Our Story Begins: Handpicked by Robert the Bruce to help him in his quest to free Scotland from English rule, the Highland Guard is an elite fighting force unlike any the world has ever seen. They are the best of the best, chosen for their superior skills in each discipline of warfare. As the tides of war turn, one elite warrior is all that stands between victory and defeat.
An Excerpt From Chapter One: Arthur Campbell, a spy for Bruce placed in the enemy camp, is watching from the shadows as Bruce’s men attack English couriers. Or who are supposed to be English couriers…
Christ. What a damned mess. This mission had just gone straight to hell. Bruce’s men were about to lose their element of surprise—and kill a woman in the process.
He shouldn’t interfere. He couldn’t risk discovery. He was supposed to stay in the shadows. Operate in the black. Not get involved. Do whatever he had to do to protect his cover.
Bruce was counting on him. The prized scouting skills that had landed him in the elite fighting force known as the Highland Guard had never been as valuable as they were now. Arthur’s ability to hide in the shadows and penetrate deep behind enemy lines to gather intelligence about terrain, supply lines, enemy strength and positions, was even more important for the surprise attacks that had become a hallmark of Bruce’s war strategy.
One lass wasn’t worth the risk.
Hell, he wasn’t even supposed to be here.
Let her go.
His heart hammered as she drew closer. He didn’t get involved. He stayed in the shadows. It wasn’t his problem.
Sweat gathered on his brow beneath the heavy steel of his helm. He had only a fraction of an instant to decide . . .
He stepped out from behind the trees. He’d been playing a knight for so long he must have started to believe it. He was a damned fool, but he couldn’t stand by and let an innocent lass go to her death without trying to do something. Maybe he could intercept them before they came into view. Maybe. But he couldn’t be sure where all of Bruce’s men were positioned.
He moved stealthily through the shadows, coming on her from behind. In one smooth motion, he slid his hand around to cover her mouth before she could scream. Hooking his arm around her waist, he jerked her hard against him.
A little too hard. He could feel every one of her soft feminine curves plastered against him—particularly the nicely rounded bottom saddled against his groin.
Roses. He smelled them again. Stronger now. Making him feel strangely lightheaded. He inhaled reflexively and noticed something else. Something warm and buttery with the faint tinge of apple. Tarts, he realized. In her basket.
Her struggles roused him from the momentary lapse. “I mean you no harm, lass,” he whispered.
But his body was responding to her in a manner that might be construed otherwise, crackling like wildfire at her movement. A hard shock of awareness coursed though him. She had a tiny waist, but he could feel the unmistakable heaviness of very full, very lush breasts on his arm. A rush of heat pooled in his groin.
He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a woman.
Hell of a time to think about it now.
Her guardsman must have heard the movement. The knight spun around. “M’lady?”
Seeing her in Arthur’s hold, he reached for his sword.
“Shhh . . .” Arthur warned softly. He kept his voice low, both to avoid being heard and to disguise his voice. “I’m trying to help. You need to get out of here.” He relaxed his hold on her mouth. “I’m going to let go of you, but don’t scream. Not unless you want to bring them down on us. Do you understand?”
She nodded, and slowly he released her.
She spun around to face him. In the tree-shrouded moonlight, all he could see were two big, round eyes staring up at him from under the deep hood of her cloak.
“Bring who down on us? Who are you?”
Her voice was soft and sweet, and thankfully low enough not to carry. He hoped.
Her gaze slid over him. He’d traveled lightly tonight as he always did when he was working, wearing only a blackened habergeon shirt and coif of mail, and gamboissed leather chausses. But they were fine, and from his helm (which he’d lowered to cover his face) and weaponry, it was clear he was a knight. “You’re not a rebel,” she observed, confirming what he’d already guessed of her sympathies. She was no friend of Bruce.
“Answer the lady,” her companion said, “or you’ll feel the point of my sword.”
Arthur resisted the urge to laugh. The knight was all brute strength and moved about as deftly as a barge. But cognizant of the situation, he didn’t want to take the time to prove the soldier wrong. He needed to get them out of here as quickly and quietly as possible.
“A friend, my lady,” he said. “A knight in the service of King Edward.”
For now at least.
Suddenly, he stilled. Something had changed. He couldn’t describe how he knew, other than a disturbance in the back of his consciousness and the sensation that the air had shifted.
Bruce’s men were coming. They’d been discovered.
He cursed. This wasn’t good. No more time to convince her gently. “You must leave now,” he said in a steely voice that brokered no argument.
He caught the flare of alarm in her gaze. She, too, must have sensed the danger.
But it was too late. For all of them.
He gave her a hard shove, pushing her behind the nearest tree moments before the soft whiz of arrows pierced the night air. The arrow meant for the lass landed with a thud in the tree that now shielded her, but another had found its mark. Her guardsman groaned as a perfectly shot arrow pierced through his mail shirt to settle in his gut.
