Near Falkirk, Scotland, Spring 1607
Flora MacLeod turned her gaze from the window to peer into the darkness at the man seated opposite her. She never had second thoughts, which—given that it was too late to change her mind—she supposed was a good thing. No, once she made a decision, she stuck with it. A small army couldn’t turn her from her course. In the matter of her marriage, there was no exception.
“Don’t be silly,” she replied. “I couldn’t be happier.”
It was clear, however, that her soon-to-be husband, William, Lord Murray, son of the newly created Earl of Tullibardine, didn’t believe her. “Happy? I haven’t seen you so subdued in months.” He paused. “It’s not too late to turn back, you know.”
But it was. She’d made her decision the moment she’d snuck out of Holyrood House and scrambled into the waiting carriage.
“I don’t want to turn back.” But the vehemence she’d intended was lost when her voice vibrated with the clattering carriage. A carriage that was fighting to stay upright on the uneven road. She grabbed the seat as best she could when they hit another bump and tried not to crash sidelong into the glossy, wood-paneled walls. A battle she was sure to lose before this day was done. The road leading from Edinburgh would only get worse as they neared the parish of Falkirk.
“Maybe we would have been better off riding after all?” she ventured. It was at Lord Murray’s insistence that they’d taken the carriage—luxurious, but impractical on the road to the Highland divide.
“No need to worry on that account. We’re perfectly safe. My coachman is an excellent driver.” William tried to hand her back her purse, which had slid off the bench beside her, but it slipped through her fingers, landing on the floor again. He laughed. “I never thought I’d see the day that Flora MacLeod was nervous.”
Her mouth twitched, caught. “Perhaps I am a bit anxious. I’ve never done this before, you know.”
He gave her hand a friendly pat. “I should hope not. But no need to worry, everything is all arranged. It shouldn’t be much longer now.”
She sat back against the seat and tried to relax. If all went according to plan, in a few hours she would be Lady Murray. Lord Murray—William, she reminded herself—had found a minister willing to preside over the clandestine marriage ceremony without proclaiming the banns. Every man had his price, and for the minister of the St. Mary’s Kirk it happened to be a cask of fine claret and five hundred merks. More than enough to soften the blow of any fine that might be levied against him for performing the irregular marriage ceremony.
An irregular marriage was Flora’s only option. She would not take a chance that one of her brothers, or her powerful cousin, would hear of her plans beforehand and try to stop her.
If she had to marry, she thought grimly, it would be a man of her choosing.
She cursed the fates for putting her in this position. She had no desire to marry at all. But it was her great misfortune to be half-sister to not one, but two powerful Highland chiefs. And if that weren’t enough, her cousin was the most influential Highlander in Scotland. But this “marriage prize,” as she was infuriatingly referred to, would rather avoid the state altogether. Marriage brought nothing but unhappiness.
Her mother’s misery was all too fresh in Flora’s mind.
But about the only thing worse than being married was being forced to marry. So rather than risk the alternative, she’d decided to take the matter of her husband in her own hands. In this case by riding at breakneck speed through the countryside to find a minister of questionable repute in an out-of-the-way parish where she would not be recognized.
She gazed sidelong at the man seated opposite her. Even in the darkness of the carriage she could see the silvery sheen of blond hair cascading across a face that could only be described as sublime. But though he was undeniably pleasing to the eye, it was not his looks that had made her decide to accept his proposal. Nor was it his wit and intelligence, of which he also had a superfluity. It was because William had wealth, power, and position of his own—he did not need hers. She had no need to question his motives beyond what he’d stated: Their union was of friends who would seek their mutual advantage by their union.
As an added boon, he didn’t seem particularly concerned with Highland politics. And of that subject, she’d heard her fill. The lessons of the mother had indeed been well learned by the daughter. She would sooner marry a toad than a Highlander.
And Lord Murray was infinitely more appealing than a toad.
“And what of you, William. Any second thoughts?”
“Don’t you worry what will happen when they discover—”
“Is that what this is about?” He took her hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze. “You wrote the letters, did you not?”
