Tamed by a Highlander (Children of the Mist Series #3)by Paula Quinn
A LOVER'S PROMISE
Connor Grant left his first love in the Highlands, vowing to return after serving in the king's army. Seven years later, he is still fighting for the crown, and his victories are legendary-both in the battlefield and in the bedroom. Yet he's never forgotten his bonnie lass. And he certainly never expected to see her amidst the splendor/b>… See more details below
A LOVER'S PROMISE
Connor Grant left his first love in the Highlands, vowing to return after serving in the king's army. Seven years later, he is still fighting for the crown, and his victories are legendary-both in the battlefield and in the bedroom. Yet he's never forgotten his bonnie lass. And he certainly never expected to see her amidst the splendor of the British royal court: beautiful, breathtaking, and tempting him past the point of no return.
A LADY'S DESTINY
The night he left, Mairi MacGregor banished Connor from her life forever. Now her heart belongs only to Scotland. As part of a secret alliance, she journeys to London in search of information . . . only to find herself face to face with the one man she swore she'd never trust again. Though Mairi's body still craves Connor's touch, she can't forgive his betrayal. But a traitor lurks in their midst and to protect her beloved Highlands, Mairi must make a leap of faith and join forces with Connor-even if it means losing her heart to him again.
Seduced by a Highlander is sparkling, sexy and seductive! I couldn't put it down! Paula Quinn is a rising star!"
Karen Hawkins, New York Times bestselling author"
Scottish romance at its very best! Deliciously romantic and sensual, Paula Quinn captures the heart of the Highlands in a tender, passionate romance that you won't be able to put down."
Monica McCarty, New York Times bestselling author
RAVISHED BY A HIGHLANDER:"
Deftly combines historical fact and powerful romance...There's much more than just sizzling sensuality: history buffs will love the attention to periodic detail and cameos by real-life figures, and the protagonists embody compassion, responsibility, and unrelenting, almost self-sacrificial honor. Quinn's seamless prose and passionate storytelling will leave readers hungry for future installments."
Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Meet the Author
New York Times bestselling author Paula Quinn lives in New York with her three beautiful children, three over-protective chihuahuas, and a loud umbrella cockatoo. She loves to read romance and science fiction and has been writing since she was eleven. She loves all things medieval, but it is her love for Scotland that pulls at her heartstrings.
More from this Author
Read an Excerpt
Tamed by a Highlander
By Quinn, Paula
ForeverCopyright © 2011 Quinn, Paula
All right reserved.
A Lass, the Third
WHITEHALL PALACE SPRING 1685
Ye’re a lass; my daughter, and I’ll no’ have ye fightin’ in a battle.”
Mairi MacGregor stood with her father in the Banqueting Hall at Whitehall Palace, staring up at him in mute fury and disbelief. She was a lass. What the hell kind of reason was that to refuse to let her return home in the morning with the rest of her kin?
So what if the lass her brother Rob had rescued from the hands of the Dutch admiral Peter Gilles at St. Christopher’s Abbey was King James’s daughter, and was now on her way to Camlochlin? If the princess royal’s enemies did, in fact, follow them and attack Mairi’s home, she wanted to be there to help stop them.
But there was a bigger reason she didn’t want to stay in England. It had little to do with it’s being hotter than hell on Judgment Day, or that the nobles sitting around her beneath grand murals painted by a Protestant king’s favored artist looked down their noses at her Highland dress and barbaric customs.
“Faither, if this Dutch admiral attacks Camlochlin, I would like to fight.”
He gave her a horrified look that changed with her next heartbeat to one rife with warning. “Never suggest such a thing to me again.”
“But ye know I can wield a sword!” she argued, blocking his path when he moved to pass her.
Aye, she knew how to wield a blade, and she was not afraid to face one. There were many times when she had, and they were not on her father’s practice field. But she could never tell him that she and her brother Colin were part of the Highland rebel militia who cut down Covenanters and Cameronians, those Scottish Presbyterians who had bound themselves to maintain their doctrine as the sole religion of Scotland. Protestants, many of whom sat in Parliament, believing the Highland ways, with a chief ruling over his clan, barbaric.
“Ye refuse me because I am a woman!”
“Ye’re damned right!” he said louder than he intended. He cut his molten gaze to Lord Oddington passing them and looking over his shoulder. “Ye will remain here,” he told her, lowering his voice. “Colin will remain, as well. I dinna’ know where ye both sneak off to at home, but ye willna’ be doin’ it this time.”
Her eyes opened wide with alarm at what he suspected, but she couldn’t give up her pleading. “But…”
“I willna’ be persuaded, Mairi.” His gaze on her softened. “Ye are my daughter and ye will obey me in this. Ye will remain here until ’tis safe to come home. I love ye and I will do whatever I need to do in order to keep ye safe.”
He walked off to join her mother at the far end of the hall, leaving Mairi alone with a dozen curses spilling from her lips.
Damn it all to hell, but she wasn’t about to sit on her arse while her life was taken away from her. She was Callum MacGregor’s only daughter and as such she had been denied the rigorous training her three brothers had enjoyed growing up. But that hadn’t stopped her from learning how to wield a blade or fire an arrow. She could fight. She wanted to fight.
But it had not always been this way. Once, long ago, she had been content to think of a life like her mother’s, protected and adored in the arms of a warrior. She had wanted a quiet life, one with a man who vowed to tell her how bonnie she was to him every day, until the end of their lives. One with bairns of her own, in a home he’d promised to build for her, where tenderness and love meant more to her than religious or political wars.
Connor Grant had birthed those dreams, and then shattered them all when he left her to serve England’s Protestant King Charles.
She hadn’t seen him in seven years. She had put him out of her thoughts, out of her life for good. But tonight, he returned.
Mairi had not been in her father’s chambers when Captain Grant arrived at Whitehall and had given her kin the news that the Dutch were responsible for the attack on the abbey. She had stayed away, hoping to avoid him until she returned home. But she wasn’t going home.
All the years she had spent learning to protect herself from every kind of weapon, even deceit, could not prepare her for this day. She wished she were blind so she could not see the love of her youth, deaf so she could not hear him. But what would it matter if she was so afflicted? She knew his face better than she knew her own. She’d grown up looking at it, falling in love with it. She knew every one of the thousands of emotions that played so openly across his features. The way his eyes spoke for him, as clear as any words falling from his lips. She still heard his slow, thick drawl in her dreams, more like the purr of a lion than the voice of a lad. He had haunted her for the last seven years and she hated him for it. She hated him for making her lose her heart to him when she was too young to stop herself. For sweeping that heart away on dreams of their future, and then taking them from her without looking back.
Connor Grant was a part of her life she preferred to forget. But she could never forget the way he looked the day he left Camlochlin—resolved, despite the tears she foolishly shed for him.
She did not want to see or speak to him now. She was not certain she could contain the bitter betrayal he had left her with when he abandoned her… when he abandoned Scotland, and, mayhap, even his faith.
Her eyes shifted toward the entrance. He was coming. He’d gone to have a meeting with the king and was likely finished and on his way to the Banqueting Hall right now. Her fingers twisted a loose thread in her kirtle, over and over, until the coarse wool made her flesh raw. But that was the only outward sign of the turmoil within her. She breathed steadily, even offering a temperate smile to the woman approaching her.
“If Lady Oddington continues to ogle my husband,” Connor’s mother, Lady Claire Stuart, said, coming to stand beside her, “I will have no choice but to relieve her of her eyes.”
Casting Lady Oddington a pitiful look, Mairi sighed. “Ye would think she would exercise more caution around him after ye accidentally stepped on Lady Channing’s gown and nearly tore it from her body.”
“Sweeting, that was Lady Somerset. Lady Channing lost her wig when my ring caught into it as I was passing her.”
Mairi laughed for the first time that evening, but her mirth faded when her gaze drifted back to the entrance.
“You mustn’t be angry with him,” Claire said softly. Of course, she was speaking of Mairi’s father. She had quit trying to help Mairi see her son’s side of things long ago.
“Ye know I can fight, Claire.”
“Still, you must obey him. He loves you.”
