Dundonnell Keep, Western Highlands
"'Tis said he's merciless, the devil's own spawn." Elspeth Beaton, unspoken seneschal of the MacDonnell keep, folded her arms over her substantial girth and glowered at her laird, Magnus MacDonnell. "You canna send the lass to a man known to have murdered his first wife in cold blood!"
Magnus took another swig of ale, seemingly unaware that most of the frothy brew dribbled into his unkempt beard. He slammed his pewter mug onto the high table and glared back at his self-appointed chamberlain.
"I dinna care if Duncan MacKenzie is the devil his-self or if the bastard's killed ten wives. He's offered for Linnet, and 'tis an offer I canna refuse."
"You canna give your daughter to a man said to possess neither heart nor soul." Elspeth's voice rose with each word. "I willna allow it."
Magnus guffawed. "You willna allow it? You over-step yerself, woman! Watch yer mouth, or I'll send you along with her."
High above the great hall, safely ensconced in the laird's lug, a tiny spy chamber hidden within Dundonnell's thick walls, Linnet MacDonnell peered down at her father and her beloved servant as they argued over her fate.
A fate already decided and sealed.
Not until this moment had she believed her sire would truly send her away, especially not to a MacKenzie. Though none of her six older sisters had married particularly well, at least her da hadn't plighted a single one of them to the enemy! Straining her ears, she waited to hear more.
" 'Tis rumored the MacKenzie is a man of strong passions," Elspeth pronounced. "Linnet knows little of a man's baser needs. Her sisters learned much from their mother, but Linnet is different. She's e'er run with her brothers, learning their- "
"Aye, she's different!" Magnus raged. "Naught has plagued me more since the day my poor Innes died birthing her."
"The lass has many skills," Elspeth countered. "Mayhap she lacks the grace and high looks of her sisters and her late mother, may the saints bless her soul, but she would still make a man a good wife. Surely you can purvey her a more agreeable marriage? One that won't so sorely imperil her happiness?"
"Her happiness matters naught to me. The alliance with MacKenzie is sealed!" Magnus thundered. "Even if I wished her better, what man needs a wife who can best him at throwing blades? And dinna wax on about her other fool talents."
Magnus took a long swill of ale, then wiped his mouth on his sleeve. "A man wants a consort interested in tending his aching tarse, not a patch of scraggly herbs!"
A shocked sputter escaped Elspeth's lips and she drew herself to her full but unimpressive height. "If you do this, you needn't tax yourself by banishing me from the dubious comforts of this hall. 'Tis gladly I shall go. Linnet will not be sent to the lair of the Black Stag alone. She'll need someone to look out for her."
Linnet's heart skipped a beat, and gooseflesh rose on her arms upon hearing her soon-to-be husband referred to as the Black Stag. No such creature existed. While animals of certain prowess often adorned coats of arms and banners, and some clan chieftains called themselves after a lion or other such noble beast, this title sounded ominous.
An omen of ill portent.
But one she had little time to consider. Rubbing the chillbumps from her arms, Linnet pushed aside her rising unease and concentrated on the discourse below.
" 'Tis glad I'll be to see your back," her father was ranting. "Your nagging willna be missed."
"Will you not reconsider, milord?" Elspeth changed her tactic. "If you send Linnet away, who will tend the garden or do the healing? And dinna forget how oft her gift has aided the clan."
"A pox on the garden and plague take her gift!" Magnus bellowed. "My sons are strong and healthy. We dinna need the lass and her herbs. Let her aid the MacKenzie. 'Tis a fair exchange since he only wants her for her sight. Think you he offered for her because she's so bonnie? Or because the bards have sung to him of her womanly allures?"
The MacDonnell laird's laughter filled the hall. Loud and mean-spirited, it bounced off the walls of the laird's lug, taunting Linnet with the cruelty behind his words. She cringed. Everyone within the keep would hear his slurs.
"Nay, he doesna seek a comely wife," Magnus roared, sounding as if he were about to burst into another gale of laughter. "The mighty MacKenzie of Kintail isn't interested in her looks or if she can please him or nay when he beds her. He wants to know if his son is his own or his half brother's bastard, and he's willing to pay dearly to find out."
Elspeth gasped. "You know the lass canna command her gift at will. What will happen to her if she fails to see the answer?"
