From Chapter One
Lochalsh, Inverness-shire, June 1605
It was going to rain. Perfect. Meg Mackinnon pulled the wool arisaidh, the full-length plaid she’d wrapped around her for protection from the elements, more firmly around her head and once again cursed the necessity for this journey. They’d only just begun, and already she was dreading long days on horseback, navigating the treacherous tracks of the drovers. Even had her father been able to arrange one, a carriage would have been useless along these paths. The “road” from the Isle of Skye to Edinburgh was barely wide enough to ride two abreast. The cart that carried their belongings had proved to be enough of a burden on this rugged terrain.
Meg had at least a week of discomfort left before her. It would take them that long to reach Edinburgh, where she must begin her search in earnest for a husband.
She felt the familiar flutter of anxiety when she thought of all that was ahead of her. Her father had entrusted her to find the right man for her clan; she would not let him down. But the responsibility inherent in her decision weighed heavily on her. The pressure at times could be stifling. A wry smile touched the edge of her mouth. Perhaps a week of travel wasn’t long enough.
Yet part of her couldn’t wait until it was all over. It would be a relief to have the decision made and behind her. Of course, then she would be married. And that brought a whole new bundle of anxieties.
Meg sighed deeply, knowing she couldn’t have put off the trip to court any longer. Her father’s recent illness had made that very clear. Without her help, her brother’s place as chief would be challenged. The corbies had begun to circle almost the minute her father had taken to bed with a mysterious wasting ailment. Her once hale and hearty father, the powerful Chief of Mackinnon, had lost nearly two stone and was still too weak to travel.
Meg glanced over at her mother riding beside her and felt a pang of guilt for dragging her so far from home. It was difficult enough for Meg to leave her father and brother; she couldn’t imagine how her mother must feel.
“I’m sorry, Mother.”
Rosalind Mackinnon met he daughter’s gaze with puzzlement. “Whatever for, child?”
“For taking you away from father at a time like this.” Meg bit her lip, feeling the need to explain. “I just couldn’t bring myself to accept—”
“Nonsense.” Her mother cut her off, a rare frown marring her beautiful face. “Your father is much better. A trip to court is exactly what I need. You know how I love all the latest fashions, the latest hairstyles”—she smiled conspiratorially—“and all the latest gossip.”
Meg returned the smile. She knew her mother was only trying to make her feel better, though she did love going to court. Meg, on the other hand, hated it. She never fit in the way her mother did. Partially, it was her own fault. She did not share her mother’s enjoyment of frippery and gossip, and was not very good at pretending otherwise. But this time, she swore she would try. For her mother’s sake, if not for her own.
“Besides, I’ll not have you marry a man you do not love,” her mother finished, anticipating the apology Meg had been about to make.
Meg shook her head. Rosalind Mackinnon was a hopeless romantic. But love was not the reason Meg had refused the offer of marriage from her father’s chieftain. The offer, which had she accepted, would have dispensed with the need for this trip.
But Meg’s choice of a husband was dictated by unusual circumstances, and Thomas Mackinnon was not the right man for her. He was an able warrior, yes, but a hot-headed one. A man who reached for his sword first and thought later. Meg sought a strong warrior, but a controlled one. Equally as important, she needed a clever negotiator to appease a King with growing authority over his recalcitrant Highland subjects. Tensions between the two ran high. The time of unfettered authority by the chiefs was waning. She must find a husband who could help lead her clan into the future.
But the lack of political acumen was not the only reason she’d refused Thomas. She also sensed too much ambition in him. Ambition that would put her brother’s position as the next chief in jeopardy.
Above all, she needed a fiercely loyal man. A man she could trust.
Love was not part of the bargain. Meg was a realist. She admired the deep affection between her parents, perhaps even envied it, but recognized that such was not for her. Her duty was clear. Finding the right man for her clan came first. And second.
“I don’t expect to be as fortunate in marriage as you, Mother,” Meg said. “What you and father have is rare.”
“And wonderful,” Rosalind finished. “Which is why I want it for you. Though just because I love your father, does not mean I always agree with him. In this, he asks too much of you,” she said with a stubborn set to her pointed chin. As Meg had never heard her mother speak against her father, it took a moment to register what she was saying. Her mother shook her head. “You already spend far too much time with your nose in the books.”
“I enjoy my duties, Mother,” Meg said patiently.
But her mother continued on as if she hadn’t heard. Scrunching up her tiny nose, she shivered dramatically. “All those numbers. It makes my head swim just thinking about it.”