Och, how many times had she heard those words throughout her life? She knew her father loved her, but he loved his sons as well, and he had no trouble letting them fight.
“I will be here with you if it is any comfort.”
“ ’Tis,” Mairi told her honestly. If she had to remain here, she was happy that her friend was staying behind, as well. After losing four daughters at birth, Claire had taken her under her wing as if Mairi were one of her own. ’Twas Claire’s life Mairi wanted to emulate after Connor left. Before ever gracing Whitehall Palace’s grand halls, or being titled Lady Huntley of Aberdeen, Claire had been a rebel outlaw, fighting against the usurpers of her cousin Charles’s crown. She taught Mairi everything she knew about combat. As she looked now though, adorned in a gown of dark claret, her flaxen tresses swept unfashionably away from her face into a crown of curls above her head, it was difficult to imagine her wielding a spoon, let alone a sword.
“I know you don’t like to speak of him…”
Mairi wound her thread tighter. Hell, mayhap ’twas not a good thing that his mother was staying.
“… but I was hoping the two of you might—”
She heard nothing after that but the hum of viols coming from the balcony above and the peal of thunder that shook the walls. She saw no one but the man framing the entrance. Dear God, how was it possible that he had grown even more handsome?
Unlike most of the lesser mortals at court, dressed up like colorful peacocks in their elaborate silk costumes and high heels adorned with wide-ribbon bows, Connor wore high, military-style boots over buff-colored breeches that clung to his long, muscular legs. A sheathed claymore hung from one hip and a holstered pistol from the other, lending to the air of danger and authority that surrounded him. He stood apart from the rest like a leopard, lithe and confident. A blend of his two heritages, he stood tall and elegant like his royal English side, but thicker boned and more imposing than any Englishman, thanks to the Highland blood that coursed through his veins. He wore his ostrich-feathered military hat under his arm, leaving his hair to fall to his chiseled jaw in streaks of warm amber and pale flaxen. His red-and-white short coat boasted shoulders broadened by strength and brawn rather than yards of ruffle.
Helpless to do anything else, Mairi watched him stop to share a greeting with Lord Hollingsworth and his wife. He looked older, more experienced in things she might never understand. But his smile hadn’t changed. It was charming, sensual, and playful all at once. To make it even more heartrending to any lass with a set of working eyes in her head, it was adorned by a dimple on either side; the right, deeper than the left and needing only the slightest encouragement to appear.
That is, until his eyes, eclipsed behind silken strands of gilded gold, found her and cut through her flesh like hot iron.
The thread in her fingers popped.
“Will you try, Mairi?”
She blinked and looked at Claire. Try what? Rather than admit that she hadn’t heard a word Claire said because Connor had stepped into the hall, Mairi nodded. “Aye, of course.”
“Thank you, sweeting. That means much to me.” Claire leaned in to kiss her cheek, then took her by the hand and pulled her forward.
Hell. Mairi tried to dig her heels into the floor when she saw where her friend was leading her, but Claire tugged her onward.
The hall grew smaller. Her feet felt like they were carrying her through cooled molasses. Each step that brought her closer to Connor twisted her stomach tighter and made her want to run the other way. Ridiculous! She feared nothing. Had she not, on three separate occasions, charged headlong into the fray when the militia kicked down the doors of her enemies? Why did she allow Connor Grant to make her palms moist, her breath shallow, her heart pound madly in her chest?
Because once, he had been the reason she smiled, the reason she dreamed and hoped. She had breathed him for so long that when he left, she could not breathe anymore. But finally, she had. And she would continue.
She despised the royal uniform that stretched across his wide shoulders like a clingy mistress, but she could not deny that he looked even more imposing in it than in the Highland plaid he used to wear.
The ladies of the court certainly seemed to like how he looked if the number of them hovering around him was any indication.
Glaring at them, Mairi wondered how many of these seemingly proper English trollops Connor had bedded since he had left Camlochlin. Quite a few if the gossip that traveled from England to Scotland counted for anything. How could he have traded her heart in for theirs? Was it their close-fitting gowns or their ghostly, painted faces with heart-shaped patches on their cheeks that he preferred? Bastard.
“There you are!” Claire exchanged Mairi’s hand for her son’s when he bent to kiss her.
Mairi’s cursed knees went a wee bit weak at the sight of him so close now she could smell the wind on his clothes.
“Miss MacGregor,” he offered briefly, straightening from his greeting and offering her neither smile nor scowl.
His jaw, shadowed with several days’ worth of golden whiskers, had grown harder with the years. Or had it only gone harder on her?
“Be wary of Lady Hollingsworth.” Claire leaned in closer to her son. Her eyes, following the harlot as she traipsed across the hall to her husband, were the same stormy blue as Connor’s when they flicked back to Mairi. “She has claws, that one.”
“Rest assured.” Connor’s voice stole across Mairi’s cheek like a balmy breeze on the moors. “I am indifferent to claws.”
Mairi crooked her mouth at him and stifled a snort an instant before it left her lips. His words proved him the rogue he was rumored to be. Just as she had meant nothing to him, neither did the other women who shared his bed and his laughter. She was proud of herself for not flinching when his cool gaze settled upon her, this time, for longer than a moment.
“Do ye wish to say something, Miss MacGregor?”
“Nae, Captain, not to ye.”
Amusement sparked his gaze, but there was no warmth in it. “Ah, Mairi, ye remain consistent, at least.”
“At least one of us does,” she parried, her composure as coolly detached as his.
His grin went hard in an instant. “I see ye have kept yer tongue as sharp as yer blades.”
His leisurely perusal of her skirts, or more likely the split in them, made her belly flip. Damnation, she did not want to be here, conversing with him. She had finally put him out of her mind. Finally moved on with her life without him in it. Seeing him again tempted her to remember. Once, she had wanted nothing more than to be his wife, but she fought those memories as passionately as she fought against the extinction of the Highland way of life. Because of him, she had become a warrior.
When he met her gaze again, accompanied by a crack of thunder that shook the palace walls, she expelled a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding and did the only thing she knew to protect herself. She attacked.
“Tell me, Captain Grant, do ye always precede the gloom of a storm?”
He gave her a very English bow, adding to her insult. “Only when ye are waiting at my destination.”
Mairi thought of the dagger tied to her thigh, but realized regrettably that she could not kill him right here in front of his mother.
She turned her most practiced smile on Claire instead. “I should go find Colin—”
“Pardon me, Miss MacGregor.”
The proper English voice coming up beside her drew a silent sigh from Mairi. The night just kept getting worse. She offered her smile to Henry de Vere, the Earl of Oxford’s son, as he spared a brief greeting to Lady Huntley. Mairi had met him the day after her kin had arrived at Whitehall. His profuse knowledge about everything and everyone at the palace had enticed her into spending time with him. If there were any Presbyterians roaming Whitehall, he would know of them. Unfortunately, she was beginning to fear she’d spent too much time with him. For he followed her about like an eager pup and made it quite difficult to steal into any of the guest’s rooms for any valuable information she could bring home to the militia.
“I was hoping to have a word with you before the tables were cleared and to ask you for the first dance this evening.”
“Why, of course, Lord Oxford.” Seeing a way to use him to her advantage by getting her away from present company, she looped her arm through his and gave him a slight tug. “But remember, I only know the one courtly dance ye were kind enough to teach me.”
“Then allow me to teach you a dozen more.” Lord Oxford looked up at Connor as his hand stole over Mairi’s knuckles. “Unless, of course, you made a prior promise to someone else?”
Connor offered him a stiff smile and stepped out of their path. “She is yers fer the evening.”
Mairi wanted to slap him good and hard, and then do the same to herself. Why did his casual dismissal feel like a blow to her chest? She knew he no longer loved her—no man could be apart from the lass he loved for seven damn years! But had he truly grown so callous?
“If I had made such a promise”—despite her roiling insides, she spoke with all the sickeningly sweet civility she could muster—“Captain Grant of all people would understand if I broke it.”
She wanted evidence that her barb had pricked him. She wanted to hurt him, to repay him for every moment she had spent weeping over him in her bed. But his smile returned, as if he knew the secrets of mere mortals and found them amusing.
“Aye, not only would I understand,” he said, “but I would expect it, as well.”