"Think you I care?" Linnet's father jumped to his feet and slammed his meaty fists on the table. " 'Tis glad I am to be rid of her! All I care about are the two MacDonnell kinsmen and the cattle he's giving in exchange for her. He's held our clansmen for nigh onto six months. Their only transgression was a single raid!"
Magnus MacDonnell's chest heaved in indignation. " 'Tis a dullwit you are if you do not realize their sword arms and strong backs are more use to me than the lass. And MacKenzie cattle are the best in the Highlands." He paused to jeer at Elspeth. "Why do you think we're e'er a-lifting them?"
"You'll live to rue this day."
"Rue the day? Bah!" Magnus leaned across the table, thrusting his bearded face forward. "I'm hoping the boy is his half brother's brat. Think how pleased he'll be if he gets a son off Linnet. Mayhaps grateful enough to reward his dear father-in-law with a bit o' land."
"The saints will punish you, Magnus."
Magnus MacDonnell laughed. "I dinna care if a whole host of saints come after me. This marriage will make me a rich man. I'll hire an army to send the sniveling saints back where they came from!"
"Perhaps the arrangement 'twill be good for Linnet," Elspeth said, her voice surprisingly calm. "I doubt the MacKenzie partakes of enough ale each time he sits at his table to send himself sprawling facefirst into the rushes. Not if he's the fine warrior the minstrels claim."
Elspeth fixed the laird with a cold stare. "Have you ne'er listened when the bards sing of his great valor serving our good King Robert Bruce at Bannockburn? 'Tis rumored the Bruce hisself calls the man his champion."
"Out! Get you gone from my hall!" Magnus MacDonnell's face turned as red as his beard. "Linnet leaves for Kintail as soon as Ranald has the horses saddled. If you want to see the morn, gather your belongings and ride with her!"
Peering through the spy hole, Linnet watched her beloved Elspeth give Magnus one last glare before she stalked from the hall. The instant her old nurse disappeared from view, Linnet leaned her back against the wall and drew a deep breath.
Everything she'd just heard ran wild through her mind. Her da's slurs, Elspeth's attempts to defend her, and then her unexpected praise for Duncan MacKenzie. Heroic acts in battle or nay, he remained the enemy. But what disturbed Linnet the most was her own odd reaction when Elspeth had called the MacKenzie a man of strong passions. Even now, heat rose to her cheeks at the thought. She was embarrassed to admit it, even to herself, but she yearned to learn about passion.
Linnet suspected the tingles that had shot through her at the notion of wedding a man of heated blood had something to do with such things. Most likely so did the way her heart had begun to thump fiercely upon hearing Elspeth's words.
Linnet's cheeks grew warmer...as did the rest of her body, but she fought to ignore the disquieting sensations. She didn't want a MacKenzie to bestir her in such a manner. Imagining how her da would laugh if he knew she harbored dreams of a man desiring her chased away the last vestiges of her troublesome thoughts.
Resignation tinged by anger settled over her. If only she had been born as fair as her sisters. Lifting her hand, she ran her fingertips over the curve of her cheek. Though cold to the touch, her skin was smooth, unblemished. But while her sisters had been graced with milky white complexions, a smattering of freckles marred hers.
And unlike their hair, always smooth and in place, she'd been burdened with a wild mane she couldn't keep plaited. She did like its color, though. Of a bolder tone than her sisters' blondish red, hers was a deep shade of copper, almost bronze. Her favorite brother, Jamie, claimed her hair could bewitch a blind man.
A tiny smile tugged at her lips. Aye, she liked her hair. And she loved Jamie. She loved each of her eight brothers, and now she could hear them moving through the hall below. Even as her father's drunken snores drifted up to her, so did the sounds of her brothers making ready for a swift departure.
Her departure from Dundonnell Castle. The dark and dank hall of a lesser and near-landless clan chief, her ale-loving da, but the only home she had ever known.
And now she must leave for an uncertain future, her place at Dundonnell wrested from her by her father's greed. Tears stung Linnet's eyes, but she blinked them away, not wanting her da to see them should he stir himself and deign to look at her as she exited his hall.
Squaring her shoulders, Linnet snatched up her leather herb pouch, her only valued possession, and slipped from the laird's lug. She hurried down the tower stairs as quickly as she dared, then dashed through the great hall without so much as a glance at her slumbering da.
For the space of a heartbeat, she'd almost hesitated, almost given in to a ridiculous notion she should awaken him and bid him farewell. But the urge vanished as quickly as it'd come.
