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Authors: Mary Wine

Highland Heat

BOOK: Highland Heat
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Copyright

Copyright © 2011 by Mary Wine

Cover and internal design © 2011 by Sourcebooks, Inc.

Cover illustration by Anne Cain

Cover images © Giuseppe Parisi/Dreamstime.com; Saint-Ange/www.sxc.hu

Sourcebooks and the colophon are registered trademarks of Sourcebooks, Inc.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems—except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews—without permission in writing from its publisher, Sourcebooks, Inc.

The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.

Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc.

P.O. Box 4410, Naperville, Illinois 60567–4410

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FAX: (630) 961–2168

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To my comrade and confidante…the Weasel. For all the times you’ve listened and been there. For all the adventures past and yet to be…Karen, you are the best friend anyone might ever have.

One

1439

Spring was blowing on the breeze.

Deirdre lifted her face and inhaled. Closing her eyes and smiling, she caught a hint of heather in the air.

But that caused a memory to stir from the dark corner of her mind where she had banished it. It rose up, reminding her of a spring two years ago when a man had courted her with pieces of heather and soft words of flattery.

False words.

“Ye have been angry for too long, Deirdre.”

Deirdre turned her head slightly and discovered her sister Kaie standing nearby.

“And ye walk too silently; being humble doesn’t mean ye need try and act as though ye are nae even here in this life.”

Kaie smiled but corrected herself quickly, smoothing her expression until it was once again simply plain. “That is my point exactly, Deirdre. Ye take offense at everything around ye. I am content. That should nae be a reason for ye to snap at me.”

Her sister wore the undyed robe of a nun. Her hair was covered now, but Deirdre had watched as it was cut short when Kaie took her novice vows. Her own hair was still long. She had it braided and the tail caught up so that it didn’t swing behind her. The convent wouldn’t hear any vows from her, not for several more years to come.

“But ye are nae happy living among us, Deirdre, and that is a sad thing, for those living in God’s house should be here because they want to be.”

“Well, I like it better than living with our father, and since he sent my dowry to the church, it is only fitting that I sleep beneath this roof.”

Kaie drew in a stiff breath. “Ye are being too harsh. Father did his duty in arranging a match for us all. It is only fair that he would be cross to discover that ye had taken a lover.”

Melor Douglas. The man she’d defied everything to hold, because she believed his words of love.

Deirdre sighed. “True, but ye are very pleased to be here and not with Roan McLeod as his wife. Father arranged that match for ye as well, and yet you defied his choice by asking Roan McLeod to release ye. There are more than a few who would call that disrespectful to our sire.”

Her sister paled, and Deirdre instantly felt guilty for ruining her happiness.

“I’m sorry, Kaie. That was unkind of me to say.”

Her sister drew in a deep breath. “Ye most likely think me timid, but I was drawn to this convent. Every night when I closed my eyes, I dreamed of it, unlike ye…”

Kaie’s eyes had begun to glow with passion as she spoke of her devotion, but she snapped her mouth shut when she realized what she was saying.

Deirdre scoffed at her attempt to soften the truth. “Unlike me and my choice to take Melor Douglas as my lover.”

It was harsh but true, and Deirdre preferred to hear it, however blunt it might be.

“He lied to ye. Ye went to him believing ye’d be his wife.”

“Ye do nae need to make excuses for me, Kaie. I made my choice, and I will nae increase my sins by adding dishonesty to them. Everyone knows, anyway. It seems all I ever hear about here, how I am unworthy of the veil ye wear so contentedly.” Deirdre shrugged. “At least no one shall be able to claim I am intent on hiding my actions behind unspoken words and unanswered questions.”

Her sister laughed. A soft, sad little sound that sent heat into Deirdre’s cheeks, because Kaie was sweet and she didn’t need to be discussing such a scarlet subject.

“Ye have ever been bold, Deirdre. I believe ye should have been born a son for all the courage ye have burning inside ye. For ye are correct, I am content, and there is no place I would rather be but here. Living a simple life. Roan McLeod was a kind soul to allow me to become a bride of Christ instead of his wife. Wedding me would have given him a strong alliance with our clan.”

Kaie bent and picked up a leather bucket that was sitting near the doorway. “I do nae know why the man gave up something that is so important in the Highlands, but I am grateful for it every day.”

Her sister left, which granted Deirdre the freedom to frown. Allowing Melor Douglas to seduce her had been called many things, none of them good. It was slightly shocking to hear her sister label it “spirit.”