She nodded. One good thing about having so many relatives was that there were many places she could claim to be with none the wiser. Fortunately, the one person who might question her whereabouts—her cousin Elizabeth Campbell—was on Skye attending to the birth of Flora’s latest nephew. The second son in as many years of her half-brother Alex and his wife, Meg—a wife Flora had never met. Her mother had been too ill to travel the year they’d come to court.
“Then there is no reason to assume they will find out,” William said confidently. “And thanks to your disguise, no one will have noticed you leaving the palace.”
Noting the direction of his gaze, she touched the white linen cap she wore on her head. She grinned, amused by the image she must present. Flora was well-known for her propensity to find mischief at Holyrood House. But sneaking out of the palace at midnight to elope with one of the most powerful young men at court, dressed as a maidservant, was sure to top all that had come before. She’d outdone herself. And coming from the girl who’d once donned breeches and climbed halfway down the parapet beneath her balcony at Castle Campbell before her cousin Jamie caught her, that was saying something.
Uncomfortably aware of the scratchy woolen dress she was wearing that poked right through the fine linen of her shift, she asked, “You were able to pick up my gown?”
“As charmingly rustic as you look, my dear, I hardly think the future Countess of Tullibardine should be married dressed as a servant. Your gown is in the trunk, though procuring it from your dressmaker did take some explaining.”
Flora chuckled, thinking of the dour Frenchwoman. The court’s preference for French fashion was the one lasting legacy from the reign of Mary Queen of Scots—other than her son, King James, of course. “It seemed the easiest thing to do. I could hardly sneak it out with me. Madame de Ville already thinks me horribly indecorous. I doubt anything you could say would change her opinion.” Indecorous was probably an understatement. Flora had a reputation at court for being more than a touch unruly.
Fortunately, William had never seemed to be bothered by her reputation. If anything, her penchant for finding trouble seemed to amuse him. After news of tonight’s events spread, he was going to need that sense of humor. Their elopement was sure to cause a scandal far greater than anything she’d ever managed before.
She bit her lip. He was taking a risk. Not much older than her four and twenty years, he’d already made a name for himself in King James’s northern court. He wielded considerable influence among the privy councilors—the men left in charge while the king wooed his recalcitrant English subjects at Whitehall. Eloping with the Earl of Argyll’s cousin, and the half-sister of Rory MacLeod and Hector Maclean, was a potentially dangerous move for a young man of ambition.
One that might be excused by strength of affection, but Flora did not delude herself in that regard. Although attentive, her soon-to-be husband could hardly be described as besotted. As her feelings were similarly disengaged, it was actually another element in his favor. There would be no pretense on either side. They were friends, nothing more. It was far more than could be said of most marriages.
Most important, she knew him well enough to know that he would not try to control her. She would live her life, and he would live his. It was all she wanted.
But what of him? What did he want?
Flora had known William for years, ever since she’d first made her appearance at court six years ago. But unlike most of the young men of her acquaintance, he’d never pursued her. His sudden courtship—in earnest—upon her recent return to Edinburgh was thus unexpected but admittedly well timed.
For scarcely a few days after he’d made his intentions known, a letter from her half-brother Rory, Chief of MacLeod, arrived requesting her presence at Dunvegan Castle to “discuss her future.” Ironically, the request from Rory was followed not long after by one from her half-brother Hector, Chief of Maclean, requesting her presence on the Isle of Mull. Flora was hardly fooled by the near simultaneous requests. A discussion about her future could mean only one thing for a young woman of four and twenty left alone by the sudden death of her mother: marriage. Or, more specifically, the right to control her marriage.
With her mother gone and her father buried long before, the right belonged to Rory. A brother she hardly knew. From what she did remember of him, he didn’t seem as if he would force her to marry a man not of her choosing. But she could not take the chance. Even if Rory could be persuaded, Hector and her cousin Argyll wouldn’t let the matter be decided without interference.
All three would be furious to discover what she’d done.
Her brothers should have known better than to try to force her hand. Though she hadn’t seen them in some time, in some ways she hadn’t changed. But perhaps they’d forgotten the little girl who hated to be backed into a corner?
Flora gazed at William again, peering through the darkness to study him a little longer, wondering not for the first time why he’d agreed to her plan to elope. But she quickly pushed aside the sudden twinge of uncertainty.