Why should she bother? He'd only grouse at her for disrupting his sleep. And was he not pleased to be rid of her? Worse, he'd sold her to the laird of the MacKenzies, the MacDonnells' sworn enemies since long before her birth.
And the man, king's favorite and strong-passioned or nay, only wanted her for the use of her gift and because he'd been assured she wasn't bonnie. Neither prospect was flattering nor promised an endurable marriage.
Linnet took one last deep gulp of Dundonnell's smoke-hazed air as she stood before the massive oaken door leading to the bailey. Mayhap in her new home she wouldn't be suffered to fill her lungs with stale, alesoured air. "Oh, bury St. Columba's holy knuckles!" she muttered, borrowing Jamie's preferred epithet as she dashed a wayward tear from her cheek.
Before more could fall, Linnet yanked open the ironshod door and stepped outside. Though long past the hour of prime, a chill, blue-gray mist still hung over Dundonnell's small courtyard...just as a pall hung over her heart.
Her brothers, all eight of them, stood with the waiting horses, each brother looking as miserable as she felt. Elspeth, though, appeared oddly placid and already sat astride her pony. Other clansmen and their families, along with her da's few servants, crowded together near the opened castle gates. Like her brothers, they all wore sullen expressions and remained silent, but the telltale glisten in their eyes spoke a thousand words.
Linnet kept her chin high as she strode toward them, but beneath the folds of her woolen cloak, her knees shook. At her approach, Cook stepped forward, a clump of dark cloth clutched tight in his work-reddened hands. " 'Tis from us all," he said, his voice gruff as he thrust the mass of old-smelling wool into Linnet's hands. "It's been locked away in a chest in your da's chamber all these years, but he'll ne'er know we took it."
With trembling fingers, Linnet unfolded the arisaid and let Cook adjust its soft length over her shoulders. As he carefully belted the plaid around her waist, he said, "My wife made it for the Lady Innes, your mother. She wore it well, and it is our wish you will, too. 'Tis a bonnie piece, if a wee bit worn."
Emotion formed a hot, choking lump in Linnet's throat as she smoothed her hands over the arisaid's pliant folds. A few moth holes and frayed edges didn't detract from the plaid's worth. To Linnet, it was beautiful...a treasure she'd cherish always.
Her eyes brimming with tears, she threw herself into Cook's strong arms and hugged him tight. "Thank you," she cried against the scratchy wool of his own plaid. "Thank you all! Saints, but I shall miss you."
"Then dinna say good-bye, lass," he said, setting her from him. "We shall see you again, never worry."
As one, her kinsmen and friends surged forward, each one giving her a fierce hug. No one spoke and Linnet was grateful, for had they, she would've lost what meager control she had over herself. Then one voice, the smithy's, cried out just as her eldest brother Ranald lifted her into a waiting saddle. "Ho, lass, I've something for you, too," Ian called, pushing his way through the throng.
When he reached them, the smithy pulled his own finely honed dirk from its sheath and handed it to Linnet. "Better protection than that teensy wench's blade you wear," he said, nodding in satisfaction as Linnet withdrew her own blade and exchanged it for his.
Ian's eyes, too, shone with unusual brightness. "May you ne'er have cause to use it," he said, stepping away from her pony.
"May the MacKenzie say his prayers if she does," Ranald vowed, then tossed Linnet her reins. "We're off," he shouted to the rest of them, then swung up into his own saddle.
Before Linnet could catch her breath or even thank the smithy, Ranald gave her mount a sharp slap on its rump and the shaggy beast bolted through the opened gates, putting Dundonnell Castle forever behind her.
Linnet choked back a sob, not letting it escape, and stared straight ahead. She refused...she couldn't... look back.
Under other circumstances, she'd be glad to go. Grateful even. But she had the feeling that she was merely exchanging one hell for another. And, heaven help her, she'd didn't know which she preferred.
Many hours and countless leagues later, Ranald MacDonnell signaled the small party behind him to halt. Linnet's pony snorted in protest, shifting restlessly as she reined him in. She shared his nervousness, for they'd reached their destination.
After a seemingly endless trek through MacKenzie territory, they'd reached the halfway point where Ranald claimed her husband-to-be would meet them.
