Authors: Mary Wine
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Also by Mary Wine
To Conquer a Highlander
The Highlander’s Prize
The Trouble with Highlanders
How to Handle a Highlander
The Highlander’s Bride Trouble
A Sword for His Lady
A Lady Can Never Be Too Curious
A Captain and a Corset
Copyright © 2016 by Mary Wine
Cover and internal design © 2016 by Sourcebooks, Inc.
Cover art by Jon Paul Ferrara
Sourcebooks and the colophon are registered trademarks of Sourcebooks, Inc.
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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.
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“Ye’re as headstrong as yer mother was.”
Ailis stretched up to kiss her father on the cheek before flashing his captain a smile
of victory. Her father rolled his eyes then offered her a hand to help her up onto
the back of her mare. The horse tossed its mane as Ailis took the reins in a steady
Laird Liam Robertson’s beard was gray and thin, but he still held himself proudly
as two hundred of his men assembled to ride out with him. Behind them, Robertson Castle
basked in the golden light of morning. The hills were green, and the sound of rushing
water filled the air—the rivers were full with melting snow. It was too soon for heather
or flowers, but Ailis could smell the changing season in the air. She lifted her face
and let the sun warm her nose for the first time in weeks. She was tired of having
to huddle close to the hearth to chase the cold from her flesh or pull her wrap up
to avoid the frigid wind.
“I was invited,” Ailis reminded her father.
“So ye were, but I do no’ like the man—even if he is the king’s regent—telling me
how to direct me own daughter. His business should be with me. No’ a woman.”
Her father puffed out his chest in a display of authority, but she could see the acquiescence
in his eyes. He may not have agreed with the new regent, but he did like to grant
her requests when there was no solid reason to deny her.
It made it so easy to love him. She smiled, and he groaned, his Highlander pride requiring
some form of bluster to make sure everyone knew he’d at least argued against complying
completely with the summons.
“Maybe the man will take the tale of how fetching ye are back to court. It’s time
ye wed,” the laird continued.
“Of course it is, Father,” Ailis agreed demurely.
Her father pointed at the twinkle in her eyes. “Just like yer mother,” he accused,
then climbed onto the back of his horse. “I had to court her for two seasons before
she agreed to me suit.” He held up two time-weathered fingers. “Two! As if I had naught
better to do with me time.”
The Robertson retainers making ready to ride laughed with their laird.
The men were looking forward to the journey. They wanted to stretch their legs too.
Highlanders might enjoy telling stories by the fireside, but their true love was creating
those tales. They jested with one another as their kilts swayed with their motions.
The horses shook their heads, adjusting to their bridles and stamping impatiently
on the cobblestones in the inner yard. Ailis’s mother had insisted on the cobblestones,
to keep the mud out of the castle. Ailis had heard the Grants were going to lay stone
during the summer because it worked so well.
She lifted her chin and inhaled the scent of new greenery. The last thing she had
on her mind was a husband. Ailis was almost sure her father agreed with her, but as
a daughter of the laird, it was her duty to think of alliances. So her sire would
make the expected comments from time to time. The truth was he didn’t want her to
go anywhere, and the stack of offers sitting in his study remained untouched. No regent
needed to carry tales about her back to court. Offers had been arriving since she’d
turned fifteen. But in the last two years, her father hadn’t opened a single one,
only asked her if he should.
That was a blessing—one many girls didn’t enjoy. She looked at the men making ready
to ride out with her father, searching among their hard bodies for anything that might
stir a longing inside her for marriage.
All she felt was a sense of approval for their forms.
Well, at least she was not repulsed by men. She just wasn’t overly interested in them.
So marriage could wait another season.
But going out for a springtime ride to meet the Earl of Morton at the abbey sounded
fine. She adored her childhood home, but the winter had been long, and she wanted
to walk and feel the sun on her skin.
She would be very happy to return when their meeting was concluded.
* * *
Laird Shamus MacPherson wasn’t one to admit that his hair was thinning. But he had
taken to wearing a thick wool bonnet, even when sitting at his desk in his study while
a fire crackled behind him in the hearth. Bhaic MacPherson watched his father read
the message in front of him and growl at it.
