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What happens when duty and desire collide?
Highland Deception is available!
Scotland, August 1642
Margaret Murray, only daughter to the Duke of Kirk, had done it again. Like she often had in her youth, she had dressed in her brother’s clothes and sneaked away from the keep. This time she had no intention of returning. If she wanted to avoid what they had planned for her, she would have to take matters into her own hands.
It had been a long time since she’d been allowed out on her own, and the fresh air was a balm to her soul. She breathed deeply as she cleansed her thoughts of the stifling environment at home. Each hoofbeat farther away brought a relief she’d thought she would never feel again. Giddy that her deception had worked so easily, she hummed a song as she trotted through the lush, green meadow toward a new life. Well, really, the humming was an attempt to pretend she wasn’t trembling. Being in the wilds of the Scottish Highlands on her own didn’t frighten her—she was more terrified of being caught and sent back.
Pushing the fear out of her mind, she trudged on, but despite her progress, she couldn’t shake the dread that clung to her. Her father’s last words rang in her ears. “I educated ye like yer brothers, but ye have turned yer intelligence into defiance. Ye will wed Conall.”
A life sentence of miserable confinement with a man who turned her blood cold. Conall himself had explained in great detail how he planned to make her suffer.
She had been able to put the wedding off until her twenty-first year, but there was only so much time her family would give her to grieve. Unfortunately, her respite had come to an end.
How long until they discovered her absence? Even now, her father and brothers were meeting with the priest. What would her father do when he discovered she’d kept him from sealing his precious alliance? As long as he had everything he wanted, he wouldn’t care. A tear escaped, but she rubbed it away. She had sworn there would be no more tears about something out of her control and no more men to force her into contrition.
After her conversation with her father, it had not taken her long to realize the only option she had was to flee. As she’d played often in the forest, it left her well suited to live without comforts until she reached her destination. If only she knew how to get there. In her haste to leave, she’d not thought to find a map. She only knew to go north.
Her eyes lifted to the heavens. I promise to be dutiful if I get there safely.
Luck had been with her, and she’d been able to abscond with a horse that had been tied to a tree just outside the keep, one not from the clan stables. When she’d stopped to run her hand down its long nose, it nuzzled into her as if saying, take me. With a quick prayer of thanks, she had climbed on its back, hoping she would be long gone before they thought to look for her.
She shuddered and dug her heels into the sides of the horse, willing herself to stay focused on happy times during the long journey that lay ahead of her, instead of the pain she was leaving behind.
Cherished memories of her grandmother and mother teaching her the art of healing, passed down through the generations, filled her as she cantered through the lush green fields and glens surrounding the castle. Her hand slid down to the sides of the horse, and she rubbed the worn woolen medicine bag that was never far from her side. She sighed at the reassuring texture. It was the only thing she dared bring, in case she was questioned about her destination at the stables. No one had noticed her, however, as she strolled casually out of the gates.
She would never have a daughter to pass her knowledge to. Nor would she get the chance to be the mother she wished to be. It stung to give up on that dream, but she had no choice, so she would console herself in becoming a bride of God. It couldn’t be that hard. Surely she could stay chaste with no challenge.
Love between a man and woman didn’t really exist. It was for fools and the weak, and she was neither of those things. Reckless and headstrong, maybe, but she would never be someone’s fool.
Maggie rode for hours, and she was fair certain she was almost to the edge of Murray land. Her rear was sore from the pounding of her hurried pace, and the horse had slowed to a canter. A short break would suit them both, so she turned the horse toward the stream they’d been following north. She dismounted and found a path the steed could take down the embankment. But the overly long bottoms of the trews she wore quickly became heavy with moisture and muck, her brother’s oversize shoes slushed around in the mud, and she wobbled to keep her balance. Most lasses would be horrified by Maggie’s current state of dress. She was not. Until her mother’s death, she had been allowed to run wild. She was a free spirit, and her mother had encouraged her curious nature, probably just to get her out from under her feet.
Och, she wished her mother were here.
She rubbed her rear and stretched as she guided the stallion to the water.
“I’ll call ye Freedom.” She patted the gentle creature’s head softly. Freedom responded with a nicker, but maybe the happy reply was because he’d eyed the water, not approval of his new name. “We will do well together and then I’ll do my best to get ye home,” she continued.
The earth shook, and she turned to see movement at the far end of the field she’d just crossed. Horses skirted the edge near the stream.
Her heart lunged into her stomach, and she shook her head in a vain attempt to clear the image of several men galloping toward her. Och, had she been discovered? The riders were gaining fast and were going to be on her soon.