Aye, the sort that knights must feel as they surged forward in one glorious charge and then came home missing limbs or an eye, or not returning at all. Such made for good talk around the fire at night, but the reality of living with those injuries during the day was anything but grand.

She sighed and took the tapestry she had been holding out to the simple wooden stand in the yard. She tossed it over the single bar of wood and reached for a thin branch that had been folded to make a rug beater. Clouds of dust began to tickle her nose as she swung the branch quickly back and forth.

It had been a relief to discover the convent wouldn’t hear her vows.

Deirdre beat the tapestry harder as she struggled with her guilt. She wasn’t ashamed of the fact that she wasn’t pure anymore, but that only intensified her misgivings, because it left her wondering just what she did believe in. Kaie was correct in saying she had been angry too long.

Now that her broken heart no longer hurt and her temper wasn’t as hot as a spark, she was left trying to decide what she wanted out of life. Her father wouldn’t be making any further matches for her, and her dowry had been sent to the church. Her options were slim. But what kept her at the convent day after day, performing the tasks the mother superior heaped upon her in an effort to humble her, was the fact that the choice was resting in her hands.

That was something she had taken so brazenly when she rode out to meet Melor Douglas. She’d craved choosing her own man, not waiting for her father to send her to Connor Lindsey as an assurance that the two clans would always stand united. She’d thought the love in her heart worthy of the risk. She’d always been told to follow her father because he was her laird. Her marriage to Connor Lindsey would have brought a better life to every man wearing the Chattan colors, but somehow, the moment that Melor had sneaked up beside her at spring festival and whispered in her ear, she had lost the resolve to do what she knew was right. She had followed his honey-coated promises, and he’d spit on her once she’d yielded her purity to him.

It seemed rather odd to gain anything from taking a lover, and yet she had. She was the poorest of the poor, without any possessions of her own, but she had choice. A freedom she had never even thought to possess. Even her decision to continue to meet Melor Douglas had only happened because an alliance with the Douglas would have been considered strong enough to please her clan.

She stopped for a moment, the branch frozen in midair. Would she have found the will to resist her affection for Melor if he hadn’t been a man her father would have been happy to see her wed? That question burned inside her. She wanted to say yes and honor her sire, but that would mean she was fickle. True love didn’t consider what worth a man came with. There was only devotion to the affection of the heart.

The sound of approaching horses drew her attention. The nuns who had been down near the river that ran behind the church came hurrying up the hill. The times were uncertain with a boy wearing the crown of Scotland. The undyed robes the women wore flapped up showing their ankles. Even Kaie moved faster than her normal, floating pace that left not even dust stirring behind her.

The sisters all clustered together, pushing their way toward the sanctuary of the church. Deirdre lifted a hand to shade her eyes so she might see the colors the men were wearing. They were Highlanders, with their knee-high boots laced tight over antler buttons which ran up the outside of each boot. They rode their horses hard, but the animals were strong stock and took to the pace easily. A long sword was strapped to each man’s back, with the hilt secured at the left shoulder so he might draw his weapon in a single fluid motion. The folds of their plaids bounced with the motion of the horses, but beneath the yellow, orange, and black wool, she could see their thighs tightly clutching the backs of their stallions.

They were Camerons, and she didn’t need to wait for the dust to settle to know that their laird was among them. She felt the damned man’s eyes on her even before she set her gaze on him. Quinton Cameron was just as huge and arrogant as she remembered him. She felt her temper stir when the man sent her a grin. The way he looked at her sent a shiver down her spine. It was indecent and, to her shame, exciting.

“I swear on all that’s holy I never expected to see ye here, Deirdre Chattan.”

Deirdre swung the branch viciously through the air. It made a slight whistling sound before smacking the tapestry. Quinton’s stallion perked its ears, but the man reached down to pat its sweaty neck with a soothing motion, never taking his eyes off her.

Deirdre frowned. “Well, ye are the one who suggested it to my father, so enjoy gloating.”

Several of the nuns gasped from where they were peeking around the large arched doorway of the church. Quinton Cameron laughed at her audacity, tipping his head back and allowing the sound to fill the morning air. Behind him, his retainers chuckled, sharing their laird’s amusement, but they kept their eyes on her.

