Authors: Lori Ann Bailey
Tags: #Scotland, #Highland, #Covenanter, #Politics, #Action Adventure, #Clan, #Romance, #Historical, #Laird, #Duke, #King Charles, #religious conflict, #Secret identity, #Amnesia, #Lord, #Revenge, #Forced Marriage, #Road romance, #Mistaken Identity, #Royalist, #Earl, #Spy, #highlander, #select historical, #Historical Romance, #entangled publishing
She easily skirted several trees, jumped roots, and dodged thickets. It became obvious she had spent a lot of time outdoors. Most lasses would be terrified of being here on their own, away from their home. What was she thinking? She needed protection. It wasn’t wise for a woman to roam without a guardian in these woods, and he again cursed her reckless streak for the havoc it played on his nerves. With a groan, Lachlan gave chase.
He slowly gained on her, but only due to his longer legs. To catch up, he took the brunt of all the twigs and branches, and he winced as one scraped across the arm she had mended. He didn’t want to have to tackle her. His frame would crush her, and he’d already hurt her enough.
“Maggie!” he shouted. “Stop, lass.” She didn’t answer. She kept running.
Damn, he had wanted to scare her, but not enough to make her flee; he had only wanted the truth.
What fool woman would want to be out here far from her kin?
He answered himself.
One who is more afraid of something, or someone, than the uncertainty of the forest.
She ducked under another branch, but it hit him squarely in the chest, nearly knocking him off his feet, and he lost a couple of steps.
Unexpectedly, she slowed then stopped. The move took him by surprise. She swayed back and forth, and her arms shot out to the sides like she was trying to get her balance.
He almost ran into her and had to swerve to avoid plowing her over. Forward then back, she wavered on her feet. As Lachlan maneuvered around to her front, her eyes became unfocused and glazed over.
He had seen it before in battles, men who had been hit in the head. Running had reinjured her. She fell to her knees before he could catch her. One hand rose up to cover her mouth while the rest of her body continued to move in unsteady circles. Guilt assailed him.
He lowered himself to the ground and gently pulled her into his lap to cradle her. Her eyes remained unfocused, but trails of tears had run down her face as she’d tried to make her escape. Using his thumb, he wiped them away.
“I willnae send ye back, lass. I willnae send ye back.”
She said nothing, just stared off blankly, occasionally blinking. After several motherents, her bleary eyes closed, and she fell asleep in his arms. He was afraid to move her; she seemed so fragile and breakable. Not the defiant girl who had just pushed a man nearly twice her size.
When he eventually made his way back to the waiting men, he was greeted with slack jaws and inquiring eyes, but none dared question their laird. His solemn expression and Maggie’s limp form in his arms apparently shocked them all into silence.
Alan raised his eyebrows, but Lachlan just shook his head. “We need to move on to somewhere safe. We will stop early for the night.”
“We aren’t far from my home,” Robbie stated.
“Are ye sure ye wish to go back there, lad?” Alan asked.
“Aye, we can stay in Father Ailbert’s cottage.” If Lachlan hadn’t become so attuned to the lad’s steady tone, he wouldn’t have noticed the hitch in his voice as he said his mentor’s name. Robbie’s thumb slid back and forth over his shirt above the spot where the cross he wore was hidden. “We will all fit inside for the night.” The lad’s eyes were hopeful.
’Twould probably be the last place Conall would think to look for them.
A warm fire inside a cottage was appealing, but the boy had been through so much, and Lachlan didn’t want to subject him to any more pain. “Ye are certain?”
“Aye. I would like to collect more of my things while we are there.”
Lachlan’s eyes dipped to the woman in his arms. She could use a comfortable place to spend the night. He glanced back to Robbie and nodded. “Can ye lead the way?” Last time the group had been there, they had been guided to the site by the ribbons of smoke that rose from the burning church.
