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
Maggie swayed and caught herself. She forced her eyes wide and took a deep breath.
“We break.” Lachlan’s voice came from right beside her as he pointed to a spot up ahead she couldn’t focus on. He was suddenly unnervingly close.
She furtively glanced through her eyelashes at the man riding near her. He made her feel safe and had awoken a desire inside her no other man ever had. Her mind battled with her body, which yearned for him to touch her, kiss her again.
His gaze drifted her way and caught her eyes. A crooked, mischievous grin slowly emerged. An intense, heated stare made her ache with a desire she was becoming all too familiar with, and she blushed.
The smoldering glance he returned said he was aware of what she was thinking. She didn’t see revulsion in his eyes—he looked interested. Mayhap she’d mistaken his intentions yesterday when she’d run from him.
The blues of the vast clear sky blurred by with occasional white puffs of clouds, and she found herself relaxing into the rhythmic
thud, thud, thud
of the horses’ hoofbeats and the men’s silence as they worked their way home. As the greens of dense shrubbery, pines, and oaks, the deep purples of the heather, and violets of thistle dotting the hills drew her into their beauty, she found it increasingly difficult to keep her lids open.
Before she knew it, they’d stopped and Lachlan was at her side, pulling her down from her horse. Thankful she didn’t have to expend the energy to stay upright on her own, she leaned into his body. He steadied, then guided her over to a large rock and gently nudged her to sit. He turned and left, so she stood and stretched, because sleep would overtake her if she didn’t move around.
As the life came back into her limbs, they started to revive, and the fogginess in her head abated. When he returned with bread and dried meat, he held some out to her.
“Sit,” he ordered, and she did, because she was no longer afraid she’d tumble over with weariness. She was struck by how small and vulnerable she felt next to him, but at the same time how at ease she was in his presence, despite his massive build.
“Eat,” he said. He broke off a piece of the bread and handed it to her then bit into a piece of the meat.
“I’m no’ so hungry,” she said, but she took a bite anyway.
“Does yer head still hurt?”
“Nae, I’m just so tired.”
“It may take ye some time to recover. My sister was always tripping over something and hitting her head. Once she was dizzy and in bed for a week.”
“Ye have a sister?” She popped another small piece of bread in her mouth. Mayhap she was hungry after all.
“Aye. She’s just a wee bit older than Malcolm. Ye remind me a lot of her.”
“Kirstie is just as stubborn as ye and always gets her way.” Lachlan’s smile gave her the impression his love for his sister ran deep.
“I’m no’ stubborn.” She pouted.
“Aye, ye are. Ye have a way of turning things to get what ye want. She could always talk me into the craziest things, too.”
“I always wanted a sister. Will I get to meet her?” Mayhap a sister wouldn’t have been a good idea—she wasn’t certain she would have been able to keep one safe from Conall.
“Nae, she isnae at Kentillie.” A cloud covered his eyes.
“Is she married, then?”
“Nae, she went to live with our cousin. She’s been there for a couple of years now.” Lachlan’s smile faded, and he looked off into the distance.
“Ye let her go?” She couldn’t wrap her mind around a man who would allow a woman to choose a path he’d not planned for her.
“She has her own mind, and I couldnae temper her spirit by forcing her to stay somewhere she didnae want.”
“Most men wouldnae let a woman make her own decisions.”
“That may be so, but I’ve kenned women more intelligent than most men. ’Twas no’ my place to stop her.”
“Ye are her laird.”
“Aye, but I have a heart and wouldnae see her be miserable.”
“My father and brothers dinnae share yer views.”
“Then they need to open their minds and hearts.”
She was astonished. She’d probably found the only man in all of Scotland who could find his way into her soul.
Even if his touch had not set her ablaze, now she wanted to give herself to him before she was forced into seclusion. Her one taste of intimacy would be with a man who valued her not as a woman who could be bartered for his own gain, but as a woman to be respected.
Out of all the men she’d known, he was the only one that threatened to tear down the fortress she’d built around her heart. It was a shame he didn’t want to wed, because if she could ever see herself with anyone, it would have been a man like Lachlan Cameron.
As the sun sank, it cast pink shadows on the clouds, and the beauty of it, as Lachlan held her close, gave her a calm reassurance that warmed and comforted her. It had been years since she’d had a sense of security so strong that flashes of her friend’s broken body didn’t intrude.
