1685, Scottish Highlands
Cat Campbell knows all about Nathaniel Worthington, fifth Viscount of Lincolnshire. The determined Englishman is never far from Finlarig Castle, where his sisters train women to do more than read and write. And thanks to the fiery kiss they shared nearly a year ago he is never far from her thoughts. No one ever trained her how to forget an irresistible man.
Nathaniel knows he should keep his distance from the fierce Scottish lass, but when an urgent letter from Queen Catherine calls Cat to London, he can’t resist volunteering to escort her. The tension between the two has simmered for months, but the long journey in close quarters creates a raging wildfire that could burn them both.
Secrets of their past and the treachery lurking at court put both their future together and their very lives at risk.
Each book in The Campbells series is STANDALONE:
* The Scottish Rogue
* The Savage Highlander
* The Wicked Viscount
* The Highland Outlaw
About the Author
Heather McCollum is an award winning, historical paranormal romance writer. She earned her B.A. in Biology, much to her English professor’s dismay. She’s a member of Romance Writers of America and the Ruby Slippered Sisterhood of 2009 Golden Heart finalists.
When she is not creating vibrant characters and magical adventures on the page, she is roaring her own battle cry in the war against ovarian cancer. Ms. McCollum recently slayed the cancer beast and resides with her very own hero&3 kids in the wilds of suburbia on the mid-Atlantic coast. For more about Ms. McCollum, please visit www.HeatherMcCollum.com.
Read an Excerpt
Forest outside the village of Killin, Highlands of Scotland
11 February 1685
Cat Campbell balanced on the broad limb, her dropped basket of red winterberries and holly eight feet below. The whisper of the wind, threading through the stark branches surrounding her, twisted with the song of her pounding heart after the quick climb.
Leaning her shoulder against the rough bark, she nocked an arrow along the bow she always carried with her when traipsing through the woods. It wasn't safe to venture places alone without a weapon. And Cat Campbell had learned early on that she was always alone.
Grunt. Scratch. Something hid in the thicket, something large. She'd heard it coming closer and had sought the safety of the trees. The muscles in her arm tightened to keep the taut bowstring ready, the arrow aimed. The animal snorted, and Cat smiled. Even as she sat tucked up in a tree, a wild boar was dangerous but not as dangerous as she.
One strand of her curly red hair tickled her nose, and she wrinkled it, willing away the sneeze that could make the boar charge or run out of range. The bleached doe-skin leather hugged her legs and arms, keeping her warm without the layers of skirts that she wore at the Highland Roses School. But who could traverse the woods quickly and safely with swishing skirts tangling about her legs?
She'd left Finlarig Castle that morning, expecting to find only winter berries and mistletoe, perhaps a hare for the evening stew. But now she might haul back a full-sized, meaty boar that could feed the students for a month.
Cat rubbed her lips together, waiting with a patience she rarely displayed. Where the ladies of the castle could sit with delicate tea cups, sedately discussing the color of tapestry thread, Cat could only abide being still when action would lose her a prize. Aye, she could almost taste the fresh roast. A roast for tonight and then weeks of hearty stew if the beast was large. Bringing in meat for the students of the Highland Roses School was her way of making payment for the lessons in reading, ciphering, and hand-to-hand combat being taught to the ladies attending. Both she and her young sister, Izzy, lived at the school, both of their parents having died a few years ago.
Snort. Scrape. With practiced precision, Cat pulled the bow string back, the catgut making the tiniest squeak with the increasing tension. The thin bowline touched her lips. She breathed in measured inhales, while she searched the dense bushes for a clear target.
From a distance beyond the edge of the forest, the deep thud of hoofbeats grew louder. Someone was riding horseback across the moor toward her. Blast!
"Cat," a deep voice called out.
Bloody foking hell!
Snort. The boar pushed out, snout first. Large, lethal tusks curled from its mouth. Its tiny black eyes locked onto the approaching rider. "Ye are mine," she whispered. The boar lowered his head, scratching at the ground. She forced herself to breathe, clearing her head of everything except her target.