A dozen curses battered against her teeth, but she contained them all and let Lord Oxford lead her away. She would show Connor no interest. Pretend he was not even here. An easy endeavor she mastered against those she hated.
And she certainly hated him.
Connor watched Mairi leave with her frilly admirer and clenched his jaw to keep from cursing aloud. He’d like to give her a swift kick in the arse to hurry her departure. If she wanted to revile him for the next fifty years, let her. If she chose to dance with every man at court, let her do that as well. He’d wasted enough years pining over her. She was no longer his and was free to do as she damn well pleased.
But hell, he thought, watching her take the floor with Oxford, she was still the bonniest woman he’d ever laid eyes on. More beautiful than he remembered. She stood apart from every other woman in the palace, donning her out-of-place Highland earasaid with the supreme confidence of a queen, her chin tilted with the defiance she’d inherited from her father. The years had had little effect on her. Her long, coal curls still captured the light as they fell over the swell of her breast. Her skin was as flawless as it was when she was a lass of five and ten summers. Only her eyes, still as blue as the heavens above Camlochlin, were colder.
The music from the balcony drifted downward, filling him with memories of his long days here before he and his men had been sent to Glencoe to keep peace between the MacDonalds and the Campbells. He hadn’t wanted to return, mostly because he knew Mairi would be here for the coronation, but also because he never truly fit in with all the posh and luxury of the king’s courts. He was a Highlander, and he couldn’t stomach being surrounded by false pleasantries and overindulged peers.
He missed Scotland already and he’d only been away for a se’nnight. He wished he were lying in his tent, upon the cold, hard ground, rather than here, with them… with her… mostly with her, even for a day. He was grateful that the MacGregors were returning home in the morning.
He hadn’t wanted to leave his home in the Highlands… or her, for he’d loved them both. He’d had no choice. As fourth cousin to the king, it was his duty to serve his family name. A duty he had not renounced but accepted with pride. The blood of warriors flowed through his veins, after all; his father, commander of the MacGregors’ brutal garrison, along with his mother, had risked his life to help restore Charles to the throne. His uncle and namesake, High Admiral Connor Stuart, once, long ago, defied generals and endured the pain of torture in the Tower.
It had been his turn to defend the throne and Connor had gone without quarrel. But Mairi had never forgiven him for leaving her to serve under a Protestant king. He’d written her, asking her to join him in England. She refused every request. She’d left him with no other choice but to let her go. It was what she had wanted. What she told him would make her happy. So he made himself forget her, and stayed away from Camlochlin, remaining in the army even after his required service to Charles had been fulfilled.
“I had hoped your reunion would go better than that.”
Connor looked down at his mother and shrugged the encounter off his shoulders with a glib quirk of his lips. “A hope that will only continue to disappoint ye if ye hold on to it.”
His mother offered him a tender look before she drew in a steadying breath and looked toward the dance floor. “She is staying here.”
“What?” Connor didn’t realize he’d spoken until his mother startled at his tone and lowered her own voice so that only he could hear.
“Callum doesn’t want her at Camlochlin in the event that the Dutch come looking for the king’s daughter. Colin is staying, as well, for the same reason.”
“What reason is that?”
“Their passion for the blade.”
Connor’s expression darkened. “Hell, ye continued her lessons in battle even after I… and her father, asked ye not to.”
“There is nothing wrong with her knowing how to wield a sword.” His mother glared back at him.
“Save that wielding a sword in practice is quite different from wielding one in true battle. She doesn’t know that or she would not even consider fighting men who recently murdered a convent full of nuns.”
His mother sighed and gave him a rather pitying look just before she smiled at her husband cutting through the crowd to reach them. “Connor, dear, there is much you don’t know since you left.” She gave him no time to ponder her oddly disturbing statement, but bestowed her most radiant smile on his father.
“How went yer meeting with the king?” Graham Grant asked him after tipping back his cap and kissing his wife. “Will we be fighting the Dutch then?”
Aye, here was what he should be concerning himself with. England’s new Catholic king had dangerous enemies who were very likely planning an imminent revolt. “Not before James knows fer certain who ordered the attack on the abbey.” They already knew about the exiled Earl of Argyll’s alleged return to England’s shores to gather forces against the king. The Duke of Monmouth could not be far behind. But, it was Prince William of Orange who had the most to gain should James be usurped. Connor let his gaze settle briefly on the king’s nephew and son-in-law sitting at the dais on the other side of the hall. As the king’s alleged firstborn, William’s wife, Mary, was next in line for the throne.
Their quiet conversation came to a halt when Lord Hartley and his daughter Eleanor stopped to give them greeting.
Connor smiled as decorum dictated, but all too soon his thoughts and his gaze returned to Mairi. She was staying, and he had no doubts that she was going to make his life a living hell. Just looking at her made his guts ache. He’d sworn to himself never to risk his integrity on her constant rejections again, but seeing her again tempted him. She was his past. She’d spent every day in it—fearless, reckless, passionate about everything she believed in, including them. He used to think of her on the blackest of nights, when he and his men had gone without food and had had to fall asleep in the snow, looking up at the stars. Loving her had kept him going when he had to fight another day. He thought she would eventually forgive him for leaving. It nearly broke him when she never did.
He’d told himself for more years than he cared to admit, that he could and would resist her if he ever saw her again. He was a captain of the Royal Army, esteemed for his skill on the battlefield, his supreme control over conditions that would have made other men crumble. But he’d forgotten the fire that pulsed through Mairi’s veins. It charged the night with bolts of energy that shot through him like lust-tipped arrows when she set her disdainful gaze on his. He almost smiled at the memory of her eyes tearing through his as she’d gone head-to-head with him a few moments ago. She was still the spirited mare he’d always wanted to tame. The thought of doing so made his cock feel heavy strapped within the tight confines of his breeches.
He clasped his hands in front of him and narrowed his gaze on Lord Oxford. What did he know about the son of Charles de Vere, other than that Connor didn’t like him? His family were professed Protestants, the popular religion to be in England at present. It made Mairi’s interest in him peculiar, since she was as zealous in her hatred of Protestants and Presbyterian Covenanters as she was toward him.
“Why do ye stand here in silence instead of going after her?” his father said after the Hartleys moved on. “Ye’re a Highlander fer hell’s sake, son. Take what ye want.”
Connor accepted a drink from a passing server and, bringing the cup to his lips, smiled at his father. “This isn’t the Highlands. Men are expected to behave more civilly here. More importantly”—he downed the cup’s contents—“I don’t want her.”
“Yer eyes say something different.”
“Ye misread then,” he replied in a rather sluggish tone to prove the topic bored him. “Have ye seen my men?” He looked around, putting an end to the conversation he did not want to have.
“Aye, they headed off to The Troubadour and asked me to tell ye to meet them there.”
Ah, thank the saints for his men and for the tavern. He sure as hell didn’t want to be here while Mairi danced the night away with a dozen different suitors. “I’ll see to them then and return later.” He left with a wink to his mother that brought a smile to her lips despite the knowing look in her eyes.
He cut across the floor, eyeing Oxford as he led Mairi back to the table. When she took her seat, Connor’s gaze swept over the fine contours of her profile. Her face was ingrained on his heart. Every part of her was. He dipped his gaze to that alluring tear in her skirts, where twice now he’d caught sight of the curve of her knee, then back up, to the creamy roundness of her cleavage.
She’d grown into a woman without him.
His breath stalled at the sensual sweep of her lashes as she raised her gaze to his and then looked away, denying him what she offered Oxford. Another smile.
She still heated his blood, even after she had cut out his heart.
Nae. He was no longer that pitiful sot who wanted what was no longer his, despite the number of women who had sought to win his heart over the past seven years and failed. Fool. How many had he rejected because their hair was not as black as Mairi’s, their eyes nowhere as blue?
He cursed her, and his own feeble resolve and left the Banqueting Hall without another look back.
He stepped outside and looked up at the charcoal clouds passing without rain. Hell, it was going to be another balmy night. He left the gate toward Parliament Street, his boots clicking hard against the stone. She was staying. How the hell was he supposed to avoid her when they were living in the same place? He wanted to be as far away from her as possible. Away from the temptation of smiling at her, staring at her, strangling her.