Meg covered her smile. Now that sounded more like her mother. She never could understand Meg’s fascination with mathematics or scholarly pursuits in general. Meg derived great pleasure from working with numbers. There was something satisfying in knowing that there was only one right solution. And learning had always come easily for her. Unlike for her brother, she thought with a sharp pinch in her chest,
“And now he expects you to sacrifice your future happiness,” her mother lamented, as if a daughter marrying for the good of the clan was anything out of the ordinary. When, in fact, Meg choosing her own husband—albeit one who met certain criteria—was the oddity.
“Truly, Mother, it is no sacrifice. Father asks nothing of me that I don’t want myself. When I find the right man to stand beside Ian, he will be the right man for me.”
“If only it were that easy. But you can not force your heart to follow your head.”
Maybe not, but she could try.
As if she knew what Meg was thinking, Rosalind said dismissively, “Don’t worry. Just leave it to me.”
Warning bells clanged. “Mother…you promised not to interfere.”
Her mother stared straight ahead with a far too innocent look on her face. “I don’t know what you are talking about, Margaret Mackinnon.”
Meg’s eyes narrowed, not fooled one bit. “You know exactly—”
But her words were lost in the violent crash of thunder as a deluge of rain poured from the skies. The ground seemed to shake with the sudden fury of the storm.
Her mother’s terrified scream, however, alerted Meg to the fact that the shaking was from more than just a storm.
Still, it took her a moment to comprehend what was happening, so suddenly had it begun. One minute she’d been about to take her mother to task for her matchmaking ways, the next she was in the midst of a nightmare.
Out of the shadows, like demon riders on the storm, the band of ruffians attacked. Huge, savage looking men in filthy shirts and tattered plaids, wielding deadly claymores with ruthless intent. They seemed to fly from the trees, surrounding Meg’s party in all directions.
Her cry froze in her throat, terror temporarily rendering her mute. For a minute, she couldn’t think. Watching helplessly as the dozen clansmen her father sent along to protect them were locked in a battle of un-tempered ferocity against at least a score of brigands.
Her blood ran cold.
There were too many of them.
Dear God, her father’s men had no chance. The Mackinnon clansmen had immediately moved to protect Meg and her mother, circling around them as best they could in the confined area. And one by one, they were cut down in front of her.
Meg gazed in rapt horror as Ruadh, one of her father’s chieftains, a man she’d known her entire life, a man who’d bounced her on his knee and sung her songs of the clan’s illustrious past, was unable to block the deadly strike of a claymore that slid across his belly, cutting him nearly in two. Tears sprang to her eyes as she watched the light fade slowly from his gaze.
Her mother’s scream sliced through the terror, jolting Meg from her stupor. The moment of panic dissolved in a sudden burst of clarity. She gathered her courage, with only one thought: protecting her mother.
Heart pounding, Meg leapt down from atop her horse and grabbed the dirk from Ruadh’s lifeless hand, his fingers still clenched around the bloody hilt. The weapon felt so heavy and clumsy in her hand. For the first time in her life, she wished she hadn’t lingered so long indoors with her books. She had no experience with weaponry of any sort. She shook off the bout of uncertainty. It didn’t matter. What she lacked in skill she would make up for in raw determination. Clasping the dirk more firmly, she moved to stand before her mother, ready to defend her.
They’ll have to kill me first, she vowed silently.
But a bit of her bravado faltered when another of her father’s men fell at her feet. The way it was going, it might not be long before they did. Only six of her father’s men remained.
The arisaidh had slid from her head, and rain streamed down her face, blurring her vision. The pins holding her hair back were long gone, and the wavy tendrils tangled in her lashes, but Meg hardly noticed, focused as she was on the battle. The battle that was tightening like a noose around them, as their circle of protectors quickly diminished.
She bit back the fear that crept up the back of her throat. Never had she been more terrified. But she had to stay strong. For her mother. If they were to have a chance to survive.
Meg’s action seemed to snap her mother from her trance, and she stopped screaming. Following Meg’s lead, she slipped down from her horse. Meg could see her hands shaking as she pulled Ruadh’s eating knife from his belt.
She turned, and Meg’s chest squeezed to see the resolve on her mother’s face. To see the direness of their circumstance reflected in her gaze. Even drenched, her hair and clothes a sodden mess, Rosalind Mackinnon looked like an angel—albeit an avenging angel. Though forty, her beauty was undiminished by age. Dear God, what would these vicious brutes do to her? Meg swallowed. To them both?
Though Meg knew her mother must be thinking the same thing, her voice was strangely calm. “If you see an opening between them, run,” she whispered.
