"Few writers can bring history to life like Sue-Ellen Welfonder! For anyone who loves historical fiction, the books in the Highland Warriors trilogy are a true treasure."
Seduction of a Highland Warriorby Sue-Ellen Welfonder
At the King's request, chieftain Alasdair MacDonald has sworn to preserve the peace in the Glen of Many Legends. Though he's handsome and fearless, his warrior's heart belongs only to his beloved land-until the fair sister of his oldest enemy shatters his defenses, branding his skin with a single touch, and sealing his fate with one stolen kiss . . .
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At the King's request, chieftain Alasdair MacDonald has sworn to preserve the peace in the Glen of Many Legends. Though he's handsome and fearless, his warrior's heart belongs only to his beloved land-until the fair sister of his oldest enemy shatters his defenses, branding his skin with a single touch, and sealing his fate with one stolen kiss . . .
Lady Marjory Mackintosh will do anything to unite the warring clans, even seduce Alasdair MacDonald. She has loved the rugged Highlander since she first saw him and now, as temptation leads to surrender, Marjory dares to possess him, body and soul. But a dangerous new menace enters the Glen, and he will stop at nothing to strip Alasdair of his honor-and the only woman who can claim his heart.
Few writers can bring history to life like Sue-Ellen Welfonder! For anyone who loves historical fiction, the books in the Highland Warriors trilogy are a true treasure."New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Heather Graham
PRAISE FOR TEMPTATION OF A HIGHLAND SCOUNDREL:
"Top pick! 4 1/2 stars! Even better than the first! This finely crafted, highly emotional romance is populated by heroes whose lives are defined by the concept of honor and strong-willed heroines who don't accept surrender as a possibility...An incredible read."
- RT Book Reviews
PRAISE FOR SINS OF A HIGHLAND DEVIL:
"4 1/2 stars! Top Pick! Continues a long tradition of well-written, highly emotional romances. This marvelous novel is rich in love and legend, populated by characters steeped in honor, to make for a sensual and emotional read."
- RT Book Reviews
PRAISE FOR SEDUCING A SCOTTISH BRIDE:
"4 1/2 stars! Welfonder provided witty banter between a feisty heroine and a stalwart hero caught in an ancient curse. The added paranormal elements and sensuality turn the story into an intriguing page-turner that fans of Scottish romance will adore."
- RT Book Reviews"
One of the most romantic and magical stories a reader could ask for. You'll fall in love with Ronan and Gelis, and if you haven't read the rest of the MacKenzies' stories, you'll be chomping at the bit to get them...An enchanting tale of love that won't be denied."
- Romance Reviews Today"
Welfonder writes a remarkable Scottish tale taking us deep into the Highlands. Her words are so real, we can almost hear the warriors' swords clashing, see the mist on the moors and smell the moss gathered on trees and clinging to rocks. You will love the strength of her latest, fiery heroine as she brings her man to his knees. What a lass!"
- Fresh Fiction
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Seduction of a Highland Warrior
By Sue-Ellen Welfonder
ForeverCopyright © 2013 Sue-Ellen Welfonder
All right reserved.
The Honor of Clan Donald
In the beginning of days, before Highland warriors walked heather-clad hills and gazed in awe across moors chased by cloud shadows, old gods ruled the dark and misty realm that would one day be known as Scotland. Glens were silent then, empty but for the whistle of the wind and the curl of waves on sparkling sea-lochs.
Yet if a man looked and listened with his heart rather than his eyes and ears, he might catch a glimpse of wonders beyond telling.
For Manannan Mac Lir, mighty god of sea and wind, loved these rugged Scottish shores. Those who haven’t forgotten legend will swear that stormy days saw Manannan plying Highland waters in his magical galley Wave Sweeper. Or that on nights when the full moon shone bright, he favored riding the edge of the sea on his enchanted horse Embarr of the Flowing Mane. All tales claimed that wherever he was, Manannan never lost sight of Scotland’s cliff-fretted coast. One stretch of shoreline was said to hold his especial attention, a place of such splendor even his jaded heart swelled to behold its wild and haunting beauty.
That place was the Glen of Many Legends.
Storytellers agree that when the day came that Manannan observed a proud and noble MacDonald warrior stride into this fair land of heather, rock, and silvery seas, he was most pleased.
Those were distant times, but even then the men of Clan Donald were gaining a reputation as men of fierce loyalty and unbending honor.
They were the best of all Highlanders.
Even the gods stood in awe of them.
So Manannan’s pleasure grew when this MacDonald warrior, an early chieftain known as Drangar the Strong, chose this blessed spot to build a fine isle-girt fortress. Here, Drangar the Strong would guard the coast with his trustworthy and fearless garrison. And—the tale spinners again agreed—the great god of sea and wind surely believed Clan Donald would blossom and thrive, gifting the Glen of Many Legends with generations of braw Highland warriors and beautiful, spirited women.
The world was good.
Until the ill-fated day when Drangar took a moonlit walk along the night-silvered shore of his sea-loch and happened across a lovely Selkie maid who no red-blooded man could’ve resisted.
Her dark hair gleamed like moonlight on water and her eyes shone like the stars. Her lips were seductively curved and ripe for kissing. And her shapely form beckoned, all smooth, creamy skin and tempting shadows.
MacDonalds, it must now be said, are as well-lusted as their hearts are loyal and true.
Drangar fell hard, succumbing to the seal woman’s charms there and then.
But such passions flare hotly only for a beat, at least for the woman-of-the-sea who soon suffers unbearable longings to return to her watery home.
Nor is any Highlander unaware of the tragedies that so often befall these enchanting creatures and the mortal men who lose their hearts to them. Such tales abound along Scotland’s coasts and throughout the Western Isles, with every clan bard able to sing of the heartbreak and danger, the ills that can break good men.
Or, perhaps worst of all, the tears of children born to such unions.
Drangar could not allow such sorrow to visit his people.
Nor did he wish to see his seductress in anguish.
So he did as all good MacDonalds would do and followed his honor.
Rather than carry her into his castle and have his way with her, he took her shining sealskin from the rock where she’d discarded it and, returning the skin to her, he’d stood by as she vanished into the sea.
Then—the bards pause here for effect—before the waves settled, Manannan himself rose from the spume-crested depths and made Drangar a great gift of thanks for his farsightedness and his honor.
The gift was an ironbound treasure chest heavy with priceless amber.
These were enchanted gemstones that, according to legend, would bring Clan Donald fortune and blessings, aiding them always in times of trouble.
But life in the Highlands was never easy.
And even magical stones can’t always allay feuds, strife, and the perfidy of men.
Years passed and then centuries. Times were good and then also bad. Bards embroidered Manannan’s fame and nearly forgot the role of the seal woman in explaining Clan Donald’s chest of ambers. Soon other tales were added until no man knew what was real or storied.