“Alan, take Maggie while I mount.” His friend looped his arms under the lass and took the light weight. “Cradle her head,” Lachlan instructed. “The priest’s cottage will be a good place for her to rest if ’tis her head. Remember when Kirstie hit her head?”
Alan visibly shuddered as his gaze took on a faraway quality, making Lachlan think his friend might be longing to see Kirstie again. Lachlan had always known Alan had feelings for his sister, but the man would never admit it. He suspected Kirstie’s real reason for leaving home revolved around Alan as well, but they were both stubborn and neither would ever acknowledge the truth.
Once on his horse, he reached down and Alan handed Maggie to him. He tucked her head into the crook of his arm and secured her close to his chest then trotted after Robbie.
Late in the afternoon, as they reached the familiar clearing, the sun cast warm beams on the cool violet and blue hues of overgrown heather surrounding the glade. A quaint, peaceful cottage sat near the center, marred only in beauty by the remains of the burned church. It presented an ominous picture of the events that had unfolded just days before they’d reached Edinburgh. Robbie had been huddled on the ground a short distance from the roaring flames of the structure, with the priest lain over his lap. His clothes were singed, and soot marks streaked his face from his heedless rush into the burning structure to find his mentor.
Cousin Fiona had screamed when she’d seen the battered and bloodied body of the holy man, and Dougal had escorted her away from the horrific scene while Lachlan knelt down next to the lad, who sat motionless, staring at the flames as they consumed the last vestiges of the small building. “What happened, lad?”
The boy swallowed then turned his tired eyes toward Lachlan as if to assess him. He either approved of what he saw or just needed someone to talk to, because he confided, “Covenanters.”
Lachlan’s blood froze; he’d been hoping the fire had been some horrific accident. “Did ye see them?”
“Aye. They were leaving when I got here.” He pointed toward the road south.
“Did they kill the Father or was it the fire?” Lachlan gulped and held out hope that no one could be so cruel as to murder a defenseless priest.
King Charles’s wish to unify, England, Scotland, and Ireland was admirable, but people had to have the right to choose their own religion. Lachlan didn’t have a problem with the Covenanters’ desire to practice as they wished, but that they forced others to convert to Presbyterianism through threats and by burning churches and killing priests maddened him. Their demands were no better than the king’s.
As Catholics, Lachlan and his clan were Royalists who supported the king and were not allied with the Covenanters elected to Parliament who claimed to represent all of Scotland. They did not.
“’Twas no’ the fire. It was the man with the twisted smile. He still had the bloody knife in his hand. I will never forget his face.” On the verge of going into shock, the lad lifted a bloody hand that covered a wound on the dead priest. “He was still alive when I pulled him out.”
“Did Father tell ye who they were?” Lachlan asked.
“Nae, he just said, ‘Covenanters took everything, took your cross.’”
“What’s yer name, lad?”
“Ro…” He hesitated and turned his eyes back to the flames. “Robbie.”
“Where’s yer family, Robbie?” The lad shook his head.
Although the area was soaked from an earlier rain, they had spent the next several hours ensuring the flames didn’t spread to the nearby woods. Lachlan and the rest of his men took turns digging the grave.
When all was done and they were ready to leave, Robbie surprised them. “May I come with you? I have nothing left here.”
Alan chimed in before Lachlan could reply. “Aye. The Camerons have room for ye.”
There had been a fire the night Alan’s parents had died, and Lachlan couldn’t deny his adoptive brother the opportunity to help a boy who found himself in similar circumstances. He nodded at the pair, and shortly after, their band continued on to Edinburgh, not knowing they would soon find the monster responsible for the senseless murder.
Maggie blinked. She looked up at Lachlan’s strong chin as he talked in hushed tones to someone nearby. She lay cradled in his arms in front of a blazing fire in some home she’d never seen before. She felt safe and treasured in the warmth of his strong, protective embrace, and och, he smelled of the fresh outdoors and wood and all things comforting.