Even squinting, it was impossible to make out who they were. It could be she’d been discovered and her brothers were coming for her. The thought of going home made her heart lurch and sent a shiver down her spine. They would have to drag her back kicking and screaming.
Thankful she was mostly hidden by the embankment, she spared a quick glance over her shoulder to see Freedom’s head was dipped to the water, making him hard to see as well. Maggie considered ducking down in the ditch to hide, yet her curiosity got the better of her, and she had to peek over the top of the ridge.
A group of eight men and one young boy of about twelve years of age was going to pass right by her. She didn’t recognize the horses or the men, and some of the tension left her shoulders. She said a silent prayer of thanks that the men were not familiar and her family had not caught up to her yet.
The riders didn’t appear to be from any of the nearby villages, either, and must just be traveling through. She let go of the breath she hadn’t known she was holding. Relief washed over her.
Her gaze gravitated toward the man in the lead. He was one of the brawniest men she had ever seen. Honey-gold, wavy, windblown locks hung loose to his shoulders. The craziest urge to run her fingers through it struck her.
His bearing was confident, almost regal, but at the same time not cocky. Riding one of the finest stallions she’d ever seen, he sat tall and straight. In the early-afternoon sunlight, he looked like a god, golden and brawny, with a rugged but handsome quality, and she caught herself leaning forward to get a better look. The man to his right was laughing at what had been said but the golden-haired mountain beside him looked serious, his brows pinched together as he scowled at the carefree man.
The leader’s muscles rippled as he held his hand up to indicate whatever he was saying was important despite his friend’s humor. They were so close she was able to make out a dimple as it flashed on his left cheek when he gave in and smiled and then looked protectively at the boy, who drew up alongside them.
She could not pull her eyes away. If she believed in tales of men with honor, Maggie would ask this one to get her to the convent. With his confidence and size, he would be able to protect her. Somehow, she was certain he would never let Conall harm her; just being near the man made her feel safe.
She scowled and chided herself. To daydream was one thing, but to trust that a man would do the right thing for her was like thinking she would one day learn to love someone. She almost laughed out loud, but they were getting closer and she didn’t want to give her position away.
As they drew near, the deep tenor of his masculine voice drifted toward her. The vibrations of the husky notes soothed until she made out a few of the words. “…can…have any lass…” There it was, daydream over, and she berated herself for believing there was one man with honor left.
Och, he was just like every other man in Scotland—he would want a woman willing to spread her legs and lie down for him, a lass to moon over him and bear his children while he rolled around under the covers with all the others and broke her heart. She blinked and shook her head to dislodge the fictional image. There was no such thing. Her father and brothers’ behavior was testament that men saw women as nothing more than bedmates and property to be bargained away.
Another dark flash pulled her gaze to the side of the field the men had just come from. A second set of riders closed in. Fast. The group in the clearing right above her turned to see the imminent threat, eliciting incoherent shouts and curses as they took in the impending danger.
Maggie’s heart nearly stopped at the unmistakable sound of swords sliding out of their sheaths. She turned her back to the embankment and slid down in the muck while she prayed they wouldn’t see her.
“I have told ye before, I will never marry,” Lachlan Cameron, laird of clan Cameron, stated with utter confidence and certainty as he rode beside his best friend through the rolling hills on the southern border of the Highlands. Thankful to be out of the Lowlands, he breathed in the fresh air as his gaze took in the full-blooming purple heather and vibrant green foliage of late August. ’Twas lovely, but the scenery didn’t compare to the peaceful lochs and vast peaks of the mountains near his land.
“Come now, Lachlan. One bad wench shouldnae taint yer feelings for all the fair lasses,” Alan chided.
“I had known her since birth.” Lachlan snorted. “How can I trust another woman after what she did?”
“Ye just need to find an uncomely lass. Aileen was too bonny, and she knew it. Stay away from the vain ones and ye will be all right.” Alan laughed.
Fine advice, but comely or no’, he would never trust a woman with his heart or his life again. “My heart willnae be given to another to trample on. They arenae worth loving.” He leaned over the side of his mount and spit then smiled at young Robbie, who drew his horse up next to Alan’s.
Lachlan stopped himself from berating his friend. He was happy to bed a lass any time, but that would be as far as he would let it go. “I’ll never fight for one again, either. Only the clan, never a woman.”
“You are the Lochiel. You need heirs,” Alan said, but he should’ve known what Lachlan’s response would be.