’Twas blessed peace to be out in the fresh air of the pines and see the changing landscape as the mountains rose to touch the heavens. They wove in and out of glens and open fields littered with fragrant heather. Traversing the forests had become difficult with jagged, uneven earth posing a risk to the horses, so they had moved onto well-trodden paths. Lachlan had insisted she ride the remainder of the afternoon with him, and she was secretly grateful he had, because shortly after they had set off again, she had nestled into his arms and fallen asleep with the steady movement of the horse.
She was refreshed after the afternoon nap, and clarity had returned. Her head hadn’t even hurt.
They stopped and set up camp at the edge of a clearing. Once again, Lachlan helped her dismount.
I could get used to this
, she thought as her body slid down his solid chest and a flutter started in her stomach.
They sat quietly in a circle while Malcolm started a fire. Seamus, the quiet man with his intimidating size, carved a little wooden dog out of a piece of wood for his youngest son.
Movement out of the corner of her eye caught Maggie’s attention. A large buck emerged from the trees. She didn’t want to scare it away, so she put her fingers to her lips to signal the men to silence.
They watched intently as she reached over for Malcolm’s bow and silently pulled an arrow from the quiver. The deer was a good distance away and it would be a tough shot, but she focused on the buck and moved soundlessly into a perfect, braced stance.
She pulled the bow up and notched the arrow. Pulling back, she tested the tension of the string, and when she was comfortable, she placed her head close to the bow and squinted, carefully aiming, then releasing the arrow. It flew directly on course. A broadside shot landing just behind the shoulder sent the deer limping off weakly into the woods.
“Where did ye learn that, Maggie?” Malcolm questioned.
She turned to him and winked. She couldn’t say until recently she had been allowed to run free with her three brothers, as they might be able to figure out who she was.
Robbie chimed in, “That was incredible.” His eyes were bright with appreciation and, for a motherent, the overly serious lad looked like the boy he should have been. She wondered why he had been living with a priest.
“Maggie, lass, ye dinnae just touch a man’s weapon like that. Ye might hurt his pride if ye are better with it than he is,” Alan joked.
The Highlanders burst out laughing. She didn’t get the jest, but she smiled along until her gaze fell on Lachlan. Though he chuckled as well, his gaze appraised her as if she’d given too much away. Did the man no’ miss anything? She berated her impulsive nature for making him think she might in some way be dangerous, or worse.
“Did I do something wrong?” Maggie asked, confused by his continued open assessment.
“Nae, Maggie. ’Twas verra impressive. I have never seen a lass make a shot like that,” Lachlan replied as his gaze lingered. He made his way over and took the bow then handed it back to Malcolm. He pulled her down to sit so close to his side it was almost intimate.
“Alan. Ye want to go get dinner, or should I send the lass to do what ye couldnae?” he jested and then turned toward her. “Do ye ken how to dress them, too?”
She warmed under his scrutinizing gaze, and a blush crept up her cheeks. “Nae, I never did that part.”
The cleaning had always been done close to home, and neither she nor her brothers would have risked her father seeing her involvement. She was a better shot than all of them, which was why they always brought her when they hunted. They took the credit, and she got what she needed out of the bargain—a reprieve from the confines of the stifling castle walls. She averted her eyes and wondered what she’d given away in her hasty decision to take down the deer.
Later, as they settled in for the night and she lay on her back staring up to the stars, she tried to imagine her life confined in a convent. Lachlan’s pallet was spread sinfully close to hers, and he scooted in to bridge the distance between them, making it painfully hard to imagine a life of chastity. Even through the blanket wrapped around her, he lay so near she could feel the warmth of his skin. Without warning, he lifted the wool fabric and crawled under with her, and although she thought to protest, the part of her that ached to feel his touch kept her silent. Mayhap here was a man worthy of her trust, one who respected his sister enough to honor her request to leave Kentillie.
He inched closer and whispered in her ear, “Who taught ye how to use the bow?”
His close proximity shut down her defenses, and she could no longer lie. Despite his suspicions, he had kept her safe, and she owed him as much of the truth as possible. Hopefully he’d keep to his promise not to send her back or push her into more telling confessions.
She whispered back, “The only attention I got as a child was from my brothers. They would take me out. They taught me to hunt, to ride, to do a lot of things most girls are not taught.”
Memories tugged at her heart, and she gave a sad smile. Her brothers and father weren’t all bad—they just didn’t listen to her when it came to matters that affected the clan.
“How did yer mother feel about that?” he asked.
Rolling over so she could gaze into his eyes, she swallowed, because their lips were only inches apart and hers craved the feeling of his being pressed against them.