His heavy breath echoed through the narrow, empty streets as he drove on toward The Troubadour. What he needed was a handful of drinks and a wench in his lap. He reached the small tavern and stepped gingerly out of the way of a body being tossed out onto its arse. He felt better already. Here was what he needed… to be in the company of unrefined, uncivil men who would rather a kick to the face than a wig on their heads.
Connor’s dark scowl softened into a grin as wide as his shoulders as he strode forward and hauled his dearest friend into a crushing embrace. “ ’Tis good to see ye, Tristan.”
“And ye, old friend.” Mairi’s brother pounded him on the back. “Though I must tell ye,” he said, stepping away, “ye look a wee bit pasty. Ye have seen my sister then.”
Connor’s smirk went dry as he tossed his arm around Tristan’s neck and led him toward the table where his men sat. “Aye, but let us speak of more pleasant things. I see ye’ve already met some of my men.”
Their reunion was cut short when they reached the table and a lad with dark curls and hardly a hair on his face rose to his feet. “Captain,” Connor’s cornet, Edward Willingham, said, offering him his cup before Connor motioned for him to sit. “We were hoping you would join us.”
“Aye,” Richard Drummond, Connor’s lieutenant, raised his cup to him before guzzling its contents. He swiped his sleeve across his mouth, then motioned to a serving wench to bring more. “Yer friend MacGregor here told us ye’d likely be miserable upon yer return to the hall.”
Connor cut Tristan a foul look before slipping into his chair. The last thing he wanted his men to know was that he had once loved a lass more than waking up victorious the morn after a battle. “Aye, being holed up with all those English milksops has a way of wearing on my pleasant nature.”
Connor looked up as another man he hadn’t seen in a pair of years clapped him on the back before taking a seat with the rest of them.
Beside him, Drummond scowled into his cup. “Is that something ye truly feel is worth boasting about, Captain Sedley?”
“Indeed I do, Scot.” Nicholas Sedley, captain in Prince William’s navy, turned from his leisurely appraisal of a serving wench’s full, swaying hips and flashed him a grin that Connor had seen him wear before he took Drummond down on the training field when the three had first arrived at Whitehall for duty. “While you were chopping wood behind your hut, I was being meticulously groomed in arts you cannot even pronounce.”
Drummond, despite being below him in rank, merely slid his pitying gaze to Connor and nodded. “Milksop.”
It felt good to laugh—even at his friend’s expense. Not that Nick took offense to being called a coward. He was one of those men who knew perfectly well how capable he was in everything from the battlefield to the bedroom.
“I heard you’ve been keeping peace between some clans in Glencoe.” Sedley turned to Connor with a doleful look. “Is there nothing more worthy of your sword than stopping Highlanders from killing each other?”
“There could be.” Connor reclined in his seat, his smile slow and curious. If William of Orange were planning a deposition, Sedley would likely know of it. But would he tell Connor anything? “I have reason to believe that Admiral Gilles has returned to England.”
“Oh?” Sedley arched his raven brow. “Isn’t Gilles the Duke of Monmouth’s right-hand man?”
“So I’ve been told.” Connor glanced at Richard and Edward, silently warning them to say nothing of the attack on St. Christopher’s Abbey while another serving wench set down a fresh round of drinks before them. “If Gilles does serve Monmouth, then I have reason to concern myself with his arrival. Unless of course, the admiral traveled here with the prince.”
Sedley shook his head. “I’ve heard nothing of him, or of Monmouth for that matter.”
How the hell did a captain in William’s navy know nothing about a small naval fleet secretly landing on England’s shores? Sedley wasn’t going to tell him what he knew. He’d grown loyal to his liege, and why not? They were both Protestants.
Connor was thinking of the next question to put to him when a pretty blonde serving wench fell into his lap.
“Why, Captain Grant,” she pouted, looping her arms around his neck, “you returned to England and didn’t come see me?”
Connor smiled at her lush pink lips, then closed his eyes and almost shook his head to chase another set of more venomous lips from it. “I just returned this day, Vicky.”
“You could have called me to serve you.”
Aye, why the hell hadn’t he? Vicky’s tender fingers had helped drive Mairi away in the past. Why was he wasting time thinking of Mairi now? It had taken him four years to admit he’d lost her, three to heal from it. He’d be damned if he considered allowing her in his life again—or anywhere near his heart. He could find ways to avoid her. It would be easy in a palace with fifteen hundred rooms and hundreds of acres of land.
“Will you be coming to call on me later then?”
He blinked, remembering Vicky on his lap. “Mayhap another time,” he said, giving her a tender push off.
Sedley was the only one who watched her go, his pale gray eyes darkening with desire. “Mind if I seek her company?”
“Go right ahead.” It was the second time tonight that he’d given his consent to losing a woman. This time though, he meant it. He would figure out tomorrow if and what Sedley knew about Gilles. Now, he simply wanted to enjoy the company of his men, and of his closest friend. They had much to catch up on, many stories to share—his far less frolicsome than Tristan’s, he was sure.
“Ye haven’t penned me a letter in over a year. How are things with ye, ye bastard?”
“Looking up.” Tristan smiled while Connor raised his cup to his lips. “I wish I could say the same fer ye.”
After a hearty swig of his drink, Connor nodded, thinking of the days ahead with Mairi MacGregor in them. Satan’s balls, he wished it too.
Ididn’t know you were acquainted with Captain Grant.”
Mairi looked up at Lord Oxford’s profile while they stepped out into the warm, moist night air. Dear Lord, did it never rain here? It was England for hell’s sake!
“Ye have sat with me and Lord and Lady Huntley. Ye know we are friends.”
He laughed shortly, visibly at himself. “Indeed, that is true. I fear I chose to forget their son and the remarkable effect he has on women.”
Damnation, she was tired. Her feet were sore from dancing and her nerves were ready to snap from seeing Connor, and then not seeing him again for the remainder of the night. She’d imagined their reunion thousands of times. She, strong and unfazed by his charms. But he had not been charming at all. He’d been cold and detached. He had even insulted her. She didn’t want to speak of him. She wanted to go to bed and forget this day and the ones ahead. She should not have agreed to let Lord Oxford escort her to her chambers, but, hell, the man would not take nae for an answer. “What do ye mean, his remarkable effect?” Och, what in blazes did she care? She hadn’t meant to ask. She didn’t want to know.
“The flush across a woman’s cheeks. The shortness of her breath. The flame sparking her eyes.” Oxford turned to look at her. “The same effect he has on you.”
Mairi would have laughed right in his face if her denial of his charge wasnn’t already battering against her lips. “Captain Grant has no such effect on me. I dinna’ even like him!”
“He’s quite handsome.” He looked away now, hiding the scar extending from his eye to his jaw on the opposite side of his face.
Poor man. Mairi suffered a pang of sympathy for him. No lady at court had ever lost her breath from looking at him. He wasn’t unattractive. In fact, he was quite comely if not for the ridiculous wig atop his head. His eyes were wide and deep brown, ringed by lush dark lashes and his nose was rather small for an Englishman. It was true, he was as dull as a rusty blade, assaulting her with endless compliments and his vast, yet useless knowledge of everything English since the first day she showed him any kindness. She had only done it to gain information on his family. So far though, he’d given her no reason to suspect he was anything worse than a Protestant. In fact, she had discovered that the Earl of Oxford’s brother had raised an army called the Horse Guard Blue to fight on the king’s side back when Charles had been restored to the throne. Lord Oxford and his father were too busy kissing the new Catholic king’s arse to scheme against him. The de Veres loved the courtier life more than their religion. Zealots, they were not.
So what if he had a tendency toward making her sleepy? He was kind to her, and that was more than she could say of any of the king’s other noble guests. “Lord Oxford, I prefer a man who keeps his word over one who polishes his smile before slaying lasses with it.”
When his gaze on her went soft, she cursed inwardly. Mayhap that was not the wisest thing to say to him. He clearly fancied her. How could she tell him she didn’t share his sentiments without crushing what remained of his self-worth?
