Training men to be ruthless soldiers is a skill at which Highlander Teàrlach MacGregor excels. After he rescues a ward of the king, the beautiful Lady Madeline Crawford, the fierce warrior begins to yearn for a cottage of his own in the Highlands, with the sweet, delicate Madeline as the mother of his bairns.
Madeline begins to see a side of Teàrlach that nobody else does. The strong, silent Highlander takes her to her first fair, teaches her to read, and bestows upon her a passionate kiss—her very first. But Madeline is informed that she is betrothed to another with the blessing of the king, making her and Teàrlach’s love forbidden.
Teàrlach vows to make Madeline his, even if that means defying the king.
Each book in the Ladies of Scotland series is a STANDALONE story that can be enjoyed out of order.
Books in the series
An Earl for the Archeress
The Maiden's Defender
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Anno Domini 1191, eleven months earlier
The smell of freedom was so sweet.
Madeline Crawford inhaled the fresh, spring air, then exhaled, knowing her hair wasn't coifed properly, knowing she wore an old kirtle that had spent more time than any lady's gown ought sitting in an herb garden. But plants were so fascinating! And so was sitting in the dirt without anyone minding. And for that matter, so was not ensuring her hair was perfect. No one would scold her for imperfect manners or expect perpetual silence from her or thunder at her for doing any number of nonsensical things. No one cared. No one was here.
She overlooked the Spout of Garnock, careful not to come too close to the cliff's edge, and watched as rainbows reflected in the cascade of water tumbling down the rocks to continue the river's winding. This magnificent creation was so very close to her home. Only a half an hour's walk from Dungarnock Tower.
Though the Moreville family possessed guardianship of Dungarnock, residing nearby in Glengarnock Castle when the family wasn't in Carlisle, she lived unimpeded. Dungarnock was a simple tower, small, with only one enclosed yard, and hardly worth the effort for warring Scottish chiefs to squabble over. Hardly decent enough for the daughter of one of Scotland's renowned earls, despite her father's imprisonment.
But Madeline never complained. One pile of stones was as good as the next, and she had no desire to be noticed. Fancy castles and fancy gowns weren't important. And because Dungarnock was hidden in a glen between two rolling hills with trees concealing much of it, it sat camouflaged in the countryside. An untrained eye might even pass by on the high road and never notice that a keep stood there.
Freedom, she thought, smelling the heather, feeling the razor-sharp stings of a thistle against her fingers and not caring in the least. To feel the thistles meant she was finally feeling life. Her father had been a hard man who had despised that he had seeded daughters, never once getting his heir. He had depended on his older daughter, Mariel, to pass along the family property and titles, though Mariel had fled his never-ending wrath and eloped with an Englishman. And though Mariel and her husband had begged Madeline to move to the grand Huntington Castle northeast of Londontown, Madeline could never picture herself anywhere other than Ayrshire, Scotland.
God's country. Heaven. This beautiful waterfall confirmed it.
True, she had always lived in Scotland, and true, her father had kept her cloistered at Castle Ayr for all of her seven and ten years. But here, there were no guardsmen constantly jingling around the yard in their mail, overlooking every move from the parapet, and most importantly, there was no Harold Crawford, The Beast of Ayr — her father. She had become so used to keeping her head down, keeping to the shadows, and apologizing for things that weren't her fault that she had lived her first sennights at Dungarnock as if she were still at home. It wasn't until Fingal and Greta, her only servants, told her about the spout that she asked if one day she might see it. Fingal smiled, looked at her curiously, and told her she needed no permission to take a country walk.
Greta had regaled her with tales of the fae folk, of how the magical healing properties of the Spout of Garnock could cure everything from a sore thumb to a broken heart, how fairies would steal bairns and replace them with fae bairns. And more than once, the old woman had teased her that a man like the mythical Fionn might just ride out of the evening sunset to the gate and steal her heart. Imagine, a handsome warrior! Of course, she knew they teased, but it was the first time she had heard such tales, for her father had forbidden the traveling bards from setting up in his great hall, and she might have been beaten if he had suspected she had an admirer.
Now, here she stood, on the anniversary of her birth, with the wind lifting her unbound tresses, overlooking one of the most beautiful waterfalls she had ever seen — the only one she had ever seen. Today she was eight and ten, and not a single person knew except her, and she was the happiest she had ever been. This day at the end of April, in the year of the lord eleven ninety-one, Madeline Crawford could feel the sun, taste the rain, and ponder rainbows reflecting in waterfalls! And though King William had promised to find her an eligible suit, the pressures of a marital alliance were dramatically lessened due to her father's downfall. She might very well be able to escape the institution altogether, if she kept to the shadows as always and made no royal requests.
Ah, nothing can ruin this birthday! Pity Mariel couldn't be with her to share in her growing happiness. Nay doubt her wild sister would never believe she had actually walked for one half of an hour, unescorted, in the country. Madeline had learned quickly to be demure, quiet, and most of all, accommodating, for if she were those three things, her father would never notice how observant she was.