“But I can’t leave you—”
Her mother cut off her protest. “You will do as I say, Margaret.” Meg was so shocked by the steel in her dulcet tone that she simply nodded. “If you need to use the knife, strike hard and do not hesitate.”
Meg felt an unexpected swell of pride. Her sweet, gentle mother looked as fierce as a lioness protecting her cub. There was far more to Rosalind Mackinnon than Meg had ever realized.
“I won’t,” she said, feigning courage. But what chance did two women, and two particularly diminutive ones at that, have against such strength and numbers?
A filthy, hulking ruffian lurched for her mother. Without thinking, Meg stabbed his arm. It was a good effort. At least three of the ten inches sunk deep in his skin, opening a wide gash in his forearm. He roared in pain and backhanded her across the face. Stunned by the blow, she lost her grip on the dirk and it dropped to the ground, where he promptly kicked it out of her reach.
Meg’s hand instinctively covered her wet cheek, soothing the hot sting.
“Bitch,” he spat. “You’ll die for that.” He turned, lifting his claymore in a deadly arc above her head. Her mother moved to defend her, slicing his shoulder with the eating knife. Easily blocking the blow with his forearm, he shoved her mother harshly to the ground. Meg watched in horror as her head landed squarely on a rock, connecting with a dull thud.
Horror rose in her throat. “Mother!” she screamed, rushing to her side. Meg shook her listless body, but her eyes wouldn’t open. Dear God, no!
She sensed him, or rather smelled his rank stench, approaching behind her. Anger unlike anything she’d ever experienced flooded her with rage. He’d hurt her mother. Grabbing the knife that her mother had dropped, Meg turned on him, surprising him for a moment. She stabbed him again, this time aiming for his neck. But he was too tall, and without leverage, she only managed to nick him.
She’d lost her advantage.
A vile expletive ripped from his mouth. She felt his enormous dirty hands on her as he grabbed her and tossed her to the ground. His hard black eyes fixed on her. A sneer curled his lip, revealing coarse brown teeth. Shivering with revulsion, she huddled in a ball as he started towards her.
“I’m going to enjoy this, you little hellcat.”
Meg scooted back in the mud, but he kept coming. Laughing. She could feel the heavy pounding of her heart in her chest. She glanced around, but there was no one to come to her aid. Those who remained of father’s men were locked in their own battles. Grabbing fistfuls of mud in her hands she tried tossing it in his eyes, but it only served to make him more furious.
They couldn’t die. What would happen to Ian? She felt the hot prickle of tears in her eyes. Without Meg and her mother, there was no one to protect him. Think, she told herself. Use your head. But the logic and reasoning that she’d always relied on failed her. There was no escape.
In the black glint of his merciless eyes, Meg saw only death.
Please, she breathed.
And in the skip of two long heartbeats, the answer to her prayer exploded through the trees on a fearsome black warhorse.
A knight. Nay, a warrior. Not in shining armor, but in the yellow cotun dotted with bits of mail that identified him as a chieftain—though his size alone would have set him apart. Even without his padded war coat, Meg knew he would be one of the largest men she’d ever seen. Tall and muscular, with a chest like a broad shield. As if forged from steel, every inch of him looked hard and forbidding.
A trickle of fear slid down her spine. For a moment Meg wondered whether she’d merely exchanged one villain for another.
Their eyes met and held. She gasped. Startled by the most crystalline blue eyes she’d ever beheld, set in a face of rugged masculinity partially hidden beneath the heavy stubble of a week old beard.
The entire exchange lasted only an instant, but she quickly read the absolute command in his gaze. A look that despite his ferocity was oddly reassuring.
For the first time, she noticed that he was not alone; perhaps a half-dozen men had ridden in behind him. A more fearsome band of warriors she could not imagine. To a one they were strong, well-muscled, and utterly ruthless looking. Broken men, she knew with an instinctive certainty. Men without land or a clan who roamed the Highlands as outlaws. Yet for some reason, they did not inspire her fear. Her eyes returned to the warrior. Because of their leader? she wondered.
With no more than a tilt of his head and the dart of his eyes, the warrior issued his orders. His men moved as a unit, swiftly taking their positions with the discipline of Roman centurions and an ease that certainly belied their rough appearance.
Despite their lesser numbers, Meg knew without a doubt that the tides of battle had just turned. This man would not be defeated. Only a fool would challenge him.
With his men in position, the warrior headed directly for her. Finally realizing that something was wrong, her attacker glanced over his shoulder. The horrible laughing stopped. Taking advantage of the distraction, Meg ran to her mother’s side, gently dragging her back toward the trees, nearly sobbing with relief to see that the color had returned to her cheeks and her eyes had begun to flutter. All the while, she kept her eye on the man who was their savior.