“Please, call me Henry as I’ve requested of you these many days.” He took her hand and brought it to his lips. After a lingering kiss, he looked up at her. “Then I need not worry about him snatching you from me?”
“Of course not. I mean, I am not yers to lose.” She softened her smile in an effort to cushion the blow. “I will think fondly of ye after I return home, as I do all my friends.”
He looked like she’d just told him his father was found dead in the courtyard.
“I am not returning home as soon as I had planned and I had hoped ye might teach me more dances.”
“Of course.” He brightened, his hope restored. “And perhaps, if you will continue to grant me your favor, I can win something more.”
Mairi smiled as they reached her room. Hell, it was going to be a very long stay.
“We shall see, my lord.” She gave him a slight pat on the arm, opened her door, and slipped inside before he could say another word. She shut the door and bolted it, not really trusting that he wouldn’t plunge inside after her while she slept.
“What shall ye be seeing?”
Mairi startled and spun around at the sound of her brother’s voice. “Colin, must ye always come up on a person as silently as the wind?”
He held open his arms from where he reclined in a chair by the window. “I was already here. Should I breathe more loudly next time to announce my presence?”
“Aye, ye might.” She sighed and pushed her back off the door. In truth, she was happy to see him. He had taken the detour with Rob and a few others just before her kin’s troupe had reached the English border on their way to James of York’s coronation. She had not seen him in over a pair of weeks and she had missed him. Of her three brothers, she was closest with Colin. They shared much in common, including their loyalty to Scotland, their love of the sword, and secrets too perilous to tell their father.
“What are ye doing in here?”
“I thought ye might like to know how Connor’s meeting went with the king.”
“Thoughtful of ye, since ye have waited three hours to tell me.” She cut across the room and poured them both a cup of water.
He accepted the offering and waited for her to sit down on the bed. “Ye appeared distracted by the same man I assume was just at yer door.”
“The meeting, Colin,” she reminded him, careful not to let him sway the topic toward a more personal direction. Colin possessed an uncanny skill at discerning meanings and expressions without having to hear a confession. If she began speaking of Oxford and his interest in her, her brother would somehow connect her indifference to the English lord to a certain Scottish captain. Colin was the only one who knew the full effect Connor’s betrayal had had on her. He had followed at her side, offering his comfort in silence while she wept. She would not have him think, even for an instant, that Captain Grant still held any influence over her.
“The king requested that I remain with him after Connor gave him the news about the Dutch attack and left his solar.”
Mairi’s brows arched with interest. “James does not trust Connor then?”
Colin narrowed his eyes on her over the rim of his cup. “Why would ye think that?”
“Because Connor served a Protestant king for seven years,” Mairi reminded him, unable to keep the sting from her voice.
Colin smiled, coming to some conclusion Mairi was certain was the incorrect one. “He asked me to remain because he wanted to question me about any survivors at the abbey.”
“Did ye tell him about Miss Montgomery?”
“Nae.” Colin lowered his hazel eyes behind a spray of dark lashes. “But I know now fer certain that she is his daughter. He believes her dead and Rob wants it to remain that way. Our brother suspects her enemies reside here and Connor agrees. We must say nothing. If they know Lady Montgomery didna’ perish in the fire, they will continue to look fer her.”
“Ye told faither Gilles’s men followed yer group to Ayr. So they already know she is alive.”
Colin shook his head. “They dinna’ know fer certain.”
“Och, why did Rob have to bring her home to Camlochlin?”
“Because ’tis the only place she will be safe, Mairi.”
“And if faither is correct and the Dutch attack our home… Colin, we should insist that he allow us to return home with him and the others. I dinna’ want to be here, where ’tis ‘safe.’ I want to fight these enemies—”
“That is precisely why he leaves us here,” her brother told her succinctly. “He suspects our involvement with the rebel militia. He knows we will not cower and hide if the Dutch attack. I know ye hate hearing this, Mairi, but ye are a lass and he—”
“Och, do not say it. Ye know I can fight as well as ye.”
When he tossed her a skeptical glance, she conceded. “Well, better than most then. Ye must tell the king that Davina Montgomery lives. Let him go to Camlochlin to fetch her and hide her away somewhere else. I want to go home.”
“I may tell him,” he confessed, “but not fer that reason. I believe she is safest with our kin and I willna’ jeopardize that. If I tell him, ’twill be because he thinks his daughter is dead and he grieves the same way our own faither would. He has the right to know the truth.”
Mairi smiled at him. “Ye speak as if ye care fer her.”
“Everyone who will ever meet Lady Montgomery will care fer her.”
A cryptic answer. So like Colin to obscure his passion behind ambiguity. No enemy would ever know what he was thinking—another trait she shared in common with him.
“Ye do not mind being here rather than at her side to protect her then?”
“Rob can protect her,” Colin told her quietly. “Besides, I think her faither needs my protection more at present. He is a staunch Catholic, and even though none have voiced their displeasure over that fact as of yet, someone has already attempted to do away with his true firstborn Catholic heir.”
He made a valid point. A rebellion seemed likely. She might not have concerned herself over it if Charles were still king, since he was a Protestant, but, och, to have a Catholic on the throne again…. “What can we do?”
“All we can do at present is keep our eyes and ears alert. Prince William of Orange was most likely behind the attack on the abbey, but the king will not move without proof since guilt could also lie with the Duke of Monmouth or the Earl of Argyll.”
“What does Connor think of all this? He is one of the king’s captains, after all.”
“I am not sure Connor has thought of anything but ye since our journey back to Whitehall together.” When Mairi laughed, Colin silenced her with a serious look. “Sister, I had a chance to speak with him while we traveled here and I think—”
“Please, Colin.” She held up her hand to stop him. “I do not wish to speak of him.”
“Ye didna’ tell me he asked ye to come to England with him.”
“Because I had no intentions on coming here. I didna’ want to live in England. He knew that well enough. What would I ever do here, besides perspire my bloody arse off?” She ignored the slight quirk of his mouth. “Nae, my home is in the Highlands. He made his choice to leave. ’Twas arrogant and heartless of him to ask me to give up the place of my birth, knowing how I love it.”
“He did not mean that the two of ye should remain here fer the remainder of yer lives.”
“Nae?” She sprang from the bed, having heard enough. “Look how long he has remained, Colin. How is it ye could discover where Cameronians hold their secret meetings but ye dinna’ see that his requests were but a way fer him to escape his guilt over leaving? He asked me to come here knowing I would refuse.”
“Well.” Her brother gave her hand a gentle squeeze as he too rose from his seat to leave. “Ye are stuck here with him until faither sends fer us. Try not to use one of those daggers ye have hidden so cleverly beneath yer skirts on his belly.”
“I cannot promise that,” she told him while he headed for the door. “He tempts me to use my dagger on him just by opening his mouth.”
Colin tossed her one more infuriatingly skeptical glance over his shoulder before he left.
Instead of undressing and going directly to bed, she went to the window and looked out at the dark sky. She scowled at the full, milky moon lighting the courtyard below—the same light that shone on Connor’s face the first time he kissed her beneath the braes of Bla Bheinn, the first time he told her he loved her.
Dear God, she wouldn’t think about it. That period in her life was over. She had moved on.
Still, she couldn’t help but wonder where Connor had gone off to tonight. Likely, he’d gone to meet one of his many lovers and was still with her now, kissing her the way he used to kiss… Nae, she did not care.
If she’d accepted Duncan MacKinnon’s marriage proposal last winter, or even Hamish MacLeod’s the year before, she’d likely be in Torrin or Portree instead of here. But she no longer wanted to be a wife, controlled by a man, especially one she did not love.
Her thoughts drifted back to Connor and the question she had asked herself since the day he left.
Would she ever love again?
Connor leaned against the outside wall and watched quietly while the MacGregors bid farewell to Mairi and Colin. They were truly leaving Mairi here. He should have stayed in Glencoe. He could have told the king that he’d been ambushed on the road, stabbed in the leg and couldn’t make it back for the coronation. Hell, he would have inflicted the wound himself if he’d known she was staying.