Inexplicably beset by a tide of self-consciousness, Linnet patted the linen veil covering her hair and adjusted the fall of her mother's worn but precious arisaid around her shoulders. If only she hadn't coiled her long plaits around her ears, hiding them from view beneath her concealing headgear. Her betrothed thought her plain, but her tresses were bonnie.
Her brothers were e'er claiming her hair color rivaled the reds and golds of the most brilliant flame.
Would that she'd worn her hair loose. 'Twas embarrassment enough to meet her new husband, enemy or nay, garbed in little more than rags. At least her mother's bonnie plaid lent her a semblance of grace. Even so, she could have kept a wee bit more dignity by flaunting, not concealing her finest feature.
But regret served no purpose now, for the forest floor already shook from the pounding hooves of fast-approaching horses.
"Cuidich' N' Righ!" The MacKenzie battle cry rent the air. "Save the king!"
Linnet's pony tossed its head, then skittered sideways in panic. As she struggled to calm him, a double line of warrior-knights thundered into view. They came straight toward her party, forming two columns at the last possible moment, then galloping past Linnet and her small escort, enclosing them in an unbroken circle of mailed and heavily-armed MacKenzies.
"Dinna you fret, lass," Ranald called to her over his shoulder. "We willna let aught befall you." Turning in his saddle, he shouted something at her other brothers but the loud cries of the MacKenzies swallowed Ranald's words.
"Cuidich' N' Righ!"
Their bold shouts echoed the MacKenzie motto. The proud words were emblazoned beneath a stag's antlers on banners held by mounted standard-bearers. Unlike the warriors who'd charged forward, the young men held their mounts in check a short distance away. Four abreast, their standards high, they made an impressive sight.
But naught near as imposing as the dark knight who so self-assuredly broke their ranks.
Clad in a shirt of black mail, broad sword at his side and two daggers thrust beneath the fine leather belt slung low around his hips, he rode a huge warhorse as black as his armor.
Linnet swallowed hard. This intimidating giant of a man could only be Duncan MacKenzie, the MacKenzie of Kintail, her betrothed.
She didn't need to see the green-and-blue plaid fastened over his hauberk to know his identity.
Nor did it matter that the helm he wore cast his face in shadow, almost hiding it from view. His arrogance came at her in waves as his assessing gaze scorched its way from the top of her head to the scuffed brogans on her feet.
Aye, she knew 'twas he.
She also knew the fierce warrior-laird was displeased with what he saw.
More than displeased ...he looked outraged. Anger emanated from beneath his armor, his gaze traveling over her critically. She didn't need her gift to know his eye color. A man such as he could have naught but eyes as dark as his soul.
Her finely tuned senses told all. He'd taken a good look at her ...and found her lacking.
Sweet Virgin, if only she'd heeded Elspeth's advice and let the old woman dress and scent her hair. 'Twould have been much easier to raise her chin against his bold appraisal did a veil not hide her tresses.
When he rode forward, making straight for her, Linnet fought the urge to flee. Not that she stood a chance of breaking through the tight circle of stone-faced MacKenzie guardsmen. Nor could she get past her brothers ...at the dark knight's approach, they'd urged their horses closer to hers. Their expressions grim, their hands hovering near the hilts of their swords, they warily allowed her betrothed's advance.
Nay, escape was not an option.
But pride was. Hoping he couldn't detect her wildly fluttering heart, Linnet sat straighter in her saddle and forced herself to match the glare he aimed at her from beneath his helm.
'Twould serve him well to know she found the situation displeasing. And 'twas undoubtedly wise to show she wouldn't cower before him
Duncan raised a brow at his bride's unexpected display of backbone. Rage had fair consumed him when he'd seen her threadbare cloak and worn shoes. Even the fine-looking arisaid she wore bore holes! All the Highlands knew her sire was a drunken worm of a man, but ne'er had he dreamed the lout would shame his daughter by sending her to meet her new liege laird and husband dressed shabbier than the poorest villein.
Leaning forward in his saddle, Duncan peered at her, glad for the shadows cast by the rim of his helm, thankful she couldn't see his face clearly. She'd no doubt think he'd found fault with her rather than guess it was her sire's blatant disregard that stirred his ire.
Aye, her raised chin and defiant glare pleased him. The lass wasn't meek. Most gentleborn females would hang their heads in self-pity and embarrassment 'twere they caught dressed in rags. Yet she'd met his perusal with a show of courage and spirit.