He was the perfect choice. Her brothers might even approve, she thought wryly. Not that she would give them a chance to have a say in the matter.
“You have nothing to fear,” Lord Murray reassured her, seeming to know where her mind was going. “Even if they hear of it, it won’t be in time. We’re nearly there.”
Flora arched a brow. “You don’t know my brothers.”
In the soft glow of moonlight, an odd look crossed his face. “Not well,” he admitted. “Mostly by reputation.”
Flora repressed an indelicate snort. “Then you will know that there is much to fear. My infamously fierce brothers are not men to anger.” She paused. “Though admittedly, I don’t know them very well anymore.”
“When did you last see them?”
She thought for a minute. “Quite some time ago. My mother preferred to stay at court or Castle Campbell.” The Lowland stronghold of the Earl of Argyll. Thereby avoiding the “barbarians,” as Highlanders were considered at court, who’d caused her so much misery. “My brothers do their best not to leave the Highlands,” she explained. “I see far more of my cousin Argyll than I do of Rory and Hector.” Or any of the other half-siblings, for that matter.
Other than a few brief times at court, Flora had not spent significant time with anyone in her family since she was a child. Though she had eight half-brothers and sisters—five MacLeods (sharing the same father) and three Macleans (sharing the same mother)—she might as well have been an only child.
Not that she’d minded. She’d always had her mother.
But her mother was gone.
Flora swallowed the ball that had suddenly formed in her throat. She missed her desperately.
She could only hope that in death, her mother had found the happiness that eluded her in life. Married four times to men not of her choosing, her mother had endeavored to ensure that her daughter not suffer the same fate, and her dying wish was that Flora not marry without love. A wish that she’d secured with a deathbed promise.
Promise me, Flora. Whatever it takes, never marry someone you do not love.
Flora shook off the memories—and the guilt. She didn’t love William. But how could she keep her promise to her mother? Without her mother’s protection, Flora was left to the mercy of the men who would seek to control her. A woman could not choose her own destiny. Like it or not, Flora was a marriage prize. Her duty was to marry where her brother wanted her to.
But was it her duty to have a life of unhappiness?
No. She refused to be bartered like a prized heifer. She’d made her decision.
“Did it belong to your mother?”
Startled, she turned back toward William. “What?”
“The necklace. You always hold it when you mention her.”
Flora smiled softly, not realizing she’d been clasping the amulet. The amulet that her mother had never been without but that had belonged to Flora for the last six months. Since the day her mother’s unhappiness was finally put to rest. “Yes.”
“It’s unusual. Where did it come from?”
She paused, for some reason unwilling to share the story of the necklace. It seemed somehow so personal. Ridiculous, she knew, given that this man would soon be her husband. The legend and the curse associated with the amulet were hardly a secret. Still, she hesitated. “It was passed to my mother’s mother by her aunt, who…” she paused. “Died without children. And then to my mother as the youngest daughter, and then to me. But originally, it belonged to the Macleans.”
“Your brother’s clan?”
They hit another bump. Flora held her breath as the carriage perched sideways for a long moment, then settled back down on all four wheels. When it came to a sudden halt, she thought they must have damaged something.
“I’ll have the coachman’s head for this—”
But Lord Murray’s threat was lost in the deafening thunder of horses and the sudden burst of loud voices coming from outside.
Her pulse shot up in an explosion of comprehension: They were being attacked.
From the quizzical expression on his face, it was clear that William had not yet realized what was happening. He was a Lowlander to the core—a courtier, not a fighter. For a moment, Flora felt a stab of frustration; then she chastised herself for being unfair. She wouldn’t want it otherwise. But clearly, in this situation, he was going to be of little help.
She could hear the sporadic clash of steel against steel moving closer. They didn’t have much time. Grabbing his arm, she forced his gaze to hers. “We’re under attack.” A shot rang out, punctuating her words. “Do you have anything? A weapon of any sort?”
He shook his head. “I have no use for weaponry, my men are well armed.”
Flora cursed, not bothering to curb her tongue.
His frown returned. “Really, my dear. You mustn’t say such things. Not when we are married.”
Another shot rang out.