He eyed the figure hanging back, just inside the entryway. Oxford. What was going on between them that the man would wait so eagerly for her to be away from her father? Thanks to Tristan, Connor knew that Callum MacGregor didn’t like the Earl of Oxford’s son. In truth, Callum didn’t like most Englishmen. A sentiment Connor thought Mairi shared. He was wrong. When he’d returned to court last eve, she was already gone… and so was her dance partner.
Oxford’s pacing back and forth, along with his peering outside every five breaths, agitated Connor. It was as if he had already laid claim to her.
Like hell he had. Another thought crossed Connor’s mind that darkened the scowl already on his face. Had Oxford kissed her? Had Mairi allowed it? He turned his gaze to her while she embraced her mother. She could not truly care for Henry de Vere. Could she?
He blinked away from the women to find the MacGregor chief striding toward him. Callum MacGregor hadn’t changed in seven years. He was still big as a mountain and as powerful as a storm. From the corner of his eye, Connor saw Oxford disappear into the shadows. Wise… and rather telling. If there were nothing between him and Mairi, there would be no cause to hide from her disapproving father. Not that Mairi cared overmuch if the laird approved or not. She’d always had her own mind and did as she pleased, most times to prove that she was just as capable as her brothers were in any task they performed. How many trees had she followed him and Tristan up when she was a wee lass, or leaped on a horse that was too big for her, or been caught aiming a bow at the backside of some child who’d slighted her? He almost smiled remembering.
“I have a favor to ask of ye,” her father said, reaching him.
“Ye have but to ask it, my laird.”
“Keep yer eyes on my daughter.”
Anything but that. Connor didn’t want to keep his eyes on her. He wanted to keep them off. He wanted to disappear in the lists, the tavern, any place he wouldn’t have to see her.
“Of course,” he replied dully. “She will be safe here.”
Callum nodded, gave him a hearty pat on the arm, and turned to move away. He paused as a thought occurred to him and came close once again. “She willna’ appreciate my worryin’ over her, so dinna’ tell her of my request, aye?”
“Aye,” Connor promised, albeit grudgingly. Brilliant. She would think he followed her about for some foolish purpose that had nothing to do with her father.
He thought about returning to Glencoe and his post. He could make it back in two days. What could possibly happen to Mairi with his own father here to keep eyes on her?
A movement at the entrance drew his eyes there. Oxford waited like a cat about to pounce. Connor couldn’t really blame the man for wanting to win such a spirited lass. His own gaze returned to her. He understood why any man would want to clutch her to his chest, even while she resisted, and quiet her protests with his lips.
The thought of Oxford kissing her boiled Connor’s blood and made him long to be away from the palace even more than usual.
A short while later, Mairi watched her kin mount their saddles and begin their journey home without her. She didn’t weep—and it was a good thing else Connor might have been tempted to go to her—but she did look miserable enough to make him push off the wall.
Oxford reached her first.
When they turned to head back, Oxford’s arm draped tenderly around her waist, Connor moved toward them. He passed Mairi without a word and took up his pace at his father’s side behind her. He heard his mother say something about tennis but he wasn’t sure what it was. His eyes dipped to Oxford’s arm and he had the urge to rip his claymore from its sheath and cut it from his body.
“Captain.” Two of his men greeted as they passed him, reminding him who he was. He couldn’t go around hacking off English nobles’ limbs. He would keep eyes on her and protect her against an unwanted suitor if he had to, but that was all. He would not lose his control—or anything else—because of her. He pulled his eyes away from her waist and looked to Colin being escorted by two of James’s personal guards toward the stairs.
“He is granted another audience with the king.”
“Aye.” Graham nodded. “Last eve while ye were deep into yer cups, the king made an appearance at our table and told Callum and Kate that when he spoke to Colin earlier he found him to be a refreshing change from the dull, arse-kissing statesmen he was usually forced to tolerate.”
“Did he mention what they spoke about?” Connor asked, returning to his father.
“Nae. Colin has not told ye then?”
“He has not.”
They entered the palace and Connor almost forgot what he was just thinking about when Mairi’s voice fell across his ears.
“Lord Oxford, truly, I am fine, but I think I will retire to my room fer a bit.”
“Let me escort you there.” The arm that Oxford had removed from her waist, returned.
This time, Connor removed it… with his fingers and not his sword, of course. His task was to see to her. That meant her reputation, as well as her safety, and that was all he was doing.
“Miss MacGregor needs no escort.” He certainly hadn’t meant to sound so threatening, but Oxford backed away nonetheless.
Mairi, however, did not.
“Captain,” she said, fisting her small hands at her sides. Their size did not matter, for it was her tongue she wielded so expertly. “Do ye not have a wench to occupy yer attention, instead of aiming it here where it isna’ wanted?”
“Aye.” He offered her a smile riddled with amusement and challenge. “But ye are the only one here at the moment.”
The spark of fire in her eyes tightened his guts, accelerated his heart
“Or mayhap,” she said, smiling back at him, “ye still lack the wits to recognize when ye have been rejected.”
Och, she hated him—and he freely admitted at present that it was his own fault, but she looked so ravishing standing there pulsing with barely concealed anger that he had to clench his jaw to keep from groaning.
Behind him, his mother cleared her throat and tugged on her husband’s arm to keep him walking.
“Captain Grant, I must insist—”
Connor turned to Oxford and stilled the remainder of his words with a look that pierced as deadly as a sword. When he turned back to Mairi, she was gone.
“Stay here,” he warned Oxford over his shoulder, and took off after her without looking back. He caught up to her as she rounded the hall of the Shield Gallery.
“Where are ye going? Yer lodgings are in the other direction,” he said, slowing his steps at her side.
“I am getting away from ye.” She didn’t look at him but continued on at a brisk pace.
“Has the obvious suddenly escaped yer shrewd attention, Mairi?” He spared her a cool, brief side-glance. “We are stuck here in each other’s company fer a while.”
“Ye can leave.”
He smiled at the delicacy of her profile, even as her words cut his flesh. He was immune to her barbs. At least, he told himself he was. “I cannot leave. Things have changed.”
She stopped suddenly and glared up at him, a tendril of black hair caressing her cheek. “Nothing has changed. Ye remain a heartless, careless wretch.”
For an instant that went completely out of Connor’s control, he was tempted to reach out and touch the familiar curve of her jaw. But he knew that flare in her eyes too well. She would snap his fingers off with her teeth. He didn’t marvel that the thing he found most alluring about her was the very same thing that kept him away from her for so long. Her passion, even in hating him, ignited his desire like a flame to dry timber. It tempted him to take up the fight for what was once his. But only fools continued to fight long after the battle was over.
And he was no longer a fool.
“I was speaking of the kingdom.” He watched the knit of her brow and the shadows they cast over her eyes. Was it disappointment she was trying to conceal? She was difficult to read, innately mysterious, shrouding her emotions behind an alabaster face and lips that knew how to curl at just the right angle to make a man forget every moment before the one in which he saw it. The way she was doing right now.
“Aye, the kingdom.” She looked away and picked up her steps. “Ye must be sadly disappointed that a Catholic now sits on the throne.”
“A notion ye should be putting to yer suitor, Lord Oxford, instead of me. Or don’t ye care anymore?”
He ignored her scathing tone and pressed on, following her around a bend in the hall. “Ye’re aware that he’s a Protestant, nae? Ye favor him with yer company much of the time.” Smiling at him as if ye truly might be considering him as a suitor.
She came to an abrupt halt and turned on him. “And just what is that to ye? Who do ye think ye are, Connor Grant?” When he opened his mouth to answer, she cut him off with the sting of her words. “ ’Tis a wee bit late to concern yerself with the men in my life, d’ye not think?”
It wasn’t true. He’d always been concerned. Always dreading Tristan’s letters, and then always relieved to learn that Mairi had not married. “Nae, I don’t. Whatever else ye have demanded I ferget ye’re still a lass who needs looking after.”
Her jaw clenched and her eyes narrowed on him like twin daggers forged from hellfire. Another man would have recoiled, not fit for the battle, but Connor welcomed it. She was a strong-willed, unbroken mare who would be tamed by no man. It was the first thing he had ever loved about her.
“I dinna’need ye to look out fer me, Captain. I am well equipped to handle whatever comes at me. Yer mother taught me how to wield a blade and ye taught me not to lower my shield.”