Arthur barely had time to react. He turned his shoulder at the last moment as the arrow meant for his heart pinned his shoulder instead. Gritting his teeth, he grabbed the shaft and snapped it off. He didn’t think the arrowhead had penetrated deeply, but he didn’t want to risk trying to pull it out right now.
Bruce’s men thought he was one of the couriers. An understandable mistake, but one that put him in the horrible predicament of battling his compatriots to defend himself or betray his cover.
He could still get away.
Maybe they would realize it was a lass? But he couldn’t make himself believe it. If he left, she would die.
Arthur barely had time to process the thought, for in the next moment all hell broke loose. Bruce’s men were on them, bursting out of the darkness like demons from hell. The lady’s guardsman, still staggering from the arrow, took a spear in the side and a battle-axe in the head. He toppled to the ground like a big oak tree, landing with a heavy thud.
Arthur heard a startled cry behind him and, anticipating the impulse, blocked the lass’s path before she could rush forward to help the fallen soldier. He was past help.
But one of Bruce’s men must have caught the movement.
Arthur’s next move was nothing but instinct. It was too fast to be anything else. A spear hurdled through the air, heading straight for her. He didn’t think, he reacted. Reaching up, he snatched the spear in his hand midair, catching it only a few feet from her head. In one swift movement he brought it down across his knee and snapped it in two, tossing the splintered pieces to the ground.
He heard her startled gasp but didn’t dare take his eyes from the score of men rushing toward him. “Get behind the damned tree,” he shouted angrily, before turning to block a blow of a sword from the right. The man left him an opening, which Arthur didn’t take.
He swore, fending off another. What the hell should he do? Reveal himself? Would they believe him? He could fight his way out, but there was the lass to consider . . .
A moment later the decision was taken from him.
A man’s voice rang out from the trees, “Hold!” The warriors seemed confused but immediately did as the newcomer bid, stopping in their tracks. Seconds later, a familiar figure stepped out of the shadows. “Ranger, what in the hell are you doing here?”
Shaking his head with disbelief, Arthur stepped forward to greet the black-clad warrior who’d emerged from trees. Gregor MacGregor. That certainly explained the perfect arrow shot he’d noticed earlier. MacGregor was the best archer in the Highlands, giving proof to the nom de guerre of “Arrow” chosen by Bruce to protect his identity as a member of the Highland Guard.
Arthur wasn’t sure whether he should be grateful to see his former enemy turned Highland Guard partner, and at one time, the closest thing he had to a friend. That had changed when Arthur had been forced to leave the Highland Guard over a year and a half ago. At the time, none of his fellow guardsmen—including MacGregor—had known the truth. When they’d heard he’d joined with the enemy they’d thought him a traitor. Though they’d eventually learned the truth, his role had kept him apart.
They clasped forearms, and despite his initial hesitation, Arthur found himself grinning beneath his helm. Damn, it was good to see him. “I see that no one’s messed up that pretty face of yours yet,” he said, knowing how much MacGregor’s renowned good looks bothered him.
MacGregor laughed. “They’re working on it. It’s damned good to see you. But what are you doing here? You’re lucky I saw you catch that spear.”
Arthur had once saved MacGregor’s life doing the same thing. It wasn’t as difficult as it looked—if you could get past the fear. Most couldn’t.
“Sorry about the arrow,” MacGregor said, pointing toward Arthur’s left shoulder where blood was oozing from around the splintered staff, an inch of which was still protruding from his arm.
Arthur shrugged. “It’s nothing.” He’d had worse.
“You know this traitor, Captain?” one of the men asked.
“Aye,” MacGregor said, before Arthur could caution him. “And he’s no traitor. He’s one of ours.”
Damn. The lass. He’d forgotten about the lass. Any hope that she might not have heard MacGregor or grasped the significance was dashed when he heard her sharp intake of breath.
MacGregor heard it, too. He reached for his bow, but Arthur shook him off.
“It’s safe,” he said. “You can come out now, lass.”
“Lass?” MacGregor swore under his breath. “So that’s what this is about.”
The woman moved out from behind the tree. When Arthur reached to take her elbow, she stiffened as if his touch offended. Aye, she’d heard all right.
Her hood had slid back in the chaos, revealing long, shimmering locks of golden-brown hair falling in thick, heavy waves down her back. The sheer beauty of it seemed so out of place, it temporarily startled him. And when a sliver of moonlight fell upon her face, Arthur’s breath caught in a hard, fierce jolt.
