June 13, 1607, Dunvegan Castle, Isle of Skye
Annie MacGregor glanced at the man with the black expression on his face climbing the sea-gate stairs beside her and elbowed him in the ribs.
“Ouch! Damn it, Annie,” her brother said with a scowl. “What in Hades was that for?”
“You promised to have fun,” she replied with a black scowl of her own. Patrick, the eldest of her three older brothers, wasn’t the only one in the family with a temper. She resisted the urge to wag her finger at him. She wasn’t going to be called a “London fishwife” (there was no worse disparagement to a Highlander than being called English) today. Today was going to be perfect. “You said that for one week we could have fun and not worry.”
For one precious week they would emerge from their lair in the Lomond Hills and forget that they were outlaws, proscribed and persecuted simply for the sin of being MacGregors.
“I said I would tryto have fun,” Patrick corrected. “And it’s my job as chieftain to worry. Don’t forget what happened last year.” The prior year, Patrick, Gregor (her second eldest brother), and their cousin and chief, Alasdair MacGregor, had nearly been captured at the Highland Gathering held at Castle Campbell. Despite being outlawed, Alasdair, known as “the Arrow of Glen Lyon,” had wanted to enter—and win—the archery contest. He would have, too, if Patrick hadn’t betrayed their identities by coming to the aid of the Earl of Argyll’s cousin Elizabeth who’d slipped in the mud. Annie’s brother’s actions had surprised them all. Patrick wasn’t exactly known for his Galahad tendencies—especially toward the hated Campbells. “Besides,” he added, probably knowing where her mind was heading and wanting to cut off questions about the incident, “little girls who use blackmail to get their way aren’t in any position to be casting stones.”
Annie’s scowl shifted into a scrunched-up nose. “I didn’t blackmail you. I cried.”
She bit back a smile as they passed through the first arched stone gate in the curtain wall. She’d been about five when she’d learned the destructive force of a woman’s tears—especially hers—on her fearsome brothers. Although she rarely had to bring out that particular weapon to get her way, desperate times called for desperate measures, and Niall Lamont certainly qualified. She wasn’t going to miss the chance to see him, and with the Gathering being held this year at Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye—remote enough to be beyond the reach of the Campbells—she’d done what she had to do to convince her very unreasonable, overprotective, and extremely stubborn brother to let her attend.
If she didn’t know better, she would think Niall was avoiding her. She hadn’t seen him in almost six months—since he and his brother Malcolm had come to Glenstrae to fetch her brother Iain for their latest bit of mischief.
Niall and her brother Iain were always getting into mischief. It was what they did. They were young Highland warriors. Wild, wicked, and troublemaking was in the blood. When they weren’t raiding and otherwise raising hell across the countryside, they were drinking and flirting with the sort of women she wasn’t supposed to know about.
If the thought crossed her mind that there might be more than flirting going on, she turned her mind away from it. She wouldn’t think about that. Whatever had happened before today was in the past.
Suddenly she thought of something else Patrick had said and elbowed him again even harder. As they’d reached the top of the stairs and were on the flat ground of the castle barmkin, she could stop to turn to face him, putting her hands on her waist and drawing herself up to her full height—even if it was a good foot shorter than his. “And I’m not a little girl. I’m eight and ten today.”
He groaned and rubbed his side. “Don’t remind me. My baby sister is all grown up, and I’m not sure how the hell that happened.” He grimaced again with exaggerated pain. “You’ve gotten stronger in your old age.”
She rolled her eyes as they continued on. “I’ve always been strong—just like you and Gregor.” He started to open his mouth but, seeing her glare, slammed it shut. “Don’t say it,” she said, knowing exactly what he was thinking: “Strong for a wee lass.”
Strong was strong. Just because she wasn’t as inhumanly strong as he was didn’t mean she wasn’t strong in her own right. She could carry more wood and move heavier stones than men much bigger than she.
But she wasn’t supposed to notice things like that.
Nor would she point it out. She knew it upset her brothers that she had to work so hard. They were a proud, protective lot, and manual labor and rustic living conditions in whatever brae or glen they could find in the Lomond Hills that was safe from Campbells wasn’t the life they wanted for her or thought she deserved. In another world, in another place where her clan hadn’t had their lands and castles stolen from them, she would have lived the life of a noblewoman.
Once the MacGregors had ruled Scotland. Their motto, s rìoghail mo dhream, “royal is my race,” attested to their ancient power. But over the years, the clan’s authority had waned. And after the days of King Robert the Bruce, when the Campbells had started to rise in importance, the MacGregors had been slowly stripped of their wealth and had struggled to hold on to their lands.
That struggle had killed her parents. Her father had been a MacGregor chieftain—brother to the Chief of MacGregor—and her mother had been sister to Duncan Campbell of Glenorchy who was one of the most powerful men in Scotland. But her father and her Campbell uncle had fought over land, and when “Black” Duncan’s men came to their castle on Loch Earn, her father had been killed in the attack.
Her mother had also been struck down that night by her own brother’s men. Unintentionally, maybe, but caught in the crossfire nonetheless. A not-uncommon fate of women in the Highlands where war and feuds between the clans had gone unchecked by powerless kings for hundreds of years.
But the once-unfettered power of the clans and chiefs was waning. King James the VI of Scotland, and now the I of England, intended to put an end to the lawlessness in the Highlands, and this time it was the MacGregors who were caught in the crossfire. Outlawed and made a scapegrace for wrongs they didn’t commit to appease the Scottish king’s new English subjects.