Slowly, Duncan's frown softened and, to his amazement, the corners of his mouth rose in the beginnings of a rare smile. He caught it, though, clamping his lips together before the smile could spread. He'd not taken the lass to wed so he could find favor with her.
He only wanted her to put an end to his doubts about Robbie, to care for the lad, and keep him from his sight should his suspicions prove true. Her character scarce mattered beyond her suitability as a new mother for Robbie. But it pleased him to see steel in her blood.
She'd need it to be his wife.
Ignoring the glares of her escort, Duncan urged his steed forward. He reined in mere inches from her scrawny pony.
Linnet squared her shoulders at his approach, refusing to show the awe she felt for his magnificent warhorse. Ne'er had she seen such an animal. The beast fair towered over her shaggy Highland pony.
She hoped her awe of the man was well hidden, too.
"Can you ride farther?" The dark knight's deep voice came from beneath his steel helm.
"Should you not be a-kissing her hand and asking if she isna weary from riding afore you ask if she can go on?" Jamie, Linnet's favorite brother, challenged the MacKenzie. Her other brothers echoed Jamie's sentiments, but Linnet's own bravura faltered when instead of answering Jamie, her betrothed swept them all with a dark glare of his own.
Did he not think enough of her to give her a proper greeting? Was she so low in his esteem he'd forgotten the rules of chivalry?
Still, she kept her shoulders back and her chin up, angry at his lack of courtesy.
"'Tis Linnet of Dundonnell I be." She lifted her chin a notch higher. "And who be you, milord?"
"Now is not the time for pleasantries. I would that we make haste from here if you are not too weary." She was bone weary, but she would rather perish afore she'd admit weakness.
Linnet glanced at her pony. His coat was slick with sweat, and heavy breathing bespoke the toll the long day's exertion had cost the animal. "I am not weary, Sir Duncan, but my mount canna continue. Can we not make camp here and journey onward on the morrow?"
"Marmaduke!" The MacKenzie shouted rather than answered her. "Hie yourself over here!"
All the proud resolve she'd mustered fled when the object of his bellowing rode forward. The knight with the harmless-sounding name was the ugliest and most formidable man she'd ever seen. Marmaduke wore the MacKenzie plaid over his hauberk, and, like the other guardsmen, his only headpiece was a mail coif. But in his case, Linnet wished he'd donned a concealing helm like her betrothed.
His disfigured face presented a visage so terrifying, her toes curled within her brogans. An ugly scar made a wide slash across his face, beginning at his left temple and ending at the right corner of his mouth, pulling his lips into a permanent downward sneer. Worse, where his left eye should have been, 'twas a frightful mound of puckered pink flesh!
Linnet knew she should feel naught but pity for the brawny warrior, but the fierce expression in his good eye, which was disconcertingly focused on her, only filled her with terror.
Fear sent her blood rushing so loudly through her ears that she did not hear what Sir Duncan told the man, but she knew it concerned her, for the one-eyed Marmaduke kept his feral gaze trained on her, nodding once, before he turned his horse and galloped off into the woods.
Her relief at his abrupt departure escaped in one quick breath. If the saints were with her, he wouldn't return.
Unfortunately, her relief was short-lived for Duncan MacKenzie shot out one arm, scooped her off her pony, and plunked her down in front of him on his great charger. With his free hand, he snatched her mount's reins. She could barely breathe, so firmly did his arm hold her in place.
A great roar of protest rose up from her brothers, Ranald's voice a shade louder than the rest, "Handle our sister so roughly again, MacKenzie, and you'll be dead before you can draw your blade!"
In a heartbeat, her betrothed wheeled his mount toward her eldest brother. "Cool your temper, MacDonnell, lest I forget this was meant to be a friendly assignation."
"I will not tolerate anyone manhandling my sister," Ranald warned. "Especially you."
"Be you Ranald?" The MacKenzie asked, boldly ignoring Ranald's ire. At her brother's curt nod, he continued, "The kinsmen you seek are in the woods beyond my standard-bearers. They've been assured any further raids onto my land will be punished with a worse fate than being held hostage. The cattle your sire awaits are in your men's care. I have kept my word. We shall leave you here."
Ranald MacDonnell bristled visibly. "We mean to see our sister safely to Eilean Creag Castle."
"Think you I canna protect her on the journey to my own keep?"
"What you propose is an insult to my sister," Jamie protested. "We meant to stay a few nights to discuss the wedding preparations. Our father expects tidings upon our return."