It was somehow crucial that he understand she was being honest, that she was trusting him. She was almost secure in the knowledge that if she told him her father was Duke of Kirk he would find a way to help her, but she was not yet ready to take the risk. Still, she’d never tell anyone the whole truth.
“She was too busy yearning for my father’s affections and cursing his infidelities. She hardly ever noticed me when I was around. That is, until I got older.” Her eyes glazed over, and she looked away as she fought the old pain of not being enough to make her mother happy.
As a child, all Maggie had wanted was her ma’s love and affection, but the only thing she ever received was indifference. She tried being the perfect daughter, sewing and cooking, but her mother had ignored her efforts. Then she’d gone through a rebellious spell when she’d even stolen from the kitchens and played pranks on her brothers, but nothing ever garnered a response other than a, “Mayhap yer father would still love me if I had not birthed all ye babes.” That’s when she quit trying.
“Why when ye were older?” He lightly stroked her cheek, and she turned in to the caress. Her eyes closed to savor the feel.
Her lids slowly rose. “Because when I was old enough to listen, she would tell me how much she loved my father with one breath, and how much she hated him in the next.” A sigh escaped.
“She shouldnae have taken her grievances with him out on ye.” His hand left her face.
“My father was never faithful, and it broke her heart. It is all history now, anyway.” She pursed her lips and avoided his gaze.
“Did she leave him?”
Her heart ached as that day came back to haunt her like it had so many times before. She turned away from Lachlan and stared off into the distance. “She left us all.”
Lachlan came awake as Maggie turned onto her back on the pallet he’d made when they’d set up camp near a secluded copse of trees. ’Twas not yet light, so he closed the distance between them and wrapped his arm around her as he had the night before. She was a warm breeze blowing across the loch on a cool day, and having her in his arms somehow seemed right. He breathed her in and relaxed, knowing she was safe.
Although he was honor bound to see her home without further harm, there was something more to it than that. Her temperament and defiance ignited a burning in his chest he didn’t want to explore, so he focused on how she smelled of heather and how his arm fit perfectly over the gentle curve of her waist. He ached to bury himself deep inside her.
For some strange reason, she had made up her mind she belonged in a convent, but the passion he had seen in her, the recklessness, the zest for life showed she was a lass with a spirit that couldn’t be contained behind walls. Maggie would never be happy confined as a bride of God.
Tempting him with heated glances that made his cock ache with need, she evoked in him a need only sinking into her warm and willing body would sate. He didn’t want a wife, but he did want a bed partner. He wanted Maggie.
How he longed to see those dark blue eyes watching him with desire, and he yearned to watch her black curls bounce as she rode him astride. No one else would do.
After a few nights of bedsport, his obsession would fade, and he could escort her wherever she wanted to go. He would even keep his promise to send her to a convent if she wished.
Dougal should be back with news about her horse and mayhap her identity soon. Lachlan shifted his hips so his cock was nestled up against Maggie’s arse. He yearned not only for her body, but the news it would be safe to take her to his bed.
The soft voices of Alan and Robbie drifted through the cool, dark air, so he did his best to concentrate on that and not the throbbing ache between his legs. His mission was to keep his focus on exposing Conall and protecting the boy, not savoring the feel of the small woman that fit so snugly into his arms. Och, but she was tempting.
It took some effort, but eventually his thoughts wandered back to his band weaving through the filthy, overcrowded streets of Edinburgh with Robbie. Lachlan had not wanted to stay long, so they dropped Fiona off and ensured she was in good hands then searched for lodgings in a nearby inn. He’d heard Argyll was in residence at the castle, and he thought best to keep well away from the leader of the Covenanter army. Tensions were running high as he feuded with James Graham, First Marquess of Montrose, and other Royalists over fundamental changes to the Scottish constitution and dissolving the Scottish monarchy. The last thing Lachlan wanted on this trip was a confrontation about religious rights.
Robbie had been skittish since they’d arrived in the city. His eyes darted around like a ball being tossed by children as he jumped at every loud noise. The lad watched everyone, as if he were a wanted man and someone would recognize him at any motherent and string him up in the gallows. Odd that the boy had seemed so calm until they reached Edinburgh.
Seeming overly eager, he had rushed ahead of them to get to the inn and into a room.
When the lad froze as if he’d seen the ghost of the priest he’d just buried, Lachlan came up beside him, and Robbie latched onto his arm with a falcon-like grip. The boy had a bit of strength to him.
“That’s him.” His eyes were wide with fear, but his jaw ticked. Lachlan didn’t have to ask what Robbie meant, but there were so many people in front of them, he wasn’t sure who in the crowd was the Covenanter who had murdered his mentor.