But none of that mattered today. Today Annie was free. Today she was finally eighteen. Today she would see the man she’d given her heart as a woman full grown. There would be no more excuses. No more waiting. He would kiss her, and then he would ask her to marry him.
Niall Lamont might be a rogue, but he loved her. Of that she had no doubt.
Almost as if Patrick could read her mind, he frowned. There was a familiar warning in his voice when he started, “Annie…”
I don’t want you to be disappointed.
But she wasn’t listening. She’d just caught sight of the man striding out of the massive square tower ahead of her. The man she’d traveled so far to see. The man who made her breath hitch, her chest ache, and her stomach drop since the first time she’d seen him, even though she’d been but ten years old.
Eight years later, Niall Lamont, the second son of the Lamont of Ascog, was still one of the most handsome men she’d ever beheld. He had pitch-black hair, brilliant blue eyes, and a smile that would melt even the steeliest of knees. Nearly as tall as her towering brother at a few inches over six feet, his broad shoulders already supported an impressive bulk of lean muscle that in five years’ time—when he was the same age as Patrick’s six and twenty—might even surpass her brother’s powerful warrior’s physique.
But that was where the similarities between the two men ended. Patrick had had little reason to smile in the sixteen years since he’d witnessed their parents’ deaths and been forced to take up the mantle of chieftain to a persecuted clan. But Niall on the other hand… Niall did nothing but smile. A wicked, cocksure smile that lit the blue in his eyes with a silvery twinkle and made her feel as if she’d just stepped out into the bright sunlight every time he looked at her.
Even that first time when she was ten and he’d come up behind her after she’d punched that horrid Torquil MacNeil in the nose for trying to kiss her.
“Now, that’s the lass for me,” Niall had said, breaking out into peals of laughter.
His words had seemed prophetic. They were perfect together. And in the dozens of times they’d met since then, she’d never had cause to doubt it. It was in the way he looked at her. The way the light jumped into his eyes. The way their gazes would catch and hold and something pure and powerful would pass between them. It happened every time.
Except this time.
This time when he looked at her the broad smile that had been on his face held for one long instant and fell. It slid from his eyes and took the twinkle—and the feel of sunlight—along with it in a hard crash of disappointment. He turned away so quickly to talk to the man beside him—his brother Malcolm, she realized—that the ground under her feet seemed to shift and roll. She felt unsteady. As if she were still standing on the planks of the birlinnshe’d just gotten off of and bracing herself against the violent pitch of the sea.
His reaction was so unexpected—and so instantaneous—that she almost wondered whether he’d seen her.
But he had.
Annie’s unfailing confidence where Niall Lamont was concerned dimmed. But not for long. Not when she noticed her brother’s fearsome gaze in Niall’s direction.
That was it! Her blasted brother was the reason for Niall’s reaction. Annie knew the two men had had words last time she’d seen Niall. Patrick had discovered them in the barn together. They weren’t doing anything, but he’d ordered her to leave and said something to Niall that had sent him running off with Iain with barely a goodbye.
She’d had to corner him to get that.
“I’m sorry, Annie. I can’t do this. It isn’t right.”
She didn’t understand what he was talking about. “What isn’t right?”
He wouldn’t look at her. He seemed pained somehow. “You’re too young; you don’t understand.”
She’d gotten angry then. Those were her brother’s words. “I’m seven and ten.”
He smiled at that, and the sun came out again. “Practically an old woman.” He laughed, but then quickly sobered. “People might get the wrong impression of us spending time together. They may think…” He seemed embarrassed. “They may think badly of you.”
“Why? We aren’t doing anything wrong.” Much to her disappointment. “And you likespending time with me.”
He didn’t deny it. How could he? Niall loved her every bit as much as she loved him. Everyone knew it. He’d always made a point to seek her out. He talked to her in a way he didn’t talk to anyone else. Told her things. Confided in her. Trusted her. There was an intimacy between them that went beyond friendship and compatibility.
“Then what’s the problem?” she asked. “Why do you care what everyone thinks?”
She didn’t care. The woman who gossiped about her were just jealous.
He looked at her, shook his head, and laughed. “Your impossible to argue with.”
“Good,” she said with a lift of her chin. “Then don’t. You can kiss me goodbye instead.”
His face darkened ominously. Anyone who thought Niall only carefree and good-natured had never seen him get angry. He could turn terrifying in an instant. But all that male intimidation was lost on her. Niall would never hurt her. He would protect her with his life. “Annie… you have to stop saying that.”
“Because you make it hard for me to do the right thing.”
“It isn’t right to kiss me?”
He looked down at her, and the fierce expression on his face—the longing, the desire, the nearly palpable hunger—made her think he’d finally relent. That he’d finally give in to the attraction that had been building between them for years.
The air seemed to be sucked out of the space between them, and every inch of her skin was humming. She felt a crackle that sent sparks of heat racing through her blood as he leaned closer…
“No, damn it,” he said, more to himself than to her, and jerked back. “Not when you are so young. You aren’t even eighteen, for Christ’s sake.”
It took Annie a moment for her senses to clear from the almost kiss to manage a reply. “I won’t be seventeen forever,” she told him.
She could have sworn she heard him mumble “heaven help me” as he turned and walked away.
Well, heaven wasn’t going to help him today. Today she would have her kiss—and the promise of the man she’d given her heart to many years before.
End of Excerpt
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