In an attempt to remember how she had come to be here, she blinked a few times. The man had kissed her in the woods near the encampment, turned her insides to mush, and she’d been so attuned to the sensations of his touch she lost all sense. Connected to him in that motherent, she’d wanted to give him the truth, not keep anything from him. But when he questioned her, she came to the realization that he’d only kissed her to lower her defenses, learn who her family was, and send her home. He hadn’t been moved by their embrace the same way she had.
She had gone from such pleasure and trust to being hurt and scared at the same time and had done the only thing she could think of. She ran. It might not have been the smartest move, but she’d had no choice.
The memory of what happened next eluded her. No matter how she tried, it wouldn’t come back, and a pain throbbed in her temple. The head injury had done this to her, and she needed to get to her bag and mix some tea. If she was going to survive and get to safety, she had to take better care of herself.
Again Maggie blinked and focused on the man holding her. His skin glowed a warm caramel color in the dim firelight.
Conversation stopped, and his anxious gaze tilted to her.
Had he been worried about her?
His free hand wound around her to massage and knead her temple and skull, and she sighed.
As she gave him a small smile, his shoulders relaxed.
His hand started to fall away, but she caught it. “Please, it feels nice.” His lips curved up, and he continued. A slight shift in the air gave her the impression the person he’d been talking to left to give them some sort of privacy.
“Where are we?” She found it disturbing that it was the second time in two days she’d had to ask that question.
“We only rode a little farther to a safe place after ye fainted.” Concerned eyes studied her.
Now she was confused and annoyed. She was no wilting flower who fell at any sign of danger. “I have never fainted.”
“Ye did today.” He looked away then back down at her. “Ye were running from me. What are ye so afraid of?” She stiffened, and his hand moved to cradle her cheek softly.
“I cannae go home. If ye dinnae want me here, I will find a convent on my own.”
“A convent?” His lips quirked. It didn’t matter if he believed her—she was done defending herself, and she was perfectly capable of navigating through the Highlands without the assistance of a man.
“Ye wouldnae be happy at a place like that.” His fingers slid back into her hair, and her scalp tingled. “Ye have too much fire in ye.” It surprised her he could read her so well. She knew she would never be happy there, but she would settle for whatever kept her safe.
“’Tis the only option I have.” She turned her eyes toward the flames and hoped he would drop the subject. “I need my bag. There are herbs for my head.” Now she pushed his hand away and cautiously attempted to rise. He stopped her.
“If ye cannae trust me, then I will go my own way. Ye are free from any obligation.” She attempted to look stern and unbendable, but in his arms like this, it was doubtful her determination came across.
“Ye cannae be out here on yer own.” His head slowly shook.
“Will ye keep me against my will?”
“If that’s what it takes to keep ye safe.” His hand rested on her cheek again, and an odd look came over his face. Could it be he felt protective of her as a woman and not just a piece of property?
“I willnae go back.”
“Promise me ye willnae run, lass. I willnae send ye home.” His eyes were sincere, and she breathed a sigh of relief. She had to trust him, not that he was giving her the same courtesy. “Promise, Maggie.”
She nodded, then asked, “Do ye have my satchel? I’d like to make some tea for my head.”
Rising with her still in his arms, he turned and gingerly set her on the chair. The wood was hard, and she missed the comfort and warmth of being held in his gentle embrace. “Stay. I’ll get yer bag and some water.”
Soft, relaxed male voices floated around the room. Her gaze shifted from the cook fire, which doubled as the cottage’s only source of warmth, to take in the scene. She skimmed the comfortable room that consisted of a kitchen and gathering place. A small table sat between her chair and the one that had been vacated, while the group of men congregated around a slightly larger table with empty plates as they conversed. The only man not in the room was Seamus, the quiet one she’d not had the chance to get to know yet.
Lachlan reappeared and passed her the bag as he sat next to her. Peering in, she noticed immediately its contents had been rifled through, and her fingers froze as her mind turned over the fact he had searched her things. Resentment blossomed in her chest.