She bit back the sarcastic retort that sprang to her lips. Married? They might not be alive in an hour. Did he not understand the desperation of their situation? Scotland was rife with brigands who roamed the countryside. Outlaws. Broken men without clans who weren’t known for their mercy. Flora had thought there would be some protection in staying close to Edinburgh. She was wrong.
Lord Murray was exhibiting the arrogant obtuseness characteristic of many courtiers—the confidence that rank and wealth would protect him. But a few muskets would not stop a Highland sword or bow for long. They needed something to defend themselves with.
“A sword,” she said urgently, trying to mask her impatience. “Surely you have a sword?”
“Of course. Every man at court carries one. But I did not want to be bothered with it at my side during the journey, so the driver strapped it to the box with your gown. I do still have my dagger.” He slid the blade from the scabbard at his waist and held it out to her. From the heavily jewel-encrusted hilt, Flora could tell that it was intended for adornment and not battle. But the six-inch blade would suffice well enough.
From the awkward way he held the blade, as if it were distasteful, it was obvious he didn’t know how to use it. “I’m afraid I don’t have much experience—”
She did. “I’ll take it.” Flora slid the dagger into the fold of her cloak right before the door swung open with a crash.
And everything happened at once.
Before she could scream or make a move to defend herself, she was plucked roughly from the safety of the carriage into the viselike hold of a man. A very large man. Who from the feel of him was as strong as an ox.
She gasped from the force of being brought up hard against the granite wall of his chest. Laid out against him, the full length of her body was plastered against hard, unyielding stone.
Dear God, no one had ever dared to hold her like this. She’d never been this aware of …anything. Her cheeks burned with indignation and from the sudden blast of heat that seemed to radiate from him. He’d wrapped his arm around her waist and pressed it up snuggly under the heavy weight of her bosom, making her deeply conscious of the rise and fall of her breasts against his arm. Although she was not a small woman, her head tucked easily under his chin. But the worst part was that with her back to his chest, her bottom was pressed directly against his groin.
Instinctively, she rebelled at the closeness. At the intimacy of being molded against the hard-muscled body of a filthy villain.
Except that he didn’t smell filthy at all. He smelled of myrtle and heather, with the faintest hint of the sea.
Furious at the direction of her thoughts, she turned her outrage on her captor. “Get your hands off me!” She struggled to wrench free, but it was useless. His arm was as rigid as steel. Though he was restraining her only with one arm, she’d barely moved an inch.
“I’m afraid not, my sweet.”
She froze at the lilting sound of the burr in his voice. A Highlander. His voice made the hair on her arms stand straight on end. It was almost hypnotic. Deep and dark, with an indisputable edge of danger.
Her blood ran cold. The direness of their predicament had just grown markedly worse. Highlanders had the morals of the devil. Unless she could think of something, they were as good as dead.
Repressing the impulse to struggle further, Flora stilled, feigning submission, giving herself a moment to appraise the situation. The night was dark, but the full moon softly lit the wide expanse of moorland, enabling her to see just enough—or perhaps too much. Because what she saw wasn’t good. They were surrounded by about a score of powerful-looking men dressed in breacan feiles, the belted plaids of the Highlands, all brandishing enormous two-handed claymores. To a one, their faces were hard and uncompromising. These were fighting men, warriors.
But they did not bear the hungry, feral look of hunted men. Glancing down, she noticed the finely spun linen shirt of the man holding her. His plaid was also of fine quality—soft and smooth to the touch.
If they weren’t outlaws, just who were they, and what did they want?
She didn’t intend to stay and find out. Every nerve in her body clamored to break free, to escape from danger. But her options were few.
The handful of men whom Lord Murray had brought as an escort were greatly outnumbered and, from the looks of things, had given up without much of a fight. She saw a few muskets and hagbuts scattered at their feet, although most still held their swords.
But surrender was not in Flora’s nature. Especially to barbarians. And she had no doubt that these men were Highlanders. If their speech hadn’t given them away, the manner of their dress left no doubt.
“What do you want?” Flora recognized the haughty voice of her betrothed. “And get your filthy hands off her.”
