Highland Warriorby Hannah Howell
Eric Murray was the youngest of his brothers, determined to gain his rightful inheritance after thirteen years of bitter dispute with his father's family. Starting out alone to confront his tight-fisted kinsmen, he encountered a chestnut-haired beauty set upon by thieves. When she begged for Eric's protection for herself and her infant nephew, Eric promised to deliver… See more details below
Eric Murray was the youngest of his brothers, determined to gain his rightful inheritance after thirteen years of bitter dispute with his father's family. Starting out alone to confront his tight-fisted kinsmen, he encountered a chestnut-haired beauty set upon by thieves. When she begged for Eric's protection for herself and her infant nephew, Eric promised to deliver them to the safety of her family.
Bethia Drummond desperately tried to ignore her attraction to the azure-eyed stranger. Still, Eric Murray was Bethia's only hope of escaping her ruthless kin who planned to kill her and her orphaned nephew, and claim their inherited land. Then Bethia learned that Eric, too, was seeking land and coin from his own kin -- her family's closest allies. How could she love a man she might one day be forced to stand against him? And yet she could not ignore what her troubled heart knew -- that this proud knight had more than inspired her deepest passions he had become her very destiny.
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A Highland Romance
By Hannah Howell
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2004 Hannah Howell
All rights reserved.
"Satan's big toe!"
Fiona cautiously stood up, steadied herself, and vainly tried to rub away the throbbing pain in her backside as she watched her horse disappear over the hill. Her brothers were going to kill her, slowly. Gillyanne, her sister by marriage, would probably not come to her aid this time. Fiona had the lowering feeling that she had sunk herself deep into trouble this time, had, in fact, been utterly witless. She was miles from home, had no supplies, and the sun was rapidly sinking below the horizon. Even worse, no one at Deilcladach knew where she had gone.
"Weel, ye certainly showed Connor who is in control, didnae ye," she muttered as she tried to discern exactly where that cursed horse had dropped her. "If only Connor had asked nicely instead of commanding me in that irritating way he has. Nay, nay, this isnae his fault. Tis yours and yours alone, Fiona MacEnroy. Tis ye who is to blame for this disaster."
She looked around and realized it was not only the people of Deilcladach who did not know where she was. She did not know, either. Her annoying mount had dropped her in a place she had never been before. The wild ride she had just survived left her uncertain of which direction she should turn in to head home; not that she was very good at finding her way around under the best of circumstances.
This was undoubtedly the most reckless thing she had ever done. There was only one good thing about it that she could think of. The madman who had precipitated her long confinement at Deilcladach could not possibly know where she was, either. The man may have succeeded in causing her to do something completely witless, but at least he would not benefit from it.
Fiona idly rubbed her finger over the scar marring her left cheek. He had given it to her the first time he had cornered her, along with a matching one on her right cheek. She could almost feel the others he had inflicted before her family had caged her behind the thick walls of Deilcladach until they could hunt the madman down and kill him. Just thinking about the man sent chills of fear throughout her body, yet she had briefly, foolishly, forgotten that danger. She had succumbed to a raging need to ride free after too many months of confinement.
A sound caught her attention and she tensed. Horses were coming her way, fast. Even as she looked for a place to hide, the riders crested the small rise directly in front of her. Fiona drew her sword and dagger, then stood with her feet apart. She knew she had no chance of successfully defending herself against ten or more men, but decided it was better to die fighting than to allow that madman Menzies to keep slicing away at her.
Then she realized Menzies rarely had more than a few men with him. There were at least a dozen riders in front of her. One good look at the huge dark man at the fore of the troop told her this was not Menzies. Fiona held steady in her fighting stance, but had to fight back a wave of fear. Menzies might be insane, but he did not want her dead. She could not be sure these men would have that much restraint.
"Jesu, look there, Ewan!"
Ewan MacFingal just grunted in response to his brother Gregor's cry. He was looking, but he was not sure he was seeing too clearly. Surely there could not be a small female facing them with a sword in one hand and a dagger in the other? Could she not count? There were twelve of them and only one of her, a very small, delicate one.
Signaling his men to halt, Ewan slowly rode toward the woman. She was dressed as a lad in a jerkin, breeches, and boots, but there was no doubt that she was a woman. It was not just the long, thick honey gold braid hanging down to her slim hips which gave her away, either. The lad's clothing could not fully disguise her lithe feminine shape. Her face was definitely that of a woman, as well. A very beautiful woman.
When he was close enough to see her eyes, he felt his breath catch in his throat. They were big eyes, the long thick lashes surrounding them several shades darker than her hair, as were her finely arched brows. They were also the color of violets. He did not think he had ever seen eyes that color, or eyes so stunningly beautiful.
The rest of her heart-shaped face was equally captivating. She had delicate bones, from the soft curve of her high cheekbones to the line of her faintly stubborn jaw. Her nose was small and straight, her skin clear and fine with a hint of gold to it as if she had been gently gilded by the sun, and her lips were full and tempting. He idly wondered where she had gotten the scars, one on each cheek. They were neat, a rather gentle mark beneath each of her lovely cheekbones.