“Ye went through it.” She was surprised how calmly the words came out, because her bottom lip quivered; she didn’t know if it was from anger or fear he might have discovered her identity. She wanted to shout, but her head still hurt.
Was there anything in there he shouldn’t see?
She searched her memory and came up with an answer that made her heart skip a beat. Her ma’s cuff—the only thing of any value she had brought with her. Surely he would not deduce her identity from it, but her hand moved to cover the matching bracelet she wore. If he noticed, he kept it hidden. She knew the inscription by heart:
Beloved wife and mother, S.M.
How often she had dreamed her father had cared for her ma. She’d held onto the silver bangle because it was proof at one time he had loved her enough to have those words etched.
She pulled the bag farther into her lap and reached in casually. Relief flooded through her as her fingers skimmed the cool metal in the same pocket where she’d left it. There was still hope he wouldn’t send her back.
His gaze drifted down, and he had the nerve to look repentant and way too handsome. Why was she even thinking about how bonny he was?
As he sat there quietly and bit down on his lip, she remembered how those lips had made her quiver and how she had melted into his embrace. His continued silence made her imagine he was trying to come up with a good reason for violating her trust or attempting to lure her into some trap to divulge her identity.
She shook her head and tore her gaze from those luscious lips. “Ye had no right.” Her fingers tightened on the bag.
“I had to ken ye wouldnae harm any of my clan.”
“I bandaged ye and Malcolm. Why do ye think I would harm someone?”
“’Twas no’ about ye. I would have done it to anyone. I’d rather be distrustful than dead.” His eyes became hard, and the relaxed manner he’d had with her motherents ago disappeared. He was rigid and on edge.
She opened her mouth to tell him he was foolish, but she stopped herself, because she realized his mistrust was a reaction to the betrayal Alan had alluded to. Lachlan had been hurt deeply. He didn’t trust women because he didn’t want to experience that pain again, and he had set up walls to protect himself, so she couldn’t fault him for fortifying his heart against further hurt. More than that, she was a stranger, while, as laird, his job was to guard his clan. She would probably feel the same way if she were in his place.
Her head tilted. Had any of the men in her life ever apologized to her?
His eyes peered directly into hers. The stony tension in him had softened, and he continued, “I was careful no’ to damage anything.”
Her shoulders relaxed, and she nodded, surprised at how easy she found it to forgive him. The Cameron laird valued her enough to apologize for upsetting her.
“Some water for yer tea.” Malcolm set the cup down on the small wooden table between the two chairs.
Before her gaze shifted to Malcolm to thank him, she smiled at Lachlan. For some reason, it was important he knew she had accepted his apology. He answered with a small grin of his own.
After she finished her tea and had a piece of bannock with honey, she swayed with weariness and almost fell from the chair. Lachlan took her arm, helped her up, and guided her to the larger of two small beds in an adjoining room. It was cooler here, despite the door left ajar for heat from the cook fire.
“With the rain, ’tis good we have a place to stay inside tonight.”
She didn’t attempt to clear the fog in her head and hadn’t even known it was raining. “Whose bed?” Her lids fought to close before she could lie down.
“’Twas Father Ailbert’s. The other is Robbie’s.” Lachlan pulled the blankets back and eased her to sit on the mattress.
He knelt down in front her, and her heart beat faster at the nearness and intimacy of the position. If he’d looked at her she might have come undone, but he was unlacing the dirty, old man boots she wore. A sigh escaped. He set her shoes aside and rose to his full, intimidating height.
“Robbie has found ye some clean clothes.” Pointing to the edge of the bed where a white shirt and some trews similar to the ones she wore lay folded, he shrugged. “’Twas that or priest’s robes.”
The idea of clean garments of any kind had her smiling. He nodded to a small bowl resting on a table in the corner.
“There is water in the basin for washing. Mayhap ’tis still warm,” he called over his shoulder as he left the room.
She went to the basin and picked up the cloth beside it to wash the day’s dirt from her face and hands. A brush lay on the table as well. For all that he didn’t trust her, he had still thought of her comfort. Odd for a man to consider her needs.