Christ, she was lovely! Her tiny, heart-shaped face was dominated by large, heavily lashed eyes. Her nose was small and slightly turned, her chin pointed, and her brows softly arched. Her lips were a perfectly shaped pink bow and her skin . . . her skin was as smooth and velvety as cream. She had that sweet, vulnerable look of a small, fluffy animal—a kitten or a rabbit, perhaps.
The innocent breath of femininity was not what he was expecting and seemed utterly incongruous in the midst of war.
He could only stare in stunned silence as MacGregor—the whoreson— stepped forward, peeled off his nasal helm, and gallantly bowed over her hand.
“My apologies, my lady,” he said with a smile that had felled half the female hearts in the Highlands—the other half he’d yet to meet. “We were expecting someone else.”
Arthur heard the lass’s predictable gasp when she beheld the face of the man reputed to be the most handsome in the Highlands. But she quickly composed herself and, to his surprise, seemed remarkably lucid. Most women were babbling by now. “Obviously. Does King Hood make war on women now?” she asked, using the English slur for the outlawed king. She eyed the church up ahead. “Or merely priests.”
For someone surrounded by enemies, she showed a surprising lack of fear. If the fine ermine-lined cloak hadn’t given her away, he would have known she was a noblewoman from the pride in her manner alone.
MacGregor winced. “As I said, it was a mistake. King Robert makes war only on those who deny him what is rightfully his.”
She made a sharp sound of disagreement. “If we are done here, I’ve come to fetch the priest.” Her eyes fell on her fallen guardsman. “It is too late for my man, but perhaps he can still give release to those who await him at the castle.”
Last rites, Arthur realized. Probably for those wounded in the battle of Glen Trool a week’s past.
Though the helm covered his face, he kept his voice low, to further mask his identity. His cover had been jeopardized enough—he didn’t want there to be any chance that she would be able to identify him.
She had to be related to one of the nobles who’d been called to Ayr to hunt Bruce. He’d make sure to stay away from the castle—far away. “What is your name, my lady? And why do you travel with such a paltry guard?”
She stiffened, looking down her tiny nose at him. With the adorable little upturn, it should have been ridiculous, but she managed a surprisingly effective amount of disdain. “Fetching a priest is usually not a dangerous task—as I’m sure even a spy can attest.”
Arthur’s mouth fell in a hard line. So much for gratitude. Perhaps he should have left her to her fate.
MacGregor stepped forward. “You owe this man your life, my lady. If he hadn’t interfered,” he nodded toward her fallen guardsman, “you both would have been dead.”
Her eyes widened, and tiny white teeth bit down on the soft pillow of her lower lip. Arthur felt another unwelcome tug beneath his belt.
“I’m sorry,” she said softly, turning to him. “Thank you.”
Gratitude from a beautiful woman was not without effect. The tug in his groin pulled a little harder, the lilting huskiness of her voice making him think of beds, naked flesh, and whispered moans of pleasure.
“Your shoulder . . .” She gazed up at him uncertainly. “Is it hurt badly?”
Before he could form a response, he heard a noise. His gaze shot through the trees to the church, noticing the signs of movement.
Damn. The sound of the attack must have alerted the occupants of the church.
“You need to go,” he said to MacGregor. “They’re coming.”
MacGregor had seen firsthand Arthur’s skills too many times to argue. He motioned his men to go. As quickly as they’d arrived, Bruce’s warriors slipped back into the darkness of the trees.
“Next time,” MacGregor said, before following them.
Arthur met his gaze in shared understanding. There would be no silver tonight. In a few moments the church would be swarming with men and lit up like a beacon, warning anyone who approached of the danger.
Because of one lass, Bruce would not have the silver to provision his men. They would have to rely on what they could hunt and scavenge from the countryside until another opportunity came.
“You had best go, too,” the lass said stiffly. He hesitated, and she seemed to soften. “I’ll be fine. Go.” She paused. “And thank you.”
Their eyes met in the darkness. Though he knew it was ridiculous, for a moment he felt exposed.
But she couldn’t see him. With his helm down, the only openings in the steel were the two narrow slits for him to see and the small pinpricks for him to breathe.
Still, he felt something strange. If he didn’t know better, he’d say it was a connection. But he didn’t have connections with strange women. Hell, he didn’t have connections with anyone. It kept things simpler that way.
He wanted to say something—though hell if he knew what—but he didn’t have the chance. Torches appeared outside the church. A priest and a few of the wounded English soldiers were heading this way.
“You’re welcome,” he said, and slipped back into the shadows where he belonged. A wraith. A man who didn’t exist. Just the way he liked it.
Her sob of relief as she threw herself into the arms of the priest followed him into the darkness.
He knew he should regret what happened tonight. In saving her life, he’d sacrificed not only the silver, but also his cover. But he couldn’t regret it. There would be more silver. And their paths were unlikely to cross again—he’d make sure of it.
His secret was safe.
End of Excerpt
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