He silently cursed as he dismounted and drew his sword. If he was thinking that even her scars were beautiful, she was more dangerous than she looked. Ewan knew how intimidating he looked so was rather surprised when she only blinked once, slowly, looked him over, and then tensed in the way a warrior does when braced for an attack.
"Ye cannae be thinking to fight with me, lass," he said, scowling at her.
"And why shouldnae I?" Fiona asked.
"Because I am a mon, bigger than ye in height and breadth."
"I did notice that."
It was impossible not to notice that, Fiona mused. He had to be a foot or more taller than her own meager five feet three inches, if she stood very straight. She suspected he might even be taller than her brothers. He was broad of shoulder, lean of hip, and had long, well-formed legs. His loosely fitted jerkin and breeches did little to hide the strength in his body. His sword looked rather impressive as well.
Fiona knew she ought to be shaking in her boots, but she was not. It puzzled her, for there was no softness to be found in his harsh features. There was a predatory look to the man. His bone structure was good, from the high cheekbones to the strong jaw, but there was a hardness to the face that stole away the elegant handsomeness it should have had. His nose had probably once been long and straight, but a break or two had left a bump at the bridge of it, giving it a hawkish look. Despite his dark scowl, she could see that his mouth was well shaped, a hint of fullness to his lips. His eyes were an intriguing bluish gray, like a clear summer sky when the clouds of approaching night started to seep into it. And he was lucky to still have both of them, she mused, as she glanced at the scar that ran from just above his right eyebrow, down his right cheek to his jaw, passing within a hair's breadth of the corner of his eye. There was a hint of softness to be found in those eyes, however, in the long, thick lashes and neat brows that held the touch of an arch. His long, thick, pitch-black hair, hanging several inches past his broad shoulders, was braided on either side of his face and only added to his look of a fierce, dark warrior.
And he was very dark, indeed, she thought. Even his skin was dark, and something told her it was not from the sun. There was the inky shadow of an emerging beard, which only made his face even darker. Fiona wondered why she, a woman who had spent her life surrounded by fair, handsome men, should find this dark man so attractive.
"Then ye will nay be fighting with me," Ewan said, subduing the urge to back away from her intense study.
"They do say that the bigger a mon is, the harder he will fall," she murmured.
"Then old Ewan ought to fair shake the ground," said the young man holding the reins of the dark man's horse, and the other men chuckled.
"I willnae fight with a wee lass," Ewan said.
"Ah, that is a relief as I had no real urge to get all asweat and weary. So, I accept your surrender."
"I didnae surrender."
That deep, rough voice produced an impressive growl, Fiona decided. "If ye arenae going to fight and ye arenae going to surrender, then what are ye planning to do? Stand there all day blocking out the sun?"
If Ewan had not suspected it would be a serious error in judgment to turn his back on this woman, he would have scowled at his snickering men. "Now that ye have had your wee jest, I suggest ye surrender."
Fiona knew she had little choice, which made her feel distinctly contrary. She still felt no real fear, either. The man had made no attempt to attack or disarm her. The amusement of his men did not carry the taint of anger or cruelty. There was also a look upon the dark warrior's face that she found oddly comforting. It was the same look her brothers gave her when they found her to be excessively irritating and were heartily wishing she was not a female so that they could punch her in the nose. Fiona knew instinctively that this man would not strike her any more than her brothers would.
"I wasnae jesting," she said and smiled sweetly. "I am ready to accept your surrender now. Ye can just pile your weapons up neatly by my feet."
"And just what do ye plan to do with a dozen prisoners?"
"I see. And we are all supposed to just sit quiet like good, wee lads, and let ye rob our clan."
"Oh, I dinnae wish to rob your clan. All I want is a horse and a few supplies."
"Ah, lost yours, have ye?"
"Mayhap I ne'er had one."
"Ye are miles from anywhere. Do ye expect me to believe ye just popped up out of the heather, ye daft wench?"
"Wench? Did ye just call me a wench?"
Ewan did not think he had ever seen a woman's humor change so rapidly. He had just begun to understand her game. In an almost playful way, she had been testing him, trying to see if he could be spurred to violence against a woman. She had begun to relax. Now it appeared that, with one ill- chosen word, he had set her back up and set the progress of their odd negotiations back several steps. Before he could say anything to mend matters, his brother Gregor spoke up and made the situation even worse.
"Actually, he called ye a daft wench," said Gregor.
"I hate being called a wench," Fiona said.
