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A Thief in a Kilt
By Sandy Blair
Kensington Publishing Corp.Copyright © 2006 Sandy Blair
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLate spring, 1411 Stirling Castle, Scotland
While smoke from a dozen rush torches wafted about the rafters like worried ghosts, Ian MacKay studied the men and women milling before him in Stirling's great hall. Each, he'd decided long ago, was either flint or kindling. Each, whether they kenned it or not, had the capacity to turn Scotland into a raging inferno.
Something he'd willingly die to prevent.
His attention shifted slowly from one chieftain to another but never lingered. Should he focus too long on one man, he could inadvertently set rival tongues to wagging. He served, after all, as Albany's eyes and ears within the realm. Their regent's spy. Not a position he relished-in fact, he loathed it-but that couldna alter his determination to maintain his position. 'Twas his only hope for seeing his rightful king on the throne and for keeping his kith and kin secure in their northwest Highland home.
Nay easy task, given the MacKays were a querulous lot forever at odds with their neighbors, the more powerful Sutherlands to their south and the St. Clairs to their east. Worse, his liege lord was now the hot-blooded Black Angus. Worse still, the man was his brother-by-marriage.
Aye, for his clan and king he would remain, suppressing his longing for a familyof his own, more often garbed in silk instead of his breachen feile, suffering ridiculous shoes when he much preferred going barefoot, traveling hither and yon at Albany's whim, all in the name of Scotland.
He heaved a resigned sigh as a harassed-looking warrior shouldered his way through the crowd and approached the cluster of Campbells.
God's teeth, now what?
He tried to read the agitated man's lips as John Campbell, a barrel-chested chieftain normally of good humor, narrowed his eyes and then scowled. A heartbeat later the warrior rushed off.
"What has the auld man scowling?"
Ian glanced at his younger brother, Shamus, and again mentally cursed the pox that had ruined the lad's once-handsome countenance. Thank God their sister had been spared.
"The Campbells are at odds with the Stewarts of Appin again. Not wise, given the Stewart's marriage alliance."
Shamus grunted. "Aye, and their powerful Douglas allies."
"Aye." But then the Campbell had a few allies of his own. Duncan MacDougall of Drasmoor, for one.
A strong liege lord in his own right, the laird of Castle Blackstone could bring nine hundred battletested warriors onto a field of battle if need be. Duncan's entry into battle would doubtless suck Angus the Blood of Donaleigh in; the men had fought shoulder to shoulder for decades. Sensing a possible Stewart defeat, the Douglas-having signed a secret pledge with Albany-would have nay choice but to call forth his five thousand men. The earl of Sutherland, loathing Douglas, would then enter the battle, and Ian had little doubt his liege would use Sutherland's entrance as an excuse to summon his four thousand warriors with the lift of his beefy hand.
Then, God help them all.
Meanwhile, the loathsome English would be watching and grinning into their cups, waiting for Scotland to self-destruct.
Which, given the current tensions, was altogether possible.
That Scotland should be so easily torn asunder-that matters could so easily get out of hand by a simple reiving or misunderstanding-made Ian's blood boil.
"Shamus, ye will have to excuse me. I fear I have work to do else all hell breaks loose." Without waiting for a response, he strode toward the Campbells.
"Brother, before ye go!"
Ian turned to find Shamus shouldering his way through the crowd. Finally at his side and grinning, Shamus murmured, "'Pride. Envy. Avarice. These are the sparks have set on fire the hearts of all men.'"
Ian laughed. "Inferno and sadly too true. Ye now owe me L700 and sixpence."
"Shit. How could ye have read it already? Ye just purchased it."
Ian winked. "I had plenty of time on the way back from France."
Shamus made a derisive sound at the back of his throat. "One of these days ..."
"Aye, one of these days ye will best me. Now be off with ye. We both have work to do."
Ian grinned as Shamus, muttering, his back hunched, walked away. They'd played this game for nigh on to a decade now and his having a prodigious memory did have its advantages. Ian's repetitive winning kept his brother reading. An imperative, given he fully expected to die without issue, leaving Shamus to take control of Seabhagnead, his beloved mountain keep ... should he ever finish it. And to be an effective laird, his brother would need more than his engaging smile and strong arm; he'd need the insight and resourcefulness he'd glean through the books Ian deliberately left hanging about.
But enough of this. He had a war to prevent.
With his gaze on the Campbell, Ian nearly trampled Lady Mary MacKinnon when she stepped into his path. Forcing a smile he murmured, "My pardon, my lady."
The raven-haired chatelaine of Brittle Moor placed her hand on his arm. "Ian, dearest, I've missed ye."
"Ah, I have thought of ye often as well."
Mary tipped her head and studied him through thick black lashes, a charming pout gracing her bowed lips. "Then why am I seeking ye out instead of whithershins? Ye have been home for nearly a week, yet my bed remains cold. Hmmm?"