When he moved to follow her, she slipped her hand beneath the split in her skirts. Connor saw a hint of her thigh and then a flash of a blade.
“Leave me alone,” she warned, pointing a dagger under his chin as he caught up with her.
Connor held up his hands and took a step back, priding himself on his self-control for not disarming her and hauling her into his arms. But he had vowed long ago to do as she demanded.
He watched the sway of her hips as she walked away and disappeared into the next wing of the palace.
Mairi looked behind her. Connor was finally gone. She stopped and leaned her back against the wall to breathe. No other man ever made her so angry. He had always been rather arrogant, even boasting when he was twelve that he was born of two warriors instead of just one, thereby making him doubly skilled. But to put questions to her about Lord Oxford and then to insult her by claiming to look after her went too far. So, his was the face that tormented her dreams, so he’d grown older, taller, broader of shoulder. What did it matter when his false heart remained the same?
Lifting her skirts, she put away her dagger and the memory of Connor Grant. She was a MacGregor, made of stronger stuff than weak knees and a spine to match. If he chose to infuriate her every time they saw each other, that was fine with her. If she killed him, she would not be to blame.
The sound of men’s voices speaking of the king drew Mairi into the shadows. It was Lords Oddington and Somerset. Mairi watched the latter pull a key from his waistcoat, look around, then slip it into a door a few paces away.
What were they up to?
When they disappeared inside, she left the shadows and tiptoed down the walkway. She came to the door and pressed her ear against it.
The next two days were hell for Connor, and tonight didn’t promise to be any better. Standing at the back of the Banqueting Hall, he sipped his wine and glared at the dance floor. He swore if he had to watch Mairi and Oxford laughing together for one more instant, heads would roll. They had eaten together, strolled the gardens together, and danced together every night for the past three nights. Connor wasn’t jealous. He simply felt a tad… protective of her. He’d known her his whole life, after all.
He did everything he could to avoid speaking to her, but it wasn’t enough. Her very presence at Whitehall was enough to distract him.
Thanks to his promise to her father to keep an eye on her, he noted that she appeared distracted most of the time, even while she giggled with her scar-faced admirer. Mairi giggling! She’d never giggled with him. He’d caught her gaze shifting to some of the other lords at court, mostly Oddington and Somerset. What was she up to? He’d seen her standing at Oddington’s door, then scurrying away when the door opened. What had she heard? Why had she been listening?
“According to some,” his mother said, appearing at his side and following his gaze, “you dance quite well. Why do you not ask Mairi—”
“Some other time.”
Claire raised her eyes heavenward. “Then at least sup with us tonight. Your father and I have barely seen you in years and now that we have the chance to spend time with our eldest son, you disappear each night to a tavern. We’ve missed you Connor.”
He looked into his empty cup, wishing it were full again. She was right. He missed his kin too. He missed his brother Finn. He missed Camlochlin. He couldn’t continue to avoid his family because Mairi spent so much of her time with them. His eyes settled on her again, her hand aloft and close to Oxford’s as they danced, her smile radiant, her eyes clear and vibrant.
“Lord Hollingsworth and his wife invited me to dine with them this eve.” He felt like hell refusing his mother yet again, but he wasn’t yet up to sitting with Mairi through seven courses and having to listen to her sugary compliments to a man whose head Connor wanted to smash.
“I vow to dine with ye tomorrow and ye can tell me all about what’s been going on at home.”
Before she said another word to stop him, Connor lifted her hand to his lips and made a quick exit.
Two hours and three courses later, the fate of King Charles I, depicted in the painting over Connor’s head, would have been a welcome reprieve from the company with whom he sat. What tragedy was losing his head if it removed him from both Lord and Lady Hollingsworth? The former, with his thick jowls glistening with the grease of his broiled duck and talking nonstop about who the bloody hell knows what. The latter, sitting beside her husband and licking her fingers while her heavy-lidded gaze offered to do the same to Connor.
Twice, he suffered the tightness her wanton gaze stirred in him. If he had any sense at all, he would meet her later and take what she offered him. It would do him good to release his frustration inside a warm and willing body—and judging by Lady Hollingsworth’s heaving breasts every time his gaze met hers, he thought she would take as hard as he could give. But he had no sense. That had to be why, when the tables were cleared again after the fourth course to make room for dancing—and for more food in everyone’s belly later—he cut across the hall to his family’s table and snatched Mairi’s hand as she offered it to Oxford.
“I beg your pardon, Captain,” the Englishman sputtered with polite indignation. “Miss MacGregor and I were about to—”
Connor ignored him and pulled Mairi toward the dance floor. When she dug her heels in to stop their departure, he gave her a tug that hauled her into his back.
“What do ye think ye’re doing?” she demanded, pushing off him with her free hand.
“I think ’tis quite obvious what I’m doing, Mairi. I mean to dance with ye.”
“Well, I dinna’ want to dance with ye.”
“Noted,” he said, not really caring if she wanted to or not. Only God knew how long she would be here, and he didn’t plan on watching her blossoming romance with Oxford the entire time. Her father would disapprove of such a union. It was his duty to stop it.
When they reached the other dancers waiting for the music to commence, he stopped and finally turned to face her fully. He tightened his hold and bent his face closer to hers when she tried to yank her wrist free. “There are things that need to be spoken between us once and for all.”
It wasn’t what he’d meant to say. He didn’t know what to say to her that he hadn’t already told her in more letters than he could count.
“I dinna’ care fer anything ye have to say.”
Her eyes seared into his with the promise of vengeance he knew she could deliver. It scorched his blood in a way Lady Hollingsworth, or any other woman, could not.
He shrugged his shoulders. “Unfortunately, ye’re going to hear it nonetheless.”
As if on cue, he released her wrist and tucked his arm behind his back as the delicate strum of a lute echoed off the high ceiling. He bowed to her, as did all the other male dancers to their partners, and used the moments until she fled to think of something new to say. But she didn’t flee. She muttered something under her breath, looked around the hall, then sidestepped around him, as the first step began.
A small victory in what Connor was certain was only the beginning of Mairi’s war. When she faced him again, he held out his hand and waited, his breath falling harder from his lips while she hesitated. If she ran from him, he deserved the humiliation that belongs to a fool. Duty or not.
Her skin against his charged his heart like a cannonball through granite. Satan’s balls, what kind of pitiful sot was he that a mere touch from her could weaken his resolve to resist her? He closed his fingers around hers the way he used to when she was his, and watched her take the same small inhalation of breath at their touch.
“Still practicing yer swordplay, I see,” he said, rubbing the pad of his thumb over her callused palm, then gritted his teeth to keep any other inane declarations from escaping his mouth.
“Did ye haul me away to ask about my habits then?”
When she stepped under his arm, he assessed the shapely definition of her hips and her backside beneath the folds of her Highland plaid. He allowed the slightest smile to curl his lips when she turned to face him again. “Aye, ye’ve done much changing in seven years. Ye’re not going to whip out another blade and point it at my throat, are ye?” He stepped around her and touched his back to hers.
“That depends on ye,” Mairi told him over her shoulder. “But I must warn ye, I am tempted to do so right now.”
He laughed softly, and facing him, Lady Amberlaine smiled back and tossed him a provocative wink.
“What would yer Lord Oxford think of yer unladylike tendencies, Mairi?”
She spun on her heel, ready to leave the dance floor and him with it. Hell, she was too easy to rile, especially when it came to her behaving like a lady. He only felt a wee bit guilty about using her weakness against her, mainly because it involved Oxford.
He snatched her back and hauled her close against him as the musicians changed their tempo for the volte. “I know ye loathe being a woman, Mairi, but, hell, ye’re good at it.” Ignoring her slight gasp and short, shallow breath, he took hold of her front lower hip with one hand and pressed his other palm to her back. She responded with a sharp glare aimed at an envious Lady Amberlaine dancing with her husband to their left. With reluctance, Mairi set her hand atop Connor’s shoulder and readied for the turn.
“Yer lover hopes ye will drop me.”