"Cat!" Nathaniel Worthington dismounted, saw the boar, and without hesitation threw a dagger, the blade slicing through the air. It struck the boar between the eyes, but the beast plunged toward him anyway. Cat plucked the bowstring backward, giving her arrow the tiniest additional thrust as it flew, hitting the boar in the back of its blunt head. It skidded, face-first into the frost-edged leaves, kicking up dirt and overturning her basket in an explosion of winter berries.
Cat threw her bow and quiver over her shoulder, squatted to grab the limb upon which she balanced, and swung down to drop onto the forest floor. "'Tis my kill," she called, running over to the beast.
Nathaniel stood by it, his sword out. She brushed past him and inhaled without thought, something she always did when getting close to the damnably handsome Englishman. Och, he smelled clean with a hint of masculine musk.
"What the bloody hell are ye doing here?" Cat asked, crouching. Her shot had been clean and quick, felling the animal swiftly.
"Saving your lovely neck." He squatted down on the other side.
Cat raised her gaze to his, meeting his fierce frown with a glare of her own. "Ye did see me up in a tree, English." Looking back, she placed her palm against the boar's bristled throat. "Thank ye for your life," she murmured in Gaelic, sending a quick prayer for the animal that would provide food for many. Her hand shook where it lay, a consequence of the energy running through her, and she curled it into a fist.
"It could have hit the tree," he said. "Knocked you out of it, so that you hit your head and were rendered unconscious." He cursed low.
She huffed. "I do not fall out of trees, and I do not hit my head." "At least then you would not have felt it trample and gore you to death." He yanked his dagger from the boar's forehead, wiping it on the damp leaves. "What were you doing out here alone?"
She tipped her face to see him and frowned, giving him a look that called him idiot. "I was having tea with the wee fairy folk," she said and gripped the arrow shaft.
"Hunting for holly and winterberry, but I heard the boar in the bushes." She tugged on the arrow until it slid free. "So I climbed above and waited for my chance, which ye almost ruined." She stood, walking to his brown-and-black horse where she'd spotted a rope tied to the saddle. Unhooking it, she hurried back. "I hunt for the school." She wiped the blood from the arrow onto a patch of snow. "This beast will feed us for a month."
Nathaniel's deep brown hair had grown longer since he'd arrived at Finlarig back in the summer, when his sisters had come north to steal the Campbell Clan castle to make into a school for ladies. Just like the rest of the clan, at first Cat had despised the English sisters, Evelyn and Scarlet Worthington. Then Grey Campbell, the chief, had wed Evelyn, and Aiden Campbell, a warrior, had wed Scarlet. Nathaniel Worthington was the sisters' brother and Viscount of Lincolnshire with a huge estate back in England. But instead of returning to his entitled life, the Englishman had lingered at Finlarig Castle.
He stood across from her, tall like the warriors with whom she'd grown up, his shoulders broad in his fitted English coat. His hair hung loose about the clipped beard covering a strong jawline. He raked his head with one large hand and exhaled with a deep huff. "You should not wander alone in the woods."
"I work best alone," she answered. Brows bent, she gave him such a sharp look that he should be bleeding through the rich white shirt he likely wore under his combed jacket. "And I am the most lethal thing out here."
He gestured toward her. "You can take down a man now with all your training, but a three-hundred-pound beast bent on tearing you apart ..." He let the rest hang and shook his head. "How the hell were you even going to get it out of the forest?" His voice had grown until it filled the copse of winter-bare oaks and soaring pines.
Anger churned inside Cat, her glare matching his. The man had arrived months ago and had hardly spoken to her after she'd healed him from gunshot. Avoidance had become their game, yet now he roared at her. She planted hands on her hips, tipping them to one side. "I cannot imagine what kind of hunting expeditions ye do in your groomed forests of Lincolnshire, but here I could not know that I would be up against the largest of beasts. They are rare, and I am no witch with the gift of sight." She looked around. "Get your horse. We can tie it to him to drag back."