After washing, she spent several motherents running the bristles through her tangled hair. Undressing and placing the dirty clothes in a pile at the side of the room, she put on the crisp shirt and laid the clean trews and stockings on a side table. Lachlan came back through the door and froze, his gaze fixed on her. Comfortable but exhausted now, she didn’t try to analyze what he was thinking as she sat on the bed.
“Climb in and move to the other side.” His voice sounded strangled, almost as if it were a plea instead of a command, but she was so drowsy that she did as instructed and shut her eyes before thinking to ask, “Why?”
“’Cause we’ll be sharing the bed,” was what she imagined he said, but she was nearly asleep.
At some point during the night, Maggie woke with Lachlan’s arm around her. It was comforting, and she nestled into the warmth of the embrace as she relished the security of his hold. He hadn’t attempted to woo her, only kept her encircled like a treasured possession in his strong arms, and that’s how she knew it was just a dream.
No one has ever valued me.
Maggie woke to the sound of deep male laughter and voices not belonging to her brothers. Early-morning light streamed in through threadbare curtains, and a cross hung on the wall, reminding her where she had slept. She rose, pulled on the clean clothes and her boots, and walked into the other room. Seamus had reappeared, but Alan was missing. Lachlan stood near the fire, and his gaze met hers as she crossed to sit on the only open chair at the larger table.
“Good morning,” she said and was greeted with a chorus of the same. Talk continued, but she found it impossible to concentrate on the cadence of the conversation because she could sense Lachlan’s stare penetrate her as he studied her from the side. Her face flushed as she remembered they had shared a bed the previous evening, and every man in this house knew it.
Robbie jumped up from the seat beside her but returned shortly with a bowl of oats with cream. She focused on it until she mustered the courage to look up and noticed early-morning rays of light streamed in from a nearby window, and clear skies showed no hint there had been rain during the night.
After eating, she followed Lachlan and Seamus out of the cottage to finish their journey north but stopped in her tracks. “Blessed Mother” escaped her lips as Malcolm bumped into her from behind. The burned remains of what had once been a church moldered just outside the door.
Lachlan turned, and his perceptive scrutiny bored into her. Her hand had flown to cover her heart, and a shroud of darkness seeped into her core. “’Tis a church?”
“Aye.” Lachlan took a step toward her.
“Covenanters.” His eyes darkened as the words passed coolly through his lips, almost as a hiss.
“Why would someone do that?”
Lachlan’s eyes shifted only motherentarily toward Robbie, but she caught the slight movement. Her gaze darted in the same direction, and she saw the lad trudge toward a fresh mound of dirt. Her eyes watered as the implications hit her.
She made the sign of the cross and shook her head. ’Twas why Robbie had been given the other bed—it truly was his, and the priest he lived with must have been killed in the fire. Her heart broke for him because she understood loss. The grief never went away, just mellowed with the passing of time.
“Ye took him in?”
“Aye, he is under Cameron protection now.”
Lachlan’s arm wrapped around her waist and pulled her close. “Come, lass. We’ll give him some time.” He drew her toward the horses.
A tear slid down her cheek. “Why?” she asked again as her gaze returned to the scorched ruins.
“No one can explain evil men.”
She nodded as another tear trailed down her cheek. She knew that all too well. She’d only known one truly evil man, and she would say a prayer of thanks every day to never see him again.
Maggie was grateful they traveled at an unhurried pace through the morning, since Lachlan kept looking over at her as if he expected her to fall off her horse at any motherent. It was a good thing, because she might. Her head still pounded, and she could barely keep her eyes open even though she had slept well. Och, she wanted to lie back down. She wished she were still in the soft bed and the safety of Lachlan’s strong arms, but at the same time she tried to fight the guilt of how comfortable that had been. Her time with him was only a temporary solution and she’d be on her way soon, besides she couldn’t let down her guard and risk her heart.