Quinton lowered his chin and considered her from beneath his dark brows. The man was a dark Highlander. His hair was true black, and his eyes the shade of coldest ice. Beyond being laird of the Cameron, the man also held the hereditary title of Earl of Liddell. Such noble peerage stations were becoming very rare in Scotland.

“Laird Cameron, what brings ye to our convent?”

Kaie stepped forward to greet the newcomers. She was training to become the mother superior, and it would be her duty to welcome all who came to the doors of the church. Her siste
r tucked her hands into the wide sleeves of her overrobe and faced the earl.

Quinton Cameron dismounted, out of respect for her position among the inhabitants of the holy order. The air filled with the sound of leather creaking as his men followed his actions. The church was a unifying presence among clans who sometimes fought each other. He might be one of the highest-ranking nobles in the land, but the church was set above earthly titles. Even the king knelt in church.

“Forgive me, sister, but I plan to search every inch of this abbey.”

Kaie drew in a harsh breath. “Men do nae belong in this convent. It is a place for those women who have devoted their lives to God.”

“It’s also a place for anyone seeking sanctuary, sister. I know well ye are bound to offer charity to those who appeal to ye for it.” Quinton’s gaze strayed to Deirdre.

“Of course that is true, but ye do nae need to search the abbey for my sister. She stands before ye, Laird Cameron.”

Deirdre felt her heart accelerate, but her logic firmly argued against there being any reason for Quinton Cameron to seek her out. His face didn’t give her any clue as to his mood. He hid behind an emotionless mask, but something glittered in his eyes that irritated her.
How arrogant the man was,
she thought.

“Would ye be relieved to hear me say I’ve come for yer sister?” Quinton aimed his attention back toward Kaie. “Is that yer way of telling me she has yet to take the veil? Or that ye would gladly be rid of her?”

Kaie stiffened. “Unkindness has no place here, nor does judgment.”

Quinton’s expression hardened. “Aye, sister, I trust in yer devotion enough to know ye will nae tell me if the one I seek is here or no. Which is why I plan to send me men inside to search.”

Her sister gasped, horrified by the idea of having the abbey invaded by the Cameron retainers.

Quinton’s face reflected his distaste, but there was also hard determination shining in his eyes.

Kaie stepped back, as if she might prevent the invasion by blocking the door with her body. “Ye shall nae.” Her words were whispered, and the men behind the earl didn’t care to hear her displeasure.

The Cameron retainers surged forward, but Quinton raised one hand, and they froze instantly. Deirdre dropped the branch and stepped up beside her sister. The Cameron laird considered her with a slight spark of amusement flickering in his eyes.

“My sister told ye no. Only English scum trespass against the tradition of the church. Men never enter the convent. Do nae shame yer clan colors by acting like an invading army.”

There was a soft murmur of agreement from the nuns hiding behind the doorway, but only Kaie stood with her in the yard against the men whom they could only turn away with words.

The Cameron didn’t look as though they were going to depart simply because Kaie had reminded them of church tradition. Several of them glared at her for comparing them to the English.

“My apologies, Kaie Chattan, but I will be searching this structure from the belfry to the privies.”

There was no hint of weakness in his tone, and he moved forward, all his men doing the same. Deirdre refused to give way, standing her ground and tipping her chin up so she could glare at him. Quinton Cameron didn’t stop until his boots were touching the hem of her robes.

“I am nae impressed with ye, Laird Cameron. Tell me what ye seek, and stop insisting on going where ye know men do nae belong. I am no’ a liar.”

“I seek the queen, Joan Beaufort, and if she is here, I intend to find her.” His expression hardened. “I will nae accept yer word on the matter.”

Deirdre felt her eyes widen, but a moment later, she let out a hiss full of anger. Quinton Cameron swept her right off her feet, cradling her like a child in his arms as her father had done when she was half-grown.

“Put me down!”

He chuckled at her instead and carried her up the stairs through the open doorway and into the first chamber of the abbey.

“I warned ye, but I suppose I should nae be surprise that ye did no heed me. I noticed when I first met ye that ye are a true hellion.” He lowered her to her feet. Deirdre sent a vicious shove at him, but the man didn’t budge even a step.

The man smirked at her as his men swarmed around them and into the sanctuary. The nuns squealed and fled toward the yard. There were too many bodies trying to use the doorway, and Deirdre was crushed up against Quinton. He rocked slightly, but his arms came about her, protecting her from the surge of bodies.

BOOK: Highland Heat
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