She heard him curse under his breath. "Wait here," he said for no reason. She wasn't likely to run off when she'd brought down a feast. A slight smile curved her lips at the small win with the man. She tied the rope around the boar, under his front legs, looking purposely down at the beast, because every time she let her eyes settle on the blasted handsome man, they lingered, almost as if he were magnetic ore. Irritation swelled anew within her. "Why are ye even out here in the cold, wet forest?"
"Evelyn sent me to find you," he answered. She watched his strong back, his long, powerful legs moving with the grace of a predator. Blast, he was brawny, despite the English garb.
"For what reason?" she asked and grabbed a handful of clean snow to rub at a spot of dirt on her white leather trousers.
Nathaniel led his bay horse through the trees. "A letter has come from Whitehall Palace. From Queen Catherine."
The students of the Highland Roses School, led by Scarlet Worthington, had saved Queen Catherine from radical covenanters only a month ago. She'd been abducted, along with Aiden's sister, from the school. Without the Roses' aid, they would have been killed. In thanks, the queen had pledged to help the school financially.
Nathaniel crouched over the boar, checking Cat's binding. His hair lay in casual disarray about his head. It looked soft, a slight wave to it. She turned away. "I will run back."
"You can ride Gaspar with me." He nodded toward his large, deep brown horse, its black eyes assessing her.
The thought of sitting up against Nathaniel while they rode made her heart thump as hard as when she'd climbed the tree. "'Tis too much for the horse," she said, leaping up to jog through the woods. The deep notes of his voice called after her, but she gripped her bow over her shoulder, tucked the quiver of arrows under her arm, and ran across the snowy moor, her footfalls crunching through the brittle ice on the surface of the snow.
She inhaled the crisp air and smiled as her legs and one empty arm pumped to help her leap over the low swells of snow. Freedom. For the moment, the weight she always carried with her slid away. No regret. No sadness. Even the fury that gnawed inside seemed to dim. She just ran, hair streaming out behind her like she imagined a horse's tail.
The heaviness of hooves thudded behind her, barely heard over the rush of blood in her ears. The bay horse pulled even, walking quickly as it pulled the boar across the frozen ground. She ignored Nathaniel, but he kept his horse next to her, trotting slowly with its heavy load. Up ahead, a cluster of trees hid the walls of Finlarig. She waved her arm, urging him to pass her, but he remained diligently dogging her. Bloody Englishman.
Cat loved to run, and with her new leather trousers, it was even easier than wearing light skirts. Her feet fell in an even rhythm, drumming with the pounding of her heart, as she continued across the wide moor. She welcomed the bite of chill against her flushed cheeks. Sucking in air through her parted lips, she drank in the cold like water as she turned the corner up the lane to the castle.
The toothy maw of the portcullis was raised, and Cat flew under it, Nathaniel's horse and the boar following slightly behind. Kerrick, one of the Campbell warriors, ran toward Nathaniel. "Ye took down a boar?" he yelled out as several other men came running.
"Nay," Cat called, jogging back toward the horse. "I did." She took large gulps of air and walked, hands on her hips, to slow her heart.
"Good God, lass," Kerrick said, staring at her. Several of the warriors raked their gazes openly over her form-fitting outfit. But they knew she'd skewer them if they tried to touch her.
"By yourself?" Kerrick asked. "Ye could have been killed."
She tipped her head at Nathaniel, who dismounted in an easy drop. "So could he have."
"Aye," Aiden Campbell said, striding over from the steps. "But he is an Englishman, and they die all the time around here." He crouched to inspect the beast, but Cat's narrowed eyes remained on Nathaniel. Would he try to claim that he helped?
Nathaniel grunted at Aiden and bent to untie the ropes. "Titus should be able to make great use of this fellow. Feed the school for a month," Aiden said.
Kerrick stared at Cat. "Well done, lass. And very brave."
Yes, she was brave. She frowned at Nathaniel. She could have taken down the boar all by herself if he hadn't interfered, but now she'd never know. Blast. She crossed her arms. "English here, surprised the beast, made him charge out of the brush. So, aye, I delivered the mortal shot with my bow from a nearby tree, but he threw a blade ... in an unneeded attempt to assist." There, now he couldn't hold the incident over her head.
"It usually takes several shots to bring down a beast of this size," Aiden said, frowning at her. "'Tis best to work as part of a team when hunting."
