth, cheered them on. That was before Bryce’s taunting created a rift between the two of them that became intolerable.
Jamie gave Gareth his hand. The old soldier threw his other arm around him and pulled him close.
“You’ve been away too long. I must be getting old. I actually miss you and your rowdy ways.” Gareth shook his head. “I’ve already sent a message warning the women in the village you’ve returned. Now that I think of it, I may have done you a favor.”
A flush rushed up Jamie’s neck. The fact Jamie listened attentively, especially to women who always appeared to be around him, left him with a reputation. Well, perhaps he did more than listen on occasion, but not as indiscriminately as everyone would believe.
“I swear you’ve grown taller. And here I worried when you were a boy, the runt of the litter. There must be Viking blood in the family line. Now you’ve outgrown them,” Gareth eyed him from his toes to his head, “and definitely the broadest of the three.” He placed his hands on either shoulder as if measuring the expanse. “You’ve turned out well, for the runt.” The months of absence melted away as they renewed their easy camaraderie.
“You think I’m brawn, you should see my wee sister,” Jamie teased and sent Gareth into peals of laughter.
“You forget I know your wee sister. She may be five feet and a slip of a thing, but she certainly knows how to keep you in your place.” Gareth’s drawn face glanced toward the Great Hall. “In truth, it’s good to have you here. They can use your company.”
“I wish I returned for happier reasons rather than this untimely duty.” He started for the hall. “You coming along?”
“Not right now. I’m here to see Alex Stelton and his men off. You go on. I’ll settle your men at the barracks.” Jamie nodded and made his way across the bailey to the hall.
“Good day, Ann.” The housekeeper held the door wide when he reached the top step.
“Still as beautiful as ever.”
“You save your sweet talk for those ninnies who don’t know any better.” Ann’s severe expression didn’t fool him. It was the same one the housekeeper used when he and Richard were boys and filched freshly baked tarts set to cool. “You know, sweet Ann, you’re the only one for me.” The housekeeper chuckled.
“How are they?” Jamie took on a somber tone and glanced toward the hall as he removed his cloak and gloves and gave them to Ann.
“As good as one can expect. The family will be glad you’re here. You go on.” Ann padded off leaving him to find his way.
He stepped to the doorway and stood at the Great Hall, a place as familiar and comfortable as his own. Servants were busy at the raised dais with a large table at the far side of the room, preparing for the afternoon meal. Trestle tables and benches were already pulled away from the walls and ready for the others in the castle.
The whitewashed stone walls were adorned with large silk tapestries; a few depicted armies and others portrayed gardens. All the wall hangings added color and warmth to the room. The sideboard, dressed with linens, displayed silver plate. Family banners hung from the rafters. A large fire roared behind the grate and above the fireplace hung the family crest. The hall was warm and comfortable and filled with the aroma of lavender and spice, but none of that dispelled the sadness that hung everywhere.
As soon as Darla noticed him, she sprang from her chair near the fireplace, ran to Jamie and hugged him close. A handsome woman, her hair had turned a glistening snow white since last they saw each other. Her face lit up in a smile although it didn’t hide the stress of the day.
“Jamie, I’m glad you’ve come to us.”
“I was with Herbert when the news arrived or I would have been here sooner. He’s sorry for your loss. We all are.” She gave him a weak smile and patted his arm. Darla’s tearswollen eyes said it all and he grieved even more. He offered Darla his arm and escorted her back to Lord Wesley, their daughter, Laura, and a gentleman who sat with them, Stelton he assumed.
“Do you know Alex Stelton?” Darla asked. “His mother and I are friends at court.” Alex put down his tankard and rose.
Jamie nodded. Yes, he knew Stelton. He had only seen him from afar, but he was one you didn’t easily forget. Richard told him Stelton was one of the English king’s favorite knights. Shorter than Jamie, which was nothing out of the ordinary. Stelton had dark wavy hair with a lock that fell over his forehead. His eyes were a silver-blue and held vast knowledge and understanding. The words just and honorable came to mind.
“You’re not leaving?” Darla asked Alex.
“It’s time for me to be on my way. I’ve overstayed my welcome and have drunk too much of Wesley’s ale.” Wesley let out a rusty laugh. Alex bowed to Darla and her daughter and approached Jamie.
“We meet at last. I’m sorry it’s under these circumstances. Richard spoke of you often and with great respect. Many will miss him. My family and I included.” Alex’s voice faded.
“Richard told me much about you and your brothers, how as boys you terrorized the court with your games and antics. For a moment or two I resented not being English.” The two men shared a common ally.
“Someday, we will have to sit, drink Wesley’s ale and talk of Richard. I’m sure we both have stories to keep us up until morning,” Alex said.
“Any excuse to drink Wesley’s ale. Have you been able to get his recipe?” Jamie asked in a conspiratorial whisper. Alex’s eyes lit with laughter.
“No, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t try over the last few days.” Alex took his great coat off a bench and put it on.
“Keep the wind at your back,” Jamie said. With a nod, Alex turned and left.
Wesley slouched in his chair and stared at the fire, the grief still raw on his face. The man had aged over the year. His gray hair thinned. His eyes, well, they were rimmed in red and dulled with pain.
“He’s been like this since we buried… the burial.” Laura, Richard’s little sister, stood next to him. “Father tires easily and stays locked up inside. Mother is the sole person who can reach him, although I have hope. Alex did make him laugh.”
Jamie’s focus turned to Laura, the younger of the two sisters. Laura and Lisbeth were similar from their slender, petite size, long dark hair and large green eyes to their fan of thick dark lashes. The sisters may be similar in appearance, however not in temperament. 
Lisbeth was the deep thinker. Laura was head strong and outspoken, the feistier of the two.