Then the day came when even Drangar slipped into the murk of legend.
Worst fates followed and the MacDonalds’ once-mighty fortress was torn from their grasp.
But the clan never lost their honor.
Centuries later they even regained their home.
Now a new Clan Donald chieftain rules there. Alasdair MacDonald is his name and he’s a lord of warriors. A man worth a hundred in battle, well-loved by his friends and respected by his foes. Drangar’s heart would’ve burst with pride if he could have known him.
To Alasdair, honor is everything.
Yet he lives in troublesome times. And although his beloved glen is quiet, the truce that keeps it so is fragile. Two other clans now share the Glen of Many Legends, and while one can be called an ally, the other remains hostile. Many would credit Alasdair’s repute and authority that disaster hasn’t yet struck.
Those less generous would say the strength of his sword arm is responsible.
Whatever one believes, he is not a man to cross. Unfortunately, ill winds are blowing ever closer to the fair glen once so loved by Manannan and Drangar.
Alasdair’s passion for the glen is equally great.
But soon his love for a woman will challenge him to abandon everything he holds dear.
When he does, he will lose more than his honor.
His actions will unleash a calamity worse than the Glen of Many Legends has ever seen.
And every man, woman, and child there will be marked for doom.
LUGHNASADH HARVEST FAIR AT CASTLE HAVEN
Late Summer 1398
If she’d had any doubt that the day was a disaster, Lady Marjory Mackintosh knew it by the time she landed at the fair’s crowded row of cloth stalls.
Most years she loved Lughnasadh.
A lively gathering to give thanks for the season’s first harvest and to mark the end of summer, the ancient festival offered one of the few markets that ever visited the Glen of Many Legends.
All three glen clans attended, glad for the entertainments and an opportunity to replenish supplies now that the sun was on its descent into winter darkness. Folk from neighboring lands also took advantage. Everywhere, visitors jostled to examine wares not readily available in the glen. Others flocked to the cook stalls and refreshment booths, while some chose to watch the jugglers, musicians, and dancers who paraded past rows of brightly painted wooden stalls.
Bards spun tales for eager listeners. And young girls wearing flower garlands threw crumbled oatcakes to the birds so that the glen’s smallest creatures could take part in the celebration.
Somewhere a woman laughed, her voice light and full of merriment.
Marjory felt a spurt of envy.
She would’ve enjoyed a reason to delight in the day’s excitements. Unfortunately, she couldn’t feel anything beyond a nagging frustration, disappointment clouding her pleasure.
Alasdair MacDonald wasn’t anywhere to be seen.
Not that she’d truly expected to encounter the dashing Clan Donald chieftain. He’d been away from the glen nearly a year, after all. And whatever his business, he hadn’t bothered to send a single word offering felicitations or even inquiring of her health.
He’d undoubtedly forgotten her.
And wasn’t she a fool to let that bother her.
To wish for even a moment that the feelings she’d once imagined he held for her were true. Sadly, she’d misread him. She needed to forget the heat in his eyes and the flash of his smile. The way his body brushed hers in a passing moment. And how his scent took over her senses and left her weak in the knees.
The time had passed when his mere proximity would infuse her with delicious warmth, making her skin tingle and stirring potent desire deep inside her.
She knew better now.
His feelings for her, if they’d ever existed, had clearly turned as cool as the shadows on the hills in the hour of gloaming.
So she set a deliberately intent look on her face and began perusing the artfully displayed silk ribbons offered by the nearest cloth vendor. It wouldn’t do to let anyone who suspected her attraction to Alasdair think she might be suffering under his absence.
Her face heated, her pulse quickening in annoyance at how eagerly she’d scanned the crowds upon arriving at the fair. Slipping away from her brother and his wife, she’d worked her way through the stalls and past countless traders’ carts, so hopeful to catch a glimpse of the tall, strapping man she ached to see. Now at the cloth stalls, placed at the farthest end of the fair, she had to admit defeat.
And for more than not spying Alasdair in the bustle, although the other soul she’d hoped to find certainly held no place in her heart.
A Norseman not adverse to fattening his purse, he was the latest in a long line of self-seeking men who accepted coin and jewels in return for helping her thwart her brother Kendrew’s attempts to see her wed.
She had her own plans.
At least, she had until Alasdair vanished from the glen, never to be seen again.
Even so, she cast another glance down the row of cloth stalls. Regrettably, she saw little but the noisy throng and drifting smoke from the cook fires. She certainly didn’t spot the one-eyed Norseman with a gold ring in his ear whom she desperately needed to see. More important, she also failed to see the warrior chieftain whose mere glance sent hot shivers racing through her blood.
Alasdair wasn’t worth the thoughts she wasted on him.
No doubt he wasn’t at the harvest fair because he was occupied with a maid he deemed more pleasing than her. Indeed, she was quite certain that was so. Alasdair was known to be a well-lusted man.
He wouldn’t lack for female companionship, wherever he held himself.
Sure of it, she fought against the resentment that slammed into her. Her head began to ache.
“Sweet lass, you brighten the day more than if a ray of sunlight fell to earth.”
Marjory froze, her breath catching at the deep, rich voice she hadn’t heard in so long. Alasdair. His big, masculine shadow fell across her, melding with her own in an intimate joining. His scent swirled around her, a heady blend of man, peat smoke, and the sea, as familiar as if she’d breathed him in yesterday. But she hadn’t. And that truth burned in her chest, a tight coil of injured possessiveness she had no right to feel.
She bit her lip, aware of the fair’s atmosphere shifting, the air almost igniting around her.
The fine sapphire ribbon she’d been admiring slipped from her fingers to curl on the grass. Before her, the cloth stall dimmed, as did the colorful wares piled on its display board. Everything around her ceased to exist, the fairgoers smudging to a blur as her heart leaped, her body and her emotions responding to him in ways she knew she should squelch at once.
Unfortunately, she couldn’t.
He stood right behind her.
So near that her skin prickled, tingling as if he’d touched her. Pleasure swept her, a sweet, warm tide. But his presence reminded her of the other reason she’d made certain not to miss the harvest fair. The peril she faced with each new day: forced nuptials with a Viking lord of high rank who’d expect an amenable wife.
A pity she didn’t feel at all willing.
Marjory bristled, straightened her back.
Her brother meant well in trying to find her a titled and wealthy Viking husband, a man who would bring status to their clan and forge a bond to the Mackintoshes’ ancient ties to the northern lands. Even so, she had no wish for such a match. Nor could she bear the thought of leaving her home, the Glen of Many Legends.
She didn’t want to marry a Norseman.
“Alasdair.” She turned to face him, anger chasing her elation. “I didn’t think to see you here. You’ve been away many months now.”