“My brother can take care of that.” Lachlan spared a glance over his shoulder at his younger sibling. “All the lasses love him. He can have any he wants and will have no problem finding a wife and producing bairns.”
A shout rang out from the formation of men behind them. His cousin shouted, “Men approaching from the south. They arenae looking as if they want to welcome us.”
“Nathair,” Alan growled. “We didnae get away as clean as we thought.”
“We cannae let them follow us.” Lachlan cursed and turned toward the oncoming riders as the forms of Conall’s trusted henchman and nine other men drew near. “Draw yer weapons.”
Lachlan caught Alan’s gaze, pointed to Robbie, and then he tilted his head back toward his brother. Alan picked up on the cue and moved to a defensive position in front of both of the lads.
“Can we help ye?” Lachlan drawled as the riders approached.
“Where is the letter?” Nathair’s gaze cut from Lachlan’s to latch onto his cousin with a foul anger that cut through the air like a torch did the dark of night.
“I dinnae ken what ye mean, Nathair. We’re only returning home from escorting my cousin to Edinburgh,” he said in a bored tone, his indifference intended to dismiss concern over the accusation. Nathair’s glare riveted to Lachlan’s.
“I ken ye have a missive that does not belong to ye. Return it now, and ye can go about yer way peacefully.” Nathair’s eyes drifted toward the lad Lachlan had sworn to protect. Despite the man’s assurance, his shifting eyes said he was lying. He couldn’t risk letting Lachlan’s band leave with the information they had gathered or let Robbie walk away with his life.
Nathair jumped from his steed; his size would be intimidating if Lachlan was not just as large. Those with him also descended and drew their weapons.
Lachlan and his men dismounted and flanked him. It was a practiced position, a team assembled with a skillful precision only gained through experience and an abundance of practice in battle.
His back was to the stream they’d been following north, but the lack of an escape route didn’t bother him. They would make their stand here in order to keep Robbie safe and deliver the letter into the hands of the other Highland chiefs. There would be bloodshed, but despite being outnumbered, his men would take this crew without breaking a sweat.
It had crossed his mind that they might be pursued, and if he allowed any to walk away, they would return for Robbie. There still might be more to come, but he wouldn’t allow anyone under his care to remain a target of Conall’s wrath. In order to make good time, he’d traveled to Edinburgh with only a few men, but once he had Robbie back at Kentillie, the whole of the Cameron clan would protect him.
To ease his mind, Lachlan’s eyes darted to the side, where Alan still guarded the lads. Satisfied, he turned back to Nathair.
“What will Conall’s father say when he learns of his own son’s pledge of support for Argyll and the Covenanters?” Lachlan asked.
“Then ye do have the letter.”
“Aye. How can ye serve a man who plots the death of his own father?” Lachlan snarled and shook his head as Conall’s plotted crimes churned in his gut.
“Ye’ll never live to tell anyone.” Nathair’s grip on his iron halberd tightened as he lunged at Lachlan with his weapon. He was well built and strong but sluggish in his swing, and Lachlan could handle a slow enemy. Lachlan was stout, too, but none of his size was from overindulging—it was all training and hard work.
He easily dodged the axe’s blow and, because he was too close for a full swing, came down on Nathair’s head with the hilt of his claymore. The sickening thud was deep, signaling he’d scored a good hit.
His opponent faltered and stumbled then rolled to the right and jumped back up to land squarely on his feet, his eyes scanning his surroundings as he struggled to catch his breath.
The whoosh of a sword sounded from the left, and Lachlan sidestepped in time to escape its range. The man overshot, and Lachlan swung around in one thrust, catching him in his midsection. He fell to the ground in a bloody heap.
Swinging his axe with full force, Nathair was on him again, and Lachlan pulled back, but not far enough. The blade grazed his arm, opening a small gash. It stung like a bee. His white shirt became red, and the coppery smell drifted up to his nostrils.
His wound angered him more. All around him was the sound of men fighting, screaming and dying, although he barely heard it. A concentrated hum buzzed in his ears, his complete focus on Nathair.
When the man turned to recover from the swing of his blow, Lachlan moved faster than his opponent could react and brought his sword down toward Nathair’s shoulder. The blade skimmed his chest on the way down.
Nathair grunted. “Is that the best ye have? I expected more from ye. Conall will torture the boy before he kills him.”
Lachlan’s blood froze as he recalled what Robbie had already been through and the myriad stories he’d heard of Conall’s cruelty. The man was telling the truth.