“The blond man. He’s wearing my cross.” His hand slipped from Lachlan’s arm and formed a fist. Before Lachlan could stop him, he charged forward. Another man stepped in front and knocked Robbie to the ground to stop him from reaching his intended target.
Alan was there in an instant, standing between the beast and the boy. “Stand back,” he ordered, ready to defend the lad.
“Tell yer boy to watch where he’s going.” The behemoth took a step closer.
Lachlan had full faith in his friend, so he turned his attention to the fair-haired man Robbie had identified and strolled over. The murderer smirked as if Robbie were a bug beneath his feet, then recognition flared and his features stiffened. His eyes turned cold with deadly menace.
Drawing attention away from Robbie before the man could make a move toward him, Lachlan spoke. “My friend seems to have a grievance with ye. Do ye ken why that would be the case?”
“I have done nothing to the boy.” The man sneered. His eyes raked Lachlan, openly assessing the threat. “Whom am I speaking to?”
“Lachlan Cameron, the Lochiel, laird of the Cameron clan. And who are ye?”
“Conall Erskine.” He puffed up his shoulders and returned Lachlan’s icy gaze. “Son to the Earl of Lundin, governor of Edinburgh.”
“Murderer,” Robbie’s voice broke in. “You murdered a priest, you bastard.” Alan held him back while keeping a watchful gaze on the ox still threatening to squash him.
“You’d better have the boy watch his tongue, or I won’t be responsible for what happens to him.” Despite Conall’s cold eyes, the fear of discovery glinted in the recesses of their depths.
“He tells the truth. Where did ye come by that cross around yer neck?”
Conall stiffened. “I don’t have to defend myself to you.”
“Give the boy his cross. ’Tis his only memento of the man of God ye took from him.” The piece looked as if it were worth a small fortune. Why would a boy have such a possession? He waved away the thought—likely it belonged to the church.
Robbie broke free from Alan, grabbed the large jewel-encrusted cross from Conall’s neck, and pulled. The chain snapped, and Conall’s fist struck the boy with a barely discernible thud.
Lachlan shoved Conall, who fell on his arse. “Dinnae ever lay a hand on him again.”
His eyes sparking with fury, Conall stood calmly, then he charged Lachlan, who dodged to the side. Lachlan spun, and his fist connected with the murderer’s cheek.
Sounds of swords being drawn from their sheaths drew their attention to those around them, and he caught a glimpse of a group of frightened women nearby who covered the eyes of their children. He calmed and took a step back. “Ye will face justice for what ye have done.” He caught Alan’s gaze and tilted his head to indicate they should move from the street. “Here isnae the place.”
“I have done nothing.” Conall spit as Lachlan and his party continued on their way.
If Conall was to be believed, that his father was the governor of Edinburgh, Lachlan would have to seek justice for the priest some other way. He was inclined to believe it was the truth, because the blackguard lacked a Scottish brogue, which meant he’d probably had English tutors or been educated elsewhere. It was not likely the courts in this city would believe a young boy’s word over an official’s son, so until he could formulate a plan, he needed to get Robbie back to Kentillie, where he would be safe.
Maggie shifted and he returned his attention to the present. Focusing on the task ahead had succeeded in temporarily diverting his thoughts from the temptation in front of him, but Conall’s revolting deeds kept him awake. Aye, he had bigger problems than the lass in his arms, but damn, she felt good.
Chirping birds sang in the thick pines above, but ’twas the feel of the man behind her that had heated her blood and pulled her from sleep. Lachlan’s body pressed into hers, and he seemed to pull her closer as his hips rocked into her backside, eliciting a strange reaction from her body that called for her to turn over and sink farther into his strong embrace. She shimmied into the touch, and she thought she heard him groan, but only motherents later, he released his hold and backed up as he stood and left her there alone.
Waiting for her body to calm from the strange reaction to his, she wondered why he had slept so near her last night. The previous evening, it had made sense to share the bed, but last night when he’d climbed under the blanket with her, she’d stifled the protest of propriety and allowed him to hold her. It was a cool night, after all, and it felt surprisingly nice to have his body snuggled so close to hers.
Thinking about their conversation the evening before, another revelation came to her—by expressing her disappointment and hurt over her ma’s actions, she had opened a part of herself to him that she hadn’t shared with anyone in years, and she felt lighter for it. He had been a safe place to vent her frustrations, it had been so long since she’d felt as if she weren’t judged by her thoughts, and he’d listened as if it weren’t all her fault.