He sighed. On Albany's orders he'd gone to Brittle Moor to offer the crown's reassurances that the lady and her clan would continue to have protection after her husband died. She, in turn, had spilled her tears and fears all over his chest, as many a lady tended to do. Being a gentleman and having a weakness for bonnie brunettes, he'd naturally offered comfort. But like the seasons, each had its own time and theirs had passed.
"Now, Mary, ye ken I canna be tupping another man's wife. I do have some scruples." Not many when it came to bedding luscious wenches, but a few.
Glancing about, she whispered, "I'm no man's wife for a fortnight yet and well you ken it." She shuddered in delicate fashion. "Oh, to be man ... or a wealthy woman who could buy her way free."
Ian patted the delicately boned hand, which had brought him a good deal of pleasure some three moons past, before easing it off his arm.
Mary had been sold into marriage at the age of fourteen to a sickly man thrice her age and was now pledged to an apparently viral chieftain who had sired five daughters and desperately needed a son. Her bed wouldna be cold for long. "If ye find MacLeod so loathsome, ye should have taken my advice and pledged yerself to the church, become a voweress."
Mary snorted derisively. "Now? After ye introduced me to the delicious-ah, my lord MacLeod!"
Ian glanced left to find Mary's burly fiancé bearing down on them. He acknowledged the ruddy-faced Lord of the Isle of Lewis with a nod and raised his voice to normal volume. "I'll keep an eye out for a suitable palfrey, my lady. Docile, black and no more than thirteen hands high, as ye lust."
Bright pink spots bloomed on Mary's cheeks. "Perfect." She beamed up at MacLeod, who looked none too pleased to find Ian at his betrothed's side. "My lord, I was just telling Sir MacKay that my ancient mare willna be able to handle yer Isle's rugged terrain, and he graciously offered to find me another."
MacLeod wrapped a possessive arm around Mary's waist and pulled her to his side. Locking gazes with Ian he muttered, "We have cattle aplenty, my lady. No need to bother MacKay with such trivial matters, now is there?"
Mary patted MacLeod's mail-clad chest and sighed. "Of course, my lord. How thoughtless of me. My apologies, Sir MacKay."
Ah, as he suspected. The lady wasna as opposed to this new union as she would have him believe.
Ian bowed. "As ye lust, my lady. I shall forget the matter entirely." To MacLeod he said, "Good eve, MacLeod, and my best wishes on your upcoming nuptials."
As he strode away, MacLeod growled "bastard" under his breath, and Ian sighed. Mary played a dangerous game. Thank heaven he had had the wisdom to ignore her last missive summoning him to her chambers. He wouldna be the least surprised to learn her betrothed had secreted a number of spies about her. 'Twas one thing to have half of Scotland calling him the Thief of Hearts. 'Twas quite another to be caught at it.
He shuddered and quickened his pace, again focused on forestalling a conflict between the Campbells and Stewarts.
As if sensing his approach, the seafaring Campbells of Dunstaffnage parted, and Ian caught sight of an extraordinarily tall woman in widow's garb on the far side of the hall. The hairs on the back of his neck bristled and he slowed to study the stranger silhouetted by a full moon.
Albany had been explicit when he had summoned the chieftains to the General Council. Each was to have no more than ten in their party and those were to be kin. He kenned every leader within the realm and none had married or produced such a tall and ... plush lass.
An angry shout jerked his attention back to the Campbells. Ack. The mystery of the stranger would have to wait. But not for long. He wouldna put it past the bloody English to put a Trojan horse amongst them. Were he in their position, he most certainly would.
Chapter TwoOh, to be back in England where I belong. Aye, and with a substantial bowl of bread pudding before me at that.
Despite the evening chill racing through the open windows at her back, beads of sweat trickled between Katherine Templeton's breasts as she scanned Stirling Castle's crowded great hall for the one man who could be her undoing: Scotland's infamous Thief of Hearts, Ian MacKay.
"Should you find yourself in Stirling be on the watch for an extraordinarily tall and handsome man with flaxen hair, whose laugh sounds like thunder. Under no circumstances," Sir Gregory had warned, "are you to engage this man's interest. He's Albany's man and therefore your enemy."
Why King James's ancient guardian had felt compelled to say "engage the man's interest" was beyond understanding. Standing nearly six feet tall and weighing ten stones, Kate had never engaged a man's interest-much less that of a reputed rogue's-in all her four and twenty years. Well, perhaps more than a few men have stared-referred to her as "the cow" behind her back-but none had ever expressed an interest. Praise the saints none save her grandmother knew of her gift of sight or her life would truly prove unbearable.
Feeling a hand on her arm, Kate jerked and found her escort, Charles Fraser, frowning up at her. "Madame Campbell, are ye nay feeling well?"
Oh, mercy, how long had the old man been trying to get her attention? Calling her Madame Campbell? She really needed to pay more heed. "I am quite well, my lord, although a bit nervous, this being my first visit to your illustrious court."