Lachlan’s fingers flexed and gripped his sword. He’d never found a use for conversing during battle. It took too much energy and usually distracted him instead of his foe. Before all the words were out, he swung at Nathair’s midsection. Blood exploded from his abdomen. He looked at Lachlan, his eyes now blank and disbelieving.
“What were ye saying?” Lachlan taunted as the man crumpled to the ground. “No one will touch the boy while I am alive to protect him.” Lachlan squared his shoulders and held his sword high while he scanned for the next man to attack.
Maggie heard taunts being exchanged but couldn’t make them out as she lay pressed against the bank. One was the voice of the well-muscled man she’d been admiring But it had changed, become coarse and dangerous. A shiver ran through her spine at the coolness in the tone.
She was in the wrong place. Freedom had drifted a little farther down the stream, but she could not chance an attempt to reach the horse. This was supposed to be her day of liberation, and there was no way to sneak away undetected. Again, men had interfered with her plans.
She prayed no one saw her.
Unable to control her curiosity, she peeked over the ridge. A couple of the second band of men looked vaguely familiar, and she struggled to place where she’d seen them.
Doing her best to blend in and not be detected, she ducked her head back beneath the embankment. She was dressed like a boy, one who did not belong to either group, and she gulped when she realized she would be cut down for sure if she was spotted.
As she scrambled down to make herself as small as possible, her hands skidded across the muddied earth smelling of dirty water and mildew. She was a mess, but she hardly noticed, because the thud of her pounding heart drove away all other sensations as she contemplated what would happen if she were discovered.
She cringed with each shout and grunt ringing out above her. The clang of clashing swords grated on her as curses flew through the air. A twig scraped her face, and she swatted at it, the muck from her hands smearing over her right cheek and temple.
Shaking and clutching her bag, Maggie cowered and prayed they would leave without finding her. A thud sounding just above her head made her jump.
Moaning came from the source. She had to look, she just had to. Whoever was there would find her anyway. When she looked over the ledge, she discovered a man lay injured and a boy leaning over him with wide, fear-filled eyes. The man on the ground was at least three years younger than she. Barely grown, and he looked so much like her brother. His eyes rolled skyward as he thrashed on the dirt. An unfamiliar pang swelled in her heart.
Blood poured out from a wound to his midsection.
Maggie didn’t think; she grabbed her bag, jumped up the embankment, and ran toward the fallen man. The boy’s gaze followed her as she knelt down by his friend. His eyes bored into her until something clicked, because he seemed to realize she meant no harm.
By the time she was at the injured man’s side, he’d lost consciousness. Mayhap ’twas for the best. She pulled his shirt back to inspect the wound. Once she stilled her frayed nerves, her training kicked in. If it had been a drop higher and just a little deeper or more centered, she wouldn’t have been able to do anything.
Hoping to find something that would be of use, she rummaged through the supplies in her bag. Her hand landed on a stray piece of embroidery work. She pulled out the thread and needle and went to work, doing her best to stanch the bleeding and sew up the injury, which was smaller than it had first appeared.
The boy grabbed a sword that had fallen to the ground. He nodded at Maggie and stood, then took up a position to defend them if an attacker came their way. Brave one. She concentrated on the wound, her practiced fingers steady as they moved.
She paid no attention as the fighting raged around her and was hardly aware when it fell to just a couple of weapons clanging. As she wiped at the sweat on her brow, she realized blood likely covered the side that had not been muddied earlier, but she didn’t care. Some part of her recognized she could not let this man die, and her gut clenched—he reminded her too much of her younger brother, Roland.
When she was confident the wound was sufficiently stitched and the blood loss had stopped, she took out the small dirk she kept in her bag. She gently sliced off the edge of the sutures, then leaned back on her knees to take in her work and give it a final inspection.
He would be all right; she would just need to get some clean water to wash the gash. Satisfied, she lifted the dirk to assess and wipe it before putting it away, because she always took care to see everything in her bag was kept as clean as possible.
Something rushed her, and she was suddenly soaring backward through the air. The dirk fell from her hands with the force, and her head hit something with a great thud.
Pain exploded in her skull. Blinding white light was all she saw, and then her focus returned. She was choking. Although she reached out to pull the weight off her neck, it was useless.
Maggie stared at her attacker. It was the leader of the first group. Oddly, she noticed his dimple was missing as he throttled her with fury. If she could breathe, she’d laugh at that realization.
His steely eyes were dilated and the most striking blue she’d ever seen, a shade or two lighter than hers. They looked like deceptively peaceful water, beautiful but dangerous. She found herself drowning in them, and then everything went dark.