As she climbed from under the blanket, she pulled it over her shoulders, not wanting to lose his warmth or the masculine, earthy scent that still clung to the woolen fabric as she moved to join the others by a small fire. Lachlan slid from the only log and onto the ground. “Sit.” He nodded toward the place he’d vacated and kept conversing with Seamus as he passed her the bowl of oats he’d just gotten for himself. His fingers touched hers and lingered a little too long, as if they, too, craved something more. As far as she could tell, he hadn’t been watching her, but he seemed aware of every move she made. He was laird, but he was on a level with all his men and had given up his spot, something she was sure her father never would have done. Not for her mother or her or any other lass.
Before they left their camp, a light mist started to fall. It turned into sheets of rain as they traveled through the morning, and although she caught herself wishing she were cuddled up next to Lachlan as she had been the day before, she lifted her face to the cleansing droplets as they helped to clear her head. They meandered off the path they had been taking and onto a road; a small village came into view and the band guided their horses toward the little stable near a building with a sign that boasted
Dismounting first, Lachlan said something to the other men she didn’t hear then turned his attentions back to her and helping her down. Swinging her leg over, she slid down into his waiting arms and shivered as her soaked body skimmed across his and the combination of rubbing against his muscular frame and the heat from his body sent a visible shudder through her. She flushed as the fevered stirrings she fought to keep at bay returned with the simple action.
His arms stayed around her as her head tilted up; she expected to see his strong chin, but warmth pooled in her core as a heated gaze of the deepest blue met hers instead. “Ye are freezing.”
Only she was smiling at him now because cold was the last thing she felt. He continued, “Ye should have said something.”
“’Tis just a little rain, and it seems to be letting up.” Noticing the quiet around them, she glanced around to see they were alone in the stable. Strong arms still wrapped around her, she turned back to him only to notice he was studying their surroundings as well. He backed to the wall and drew her along with him as his gaze seemed to take in everything.
She was about to ask where everyone had gone when his attention turned back to her, and suddenly, his head was dipping to hers, but his mouth didn’t land on her lips. It was close to her ear, and he whispered, “Och, ye dinnae even ken what ye do to me, lass,” before his lips closed over the lobe of her ear. Gasping as the soft, warm pressure sent chills spreading down to her core, she clenched her hands on his sides and held on. His breathing deepened, and his teeth nipped and pulled at the sensitive area as newly discovered sensations had her body arching into his.
It was as if her body had woken up for the first time, as one hand held her back and the other lowered to cup her rear and pull her up to give him better access. She was pinned to him as his mouth worshipped her skin, as if she were to be cherished and adored. Her body thrummed to know what else his touch could make her feel, and she knew at that motherent she couldn’t leave this man’s side until she had experienced what his body had promised hers. She wanted to lie naked with this gentle man and experience what she knew would be a transcendent experience if just his touch made her feel like this.
Raising his head, he turned his attention back to the door, and then she thought he nodded at someone, but her limbs were weak and hummed with the desire that still pulsated through her. “’Tis safe, come.” Lips curved into a satisfied smile, his gaze met hers and lingered as she shook her head so that the words would soak in, but she was having trouble processing what he said.
“Let’s eat.” One arm left her while the other kept her clutched to his side as he drew her from the stable into the tavern.
As they sat at a long table in the corner of the room, his hand resting on her thigh under the table, she tried to make sense of what he had made her feel. It had been as if her body had just woken from a long, dull sleep to discover sensation she’d not dreamed possible. What else could he do to her? She knew the basics from her mother and hadn’t had friends who had educated her on what went on between a woman and a man, but she was going to let this man teach her. Just his touch drove her mad with thoughts she didn’t understand, and if she made it to the convent and never experienced what he could show her, she knew she would always wonder and regret not taking the chance when she could.
In between bites of stew and bread, as the men talked about the rest of the journey, she managed to catch that they should be at Kentillie in two more days. The rest of the conversation was a blur, because her thoughts were on what would happen when she made it to the convent, and for the first time, although she knew she would be safe there, she dreaded what she would be giving up—the intimacy between lovers.
She swallowed and peeked up at the rest of the table, glad they couldn’t read her thoughts. Lachlan didn’t look at her, but although he talked with his men, the lazy circles his fingers traced on her trews let her know he hadn’t forgotten about her and sent shivers of want straight to a place that he’d roused in her. His eyes had warmed with lust as he pulled back from kissing her neck, and there was no hiding that he wanted her, too. Wanting to experience more of what he’d done, she came to the conclusion she would let this man take her to his bed before giving her vows.