“So I have, aye.” He stepped closer, giving her a slow, deliciously wicked smile. “Can it be you missed me?”
“Surely not.” Marjory flushed when he cocked a disbelieving brow. “I’ve had much to do of late.” She spoke true, just not adding that many of her thoughts had been of him. “You cannot believe the glen stilled in your absence, pining for you. There is aye work and—”
“I spoke of you, lass, no’ the glen.” His gaze locked with hers and she could feel the heat of him, the power of his strong, hard body. His rich, auburn hair gleamed in the sun. A bit longer than she remembered, the ends brushed his shoulders, while new, harsh lines in his face hinted he’d been long at sea. He also seemed larger and more roughened than she remembered.
She flipped back her braid, not liking how his rugged appearance made her pulse quicken. “I am not your concern, Alasdair MacDonald.”
He let his gaze roam over her, as if seeing her for the first time. “Aye, well. You are a Mackintosh and your brother and I are no’ friends, that is true.”
“You never forget that, do you?” Marjory’s chest tightened, his words a knife jab to her heart.
“There is much I dinnae forget.” He gripped her chin, slid his thumb over her lips. “I’m also thinking I was gone too long, much as I needed to make the journey to Inverness. A good seaman watches o’er the building of a new galley, howe’er skilled the shipyard. Now I’m returned.” He stroked the corner of her mouth, his touch leaving her breathless.
Shivery, almost giddy with happiness, and more than a little annoyed.
She wasn’t a child’s toy to be cast aside and ignored, retrieved at a whim.
She was Marjory Mackintosh of Nought and a proud and strong woman.
So she stepped back, away from the madness of his caress. The unsettling things his attentions did to her insides, making it so hard to think.
She did lift her chin. “Will you be staying?”
“Aye, that I will.” His voice deepened and he appeared even more different. Not just larger than she remembered but a bit dangerous. His eyes darkening, he leaned in, so near that his breath mingled with hers. “Seeing the splendors of these hills, I regret I was away.”
“Indeed.” Marjory held his gaze, challengingly.
“So I said.” He flashed another smile and then bent to retrieve the fallen silk ribbon. “You dropped this.” Giving her the ribbon, he closed her fingers around its length and then raised her hand to his lips. “Have you ne’er learned no’ to let something of such beauty slip from your grasp?”
“This past year, I have learned things I would never have believed.” She didn’t say her greatest lesson was that he cared so little for her. That truth surely blazed in her eyes. “Were you aware how many wayfarers pass through this glen? Traveling men who gladly carry messages if asked?”
“Such men also journey north, my lady. They sail Hebridean waters, where I spent time after leaving Inverness with my new galley. If the wind changes in Glasgow, it’s known in Aberdeen by nightfall.” He stepped back, narrowing his gaze. “Tongues wag even faster in our beloved Highlands. So tell me, Norn”—he used her by-name, given to her for her fair northern looks—“I would know if the rumors I’ve heard are true. Has your brother secured a match for you? Are you to be a Viking bride?”
She looked at him, her knuckles still tingling where he’d kissed her. “Kendrew does wish to find a husband for me. He’s sent offers to a number of Norsemen, mostly lesser nobles in Orkney and Shetland.
“So far they’ve all declined.” She drew a breath, keeping her chin raised. If she succeeded in trysting with a certain one-eyed Viking courier this day, she’d ensure another refused bid.
Hoping she’d yet spot the man, she squared her shoulders and held Alasdair’s gaze. “I am not betrothed.”
“I am glad to hear it.” He looked away, into the crowd of fairgoers. Turning back to her, his face was shuttered. “You weren’t meant to leave the glen. You’d be miserable elsewhere. Anyone born of this land would be.”
“That I know.” Marjory didn’t blink, her tone as clear and proud as his.
But her heart dipped.
She’d hoped for a different response.
The one he’d given indicated he saw her as any clanswoman of the glen. That he’d touched her cheek and smoothed his thumb over her lips, heat in his eyes as he’d done so, only revealed his appreciation of females. A bonnie man, he’d always drawn their attention.
And it galled to know that a man who so enjoyed ladies and bed-sport could ignore the deep passion and true joy she was sure they would find if he weren’t so thickheaded.
Yet, in many ways, Alasdair was more stubborn than her brother.
It was a truth that soured her mood.
Lest he guess, she gave him a dazzling smile. “I have no intention of leaving the glen.” She twirled the blue ribbon through her fingers. “I’ve never felt a need to go journeying. Everything I desire is here.”
“I could say the same, sweetness. Still, there are times when duty calls a man away.” He gestured to the edge of the wood where a handful of MacDonald guards watched over a pile of salt barrels and sacks, goods meant for Blackshore Castle, the MacDonald stronghold at the southernmost end of the glen. “A clan chieftain cannae think only of his own wishes, howe’er he’s tempted.”
Marjory stiffened. “Were you tempted in the Hebrides?”
His gaze turned sharp. “What are you saying?”
“Folk spoke of you in your absence.” She watched him carefully, gauging his reaction. “Talk of change at Blackshore, plans concerning you.”
Alasdair shrugged. “Tongues aye wag o’er a chieftain’s doings. My only plans were fetching my galley and”—his blue eyes glinted—“helping a friend, the MacKenzie chief, deal with a pack of rabid MacLeods bent on harrying Eilean Creag, the MacKenzie stronghold. Adding my new ship, and my fighting men, to a few sea battles is what delayed my return.”
“I see.” Marjory did, but she knew there was more.
There had been tales.
Chatter in Nought’s own kitchens. Hushed words quickly silenced when she drew near, whisperings about Alasdair’s men urging him to wed. One of the laundresses claimed she’d heard of a minor Mackinnon chieftain offering Alasdair his youngest daughter. The girl was famed as a great beauty, said to be sweet and biddable, and possessed of a singing voice to rival the songbirds.
Just thinking of such a fabled creature filled Marjory’s mouth with the taste of bitter ash.
Not that she’d wish a cretin upon him.
On second thought, perhaps she would.
She also needed to know the truth.
So she took a deep breath and spoke her mind. “It is rumored you’re to take a Mackinnon bride. That plans have been made and—”
“Is it now?” He looked amused. “Folk must’ve been mightily bored to spread such prattle. I’m wed to the glen, lass. Keeping peace is enough to occupy me. I’ve more to do than look for a wife.”
“So it’s not true?”
“Nae.” He touched her face again, lifting her chin as he let his gaze slide over her, lingering just long enough at her amber necklace to show that he recognized the gemstones as belonging to his clan. Believed enchanted, the ambers had passed to her through Alasdair’s sister, Catriona, and then by way of another friend, her brother’s wife, Isobel.
“The ambers…” Marjory waited until he looked up. “I hope you don’t mind I wear them?”