She cursed under her breath, gifting Aiden with a glare. "I work alone."
Hamish tugged on his bushy beard. "Ye did have a crisp shot, lass. The boar was definitely yours to claim."
She'd always liked Hamish and offered the gate keeper a rare smile. "I can help — "
"Evelyn needs to see you," Nathaniel said.
"Aye." Aiden tipped his head toward the steps leading up into the castle. "Go."
Cat didn't like being told what to do. It was part of why she'd stayed away from the Highland Roses School at first. But when her mute younger sister began to live within Finlarig's walls, and the school offered warrior training with its lessons in reading, she'd finally admitted it was an opportunity she'd be a fool to miss. Although it grated on her nerves when Evelyn Worthington reminded her not to let her tea cup clatter in the saucer at afternoon tea.
She turned and strode toward the steps, listening to the crunch of someone following behind her. Every little raised hair on her arms and nape told her that it was Nathaniel Worthington, but she didn't look back. Taking the uneven steps two at a time, she nearly ran up them. She rushed through the open door and dark entry into the great hall of the castle.
"There you are," Evelyn said from near the flame-filled hearth. She turned, her growing stomach looking huge with pregnancy. Since finally revealing she was pregnant a month before, she'd swelled, making Cat guess that she was much further along than she'd originally thought. Perhaps she was carrying twins. As the town midwife, Cat should question her about her family history of multiple bairns and perform another thorough exam. But the thought faded from Cat's mind as Evelyn held up a letter, a dark seal of wax hanging heavily along one edge.
Scarlet stood with Evelyn, Grey, and his sister, Alana. They watched her approach as if holding their breaths. Only Evelyn smiled, yet somehow looked wary at the same time. "I was hunting for winterberry," Cat said, indicating her new attire. "It is much easier to sneak through the woods in trousers, as ye know."
Evelyn nodded, her cheeks still hoisted upward in a fake smile. Nathaniel passed Cat on his way to wash his hands with the pitcher and basin they kept in the corner. Cat looked down at her own hands. Broken nails, dirt, and some dark smudges of blood. She clasped them behind her back. "I shot a wild boar for the school." Grey cursed in Gaelic, frowning, but didn't say anything. Cat shot him a glare.
"That sounds like a story I want to hear," Scarlet said, a real smile touching her lips. She was the less straitlaced of the two sisters and had made Cat her second-in-command when they'd taken on the abducting covenanters. Even though Scarlet looked refined, like someone from an English court, she was also fierce. Cat liked her.
The room fell silent again, and with it came the heaviness of news not yet told. The words seemed to hang invisible in the air, waiting for someone to catch and speak them. Cat had felt the weight before, when Grey's father, the chief at the time, had come to tell her and her mother and sister that their da had been killed by English bastards on Bothwell Bridge. It was a day she'd never forget.
Cat's gaze slid across the quiet assembly. Only Nathaniel moved, drying his hands and walking over. He took the letter from his sister. "Let her read it herself." He stopped before Cat, his closeness making her swallow.
She sniffed and held out her hand. He didn't even question if she could decipher the words, written in a slanted script. A year ago, she'd been hard pressed to make out the loops, lines, and dashes, but Evelyn, though annoying, was a very talented teacher. Winter light cut through the windows set high in the stone walls of the keep, just enough for her to make out the words.
To Ladies Evelyn and Scarlet Worthington of the Highland Roses School, Finlarig Castle, Killin, Scotland.
I send dire news. His majesty, my husband, Charles has taken ill just this morn. His physicians are assisting him. There are whispers of poison, and his brother, James, has been summoned.
I request a Highland Rose, dispatched with utmost haste, to attend me. A student with knowledge of healing or symptoms of poison, as well as a physically protective nature, is imperative. Perhaps your brother can provide escort to bring the Rose as quickly as God allows. I fear there is much danger within Whitehall at this time, and my heart grieves for this great man, my husband and king.
Your Queen, Catherine de Braganza 2 February 1865(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Wicked Viscount"
Copyright © 2019 Heather McCollum.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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