Sir Charles, a balding, sallow-skinned man who had found her beating on his keep's door-looking for all the world like a drowned cat after she'd lost her map and thus her way in a torrential rain-chuckled in gravelly fashion. "'Tis a sight, I will grant ye. But then again, it canna be much different from the French court, now can it?"
Praying she had not been misinformed, Kate assured him, "Aye, but it is." According to her father, France's king had more dust in his coffers than gold thanks to his taste for war and opulence, whilst these Scots-particularly the Lowlanders Sir Douglas and Sir Donald-were hip-deep in obvious prosperity, which did not bode well for her mission: to find Lady Margaret Campbell, Sir Gregory's wife, and to learn why the Scots were allowing their king to languish in the Tower of London.
Hoping she sounded calmer than she felt, Kate murmured, "Truth to tell, Sir Charles, I find your ladies far fairer than mine. I fear Robbie's family will find me quite lacking." Sir Gregory had insisted her gowns be altered so that they clung to her every abundant swell instead of hanging the way she liked them, all loose and comfy. Augh.
Sir Charles's watery gaze shifted from her face to her gown's scooped neckline. "Trust me, my lady, ye havena reason to fash on that account."
Oh, good heavens, she'd opened herself up for that observation, now hadn't she? Were she in London, she would have bristled like a hedgehog and stared the old man down. But she wasn't at home but deep within enemy territory, thanks to her blasted gift and conscience.
Hoping to redirect Fraser's gaze, Kate pointed to the large group to her right. "Who is the tall man dressed in black leather and plaid?" She had no idea who among the throng were her supposed relativesby-marriage, and she had to find Lady Margaret Campbell as soon as possible.
It took an uncomfortable moment for her aging escort to pull his gaze from her overflowing décolleté and to look at the man she had indicated. "'Tis the MacDougall."
Not a Campbell. Oh, well. At least she had correctly assumed from his garb that the man was a Highlander. "And the lovely lady in green at his side?" There was something familiar about the woman, which of course there couldn't be-or rather shouldn't be.
Charles's brow furrowed. "That would be Lady Beth, the MacDougall's fourth wife."
"Fourth?" The poor man.
"Aye. His first-a distant cousin of yer dearly departed husband's-died in childbirth. The MacDougall's second wife committed suicide and the third died under mysterious circumstances."
Hmmm. Watching the MacDougall chieftain slip a protective arm around his new wife's waist, and then grinning, whisper in her ear, Kate nearly sighed. "A love match this time?"
Fraser snorted. "Kenning the MacDougall as I do, I doubt it, but then again they do appear quite taken with each other now that ye point it out."
A twinge of jealousy skittered across Kate's heart as Lady MacDougall, a willowy woman well into her third decade, suddenly blushed under her handsome husband's close scrutiny.
Would such a man ever look upon her in such fashion? Not likely, what with her standing a full head higher than most, her king included. Heaving a resigned sigh, Kate cursed her raiding Norse ancestor for the hundredth time and then her gift of sight, the very thing that had brought her here.
Some gift. Ugh.
Cursed since birth, she had quickly learned to keep her insights to herself. Her Norman-bred and deeply religious father had regularly chastised her gifted mother, the daughter of a Romany fortuneteller, until the day she told him that she would die on the morrow-and did, trampled by a team of runaway horses during a London food riot.
Now, should Kate happen to sniff the air and absently mutter, "Rain is coming," her father would question her to the point of madness. To her sorrow his inquisitions were usually the only attention he ever paid her.
As tutor to the imprisoned James I of Scotland, her father had been charged by King Henry five years ago with "correcting the Scottish brat's misconceptions." To instill the concept of feudal law and to make a proper English subject out of the boy or die trying. By default, she had become poor James's only female companion. Eight years his senior, she had initially provided comfort and distraction when the terrified eleven-year-old had arrived in the Tower. But as time passed and James matured, their relationship grew strained. Now sixteen years and nearly a man, James was decidedly distant and hostile.
So she had kept her concerns to herself until that dreadful day-King James's birthday-when she had visited him in the Tower. After a stilted greeting, he had reluctantly opened her gift, what she had hoped was an accurate rendering of his homeland. As he studied the details she had painstakingly created, images she had garnered from the stories he had related over the years, his eyes filled with tears. He then threw his arms about her. To her horror, the sudden image of her young friend as a ferocious and vengeful adult nearly blinded her. And the atrocities he would commit-
She shuddered, willing them away.
With absolute certainty she knew then that she could no longer keep her fears to herself. To save her friend from the man he would become, to save the innocent he would destroy as he sought revenge on those whom he believed had abandoned him, she had confided in the one closest to James, Sir Gregory, the old man who had been captured with him.
Which is how she came to be in Scotland, posing as the French widow of Sir Gregory's youngest son.
"Would you care to meet the MacDougall and his bride?"
Startled out of her reverie, Kate sputtered, "Yes, yes, my lord, I would indeed." The MacDougall was one of the men she very much needed to speak with. Alone.
Excerpted from A Thief in a Kilt by Sandy Blair Copyright © 2006 by Sandy Blair. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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