She sheathed her dagger, grasped her sword with both hands, and attacked so swiftly and gracefully, Ewan was struck with admiration. So struck that he came very close to getting wounded. As he met her attack, however, he realized it would have been little more than a scratch, that she had not been aiming for anything vital. He also realized that she had been well trained. She might lack the strength and stamina to outlast a man in a long, hard battle, but she definitely had the skill and agility to give herself a fighting chance. A touch of good fortune or an error on the man's part and she could win a fight. The silence of his men told Ewan they also recognized her skill. What he did not understand was why she had attacked him. He was sure it was not because he had called her a name she did not like. Ewan wondered if this was another test of some sort, one to judge his skill or to see just how hard he would try not to hurt her.
Fiona knew within minutes that this man did not want to harm her. He was fighting her defensively and she was certain that was not his way. Even as she wondered how she could now extract herself from this confrontation, it was ended. He blocked the swing of her sword and somehow ended up within inches of her. The next thing Fiona knew, her sword was gone from her hand, her feet were pulled out from beneath her, and she landed flat on her back, hard enough to knock the breath out of her. As she struggled to catch her breath, she braced for the blow of his body landing on top of her. It not only surprised her, but impressed her, when he somehow managed to completely pin her to the ground with his body yet rested very little of his weight upon her.
"Now, are we all done with this troublesome nonsense?" Ewan demanded, fighting to ignore the feel of her beneath him and pushing away the tempting images it tried to set in his mind.
"Aye," Fiona replied, panting a little as she regained her ability to breathe. "I will accept your surrender now." The man truly could growl impressively, she mused, and wondered why that rough noise should send small, pleasurable shivers down her back.
"Enough," he snapped. "Ye are now my prisoner. Do ye have any other weapons?" he asked as he took the knife sheathed at her waist and tossed it aside, his brother Gregor quickly appearing to collect it along with her sword.
"Nay," she answered and could tell by the way his eyes narrowed that he knew she lied.
"Surrender your weapons, woman."
"I told ye, I dinnae have any more." Fiona wondered if the fact that the knife sheathed at the back of her waist was digging painfully into her back was the reason her ability to lie was so hampered.
That thought had barely finished forming when she found herself caught up in a fierce wrestling match with the man as he tried to search her for weapons. She got some pleasure out of his curses and grunts, which revealed she was at least discomforting him. Unfortunately, it did not deter him. He quickly began to find all of her knives. His curses increased as he took the two strapped to her wrists just inside the sleeves of her jerkin, the two tucked inside her boots, and the one sheathed at her back. He even found the subtle slits in her breeches that allowed her to reach the knife strapped to each of her thighs and took those. All her struggling halted abruptly when he ran his big, long-fingered hands over her breasts and found the knife sheathed between them. As he tossed that to the man collecting her weapons, he yanked her to her feet, and she wondered why she could still feel the warmth of his touch.
Ewan stared at the collection of weapons a widely grinning Gregor had piled up. He suddenly realized that, at any point during their confrontation, she could have pulled out one of those well- hidden knives and thrown it at him, or slipped it between his ribs. There was no doubt in his mind that she could have done so with speed, stealth, and deadly accuracy. He had obviously not failed any of those tests she had been putting him through. When he looked at her and she smiled sweetly, he immediately grew suspicious.
"Any more?" he asked.
"Of course not." She met his narrow-eyed stare for a full minute before she sighed. "Just one."
"Hand it to me."
His eyes widened as she reached behind her head and pulled a knife from out of the thick coils of her braid. When she slapped it into his out-stretched hand, he ignored the hilarity of his men and studied the weapon. It was long with a narrow blade, sheathed in thick, soft leather, and the hilt had been made in such a way it looked like no more than an ornate hair ornament, yet was still perfectly usable.
"Why are ye so heavily armed?"
"Weel, it wouldnae be wise to ride about alone without a few weapons," Fiona replied as she undid her sword belt and tossed it down with the other weapons, then began to remove the sheaths for her knives that she could reach discreetly.
"Tis nay wise to ride about alone nay matter how weel armed ye are."
She scowled at him and he tried to fix his attention on her ill humor, but it was not easy. His gaze kept falling to where her hand had slipped inside the clever slits in her breeches to remove the knife sheaths strapped around each slender thigh. Ewan could all too clearly recall the feel of that soft skin. It had taken a lot of willpower to resist the urge to linger there, to stroke that soft skin, and to recall that he was disarming her beneath the amused gazes of his men.
Even worse, his palms still itched with the need to feel those firm, plump breasts again. He had all too briefly felt how perfectly they had nestled into his hands as he had searched her for more weapons. Despite her clothes and the fact that she had been bristling with weapons, he could not ignore the fact that she was a woman, a soft, temptingly shaped woman. Worse still, he seemed incapable of ignoring the fact that he desired her.
"What is your name?" he asked her as Gregor put all of her weapons in a sack.
"Fiona," she replied and met his hard stare, one that demanded more information, with a smile.
"Fiona what? What clan? What place?"
"Do ye expect me to sweetly reply and give ye all that is needed to rob me and mine?"
Excerpted from Highland Warrior by Hannah Howell. Copyright © 2004 Hannah Howell. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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