And she was observant. On a bending blade of grass at her feet, the color of the grass itself, sat a caterpillar. She had only seen a few in her lifetime. She smiled. Mariel had told her they were sweet wee beasties and tickled when they walked on one's skin. She took another step closer, hoping to pick it up, when her slipper skidded on the loose soil in a crevice. Her arms flew up, and she flailed. Her foot slipped away. Before she knew it, she was sliding down the side of the rock embankment.
Her hands grappled for anything they could clasp. Blades of grass offered nothing. Landing with a thud, her left knee and ankle jarred. She collapsed, crying out, buckling over into a heap.
Lord, but her bones were probably frail, for she had never needed to build up stamina. One didn't need much strength while sitting patiently at board, sitting patiently with her needlework, or sitting patiently at Mariel's side, begging her older sister to also be patient and for mercy's sake, to not roll her eyes.
Madeline hadn't run like the peasant children who accompanied their parents to Castle Ayr each morn, or her father might have meted out his discipline. And so she had always remained slender, watching the other children from her bedchamber, her pale hair resting on the sill, and more than once she had heard visitors liken her to the very fae Greta talked about. At the time, she hadn't known what "fae" meant.
Her vision began to clear. Agony rippled through her leg. Spots covered her eyes. She moaned and felt nausea threaten to toss up the contents of her breakfast. She looked up at the sheer drop. How on earth would she get back up? It had to be at least three body lengths, if not more.
Panic threatened to set in, but she swallowed and muttered instead, "Okay, so there is something that can ruin this day."
For a fleeting moment, she thought of her father's head guardsman, Teàrlach. He had always kept his distance, yet once, during a confrontation in Castle Ayr's yard last winter, he had pulled her behind him to protect her. That, and he had taken food she had smuggled out of the pantries to her sister, who at the time, had been locked in her father's prison tower. Those moments were the closest she had ever been to him and the only time he had ever touched her. She had noticed him eying her from time to time, certain it meant nothing. He was an observant man and likely had been assessing his surroundings, even if she had imagined that he simply wanted to look at her. After the king summoned her to Edinburgh upon her father's imprisonment, before placing her at Dungarnock, she never saw the brown-eyed guardsman again. But his moment of protection repeated itself in her mind. What she wouldn't give for his vise-like hand to swoop out of nowhere and pull her back up now.
Even Fionn would be welcome, if the mythical warrior cared to emerge from the sunlight and transport her back to the top of the cliff. There was no one around, and it would be hours before anyone thought to come looking. I have to get out of this mess alone. She grabbed at the rocky wall, finding a hand hold, and began to pull herself to standing. Pain shot through her leg. She had never broken a bone in her life, but she knew instantly that something was wrong.
Balancing on one foot and leaning against the wall, she made the mistake of resting her weight on her left leg again. "Dear Lord!" she exclaimed, tears stinging her eyes.
She broke into a sweat. Her hair so free and flowing moments ago was now an irritable menace tangling in her face. She shoved the locks behind her ears and reached down, gathered her skirts, and pulled the back hem up between her legs where she tied it with the front so that the mass of fabric was out of the way. Her stockings were ripped. Blood oozed down her leg from the cuts she had received while sliding down the rock, like a side of meat across a knife. The sight of the blood did her in. Faint of heart, she crumpled over unconscious.
Teàrlach MacGregor heard a female shriek. It was a faint echo, but he recognized it all the same. His trained ears knew distress when they heard it. He turned his horse, King, off the path in what seemed like the direction of the noise and trotted into the countryside. Careful to avoid any hidden holes or crevices in the long grass, he slowly maneuvered his prized destrier, a brown mount the color of polished dark leather, with a thick neck and sturdy legs.
"Anyone there?" he hollered, cupping his hand around his mouth.
He knew this land like the back of his hand and decided the likeliest place for an accident would be the Spout of Garnock. Heaven forbid someone had tumbled over the edge to their death, for he had no desire to pick up broken bones this day. This day had been off to a decent start. Today, he hadn't reached for his flask of whisky to give him the courage to rise from bed. Today was one of the few days he hadn't thought of the lass he knew he could never have, the lass he envisioned when he would let a tavern whore suck him off to ease the base impulses that plagued every man.
Being the fourth son of a Highland chief had its benefits. He had coin if he needed it, and clout when he needed it. But being a fourth son had its downfalls. He would never be the important heir and would be lucky if he inherited more than a plot of land. No matter. Teàrlach MacGregor needed no recognition. His skills were what kept him fed and afforded him a good life. He could stand in a room against the wall, gathering information for an hour without anyone noticing, despite being a massive six feet and seven inches tall. And he could fight like the dirtiest scrapper, if needs be. Those were skills that had made him valuable to the Beast of Ayr. The former Sheriff of Ayr, he corrected himself.