He reached over his shoulder with one hand he drew an enormous claymore from the baldric slung across his back as if it weighed no more than a feather, though the blade alone must reach to her chin. Still only using one hand, he raised it high above his head, wielding the weapon with remarkable ease, and landed a heavy blow to the ribs of her attacker. Meg heard the crunch of bone as the villain crumpled to the ground.
The warrior leapt off his mount, then pulled a dirk from the scabbard at his waist and unhesitatingly drew his blade across her tormentor’s throat. Relief washed over her. She should regret the loss of life, but she could not. Their eyes met and she felt a connection so strong it startled her.
“Thank you,” she mouthed, too shaken to sound the words.
He acknowledged her gratitude with a nod. Then with a fierce war cry—the words in Erse, which she could not make out—he raised his sword and charged headlong into the fury of the battle, wielding the blade with deadly finesse and accuracy, cutting down all who stood in his path. Her stunned clansmen rallied behind him.
As she attended to her mother as best she could, Meg’s gaze flicked back and forth to the battle taking place all around them.
And to the warrior.
His strength and skill were truly something awe-inspiring.
Feeling oddly detached from the mayhem surrounding her, Meg stared in horrified fascination as he killed three men with steely efficiency. Each movement a precision death stroke. For such a large man, he moved with surprising grace. Like a lion. Two ruffians attempted to corner him, striking at him for either side. He raised his claymore. The blade flashed above his head like a silvery cross, before the crash of steel on steel sounded as he deflected their blows one after the other. The brigands were skilled fighters. Working in tandem, they landed blow after blow. Surely, he must be tiring? But the warrior seemed to be enjoying it, as if the added challenge only invigorated him.
Using his claymore with one arm to hold back one man, he wielded his dirk with the other, dispatching the second man with ease. Furious, the remaining villain rushed at him. Sliding to evade him, the warrior’s footing skidded in the mud, enabling the ruffian to knock him down. Meg gasped, holding her breath, as the ruffian prepared to deal his death blow. But in the most brave, or reckless, display of daring she’d ever witnessed, the warrior waited until the claymore was mere inches away from his head before slipping his dirk in the ruffian’s gut and rolling deftly to the side.
Stunned, Meg watched as he sprang to his feet.
Almost instantly, another ruffian attempted to take him from behind.
“Watch—” Even before Meg had time to shout a warning, her warrior spun and plunged his dirk deep into the other man’s side.
The warrior seemed indestructible, as if nothing could touch him. But there was something to his prowess that went beyond strength and skill. The battle seemed to consume him. He fought like a man without fear of death. Not recklessly, he was too controlled for that, but with unfettered purpose. An edge of danger hovered over this untamed warrior that she could not ignore.
It didn’t take long for the remaining ruffians to recognize the futility of their endeavor. Scattering like bugs from beneath a rock, they fled.
The warrior looked around as if to ensure himself that she was safe. Their eyes met again. Meg felt like she’d been struck by a bolt of lightning; every nerve ending prickled with awareness. Her mysterious warrior was more than simply handsome. His features were the fodder of legends, classically handsome yet ruggedly masculine at the same time. Wavy brown hair, its true color obscured by the dampness, hung in a blunt line just past his chin, setting off a strong, squared jaw. Rain streamed down a broad forehead, along the curve of his high angled cheek-bones, and over a finely chiseled nose. Though his mouth was set in a tight line, his fierce expression could not hide the full, sensual shape of his lips.
But it was his striking blue eyes that held her. Ice blue. Like a frozen loch in the darkest winter. Their color made more intense against the deep tan of his golden skin. Yet when he looked at her, it was not a chill she felt, but warmth that started at her neck and spread all the way down to her toes. He seemed to see right through her with a hawk-like intensity that stole her breath and sent her pulse racing.
He made her feel nervous…unsettled…vulnerable. Unfamiliar feelings that increased her wariness. With one last hesitant look at the warrior, Meg returned to attending to her mother.
The rain had stopped. The battle was over.
When the cowards turned to run, Alex motioned to two of his men to follow to make sure they didn’t return. The others he instructed to tend to the wounds of the injured and dispose of the bodies as best they could. But it wasn’t until he’d gotten an initial report from Patrick that Alex knew he had a problem.