“I’ll go see the new regent meself,” Shamus decided.
Bhaic didn’t interrupt. Shamus MacPherson was busy poking the Earl of Morton’s summons
where it lay on the table. “Bloody waste of time. How like a lowlander regent to think
everyone has time to squander on foolish ceremonies, such as riding down from the
Highlands to reaffirm the peace. As if I do nae know who me king is!”
“I’ll be riding with ye, Father,” Bhaic told his sire and laird.
Shamus looked at him and frowned. “I refuse to let that man waste yer time as well.
It will fall on yer shoulders soon enough, this duty to ignore what truly needs doing
in favor of riding off to meet with whatever man has managed to bribe enough fellow
councillors to gain the position of regent. It is nae as if we’ve had a king that
lasted any too long.”
“At least we have a king, and no’ his mother.”
Bhaic answered his father in a firm tone. “Do nae scold me for saying what everyone
is thinking. I’m a Highlander, nae some lowland Scot more concerned with appearances
than maintaining his honor.”
His father nodded, pride lighting his eyes. “Ye are right there, me lad. Right as
rain in the summer.” Shamus stood up, tugging his doublet down. “Mary Stuart may have
been a queen of Scotland, but it’s a king we really need. So we will have to put up
with regents until young James is old enough to manage. I’ll do me duty and ride out
to meet his regent, and judge his mood. Maybe this one will last until the boy is
“I would nae count too much upon that,” Bhaic warned his father. “The earl is the
fourth regent, and the king is only seven years old.” He stood and shook out his shoulders.
“So I’ll be going along to meet this regent. I want a look at him meself.”
“Very well, no doubt that’s wise,” his father said as he came around the table and
walked toward the doors that opened into the great hall. Two MacPherson retainers
stood guard, reaching up to pull on their bonnets when their laird appeared. Shamus
started down the aisle toward the doors with a determined pace, the maids they passed
all lowering themselves before returning to the duty of clearing away the remains
of the morning meal. The great hall was still full of long tables and benches that
welcomed all the inhabitants of the castle at mealtimes.
“Yes, it’s wise of ye to ride along with me to meet this regent,” Shamus continued
for the benefit of those listening. “Ye are making sure ye are seen, so there will
be no question who will become the next laird of the MacPhersons.”
“There never was a question of that, Father, and it is nae why I am riding out with
ye,” Bhaic stated. “It’s because ye are me laird, no’ just me sire.”
His father turned and winked. “But, me boy, I fully enjoyed begetting ye!”
There were a few muffled chuckles from the retainers close enough to hear. Shamus’s
eyes twinkled with merriment as he finished making his way to the huge double doors
of the outer wall.
The yard beyond the open doors of the keep was full of horses already. MacPherson
retainers were busy making ready to ride out with their laird. Many of the lowland
Scots had taken to wearing britches instead of kilts, but the MacPherson men wore
their colors proudly.
Bhaic grinned. The lowland Scots called him a savage, but he enjoyed knowing they
feared him. His colors were a constant reminder that he was part of something more
than just his own family. No man wore the colors of the MacPherson without earning
the right by conducting himself with honor. There was no greater shame to a Highlander
than being stripped of his kilt.
The lowland Scots were welcome to their britches. Let their regent see the MacPhersons
in their kilts.
He was a MacPherson and a Highlander. Let them worry about his mood.
* * *
The Earl of Morton was a rough man.
He’d seen his share of the harder side of life. That fact accounted for the task he
was embarking on today. He’d dressed for the occasion, wearing a thick leather over-doublet
to protect against smaller blades.
He lifted one gauntlet-clad hand and pointed at the forest surrounding the abbey.
“Make sure our men are posted along that line of trees. I want musket and pike there—these
Highlanders must know they are surrounded, or we’ll have a bloodbath.”
“Might have that anyway,” his captain remarked. “They
Highlanders. Not likely to bend.”
“Today, they are going to put being Scotsmen above their clan loyalties.”
The captain didn’t correct his noble lord, but he surely didn’t agree with the man.