“I won’t.” Connor tried to sound as unaffected by their touch as she did. “And Lady Amberlaine is not my lover.” He sprang with her onto his outside foot and lifted the inside foot forward.
“Mayhap ye simply dinna’ recall bedding her, what with so many lasses lapping at yer heels.”
She sounded jealous. Was it possible? Why would she be? She hated him. Didn’t she? And if she was jealous, why in blazes did it please him? Could it be that she didn’t revile him as much as she claimed? There was a way to find out. He would ponder why he cared to know later.
On the second beat, they stepped smoothly onto the inside foot and Mairi poised herself for the spring.
“If Lady Amberlaine was ever my lover,” he said, lifting her into the air with both hands and smiling up at her murderous expression. “I would remember it.”
He lowered Mairi back to the ground, her body pressed indecently close to his. Hell, she was bonnie. She didn’t need red powder with which to paint her cheeks. The blaze in them came naturally. She took a step back and cracked him hard across the face.
Connor stood on the dance floor holding his cheek and watching his partner storm away. He felt Lady Amberlaine’s eyes on him, along with every other dancer’s around him. He didn’t care. In fact, he couldn’t keep himself from smiling.
Mairi did not return to her table when she left the dance floor. She needed to get away from the hundreds of eyes staring at her, from all the women who were either laughing at her or wanting to strike her for slapping Connor. How could he tell her that he would have remembered making love to Lady Amberlaine? What kind of cold, calculating bastard was he? Och, how she hated him! She hated his tongue that had become so sharp and cold when he spoke to her while his lips remained indecently full and inviting. She hated the way his brows knit together when he was angry at her, making those glacial blue eyes even more piercing. But when she looked down into those eyes, into the face she once knew better than her own, she did not care how cruel he was. For an instant she was tempted to do almost anything to be with him again.
Never! She did not want him anymore. She had been young and foolish when she fell in love with his wide, winsome smiles, the promise of her future in the depths of his eyes. But she was older now, with wisdom of how false a man’s heart could truly be.
She stepped out into the Pebble Court. Broad walks above and below encircled the grass plot for promenading, though the walks were all but empty now. She lifted her face to the balmy drizzle that had begun, letting it cleanse her of Connor Grant.
But nothing ever would. She had done her best to rid her heart of him, but he remained. How could she truly forget him when everything about him reminded her of what she loved most? Home. Seeing him again was like stepping though time, into the past. Why last night, while Lord Oxford droned on eternally about the different species of birds inhabiting the king’s aviary, she found herself lost to the memory of Connor running along the pebbly shore of Camas Fhionnairigh. His laughter, as he looked over his shoulder at her chasing him, lost on the wind blowing in from the Cuillians. He had taken her doll and would not give it back. Tonight while she was supposed to be concentrating on steps Henry was teaching her on the dance floor, she was remembering a day, years later, when she and Connor raced together up the snowy mountainside on horses that flew against the bracing chill of winter. They wore furs that they used to soften the floor of their secret cavern, cut deep in the braes of Sgurr Na Stri. They made love for the first time while the wind battered against the walls, singing a song that belonged to the Highlands alone. A se’nnight later he told her he was leaving Camlochlin.
She had to remain strong. Those days were gone, never to be lived again. She had to resist him and forget what he had once meant to her.
“Leave me,” she cursed softly, fisting her hands at her chest as if to tear his memory from her soul. She had withstood a lifetime of days tormented by images of him lying dead on a battlefield far away, or alive and vibrant, naked and poised over some harlot, ready to give her what belonged to another. She had withstood him. She had conquered him. She would not let herself think of going back.
She turned around at the sound of his voice. He stood just inches from her, wet from the rain finally falling harder now, and as still as her heart. His hair dripped about his face, shielding her from the full force of his tender gaze. For a moment, she saw him as he used to be, free of England’s salacious spell, a boy more beautiful than summer heather on the moors.
“ ’Tis time to put this terrible thing between us away.”
She would not let herself go back. She swiped her fingers across her cheeks, freeing them of rain. “What is between us, Captain, is deceit and betrayal.”
“As ye see it,” he corrected softly, and moved a step closer. “I asked ye to come here with me many times.”
“Ye knew how much I loved Scotland.”
His jaw tightened around something he looked like he wanted to say. He fought it and, winning the battle, said, “Ye commanded my absence when I would have come home. ’Twas what ye wanted.”
“Aye,” she managed on the aftermath of a strangled sob. Saints help her, she did not want to be having this speech with him. Opening old wounds only made them hurt again. “And ye were only too happy to stay here, demonstrating year after year what I truly meant to ye.”
He moved like a wraith caught between shadows and lightning, a phantom come to life from her dreams… and her nightmares. She did not move when he stood over her. She did not breathe when he spoke to her.
“Ye meant everything to me,” he whispered in the rain. “How could ye not know that?”
At the sound of Lord Oxford’s voice, she startled free of Connor’s spell and stepped away from him. His eyes followed her, dark beneath the shadow of his brow.
Tipping her head around his body, she saw Henry raise a wide-brimmed hat above his wig and step out from beneath the protection of the upper galley.
“Is everything all right?” he asked, reaching them quickly, the curls in his long wig drooping around his face.
The rain lightened but the air crackled at the deadly frost in Connor’s gaze when he set it on Oxford. “Why wouldn’t it be?”
A loaded question that any man with a spark of sense in his head would have declined to answer.
“My apologies if I’ve insulted you, Captain.” Oxford smiled, straining the scar running vertically down his face. “But your reputation with the fairer sex precedes you. I am only concerned for the lady’s honor.”
Mairi was not sure which of the two she wanted to hit harder. Connor, for being such a cad that other men should fret over her honor, or Henry, for being a fool and provoking Connor to knock out a few of his teeth. Connor might be born of royal blood, but he fought like a Highlander. Smaller Lord Oxford would not stand a chance.
Connor’s slow smile was anything but genial, but at least he didn’t strike him. “We share a common goal then, Oxford. As fer my reputation, if I entertained every piece of gossip I’ve heard in my service to the king, I would have to arrest ye fer being in league with Covenanters.”
Oxford made a sputtering sound beside her but Mairi did not spare him a second glance. Instead, she turned her frigid gaze on Connor. Damn him, what was he doing? He was going to ruin everything. If Oxford did know of any members of the prohibited Presbyterian religion, he would never tell her now.
“Really, Captain, I expected better from ye. Whatever ye heard about Lord Oxford is untrue.”
“Ye defend him then?”
She hesitated, not because she trusted Oxford completely, but because Connor’s rigid tone told her that if she said she did, he would walk away from her and never look back. But that was what she wanted, what she needed, was it not?
“I do,” she said, raising her chin with resolve.
He didn’t move. He seemed not to breathe for a moment while his eyes went hard on her. Then, “Verra well.” He turned without another word to either of them and strode toward the gate.
Mairi watched him go. Some small, forgotten part of her wanting to call him back.
“He cares for you.”
She looked up, remembering Lord Oxford. “Nae,” she said, and slipped her hand into the crook of Henry’s elbow, letting him lead her back to the Banqueting Hall. “He cares fer England.”
Lord, Mairi did not want to discuss him. Her knees still felt weak from his words. Ye meant everything to me. He used to tell her every day that he loved her. That he wanted to wed her, and die in her arms. None of it meant anything to him and neither did she.
“His eyes are always on you. It is clear that he—”
“I really should get out of these wet clothes.” She stopped him before he said something she did not wish to hear. “I must look like a wet sewer rat.”
He looked down at her and seemed to melt in his boots. “You are a vision, Miss MacGregor.”
Mairi smiled. Mayhap, she could find happiness with someone else. Mayhap another man could love her even more than Connor had. “My lord, ye are more than generous with yer compliments.”
“Henry.” He took her hand and brought it to his lips. “And my veneration is the least I can offer you in exchange for your company.”
Hell, but he was sweet. Almost sickeningly so, but better, at least, than Captain Grant’s fallacious responses.
She looked toward the gate one last time.
Ye meant everything to me. How could ye not know that?
She had thought she knew. But she had been wrong.
Excerpted from Tamed by a Highlander by Quinn, Paula Copyright © 2011 by Quinn, Paula. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >