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Heart pounding in her ears, Lady Jenna Aleyne gazed at the three shabby ruffians blocking the road and cursed her ill luck. The horse picking up a stone in its hoof the moment she was out of sight of the castle had been bad enough, but three men intent on mischief looked like a disaster in the making.
On a normal day, she would have been accompanied by a groom, but this morning she'd heard through one of the local lads that a tinker in the market carried news of Braemuir, if she was interested.
When Lord Carrick, her trustee, had insisted she leave the running of her family estate to him, it had made sense to the terrified fourteen-year-old orphan she had become so suddenly. But she had missed her home, all these years. Had longed for the day she would return to her people and take up her duties as she had promised her father.
The thought of recent news of Braemuir and its people had pulled irresistibly. Yet she was loath to mention it to her cousin, as she did not trust him to let her go.
So she had slipped out alone.
She offered the men a smile. 'What clan are you?' she asked in her rather rusty Gaelic, wishing she'd made the effort to practise more in her years of absence in England. 'There'll be a welcome for you at the castle, if it is food and drink you are needing.'
'Bloody heathen language,' the smaller of the three said. 'Can't anyone in this godforsaken place speak English?' He looked towards their leader. 'You are sure this is the one?' He moved closer with an oddly rolling gait and a hard glint in his eyes.
Not Highlanders, then. English sailors. Her mouth dried. Her heart thudded a signal to run. She wouldn't get twenty yards. Better to face them than turn her back. 'I'm headed for Carrick Castle and I am late,' she said in English. 'I shouldn't wonder if they havenae sent out a search party, so no need for me to keep you from your journey.'
Unimpressed by her implied threat, they moved in on her, spreading out, clearly intending to flank her like cowards.
A pistol would impress them, but hers was in its holster on the opposite side of the horse. These were desperate times in the Highlands, and while honour and hospitality ran deep among Highlanders, these Englishmen would have found little welcome. She winced. That probably accounted for their half-starved appearance and hard expressions.
The pistol was her best chance. Hands shaking, she passed the reins behind her back, jerking to make the animal shift side-on as if it was restless. 'Stupid beast,' she said. 'Picked up a stone.'
The animal half turned, tossing its head, favouring its forefoot. Just a little closer Just an inch or two and she would be able to reach. The horse balked. She took a deep steadying breath. She needed a distraction, a way of taking their minds from what she was doing. But what?
A tuneless but cheerful whistling came from the direction of town behind her. She glanced over her shoulder and her stomach dipped. Another man, his walking stick swinging, his loose-limbed long-legged stride eating the distance between them. Heaven help her, was this another of these rogues? Her heart pounded harder.
The villainous fellow directly in front of her pulled a cudgel from his belt. The other two men followed suit. They were closer now and their expressions were grim, purposeful. She backed up against her horse, swallowing to alleviate the dryness in her mouth, while this new man kept walking towards her, his whistle never faltering. He looked nothing like the footpads circling around her from the front. Plainly dressed, yes, and a square jaw roughened by two days' growth of dark beard gave him a menacing appearance, but he also had an honest, open look in his expression that gave her hope. As he drew abreast of her she noticed a gleam of anger in his narrowed eyes. 'Three against one, is it, lads?' he said grimly, speaking English with a Highland burr.
Friend, she decided, trusting her instincts. But they were still two against three. She needed her pistol.
'Charlie!' she cried, throwing one arm about his neck and pressing her lips to his mouth, reaching out with her other hand to fumble for her weapon.
For a second the young man stood frozen, his parted lips shockingly intimate. Tingles raced from her lips to her breasts at the feel of his hot breath on her mouth, accompanied by the scent of wood smoke, heather and man.
So shocking and and delightful all at once. Her eyelids drifted closed, the better to savour the sensations. The second lengthened to two as his lips melded to hers and a large warm hand cupped her bottom and drew her close. His tongue stroked the seam of her lips. The shock of feeling him, hard-muscled and demanding as he pressed against her, and the velvety warmth against her lips made her gasp. His tongue slipped into her mouth and explored gently and teasingly. Little thrills darted through her body like hot licks of flame. Delicious. Terrifying.
It was only the weight of the pistol as it began to slip from her grasp that brought her back to her senses. A hard tug freed it from the saddle holster. She stepped away, cocking her weapon and pointing it first at him and then the other three, who were staring at them, mouths agape.
The newcomer flashed her a breathtakingly wicked grin and, ignoring her pistol, he squared off to the three men. 'The odds are about even, I would say.'
'Bloody hell,' the smallest of the ruffians said.
She'd been right. The newcomer was not with them. She lined up beside him and levelled her gun.
'Gentlemen,' the man she'd kissed said with quiet confidence, 'you'll be letting this lady be on her way, now.' He swept his walking stick in a wide arc. 'The first one of you to step any closer than this gets his knees broken.'
She waggled her pistol, just in case they hadn't noticed. 'And the second one gets a bullet in the heart.'
The young man sent her a sideways glance, but kept his attention focused on their attackers. 'All right, my fine lads. Who wants to be first?'
The leader of the footpads gave his companions a desperate glare. 'There's only two of them.' His fellows stood frozen, staring at her pistol. She aimed it at their leader's head. 'You first, I think.'
He raised his hands from his sides. 'We need some coin is all,' he whined. 'For a bed for the night.'
'Ye'll make a bed in the heather like the rest of us,' the young Scot at her side growled. 'Oh, come on, man. Let me have at you. I haven't broken a head in days.'
The smaller of the men looked at his friends. 'Bugger that. She's got a pistol.' He tucked his cudgel back in his belt. The man to his left followed suit. Their leader glared at them. 'Curse you, you lily-livered sons of bitches.' He charged.
The Scot lunged for him. Unable to shoot, for fear of hitting her rescuer, Jenna kept her pistol moving back and forth between the leader's companions. In seconds it was over. The assailant caught a heavy blow on the shoulder. He screamed in pain, his arm dropping limp at his side. Moments later, all three of them were hot-footing it between the rough clumps of gorse and making for a distant line of trees. They were out of sight before Jenna finished counting to three.
She sagged against the side of her mare, who whinnied softly.
'Such cowards,' the young man said in disgust. He took her pistol from her slack grip. He stared at it for a moment, released the cock and shoved it back in the holster. 'You are taking a chance riding out with nothing but that for protection,' he said in dry disapproving tones. 'You might have brought one down, if you were lucky. It is no match for three.'
Her back stiffened at his obvious dismissal of her ability to look after herself. 'I have travelled this road scores of times without the slightest problem.'
'Alone?' he questioned, and she felt her face heat.
'Occasionally.' She knew she sounded a little too defiant, but who was he to question what she did? In truth, she'd been so anxious for news she'd given no thought to the danger. Not that she'd ever heard of footpads on this road before. Not so near to the castle. 'I would have been fine if my horse had not picked up a stone in her hoof.'
The look in his green-flecked brown eyes said he didn't believe it.
Infuriating man. The fact that he was right only made her feel more angry. At herself. She was lucky he had come to her rescue. But it galled her to say so. 'I thank you, sir, for your help. I do not believe I have seen you in these parts before.'
His frown deepened. 'Niall Gilvry, at your service.' He gestured to the horse. 'Which hoof?'
He bent and lifted the horse's leg. 'Ah. Do you have a pick?'
She handed him the one still clenched in her fist. 'It's stuck fast, poor beastie.'
Gilvry gave a quick twist and the stone flicked out on to the road. He gently probed, looking for more debris. 'You'll have to walk, I'm thinking. It will be a while before she heals.'
He really must think her hen-witted if he thought she would ride the poor creature after it had suffered so, but what was the point of trying to disabuse him of the notion. She would likely never see him again. And when she recalled the thrills his kiss had sent racing through her body, it was probably just as well. 'If you think it best to walk, I shall certainly do so.'
He gathered her mount's reins. 'I will walk with you,' he said, without waiting for her agreement, 'in case yon fellows change their minds.'
She shuddered at the thought. Although, truth be told, his scowlblack brows drawn down across the bridge of a hawkish nosewas almost as frightening as the ruffians. Some woman might consider such rugged unshaven features handsome, but his height accompanied by his grim expression felt more than a little overpowering. Only his sculpted lips offered any hint of softness. A shiver trickled down her spine as her lips tingled with the memory of the feel of his mouth against her own.
It wasn't her first kiss. She'd encountered the odd amorous young gentleman who had caught her in a youthful game of blind man's buff. Awkward mashings of lips against teeth. Nothing so hot and so dark as his mouth had felt. None of them had set her ablaze, or made her forget what she was doing. Not for an instant.
Kissing him had been madnessnow she had time to think. The very idea made her turn hot and cold by turns. But it was the only distraction that had come to her mind. Rushing in where angels feared to tread, her father had been wont to call such reckless actions. Embarrassing to boot.
'Lead on, then,' she said briskly. She had no wish to tarry because she had been telling the truth when she said a search party might be on its way. The folk at the castle might have missed the horse by now, though it was used so often by all and sundry they might not have, so long as Mrs Preston hadn't noticed her absence.
And now she would have to think of another excuse to go to the market. As they walked along side by side, she glanced at her rescuer from the corner of her eye. Tall and lean, he towered over her. This one had risked his life to protect her like a perfect Highland gentleman. A poor one, judging by his clothes. Not the sort of man she should be kissing no matter how good it felt.
Heat rose into her face at such wanton thoughts. She prayed he wouldn't notice.
'Where is your home?' he asked.
His voice made her jump guiltily. 'Carrick Castle. Lord Carrick is my guardian.'
A thunderstruck expression passed over his face. Or perhaps it was horror. She could not be sure, for his face quickly became a blank mask.
'Is there some problem with where I live?' she asked stiffly.
'I wonder at his lordship, then, letting you ride out without a groom.'
So would Lord Carrick.
'Or kissing strangers,' he added, and for an instant she thought there was a wicked gleam in the depths of his gaze. A challenge, like the one he had issued to the footpads. It faded too fast to be sure and his expression returned to its forbidding lines.
Had he really been so averse to her kiss? She was sure she had felt his breathing quicken against her skin in those few seconds of contact. 'I only did it as a distraction to get to my pistol,' she said, feeling the need to make it clear she was not completely wanton.
'I wouldn't advise such a method in future,' he said drily.
Because she was a poor kisser, no doubt. She really did not have much experience. Warmth suffused her body and crawled up her cheeks and she wished he would just go away so she could suffer her embarrassment alone. 'I will keep your advice in mind.'
He gave her a look of disapproval.
Drat the man. Who did he think he was to judge her? She gave him a haughty stare. 'I don't see how it is any of your business.'
It ought to be someone's business, Niall thought grimly. He still could not believe that the woman at his sidea lady from her dress, and an extraordinarily lovely one at thatwas roaming the roads alone. All right, so his brother's wife, Lady Selina, hadn't been any less foolhardy. But she, too, could have been killed.
And that kiss. He still felt hot under the collar and elsewhere since she'd pressed her lips to his. Oh, he'd had better kisses from more experienced ladies, but none sweeter. And none that had left him so instantly mindless that he'd responded with such enthusiasm.
They were lucky he'd been able to turn and face those damned Sassenach criminals after she'd pressed her innocent body against him, because he hadn't wanted to let her go. And now he learned she was the ward of the man whose employ he was about to enter. A woman so far above him she should be ashamed to be seen in his company if she had even a wee bit of sense.
The sooner he stopped thinking about that kiss the better or he'd be out on his ear before he could turn around. He'd been lucky to get this position. Lucky to find any kind of paid employment here in the Highlands.
As Carrick's distant relative and a member of a sept that owed him its loyalty, his application had been accepted without question. Which didn't mean he would get to keep it, if Carrick wasn't pleased.
It was bad enough that Ian had asked him to secretly seek out information about Carrick's erstwhile steward Tearny, who had almost killed Ian's wife and had died by Ian's hand, without him getting tangled up with his employer's ward. If he wasn't careful he'd find himself scuttling back to Dunross with his tail between his legs and no chance for advancement. Or income. Back relying on his brother for his food and lodging.
His shoulders tightened at the thought.
Oh, he'd always made himself useful to Ian and the clan, taken on any task required of him, because it was his duty as brother to the laird. And he'd enjoyed teaching the clan's children at the tiny school in Dunross village. But if he faced the truth, it was hardly a challenge. And as Molly's father had been quick to point out when Niall had invited her to walk out with him, a man with no income or property was hardly a good prospect for a husband. A blow to his pride, to be sure.