Highlanders were different. Only a man living inside a palace would be so naive about
* * *
Ailis leaned low over the neck of her mare when the abbey came into view. The older
portion, which had been built a century before, was crumbling. She tucked in her heels
and let the horse have its freedom. The animal raced down the hill, across the meadow,
and through the remaining arches of the old medieval church.
“Ailis!” her father scolded, still up on the hillside where the forest thinned.
She lifted her arm and waved to him, then slid from the saddle with a happy smile
on her lips.
The tone of her father’s voice had changed. It sent a chill down her spine, and she
turned to look back. His retainers were surging down the hillside, their teeth bared
and their kilts flapping with the motion of their horses. They were riding hard, but
there was no way to reach her before the men waiting behind her made their move.
She jumped back, making a grab for her horse, but one of them had already taken the
animal’s reins, which left her facing six men. She pulled a small dagger from where
she’d tucked it in the top of her sleeve.
They converged on her. She got off only one jab before she was trapped. She struggled
against the hold on her arms, straining to break free, but she knew it was hopeless.
She’d ridden straight into a trap—and her kin were honor bound to try and rescue her.
Ye are such a fool!
Berating herself didn’t change the fact that there were hard fingers digging into
her flesh. Or that she could smell the scent of horses and gunpowder on her captors.
The sun shone cheerfully, and the grass was growing, but she felt the cold kiss of
steel against her throat.
It seemed surreal, like a dream spun in her ear by a fae while she napped on the grass
in the afternoon of a long summer day.
But the men holding her were real. Their breeches frightened her the most because
it meant they were not Highlanders. She strained against their hold, snarling as she
tried to break free.
“Stay back if you do not want her blood spilled!” the one holding her said.
Her heart was pounding, and sweat trickled down the side of her face from her struggle,
but the blade against her throat was too terrifying to fight against. She could feel
how sharp it was, feel it already slicing into the surface of her tender skin.
“Hold!” her father yelled. The first of his retainers had made it to the arches. They
jumped from their saddles and had their swords drawn before her father’s voice halted
their impulse to rescue her. They froze, pure, raw fury in their eyes.
Guilt fell on her like a stone. It was crushing, burning its way through her as she
witnessed the distress she’d caused by being impulsive. There would be blood spilled,
and it was her fault for leaving her escort behind.
She’d known the cost of such recklessness since she was eight years old and had made
the mistake of wandering during a spring festival. The memory normally chilled her
blood; today, it was already near freezing.
“The earl is waiting for you, Laird Robertson,” her captor said.
“I will nae be meeting with a man who sends his men to put a blade to me daughter’s
throat!” her father declared.
“Your daughter is in no danger.”
Ailis shifted her gaze to find the newcomer. He stood over to one side, flanked by
a dozen men with black-powder guns all aimed at her father and kin.
“I do nae agree with ye, boy,” her father retorted. “Tell yer men to get their hands
off me child. I thought it was only the bloody MacPhersons we had to worry about.”
“How very interesting to hear you say that name.” The man gestured to the men holding
her, and they marched her toward him. “I am the Earl of Morton, Regent for James VI
of Scotland.” He studied her for a long moment before looking past her to her father.
“Let us go inside to discuss this.”
Ailis didn’t have any choice. She was muscled through the garden that fed the inhabitants
of the abbey and into the kitchens.
The bruising grips on her arms didn’t bother her half as much as the knowledge that
her kin were being drawn after her. Better her throat had been slit in the garden.
For now, she was the bait.
“Do nae—” She turned her head and screamed, but the man holding her clamped his hand
over her mouth, smothering her warning.
Aye, she’d rather be dead than watch her father’s men coming after her.
She deserved death for being so foolish.
But she very much feared that she was going to be forced to live through the consequences
of her actions.
* * *
“Bloody Robertsons,” a MacPherson retainer snarled.
“At least we do nae hide behind skirts,” a Robertson growled back.
Ailis looked over to see the other side of the church filled with the tartan of her
father’s enemy, the MacPherson. More men stood guard over them with long muskets.
The MacPhersons looked as furious as her kin did. But they were outnumbered by the
earl’s men, who surrounded the entire abbey, more of them posted in the alcoves above
to ensure they had a clear shot at their prisoners.