“How are you and your sister faring?” he asked, his gaze back on Wesley.
“It’s a challenge keeping everyone’s spirits up. At times, I succeed. Other times, I fail miserably. Lisbeth stayed at the keep for a while then left for the hunting lodge to be alone.” Jamie turned to her. Her drawn ashen face disturbed him.
“The rain has stopped. Would you care to take some fresh air in the garden?” Laura answered by looping her arm through his and drew him out the door. Her warmth chased away the lingering chill from his journey. She’s Richard’s little sister, a warning voice whispered in his head. He took a breath and went on.
“I know you’re skeptical of Lisbeth’s gift, but she told me she saw Richard’s death before Bryce carried him… brought Richard home. Now, she blames herself for not taking action.” Laura sighed heavily. “Everyone blames themselves. Father shouldn’t have let him go, not that he could stop Richard. Mother should have seen this coming, not that she could. And Lisbeth…”
“I understand all too well. I berated myself for not being with him, protecting his back.” They reached the stone porch.
The formal garden sprawled before them with raised flower beds, neat hedges, and bare trellises with stems waiting for next year’s roses. He stood with her in silence, willing her his strength. He was the big brother now.
“Is it wise for Lisbeth to be alone?” Jamie finally asked and gazed past the lawn to the well-worn path on the other side of the garden gate.
“She’s not unaccompanied. John escorted her at Ann’s request, over Lisbeth’s heated protest.” She turned to him. “I haven’t thanked you for coming to us. I know The Maxwell has his demands and the travel is a hardship.”
He patted her hand with understanding. When he looked at her he knew she was lost in thought. He waited.
“It’s difficult to comprehend we’ll not see Richard again.” Laura’s voice choked and she shrugged with resignation despite the tears that threatened on the edges of her eyelids.
“I know,” Jamie said, his voice low and a bit hoarse. He had the same thoughts.
“How long are you staying with us?” she asked in a quiet tone.
“I return to Caerlaverock tomorrow.” He took a deep breath and pushed aside his grief.
“Then we best return to the others. They’ll want to spend time with you, too.” They moved on toward the hall.
“I have no words, nothing to say to comfort you.”
“Your presence is enough.”
He held back a nervous smile. He visited to give the family comfort. Instead, she comforted him.
“YOU’LL LET ME know your decision, Wesley. I want to make the announcement as soon as possible. With Richard gone and Glen Kirk so close to the Scottish border, you need someone strong to hold back the devils.” Lord Bryce Mitchell of Ravencroft, the manse next to Glen Kirk, stood with Wesley and Darla as Jamie entered with Laura.
Jamie stiffened when Laura’s pulse skittered into a panic beneath his fingertips. His free hand covered hers until the beat settled into a more normal rhythm.
“You didn’t waste any time getting here.” The rude remark directed toward Jamie raised his temper. Bryce wasn’t foolish to pick a fight with him, at least not here.
Bryce, a regular in their childhood group, took aim at him whenever possible. Richard and the girls rallied to his defense, but the underlying ancestry of Jamie’s Scottish background stayed near the surface.
Bryce panted hard, seething after having lost a foot race to him.
“You’re nothing. A filthy Scot beggar. Go back to your tribe of mongrels. You’re not fit to be here.” Bryce pushed him hard.
Shortest of the three boys, Jamie didn’t go down. Not satisfied, Bryce rushed at him again, this time with fists. Jamie ducked and backed off. Bryce kept up the assault.
Jamie didn’t care for bullies or being baited by them.
“Here, here Bryce. That’s enough.” Richard grabbed his friend’s arm but Bryce shook him off.
“Stay out of this,” Bryce screamed at Richard then turned to Jamie. “Fight, or are you a puny coward, too?”
Jamie said nothing. His hands fisted at his side, he stepped back again.
The fight started in the yard, progressed to the field, and finished near the pond. A small group of people followed them and urged Jamie to defend himself.
Bryce’s punch caught Jamie in the chest. He didn’t flinch.
“You’re not making this easy for me. You should be lying on the ground by now. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” Bryce took aim. Jamie pulled up his arms to protect his face. He didn’t retaliate.
Bryce’s jab bloodied Jamie’s nose. Still, he didn’t strike back.
“Fight, damn you,” Bryce shouted and followed with a quick barrage of solid body punches. Jamie held his position and didn’t fight back.
In a close clinch, Bryce muttered for Jamie’s ear only. Jamie let go his constraints and pushed Bryce away. The years of restraint from Bryce’s insults and attacks disappeared with the boy’s maliciously whispered words.
Jamie caught Bryce’s left jab in his palm mid-strike. Alarm and panic flashed in Bryce’s eyes. The bully stared at Jamie’s hand holding his fist.
Jamie almost tore Bryce’s arm out of its socket as he pushed it aside and set his stance, one foot in front of the other.
For a moment he thought to stop the madness, but the idea quickly died. Bryce had no idea what he’d let loose.
Before Bryce threw the next punch, Jamie exploded with a rapid cannon volley of left jabs at Bryce’s jaw. Stunned, Bryce lowered his defenses.
Jamie’s right cross burst from his shoulder as he shifted from his back leg to his front, throwing all his weight into the swing. He caught Bryce squarely in the face. Blood exploded in an arc of fine spray as Bryce’s head snapped back. Droplets dusted Jamie’s face, the warm blood spattering across his face.
Bryce’s head came forward. Jamie followed with a left uppercut and caught Bryce under his chin. The strike so hard it lifted Bryce into the air then sent him to the ground. To everyone’s amazement, Bryce laid unconscious at Jamie’s feet. No one said a word as he stood panting over 


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