Duncan adjusted his hold, pulling Linnet backward against his chest. "Inform your sire all has been arranged, the banns read. We shall wed the morn after we reach Eilean Creag. 'Tis no need for Magnus MacDonnell to bother himself with the journey."
"Surely you jest!" Jamie's face colored. "Linnet canna marry without her kinsmen present. 'Twillna- "
" 'Twould be wise to remember I do not jest." Duncan turned back to Linnet's elder brother, tossing him her pony's reins. "See to your sister's mount and be gone from my land."
Ranald caught the reins with one hand, his other going to the hilt of his sword. "I dinna ken who be more the bastard, you or my father. Dismount and unsheathe your blade. I canna- "
"Humor an old woman and cease bickering, all of you!" Her gray hair badly disheveled from the journey, and her plump cheeks red with exertion, Elspeth Beaton spurred her pony through the circle of men. With a shrewd gaze, she turned first to the MacKenzie guardsmen, then to the MacDonnell brothers. "Unhand your blade, Ranald. 'Tis no secret your sister would enjoy her wedding more without the likes o' her father present. 'Twould be foolish to shed blood over what we all know to be better for the lass."
She waited until Ranald let go of his sword, then stared straight at Duncan. "Will you not allow the lass to have her brothers present at her wedding?"
"And who are you?"
"Elspeth Beaton. I've cared for Linnet since her mother died birthing her, and I dinna mean to stop now." Her voice held the confidence and authority of a well-loved and devoted servant. "Your broad shoulders speak o' hard training, milord, but I am not a-feared of you. I willna allow anyone to mistreat my lady, not even you."
Turning to gaze up at him, Linnet saw a corner of her betrothed's lips rise at Elspeth's words. But the faint smile vanished in a heartbeat, quickly replaced by...nothing.
Suddenly she knew what had bothered her the most since he'd hauled her onto his horse.
The rumors were true.
Duncan MacKenzie possessed neither heart nor soul. Naught but emptiness filled the huge man who held her.
" 'Tis I who decide who sleeps under my roof. Linnet of Dundonnell's kinsmen may rest here this night and depart MacKenzie land at daybreak. You, milady, shall continue with us to Eilean Creag."
Duncan signaled to a young man, who promptly rode forward leading a riderless gray mare. Turning his attention back to Elspeth, he said, "The mare was meant for your mistress, but she shall ride with me." He gave the squire a curt nod. "Lachlan, help the lady mount. We've tarried long enough."
The squire, young but well muscled, sprang from his own horse and plucked Elspeth off her pony as if she weighed no more than a feather. In one fluid motion, he hoisted her onto the saddle of the larger gray. As soon as she'd settled, he made her a low bow, then swung back onto his own steed.
Elspeth blushed. No one else would notice-for her cheeks were already mightily flushed from the long ride and her anger.
But Linnet knew.
Her beloved Elspeth had been charmed by the squire's gallantry.
Then Duncan MacKenzie gave the order to ride. In a daring move, her brothers spurred their horses forward to block the way. "Hold, MacKenzie! I'll have a word with you first," Ranald yelled, and Linnet's betrothed reined in immediately, having no choice unless he cared to plow through the wall of horseflesh made by her brothers.
"Speak your piece and be quick about it," the MacKenzie said curtly. "Do not think I will hesitate to ride straight through you if you try my patience over-long."
"A warning, naught else," Ranald called. "Know this. Our father is not the man he once was, and he may not care for Linnet as he should, but my brothers and I do. These Highlands won't be big enough to hide you should you harm a single hair on our sister's head."
"Your sister will be well treated at Eilean Creag," came Duncan MacKenzie's terse reply.
Ranald gave him a sharp nod, then, one by one, her brothers freed the path, and the MacKenzie warriors kneed their horses. The lot of them surged forward as one. Linnet barely managed to bid her brothers good-bye. Their own shouts of farewell were lost in the thunder of hooves, the clank of heavily armed men, and the creak of saddle leather.
Her betrothed held her well and 'twas glad she was for his strong grip. Ne'er had she sat upon a beast so large, and the distance to the hard ground speeding past beneath them was daunting.
But while Duncan MacKenzie's firm hold kept her secure, and his mighty presence kept her physical body warm, he exuded an unholy chill that went straight to her core. 'Twas a deep cold, more biting than the darkest winter wind.