But Harold Crawford, the sheriff, was in prison, and his second daughter, Madeline, was out of his reach, taken by King William, who was acting as her guardian in Edinburgh until a proper marriage could be arranged. Her marriage would probably be strategic in the growing politics with England. A Highland clan chief's fourth son didn't qualify as bridegroom material.
He'd had no reason to remain at Castle Ayr as the head guardsman. Fighting and training men to be ruthless warriors were skills at which he excelled. He knew he was good and made excellent coin. Teàrlach MacGregor might not have much in the way of hereditary claim, but he could kill three men by himself with nothing but a sword and a couple of daggers. And, if the lady he'd admired from afar was in the king's custody and her father imprisoned, then he'd had no wish to stay.
So he'd left. Castle Ayr had been commandeered by the king. The fallen Sheriff of Ayr had been jailed in England under King Richard the Lionheart before being transported to King William of Scotland for seditious plotting. News had spread that Teàrlach MacGregor, the quiet, hulking guardsman, was on the prowl for new employ. He had been immediately contracted by a Lowland laird at Dalkeith Castle for a three- month contract in January, and now, as he maneuvered his horse toward the sound of distress, that contract was completed. Already he'd had three new offers. His training skills, teaching men to ruthlessly fight, were in high demand. They were what had attracted Henry de Moreville to him. Of the three offers, Moreville had offered the most generous purse.
Dammit, but he was almost to Glengarnock Castle and the Moreville family's Scottish holding. All he wanted to do was get there, get working, and swing his sword arm a few times. He was growing lazy, for it had been over a sennight since he had practiced it. Imbibing in his whisky, raging against a quintain, or better yet, an opponent, had eased his restlessness and made him forget the woman he was daft enough to want. Searching for a bloody damsel in distress was not part of this day's plan.
He approached a dip in the hill, then an ascent up rocky terrain, more treacherous than the tall grass, but easier to navigate with the sparse foliage. As he neared the waterfall, he surveyed the edge for weaknesses. Last thing he needed was for King to slip a hoof on the pebbly edge and plummet to his death, taking Teàrlach down with him. Avoiding the rim, he walked King as far as the horse agreed to go, turned him sideways, and peered over.
A woman lay below, hair pale gold, arms long and slender, and a horrible prickle shot up his spine and down his arms, standing his hair on edge. Usually, he would swoop into action, but this time he actually blinked, rubbing the corners of his eyes with his thumb and pointer to make sure he wasn't seeing false images. But the same exact woman was there when he looked down again. His heart hammered his chest.
"Lady ... Lady Madeline Crawford?"
It couldn't be. Madeline was in Edinburgh at court, a ward to the king. It had to be a trick of the eye, a woman who looked a hell of a lot like her. Otherwise, those impish Scottish fae were proving themselves real and playing a terrible trick on him. The woman, her leg bleeding through her stockings, didn't move and by all accounts was dead.
"Lady Madeline? Is that you?" he asked again. He had rarely spoken to her directly, even if he knew her well, and her name felt foreign on his tongue.
Still no response, not a twitch or a groan. But his eyes didn't lie. Bloody hell shite bastard ... "Be damned, ye daft eejit," he scolded himself. The woman needed help, regardless of who she looked like, and he was sitting in his saddle looking down at her like an imbecile.
Another string of curses tumbled through his mind as he threw himself off the horse's back and looked down at her tangled hair. A feeling of dread, unlike anything he had felt before, sank in his gut like an anchor. He had a rope withdrawn from his packs and wrapped around the nearest tree faster than he had ever moved before, dashing back to the edge and tossing the remaining coil over to slap the rock below.
He scaled down. It wasn't hard, but the lady beneath him didn't look strong enough to climb a flight of stairs, let alone climb up from such a drop. Reaching the bottom as the spray of water from the fall misted over him, he jumped down and knelt at her side. His heart, hammering moments ago, came to a dead halt and plummeted to the ground.
It was her. It was Madeline Crawford. It was her. In this remote area. Lying at the bottom of a waterfall, miles from Edinburgh. Alone.
"Lady Madeline?" he asked, squatting beside her, placing his fingers to her neck to feel a steady pulse.
Relief doused the dread burning his stomach. He exhaled a breath he didn't realize he was holding. Questions flooded his mind. Why was she not in Edinburgh? How did she manage to fall off a cliff, shallow as it was? Where was her escort? Had she been a victim of foul play? Bile turned his stomach in somersaults. Had she been ... raped? And dumped over the edge? God in heaven no! He reached to her arm, giving her a gentle shake.
"Lady Madeline," he prompted again, too fearful to move her in case something was broken. Such a fall could kill a man, snap his back, or leave him paralyzed and invalid.
A moan escaped her. He exhaled another lungful.
Excerpted from "The Maiden's Defender"
Copyright © 2017 E. Elizabeth Watson.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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