“Nae, I am glad that you do.” He trailed his finger along the sensitive skin beneath her ear, his touch making her blood quicken. “I’d heard Lady Isobel gave you the ambers at her wedding celebration. They suit you well.”
“I treasure them.” She did.
“As you should.” He looked at her, his expression unreadable. “They’re a clan heirloom, no’ a mere adornment.”
“That I know.” Marjory hoped her face didn’t reveal that, to her, the stones were much more.
She and her two friends shared a secret pact, the amber necklace sealing their oath to foster peace between the three clans who shared the glen.
Catriona and Isobel had kept their vows. They’d each wed the chieftain of one of the other clans, erstwhile foes allied through nuptial bliss.
Marjory was the last, her part of the plan as yet unfulfilled. She’d hoped for a match with Alasdair, a union she’d been confident to achieve. Instead, he’d ignored her and then vanished.
He hadn’t made it easy.
He’d returned a stranger.
Still a man who put duty above all else, and no less handsome than before, yet there was a new and hard edge to him, a boldness that hinted at a fierce will that she doubted would bend even for her.
“Some say the ambers are charmed.” His voice held a teasing note, reminding her that he scoffed at such notions. “Whate’er you believe, they hail from the same ancient amber hoard as the stone in my sword pommel.” He patted the blade’s hilt, drawing her attention to the gleaming gold at its head. “My enemies swear the amber’s powers aid me in battle. The truth is”—he winked—“any man’s skill with a sword has more to do with muscle and long years of practice. Though I’ll own Mist-Chaser is a fine brand.” He hooked his thumbs in his sword belt, his pride evident. “Many of my bitterest foes have bloodied her steel. She’s a thirsty lass when unsheathed.”
“I’ve no doubt.” Marjory felt a chill, once again struck by how much he’d changed.
He’d always been a fierce warrior, his reputation made by the sword.
Now he struck her as almost ruthless.
A man who’d let no one take what was his. And who’d gladly send his enemies to the darkest, coldest end of hell. But then his smile deepened, crinkling the corners of his eyes in a way that made her insides flutter.
He truly was the most dashing man she’d ever seen.
As if he knew, he leaned toward her and smoothed her hair back from her face, his touch unleashing a wealth of shivery sensation.
“I’m glad you have such faith in my skill.” The look on his face said he meant something other than swordplay.
Something intimate, forbidden, and darkly exciting.
Marjory’s heart raced.
Hope soared and she began to imagine him stepping closer, perhaps even lowering his mouth to hers for a kiss. His hands sweeping around her, pulling her against him as he—
“I owe my skill to my grandsire who put a wooden practice sword in my hand almost as soon as I took my first steps.” His words shattered her burgeoning bliss, making clear that she’d misread him. “What he didn’t teach me, I learned on the field. Often enough fighting Mackintoshes,” he added, sounding pleased to remind her.
“Did you come here to fight us this morn?” She set her hands on her hips, straightened her spine.
He was well-armed. He wore his sword strapped low on his hip and a dirk winked from beneath his belt. A quick glance at his feet showed an extra dagger tucked into his boot.
He followed her glance. “Dinnae worry. I’ll no’ be lopping off anyone’s head. But”—his voice hardened—“there are aye those who’d turn a fairground into a battlefield. The greater fool is a man who forgets suchlike are about.”
“You mean my brother.”
“I meant anyone who’d disturb the glen’s peace. Such gatherings attract more than good hill folk and innocent wayfarers.”
“You expect trouble?” She shot a glance at the MacDonald guardsmen near the wood’s edge, noting that they’d followed their chieftain’s lead. Steel glinted from beneath their plaids, proving they wore more arms than was appropriate for a harvest fair.
Marjory drew a tight breath. The Glen of Many Legends had seen enough bloodshed.
“This ground has run red more often than it should.” She nudged the grass, a wave of protectiveness rising inside her. “It doesn’t need another drenching.”
Alasdair turned her to him, his hands on her shoulders. “The glen is quiet these days. So long as I have breath in me it will remain so. The arms are a precaution.”
“Something is bothering you.” She could feel it, see it in his eyes.
“Aye, that is true.” He didn’t deny it. “And it’s naught to do with my hairy-legged kinsmen and how many swords they’re carrying. It has to do with you.” Gripping her elbows, he drew her into the shaded arch of a flower-covered bower. “See here, lass—”
“I see you’re inviting trouble pulling me in here.” Marjory didn’t care for his tone, so gave him her airiest in return. A few moments ago, she might’ve welcomed entering a bower with him. Now…
She stood firm, not letting him maneuver her deeper into the shadows. “If Kendrew—”
“He is no’ my master.” His face hardened. “No man is that and any who thinks otherwise lives dangerously.”
“He’s in an ill temper of late.”
“His mood will worsen if he crosses me.” Alasdair set his hand on his sword hilt. “If he grieves you, he’ll no’ live to have a mood.”
“He means well, even if I don’t always agree with him. And I’m used to his bluster.” She didn’t say how good she was at outfoxing him.
There were some things men needn’t know.
She glanced past Alasdair’s shoulder at the three banners flying from Castle Haven’s walls. Sited in the heart of the glen, Haven was a Cameron holding and hosted each year’s early harvest fair and market. In olden days, only the Camerons’ snarling dog pennant overlooked the festivities. Since a trial by combat settled glen disputes two years before, Mackintosh and MacDonald pennants were also raised.
The banners vouched for the clans’ amity, declaring erstwhile foes were now allies, if not friends.
Her brother disagreed.
In his eyes, and despite the truce pressed on the glen by King Robert III, Alasdair remained a reviled and much-resented enemy.
Marjory felt otherwise.
She also knew she was the reason for her brother’s growing temper.
If things continued as she hoped, his annoyance would only increase. Unbeknownst to him, she undid his every machination, employing wit and daring to ensure that each suitor he found soon withdrew his interest. She’d become adept at persuasion, flattery, pleading when need be, and offering coin when all else failed. Some were skills she wasn’t proud of. But she wouldn’t allow Kendrew to wed her against her will.
So she did what she must.
Fortune aye blessed the bold.
To that end, she couldn’t miss meeting the one-eyed Viking who’d agreed to carry her own letter rather than Kendrew’s to his master.
A decline she’d penned in Kendrew’s name.
“I must be away.” She moved to edge past Alasdair, back to the open space before the cloth stalls.
“No’ yet, sweet.” He didn’t budge. Far from it, she’d swear he grew to fill the bower’s arched entry. “I’ll have a word with you, and then you can be on your way.”
Marjory frowned. “We’ve already had words.”
“No’ the important ones.” Stepping closer, he placed his hands on either side of her shoulders, backing her against the flowered wall and trapping her there. “The MacDonald ambers suit you.” His gaze flickered to the gemstones. “You should wear them always.”
“I do.” Marjory lifted a hand to the necklace. The stones rested cool and smooth against her skin. A sign, if legend spoke true, that all was good in her world, no threat or danger imminent.
A pity the necklace didn’t seem to warn of MacDonalds.
In particular, their chieftain.
Tall, powerfully muscled, and with a proud, open face, he’d captivated the first time she’d seen him. That’d been two years ago, several days before the trial by combat. Alasdair rode to her home, Castle Nought, to warn Kendrew of suspected treacheries, sharing his suspicions about strangers he’d seen in the glen.
Kendrew scoffed at the warning. He also ignored the famed Highland courtesy shown to guests, regardless of name. He would’ve set Alasdair before the door if Marjory hadn’t intervened. Nought might be remote, perched on the stony cliffs that formed the glen’s most rugged territory, but Marjory took care that all guests were well met. Alasdair’s arrival merited lavish hospitality, including clean, warm bedding for the MacDonald party and hot baths before they’d retired. Willing kitchen lasses had provided additional comforts to those men desiring.
Kendrew had been outraged, his behavior barely civil.
Marjory lost her heart.
She’d never met anyone as compelling as Alasdair. No man had ever looked at her so heatedly, his smoldering gaze starting a fire that burned in her dreams for days and months after his visit.
Sadly, she suspected he’d allowed his gaze to devour her so boldly simply to rile her brother.
Here in the bower, he was eyeing her the same way. Only now she knew he couldn’t help it. He surely looked at all women so hungrily. A shame his intensity still made her breath come unsteadily. Equally annoying, sunlight fell into the bower to gleam on his rich auburn hair. And like his isle-girt holding, the scent of the sea clung to him, along with a hint of cold wind and salt air.
A heady mix, it made her behave foolishly.
Unable to stop herself, hope beginning to flare again, she touched a finger to his plaid, tracing the detail of a soft, well-worn fold. “What is this important matter you wished to discuss?”
He leaned closer, his breath warm on her cheek.
Any moment he’d kiss her. A hot and ravenous kiss, full of passion.
Sure of it, she splayed her fingers across his plaid, aware of his warmth, the hard, steady beat of his heart. She moistened her lips in readiness, waiting. She almost closed her eyes, but didn’t.
She wanted the triumph of seeing him lower his mouth to hers.
“I would ask you to send me word if ever you see anything strange at Nought.” He spoke bluntly. He also gripped her wrist, lowering her hand from his chest. “Travelers who might not be what they seem or”—he straightened—“a shifting in shadows when nothing is there. I do no’ trust your brother’s instincts.” He spoke briskly, all chiefly business. “I believe you’d notice a threat faster.”
“I see.” Marjory did. And she didn’t like what she saw.
She’d flattered herself.
Alasdair hadn’t drawn her into the bower to kiss her.
He hoped to engage her watchfulness at Nought, the northernmost and least accessible corner of the glen. In Mackintosh hands since time beginning, it was a forbidding place of sheer cliffs and deep gorges. Strange outcroppings and ancient cairns known as the dreagan stones lent Nought an air of mystery and danger. Few souls dared to tread there save her kinsmen.
Many who did vowed they’d never return.
Now and then, broken men and other undesirables attempted to slip through Nought unseen. As they rarely emerged, it was rumored Nought’s dreagans stalked and ate them.
Or so clan graybeards liked to claim, boasting that the stony-scaled beasties believed to sleep beneath the dreagan cairns wouldn’t tolerate the passage of evildoers on sacred clan lands.
Just now Marjory wished a dreagan would fire-blast Alasdair.
She didn’t want to be a useful set of eyes.
“I see no cause for such concern.” She kept her tone as cool as his. “I walk Nought’s battlements often and have seen nothing move except mist and falling rock. I know you send patrols into Nought. We all know it, even if you think we don’t. So now you tire of the bother and would have me do the watching for you?”
“Sakes, nae.” He gripped her shoulders, giving her a look that burned right through her. “I’d only know if you feel threatened. Don’t ever put yourself in danger. Promise me you’ll do nothing so foolhardy.”
“I never do anything foolish.” Marjory broke free, brushing her skirts. “I’m a Mackintosh.” She raised her chin, speaking with pride. “We fear nothing.”
“Mackintoshes are also known for their stubbornness.” Alasdair swatted at his own sleeve, a muscle working in his jaw. “You’re a thrawn folk. Stone-willed and unbending. Your brother is the worst. His wits don’t reach past the head of his broadax.” He paused, his scorn palpable. “Knowing him, he’d no’ recognize—”
“Knowing me, you must be tired of life to stand so near my sister.” Kendrew strode up to them, scowling darkly. A big, rough-hewn man, he looked even more fearsome in full war gear, a sword at his belt and his huge war ax slung across his back. “Or were you just after having your bones trampled?”
“I owe you a scar, Mackintosh.” Alasdair rubbed his left arm, his tone low and menacing. “Dinnae think I’ll hesitate to give you a bigger one.”
“You had your chance at the trial by combat.”
“I’d sooner fight you one on one. Name the day. I’m ready now.”
“Alasdair! Kendrew!” Marjory rushed between them to press her hands against their chests. “This isn’t the place for a ruckus. You’re already drawing eyes.”
“Nae, you are.” Kendrew scowled at her. “Consorting with a web-footed brine drinker, a man better suited to scrape barnacles off his leaky galleys than stain your name by pulling you into a bower.”
“He didn’t pull me anywhere.” Marjory bristled. “I go where I please.”
“You’ll no’ be lying to me.” Kendrew’s eyes narrowed. “He played the gallant, fetching your ribbon when you dropped it and even daring to touch your hair. Dinnae deny it. You know I have eyes and ears everywhere. And you”—he shot a look at Alasdair—“will be missing your fingers next time you—”
“Stand back, Norn.” Alasdair drew his sword, whipping it up so the tip hovered at Kendrew’s nose. “I could take off your face before you knew I’d cut you. Insult your sister again, if you dinnae believe me.”
Kendrew reddened. “It’s you insulting her, soiling her reputation with your unwanted presence. Leave her be. I warn you.”
“I speak to whoe’er I will. Though I’ll no’ frighten her by fighting you here.” Alasdair swept his blade downward, ramming the sword point into the ground. “We’ll meet again on another day, that I vow.”
“Alasdair, please…” Marjory stepped between them again. “He doesn’t mean—”
“I ne’er say a word I don’t mean.” Kendrew kept his stare fixed on Alasdair. “I ken what’s best for my sister. Aye, we’ll clash swords elsewhere. When we do, you’re a dead man, brine drinker.”
“I’ll count the hours.” Alasdair yanked his sword from the ground, shoving it into its sheath. “They’ll be few if the gods are kind.”
“My gods will eat you and spit out your bones.” Kendrew spoke loudly, grinning when the men behind him—his guards—snarled a few slurs of their own.
“Enough.” Marjory threw a look at them, silencing them with a well-practiced narrowing of her eyes.
Kendrew grinned, apparently pleased by the ruckus.
Ignoring them all, Alasdair drew a coin from a pouch at his belt and flipped it to the gaping stall-holder. “For the lady’s silk ribbon.” He nodded at Marjory. “And any other trinkets she desires.”
Turning to her, he took her hand and loosely wrapped the blue silk ribbon around her wrist. “Remember what I told you.” He didn’t bother to lower his voice, even bending to kiss her hand again.
Beside them, Kendrew snorted. “Forgetting you is what she’ll be doing.”
He would’ve said more, Marjory knew, but his wife, Isobel, joined them then, hooking her arm through his. And—Marjory noted with appreciation—clamping her foot on Kendrew’s booted toes.
The two women exchanged telling glances.
Catching the look, Kendrew frowned first at his wife and then at Marjory. “Dinnae think to try your scheming. I’ll hurl every stone at Nought in your path if you do. No sister of mine will wed a MacDonald.”
“There’s no danger of that.” Marjory took care to speak lightly.
She also spoke the truth, only wishing Alasdair could’ve heard how easily she dismissed the possibility.
But he was gone.
Already a good twelve paces away, he moved briskly through the crowd, leaving her to stare after him as he disappeared into the throng.
“Good riddance.” Kendrew folded his arms, looking pleased.
Marjory and Isobel ignored him until he strode off in the company of his bearded, ax-carrying guardsmen.
“He’ll never change.” Marjory slipped the blue ribbon from her wrist, tucking it into her bodice.
“I hope he doesn’t.” Isobel’s tone revealed how besotted she was with her husband.
Marjory glanced at her, feeling a pang to see that her friend actually glowed, her face softening as she watched Kendrew walk away.
“You really love him, don’t you?” She put a hand on Isobel’s arm.
“Madly, I do.” Isobel beamed. “Wait until Alasdair comes round.” She patted Marjory’s hand, speaking with all the confidence of a woman well-loved. “Then you’ll see—”
“I’ve seen plenty this morn.” Marjory wished it weren’t so. “Alasdair is different. He’s not the same man who left here a year ago. I scarcely recognized him.”
Isobel’s smile didn’t waver. “He certainly recognized you.”
“He is aye attentive to women.” Marjory tightened her shawl about her shoulders, feeling a chill. “Any woman. In that, he hasn’t changed.”
“You are not any woman.” Isobel glanced to where Alasdair had vanished. “Kendrew isn’t the only one with eyes and ears everywhere. I saw how Alasdair watched you before he joined you at the cloth stall. And”—she tilted her head, her dark eyes twinkling—“I didn’t miss the annoyance on his face when he walked away just now.”
“To be sure he was annoyed. Kendrew provoked him beyond all reason.”
Isobel lifted a brow. “Do you truly think a battle-hardened warrior would let a few angry words get to him? Is it not more likely that you turn Alasdair’s blood to smoke, driving him to recklessness?”
Sadly, she disagreed with her friend. Isobel hadn’t heard him ask her to keep an eye on Nought, informing him if suspicious wayfarers entered Mackintosh territory.
That was why he’d drawn her into the bower.
She’d been a fool to think otherwise.
“You know it is true.” Isobel took her arm, leading her toward the cook stalls. “Alasdair wants you, and badly. He always has. He just needs to accept that truth. He will come for you when he does.”
“You do not know him as I do.” Marjory paused before a fish stall, eyeing a row of skewered herring, golden brown and sizzling over a bed of smoldering coals. “He won’t forget I’m Kendrew’s sister. If he does harbor such feelings, they’ll only make him strengthen his defenses against me.”
“Then you must tear them down.” Isobel turned the most sensible gaze on her. “The way to do that is clear. You must tempt him.”
For a moment, Marjory could only stare at her friend.
“I’m not a temptress.” She wouldn’t even consider it.
Isobel laughed. “Ah, but you can be if you wished.” She nodded to the burly stall-holder, indicating she and Marjory would each take a spit-roasted herring. “You just have to use what nature gave you, that’s all. You can begin the next time you see Alasdair.”
“He’s on his way to Blackshore. He’ll be busy, having been gone so long.”
“He’ll be back. And sooner than you think, I’ll wager. Or”—she produced a coin to pay for their fish—“did you not know it’s impossible to chase a thirsting man from a spring?”
“I am not a spring.”
“Nae, you’re a woman.” Isobel smiled brightly. “And that’s even better.”
Marjory just looked at her. “I do believe marriage has maddened you.”
“So it has.” Isobel had the audacity to wink. “In the very best way, I’ll agree.”
And as Marjory strove to keep a flush from blooming on her cheeks as she watched the stall-holder take their herring off the spits, she knew her friend’s influence must be affecting her. Because even before the man brought them the fish, she knew what she had to do.
She’d seduce Alasdair.
The only question was how and when.
No one would ever make the mistake of claiming Marjory Mackintosh surrendered easily. In truth, she wasn’t at all wont to do so. Not ever, if she had any say in matters. Regrettably, as she stood with her friend Isobel in the festively decorated ladies’ bower at the harvest fair, she felt dangerously near to admitting defeat.
The possibility rankled. She’d never been thwarted.
Yet here she was, surrounded by chattering clanswomen, sipping watered wine and nibbling oatcakes when she should be plying her wiles on Alasdair. Enchanting him with her wit, seducing him with her womanly charm, as Isobel kept informing her. A wee wriggle of the hip and bounce of the bosom and he’d lose his head, her good-sister insisted.
Perhaps that was even so.
Isobel should know.
Hadn’t she won Kendrew with the fine art of feminine persuasion? Now, after all was said and done, a soul would be hard-pressed to find a husband more ridiculously in love with his wife than her brother.
Marjory’s heart squeezed, remembering how Kendrew had pulled Isobel to him, kissing her hard and fast when he’d left them at the ladies’ bower. He’d also glanced back at her three times when he strode away with his men. No one could doubt how besotted he was. Or that his wife meant everything to him.
Isobel clearly understood men.
But could Marjory find success with her methods? Would a few glances from beneath lowered lashes and a brief but artful touch to her breast fire Alasdair’s blood, winning his undying affection?
Marjory was skeptical, but willing to try her seduction skills on him.
Regrettably, he’d left the harvest fair hours ago.
He’d sauntered away into the crowd, surely putting her from his mind as easily as he tossed his plaid over his shoulder. His remarkably broad and oh-so-appealing shoulders. Marjory frowned, his image flashing across her mind, burning into her heart. Unlike her brother, Alasdair hadn’t even looked back once.
Damn him for an arrogant bastard.
She wished a worse curse on Groat, the one-eyed, gold-earringed Viking courier who was also proving as scarce as winged sheep.
Waving away a serving girl’s offer of more watered wine, she turned to her good-sister. “You’re certain our friend said he’d be here?”
“Groat?” Isobel blinked.
“Shhhh…” Marjory lowered her voice, certain that every woman in the bower just developed overly sensitive ears. “Of course, I mean him. I’ve searched everywhere and he simply isn’t here. You spoke with him before he left Nought. Perhaps you misunderstood?”
“Oh no, I couldn’t have.” Isobel shook her head. “He made quite clear that he’d only hand over Kendrew’s missive if you met him at the fair and”—a touch of regret flickered across her face—“gave him the sapphire ring he saw you wearing at the high table.
“He was adamant about the ring.” Isobel linked her arm with Marjory’s, leading her to a quiet corner of the garland-festooned tent. “Only then would he—”
“I already gave him enough silver coin to keep him in cows and women for years.” Marjory flicked at her sleeve, her annoyance rising. “He promised to hand over Kendrew’s letter of agreement when you slipped him my own parchment declining his overlord’s terms for marriage.”
Isobel looked uncomfortable. “I tried to reason with him. He refused after seeing your ring. He really wants it, so I’m sure he’s about somewhere.”
“I’ve worn tracks in the mud traipsing past all the booths and stalls. I even visited the horse market and the weaponsmiths. He wasn’t anywhere to be seen and he’s not a man to be overlooked.”
“No, he isn’t.”
Marjory shuddered, remembering how the huge Viking had pulled slowly on his earring, his one good eye glinting wickedly at the young kitchen lasses who’d served him at Nought’s high table.
He clearly appreciated women as much as he hungered for gold.
“I worried he’d demand a night with Maili.” Isobel spoke of Nought’s most light-skirted, men-loving laundress. “She did wink at him a few times, until he noticed your sapphire ring and lost interest in her.”
“Greed always matters most to such men.”
“Even so, I think Maili gave him an itch. She’s a comely lass and enjoys flaunting herself. She’ll have stirred certain flames in him.”
“His lusts scarce concern me.” Marjory didn’t care if he desired a thousand serving lasses. She only wanted him to hand over Kendrew’s letter.
“Ah, but maybe his itch does matter.” Isobel began tapping her chin. “Perhaps Maili started a fire he decided to quench here, at the market fair. There are other ladies’ bowers at the festival. They’re set back in the wood, away from prying eyes and very welcoming to men with certain needs.” Isobel smiled. “I’m betting you didn’t look there.”
“To be sure, I didn’t.” Marjory felt herself coloring.
“I think you should.” Isobel didn’t appear at all adverse to the idea.
“What if someone sees me?”
“What if Groat is there and you don’t go, missing him?”
“He’ll make haste back to his ship and deliver Kendrew’s agreement to his lord to spite me for not giving him my sapphire ring.”
“That would be the way of it, I’m thinking.” Isobel nodded slowly.
Marjory rested a hand over the small leather purse tied to her belt. She could feel the tiny, hard shape of her ring in its depths.
It was a precious keepsake that had belonged to her grandmother and her grandmother before her.
“I should gut him when he reaches for his payment.” Marjory was tempted. Her father had taught her how to defend herself as soon as she was able to hold a child’s dagger. She’d been a fast learner. “He should’ve been satisfied with the bag of coin I gave him.”
“Aye, he should’ve been.” Isobel took her arm again, this time urging her toward the tent’s pinned-back entrance flap. “But he wasn’t. And if you dirked him, his shipmates would only come searching for him, causing even more trouble than losing your ring.”
They stepped outside where the crowd was thinning, many visitors making for the cook stalls and refreshment booths for their evening supper. Even so, Marjory cast a hopeful glance up and down the fair’s main thoroughfare. Groat the Viking was nowhere to be seen.
She took a deep breath. “You’ll have to keep Kendrew occupied if he comes for us before I return.”
“Leave that to me.” Isobel winked and gave her a little nudge. “You’ll be the last thing on his mind, I promise.”
Marjory didn’t doubt it.
She also gave her friend a quick hug and then started down the thoroughfare, making for the dark line of trees at the far end of the market.
If Groat was there, she’d find him.
Even if she had to pry him from a joy woman’s arms.
Fortune favors the bold. And, of late, she was feeling most daring.
Damn the lass.
And damn his clan’s ambers for resting so sweetly against her smooth, creamy skin. Alasdair scowled as he rode at the head of the long column of his men. Traveling as swiftly as possible through the thick piney woods that, to his mind, clogged Cameron territory, he and his party were making good time. Castle Haven and its harvest fair well behind them.
Good riddance, in his view.
He didn’t like how Marjory Mackintosh made a liar of him.
There wasn’t anything sweet about how she wore the MacDonald ambers.
Provocative is how they looked on her.
Almost as if the gleaming gemstones, so rich and golden, wished to taunt him, drawing his attention to the lush swell of her full, round breasts. Worse, he could so easily imagine their pert rosy crests. That he’d yet to see, touch, and taste them struck him as a terrible injustice. That a Viking husband might soon do so made him murderous.
He should’ve kissed her in the bower.
She’d expected a kiss, even wanted one. He’d seen the desire in her eyes. Clearly availing her womanly wiles, she’d leaned her supple body into him, even lifting up on her toes and moistening her lips. Never had he burned more to seize a woman to him.
Only her name restrained him.
And now that a good length of miles stretched between them, and his blood still blazed with wanting her, he knew one thing only…
If she ever again tempted him so brazenly, he wouldn’t be responsible for his actions.
Had he not given her good-day when he had, she’d be in his arms now. Like as not, beneath him, her long shapely legs wrapped soundly around his hips. Little under the sun could’ve stopped him from taking her.
And there’d be hell to pay if he did.
Too many good men of the glen, from all three clans, spilled their life’s blood to satisfy the King’s demands at the trial by combat. The freedom of every man, woman, and child in the glen, their right to remain on land they’d held for centuries, perhaps even their lives, depended on that fateful day, their willingness to abide by the King’s truce.
Peace had come, but at a price.
Still, his feud with Kendrew went deeper, having roots that reached further back than the battle that had soaked the glen red two years before. Even the scar Kendrew carved into Alasdair’s arm that wretched day was but a drop in the sea to their enmity.
Yet the bastard’s sister…
Alasdair set his jaw, not wanting to think of her. But he saw Marjory so clearly before him. She invaded his mind, bewitching him. Everything about her made him crazy. Her shining waist-length hair swinging about her hips in ways that weren’t good for a man. She carried more curves since he’d last seen her and they stood her well, making him itch to explore them. Even her eyes sparkled more than he remembered, their blue depths as clear as water and beckoning, almost suggestively.
Nae, indeed that.
She’d become a seductress.
Alasdair drew a tight breath, his mood worsening. Fury beat through him, his loins still painfully roused. Upon reaching Blackshore, he might forego a warm bath and take a bare-arsed dip in the loch.
And he’d thought his attraction to her had waned.
“Ho, Alasdair!” Wattie, one of his older clansmen, reined close. “Guid kens,” he boomed, “the Mackintosh is a besotted fool, eh? Did you see him all moony-eyed each time his lady wife even looked at him?”
A low, rumbling chuckle rolled through the ranks of Alasdair’s men, their mirth supporting Wattie’s observation.
Alasdair resisted the urge to glare at them.
Instead, he shot Wattie the most expressionless look he could muster.
“Cannae say I noticed.” He had, but Kendrew was the last man he wished to discuss.
He also didn’t believe his worst enemy capable of any true feelings for a woman.
Save lust, of course.
“You missed a right fine show.” Wattie hooted. “I’m thinking his bonnie lassie need only flick her skirts and he’ll come running.”
Alasdair snorted. “Aye, that I’ll believe.”
“Nae, nae.” Wattie shook his head. “It’s love that’s addled him. Lady Isobel is more to him than a bedmate. Anyone can see—”
“He’s daft, aye, but no’ how you mean.” Alasdair drew his horse to a halt and twisted round, facing Wattie full on. “You were along when his men ambushed us at Nought two years ago.” The memory made the back of Alasdair’s neck heat. “My sister, Catriona, rode with us. Yet he set his pack of ax-swinging wild men on us with no caring that a lady could’ve been harmed, much less killed. I’ll ne’er forgive him for that.” Alasdair leaned over, fixing Wattie with a long, hard look. “Dinnae tell me that bastard loves any woman, for I’ll no’ believe it. He cares only for holding on to his land. He’ll sacrifice anyone and anything to do so.”
“He said he didnae know Catriona was with us.” Wattie tread dangerous ground. “There was so much mist blowing, have you forgotten? I dinnae think his men saw—”
“My sister could’ve been killed.” Alasdair snarled the words, the blaze at his nape sweeping through him, igniting his temper. “Kendrew carries that shame.”
“I didnae say I like him.” Wattie looked embarrassed.
Alasdair felt like an arse.
Wattie was a good man, one of Alasdair’s best. A fierce and fiery fighter in younger years, he still wielded a blade with terrifying skill. Now a widower, he deserved amusement where he found it.
“That I know, Wat.” Alasdair reached over to clap his shoulder. “There isn’t a redeemable bone in Mackintosh’s body, so how could you like him?”
“I wouldn’t mind breaking a few o’ his bones.” Wattie grinned, pumped a balled fist in the air.
The other warriors laughed. Not feeling so jovial himself, Alasdair looked down the line of men, glad for their levity. Two years of peace hadn’t been easy on them. Hard and eager fighters, a wrong look or word could set them off. And once they’d drawn their steel, the first blood scented, there’d be no stopping them.
Alasdair eyed their swords now, knowing they’d serve him at a single nod.
One man’s blade was missing.
And it wasn’t just any sword. It was the one pried from the hand of the last MacDonald clansman to die at the trial by combat. A sword aptly named Honor that was now held in great reverence by the clan. Every time a party of warriors left Blackshore, one of them carried Honor rather than his usual brand.
And just now that warrior’s sheath was empty.
When the man blanched beneath Alasdair’s stare, clearly guilty of losing the precious sword, a snarling growl rose in Alasdair’s throat. Anger almost choked him as he spurred down the line of men.
“Rory!” He jerked his horse to halt beside the warrior. “Where’s Honor? Dinnae tell me you don’t know.”
“I-I…” Rory shifted in his saddle, his gabble answer enough.
Honor was gone.
Marjory’s bravura waned the deeper she moved into the woods edging the market grounds. Although the sun still shone brightly over the harvest fair, it could’ve been after nightfall among the thick pines and moss-covered rocks of Clan Cameron’s forest. The trees’ green-black needle canopies hid the light, and the scent of resin, rich loamy earth, and wild orchids made clear that she’d left the crowded fair behind her, entering a dark and secret place.
Not that the forest frightened her.
A Mackintosh feared nothing, after all.
But she was also a lady.
And trees weren’t the only things in the wood this particular day.
Pinpricks of yellow light flickered ahead, revealing the semicircle of garishly painted, flower-bedecked tents known as the other ladies’ bowers. If she had any doubt, female laughter, a few telltale cries and moans, and snatches of bawdy song drifted on the air, leaving no mistake she’d almost reached her destination.
The place where men came to attend their manly cravings.
Marjory’s breath hitched as she remembered how a certain part of her had warmed and tingled when Alasdair pulled her into the bower’s shade, using his powerful arms to cage her against the flowered wall. She’d been so sure he’d kiss her, claim her lips in a bold slaking of passion. The possibility made her shiver with desire. When he didn’t kiss her, she’d quivered with annoyance.
The tingles remained, taunting her.
But as she drew closer to the joy women’s encampment, catching hints of ale and the ladies’ heavy musk perfume, she also knew there had to be more to such pleasures than the furious couplings sure to be going on within the colorful, flower-draped tents.
When a naked woman burst from one of the bowers, dragging an equally bare-bottomed man behind her, then shrieking with laughter as she thrust him into the arms of another just as bare, she was sure of it.
She’d never share Alasdair with another female.
And she wouldn’t have the opportunity to fret about such matters unless she retrieved Kendrew’s letter from Groat the Viking.
So she nipped behind a tree, smoothed her hair, and brushed down her skirts. Then, straightening her back and shoulders, she stepped round beside the tree, allowing herself a good view of the clearing between the half-circle of tents.
Groat the Viking had to be there.
With luck, he’d emerge from one of the bowers any moment.
If need be, she’d call at the tents, asking for him.
Most of the joy women would be Rannoch Moor ladies, welcome at Nought’s Beltane and Midsummer Eve festivals. They wouldn’t gossip about her, even if they guessed her reason for coming here. There were times when all women held together and this was one of them.
She hoped, anyway.
She also folded her arms, already feeling frightfully conspicuous.
She was just about to start tapping her foot on the needle-strewn ground when she heard, “A wench with such fine breasts shouldn’t cross her arms unless she wants a man plumping and weighing them. Her teats, I mean.”
Whirling about, she saw Groat sauntering toward her, a lecherous sneer on his blond-bearded face. He was also buckling on his sword belt, having just stepped out from one of the bowers.
Ignoring his jeers, Marjory held out her hand when he reached her, her tone as icy as she could make it. “I’ll have the scroll you owe me.”
Excerpted from Seduction of a Highland Warrior by Sue-Ellen Welfonder Copyright © 2013 by Sue-Ellen Welfonder. 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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