A shudder shook her and, immediately, his arm tightened, drawing her nearer. To her surprise, the gesture, whether meant to be protective or done out of sheer instinct, made her feel secure. It warmed her, too, making her belly feel all soft and fluttery.
Despite the cold of the man.
Linnet sighed and let herself rest against him . . . only for a moment, then she'd straighten. He was a MacKenzie after all. But ne'er before had she been held in a man's arms. None could blame her if she relaxed for just a wee bit and tried to understand the unusual sensations stirring deep within her.
Several hours later she awoke, stretched out upon a bed of soft grass, her leather pouch of herbs beneath her head. Someone had wrapped her in a warm wool plaid. She found herself in the midst of a camp full of MacKenzies.
All in varying stages of undress.
Elspeth slept nearby, next to a crackling fire, and Linnet did not fail to notice the old woman's snores sounded quite content.
Apparently her beloved servant had accepted their predicament. Pushing herself up on her elbows, Linnet peered at the sleeping woman. Elspeth might be swayed by the courtly flirtations of a MacKenzie squire, but she wouldn't be.
She didn't care how many MacKenzie men played the gallant. Nor did it matter that being held by her husband-to-be's strong arms had nigh turned her belly to mush. The pleasurable feeling had surely been caused by her relief upon knowing he wouldn't let her be dashed to the ground.
Ne'er would a MacKenzie arouse stirrings of passion in her. Nay, 'twas unthinkable.
And, unlike Elspeth, she found naught appealing about being surrounded by the enemy.
Especially near-naked ones!
"Lachlan, help me off with my hauberk." Her betrothed's voice, deep and masculine, came from the other side of the fire.
"As you wish, milord." The young man scrambled at the MacKenzie's command, fair falling over his feet to do his master's bidding.
Linnet stared as her future husband pulled his helm from his head, revealing a tousled mane of lustrous dark hair.
Praise be the saints he stood with his back to her, for she'd begun to tremble.
As she watched, he let the steel headgear fall to the ground with a heavy thump, then removed his gauntlets. With both hands, he ran his fingers roughly through black hair that fell in thick, sweat-sheened waves almost to his shoulders.
Linnet swallowed hard, uncomfortably aware that her stomach was beginning to grow mushy again. Could the man be a spellcaster? Had he bewitched her? With hair as dark as sin, and glossy as a raven's wing, she supposed the rumors about the devil spawning him could be true.
'Twas common knowledge beauty and evil often walked hand in hand.
When his squire pulled the black mail hauberk over Duncan MacKenzie's head, her breath left her in an audible rush, and she feared her heart would stop beating. The sight of Sir Duncan's broad back captivated her as thoroughly as if a sorcerer had indeed cast an enchantment over her.
Flickering light from the campfire played upon finely honed muscles that rippled with each move he made as he bent to aid his squire in removing the rest of his garb. Not even Ranald's fearsome build matched Duncan MacKenzie's.
Her heart sprang back to life, leaping to her throat as he rolled a pair of thin woolen braies down his muscular legs. Faith, even his buttocks appeared fierce and proud! Linnet wet her lips and gulped, hoping to ease the sudden dryness in her mouth.
She'd seen every one of her eight brothers and a goodly number of her cousins unclothed. But nary a one had looked as intimidating as the giant who stood across the fire from her.
Nor as fine.
As she gaped, unable to tear her gaze away, he stretched his arms above his head. Powerful shoulder muscles rolled and bunched beneath skin burnished deep gold by the firelight. Faith and mercy, naught in her score o' years had prepared her for such a sight! He could pass for a pagan god, so magnificent was his form.
The thought of being bedded by such a man filled her with more trepidation than if she'd been ordered to tame one of the sea monsters known to dwell in Highland lochs!
But even that fear dwindled in the face of the terror that seized her when he turned around. She didn't even spare more than a quick glance at the impressive array of virility displayed proudly at his dark groin.
Nay, 'twas her first good glimpse of his face what chilled her to the very marrow of her bones and brought back a long-suppressed memory.
With horrible clarity, she realized why she'd gotten gooseflesh upon hearing her betrothed referred to as the Black Stag.
St. Columba and his host of holy brothers preserve her condemned soul: She'd been sold to the man of her most frightening girlhood vision.
The man without a heart.
Copyright (c) 2001 by Sue-Ellen Welfonder