Mackinnons. Damn. Powerful bad luck to have come to the aid of a neighboring clan from Skye. At least no one appeared to have recognized him. But he knew the longer he lingered, the more chance there was for questions to form. Despite the beard, it wouldn’t be long before someone noted his uncanny resemblance to the infamous Chief of MacLeod. His brother cut a wide path around these parts.
They should leave.
His gaze slid back to the lass. She was ministering to the woman he’d initially thought dead but appeared to be slowly regaining consciousness. In between soothing the woman with soft words, the lass set her men about making order out of chaos with the smooth efficiency of a general. Horses were fed and watered, the cart that was carrying their trunks was righted, and arrangements made for returning the injured and killed to Dunakin.
For one so young—she couldn’t be much past twenty years—she appeared to be handling the aftermath of the attack admirably.
More than admirably actually. Her composure under the circumstances was remarkable. From the first moment he’d seen her, she’d impressed him with her courage. Riding in, he’d caught the very end of her attempt to stab the man who was attacking her. For such a wee thing, she’d managed to inflict some damage. When the fiend had gone after her, Alex’s reaction had been instantaneous. He’d killed without hesitation. He had no mercy for men who harmed women. The coward deserved to die, a far worse death than the swift one he’d been granted.
Of course, her courage wasn’t all that he’d noticed.
When she gazed up at him with wide green eyes that dominated her tiny heart-shaped face, he found himself unable look away. Warmth spread through him, and he’d felt the stirrings of something that had been absent inside him for a long time. Desire.
His interludes with women over the past few years had been about satisfying the needs of his body; he had neither time nor inclination for anything else. But standing there, with her hair plastered to her head and rain streaming down her face clinging to her long lashes, she looked like a drowned wood nymph. Sweet, vulnerable, and achingly lovely. And Alex felt the unmistakable pull of attraction. Attraction that now, after the fighting was done, had taken on a new potency.
He took the opportunity to observe her as she ministered to her mother. She was nothing like the sort of flamboyant beauties who usually attracted him. Her beauty was more refined, less obvious. If it wasn’t for those remarkable eyes, he might not have bothered to look closer. And it would have been a tragedy to miss the delicate turn of her cheek, the tiny pert nose, or the soft lush curve of her mouth. His eyes lingered on her lips.
Damn, she was lovely.
His thoughts right now, however, were anything but innocent. They were filled with vivid passionate images of naked limbs and soft silken heat. Of releasing the pent-up energy that lingered in his body from the fight. Perversely, he hungered for her innocence. As if her purity could wipe away the ugliness that surrounded him.
What was he doing? After what she’d been through… He shook off the strange yearning. He’d wanted to protect her, not capture her like his marauding Viking ancestors for his own pleasure. The primitive life of an outlaw had left its mark.
He took a few steps towards her, intending to see if she was all right. But at that moment, the woman she was tending sat up, enabling Alex to see her face for the first time. His step faltered. Damn. The Mackinnon’s lady. He looked back to the girl, seeing the resemblance. The lass must be his daughter.
He averted his face. Rosalind Mackinnon would know him.
He could dally no longer. Alex turned and ordered his men to be ready. Much to the relief of the Mackinnon guardsmen, he had offered the services of three of his men to travel with them until replacements arrived. The lass and her mother would be safe.
His job was done.
He mounted his destrier and turned to leave, unable to resist looking back at her one more time. Alex was not a man to be distracted by a lass. But there was something about this one. Perhaps it was because she reminded him of everything he’d left behind. Family. Hearth. Home. Things he hadn’t yearned for in very long time. Her natural beauty was a stark contrast to the death and destruction he’d been surrounded by for the last few years.
His eyes fastened on hers, and he could see her hesitation, sense her wariness. Like she wanted to say something, but was perhaps a little frightened. Of him. The truth struck him hard. Gazing around at the bodies scattered across the forest floor, he supposed he couldn’t blame her.
But he didn’t like it. Didn’t like it at all.
He’d just saved her, but yet she looked at him with fear in her eyes.
This was what he did. It wasn’t pretty, but war never was.
Anger rose inside him, and coupled with his primitive response to the lass made his blood run even hotter. He was tempted to give her reason for her fear. To pull her into his arms and reap the spoils of victory from her soft lips. But he hadn’t fallen that far from civilized. Yet.
“Ready, Sir?” Robbie asked, looking at him strangely.
Alex shook off the haze, and forced an evenness to his tone that he did not feel. “Yes,” he answered. “We’ve delayed long enough.”
Without further hesitation, he turned and rode away.
And didn’t look back.
End of Excerpt
Learn more about the books in the The MacLeods of Skye Trilogy Trilogy »
See the other books in this series »