Lord Murray had been pulled from the carriage behind her and was being restrained by a fearsome-looking Highlander. His size, piercing blue eyes, and shock of white blond hair left little doubt of his Viking ancestry.
The brigand gave her a moment’s pause, leaving her to wonder whether the brute holding her was equally as formidable. Perhaps she was glad she could not see him; she was frightened enough as it was. Her heart was beating so hard, she was sure he must feel it.
“Take whatever it is you want and leave us,” Lord Murray added. “We are on important business this night.”
The man behind her stiffened, and Flora realized why. She’d never noticed the tinge of condescension that threaded through William’s speech until now.
“You are hardly in any position to be issuing orders, my lord,” her captor said with unveiled contempt. His arm tightened possessively around her middle. “But you are free to go. Take your men with you. I have everything I want.”
Her blood drained to her feet as his meaning became clear. Me. He means me.
William would die before he allowed a barbarian to take her, and Flora couldn’t be the cause of his death. Nor would she contemplate what the villain might do to her. Her gaze darted around frantically, as she tried to come up with a plan.
“You can’t be serious. Do you know who we are?” William paused. “Is that what this is about? Do you intend to ransom her?” He laughed scornfully, causing the man behind her to stiffen further. Flora wished William would be quiet, before he got them all killed. “You’ll wish for a simple hanging if you take her. You will be hunted like a dog.”
“They’d have to catch me,” the brigand said flatly.
From his tone, it was obvious he thought it impossible. This was no typical brigand, Flora realized. She could tell from his voice and his facility with Scots, the tongue of the Lowlands, that he had at least some education.
A glint of silver coming from the rear of the carriage flashed in the moonlight like a shimmering beacon. There it was. Her chance. She only hoped that William’s men would be ready.
William had started issuing more threats. It was now or never. She hoped the man holding her didn’t notice the sudden spike in her heartbeat.
She prayed she remembered what to do. It had been a long time since her brothers Alex and Rory and her cousin Jamie Campbell had taught her how to defend herself.
She took a deep breath and stomped down as hard as she could with the wooden heel of her patten on the brigand’s instep, causing him to loosen his hold just enough. In one swift movement, she slid the dagger from her cloak, spun, and thrust the blade deep into his stomach. But he’d turned slightly, and the blade sank into his side instead.
He let out a pained curse and fell to his knees, grabbing the handle of the dirk that was still in his side.
Horror crept up her throat. She’d never stabbed a man before. She hoped…
Nonsense. The brute intended to kidnap her…and worse.
She turned around long enough to see the surprise on his face. A face that was not what she’d expected. A face that made her hesitate. Their eyes locked, and she felt a strange jolt. God’s breath, he was the most ruggedly handsome man she’d ever seen.
But he was a villain.
Turning from the wounded man, she leapt toward the carriage.
“Fight!” she yelled to Lord Murray’s gaping men.
Lunging for the flash of silver she’d glimpsed, she prayed, letting out a sigh of relief when her hand found steel and she pulled Lord Murray’s sword from the box.
Her daring had spurred the men back into action. The fighting began again in earnest.
Escape. She couldn’t let them take her. Perhaps if she could cross the moors a few hundred yards to the edge of the forest. She turned to look for William, relieved to see that the man holding him had made a move toward his injured leader—for she had no doubt that the man she’d stabbed was the leader—and then found himself engaged in a swordfight with one of William’s men. After tossing the sword to William, she pulled him behind the carriage. “We have to run,” she whispered.
He stood frozen, looking at her with the strangest expression on his face, as if he couldn’t quite tell whether to be awed or repulsed.
She tamped down her rising irritation. He should be thanking her, not gaping at her as if she were a Gorgon. “Look, we don’t have much time.” Not giving him an opportunity to reply, she pulled him toward the moors and started to run toward the line of trees that loomed in the distance like an oasis.
But freedom was swift. She hadn’t taken more than a few steps onto the heather before she was brought down from behind, landing hard against the ground with the full weight of a man on top of her. Her breath slammed against her chest.
She couldn’t move. Or breathe. Heather, dirt, and twigs pressed into her cheek, and her mouth tasted dirt.
She didn’t have to look; she knew who it was just by the feel of him.
He wasn’t dead.
End of Excerpt
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