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Authors: Mary Wine

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BOOK: Highland Spitfire
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“Regent or nae, ye’re a bloody coward.” Her father’s voice bounced around the inside
the abbey. It was built of dark stone, making it seem like a cave. The stained glass
windows served only to darken the sanctuary even further. The earl’s men removed the
blade from her throat and marched her up the aisle to the front pew.

“What I am is a man set on a course of action,” the earl said as he stood at the front
of the church. There wasn’t a hint of remorse in his expression. Two priests stood
at the altar, their fingers moving on the prayer beads hanging from their belts.

“Only a coward uses a man’s daughter,” her father protested.

“Or a man who is ready to crawl out of the barbaric traditions you Highlanders cling
to,” the earl answered. “I needed your attention, and now I have it.”

“I’ll nae leave behind me honor in favor of a man who hides behind a woman,” one of
the MacPhersons argued. He stood up, boldly offering his chest to the gunners.

“Instead, you would all continue to fight over something that happened more than three
generations ago?” the earl asked.

Ailis found herself biting her lower lip. It was the truth, and she was slightly shamed
when she was forced to hear it spoken aloud. Three generations was a long time—there
was no denying it.

“It’s none of yer concern,” the MacPherson insisted. He was a large man, with midnight-black
hair. Unlike a number of his clansmen, his face was scraped clean. Attached to the
side of his bonnet were three feathers, two of them pointing straight up. It was Laird
Shamus MacPherson’s son, Bhaic, which accounted for his boldness. He would be the
next Laird MacPherson. The feathers confirmed that he was the clan Tanis. It was more
than blood that put him in line for the lairdship; the rest of the clan’s leaders
had voted him into the position.

“Join Mistress Ailis in the front pew,” the earl ordered.

Bhaic smiled, showing off even white teeth, and crossed his arms over his chest. He
had his shirtsleeves pulled up, granting her a view of his muscular arms. A touch
of heat stroked her cheeks, and she looked back at the earl.

“Shoot me where I stand,” Bhaic taunted. “If ye’ve got the balls to.”

“Mind yer mouth, MacPherson, me daughter is present.”

Bhaic shrugged. “I am nae the fool who brought a woman along.”

“The Regent is the one who insisted me daughter come along!” her father protested.
“For a man who thinks we Highlanders are stuck in the Middle Ages, Lord Morton, ye
are the one acting like a savage. I never thought to question the terms of yer message
as if ye were some sort of English scum.”

“I find myself agreeing with Laird Robertson.” Bhaic sat back down in defiance of
the earl’s demand. “So now that I am completely disgusted, what do ye want, Regent?”

“An end to this feud,” the earl informed them.

A ripple went through the sanctuary, the scuffing of boot heels against the stone
floor as the men shifted, the reality of their long feud shaming more of them than
would be willing to admit it was so.

The earl didn’t miss it either.

“The crown and the king will no longer tolerate unrest in the Highlands,” Morton informed

“What are ye planning to do?” her father demanded. “Kill us all?” He chuckled ominously.
“Ye’ll nae be the first nobleman who fails at that task.”

The abbey was full of laughter, the sound bouncing between the dark stone walls.

“Come here, mistress,” the earl demanded.

Ailis wanted to refuse, but that felt cowardly. Bhaic was standing up to the man,
so she would as well.

“Stay where ye are, Daughter,” her father ordered.

She stood, earning another round of laughter from the MacPhersons.

“Seems ye are as good at teaching yer children respect as ye are at fighting, Robertson!”

Ailis turned around, her skirts flying up to reveal her ankles. She glared at Bhaic

“I am no more afraid of this lowlander than ye are,” she said in a tone that would
have pleased even her stern tutor. Her chin was steady and her voice even without
a hint of sharpness, just clear determination.

The grin on his face faded, and for just a moment, his expression became one of approval.
But she turned and walked toward the earl. She had to fend off the impulse to perform
a reverence, because it was such an ingrained courtesy. But he would not receive such
politeness from her—even if he was a nobleman. There were plenty who would warn her
against such prideful ways, but she had been raised in the Highlands. Respect was
earned. And the earl had abandoned polite behavior, so she would as well.

She spoke evenly once more. “I’ll not be lowering meself before a man who ordered
a blade put to me throat.”

His lips twitched in response. For a moment, he studied her, running his gaze up and
down her length. When his gaze met with hers again, there was a pleased look flickering
in them. He was different than the other noblemen she’d met. There was a rough edge
to him that struck a warning bell inside her. He was ruthless and unashamed of it.
This man had not been raised with servants trailing his heels. He’d dirtied his hands
more than once. She was certain of it.

That made him very dangerous.

“Look through those windows, mistress, and tell me what you see.”

A knot was tightening in her belly, pulling tighter as she turned and looked where
he pointed. Beyond the sides of the abbey, there were more of the earl’s men, set
apart by their britches. They held a line of horses steady beneath thick tree branches;
more men stood ready with nooses above the animals.

She felt as though her throat was closing shut.

“Have you lost your courage, Lady?” the earl inquired.

“I have nae,” she countered, but her voice cracked, betraying her horror.

“Enough. Let the lass be.” Bhaic stood back up. “If ye want a fight, man, I’ll be
happy to give it to ye, since ye’ve gone to so much trouble to get us all here.”

“Like hell!” her father shouted. “She’s me daughter, and I’ll be the one doing the
fighting, since me sons are nae here.”

Ailis gulped down a breath and fought to find her strength before her father lunged
across the pews at Bhaic—and unleashed a bloodbath.

“There is a row of horses with nooses dangling above the empty saddles,” Ailis forced
out. “Every detail set for an execution.”

The abbey went silent as her words reached every last man. All hints of teasing dissipated,
and more than one man looked at the gunners and began to judge his chances. Better
to die trying to live than wait for someone to slap the flank of a horse while you
felt the bite of the noose around your neck.

“This feud ends here,” the earl informed them. “None of ye recall the reason it began.”

“I do,” her father insisted. “It was a MacPherson who murdered me grandfather.”

“Only after he tried to steal the bride of me own grandfather!” Shamus MacPherson
argued, pointing at Liam Robertson. “But it was the money he was trying to steal the

“Me kin are nae thieves!” her father roared. “She found yer grandfather’s bed cold,
and that’s a fact!”

Suddenly the men in the pews didn’t care about the guns trained on them. They were
ready to tear one another limb from limb. Over three hundred Highlanders began to
surge to their feet, but a blast from one of the muskets sobered them. The scent of
the black powder was thick, mixing with the beeswax lingering from the morning mass.

“You will end this feud,” the earl demanded. “Scotland needs unity. England’s virgin
queen is earning the wrath of most of the continent with her Protestant ways. If we
do not want to find ourselves invaded, we will present a united front to the rest
of the world. There will be peace between the MacPhersons and the Robertsons so we
might all be Scots.”

“I suppose if ye hang us all, there might be.” It was Bhaic who spoke up, his voice
strong and steady.

“I find meself agreeing with a MacPherson,” her father groused. “May me father forgive
me and no’ rise from his grave to torment me.”

The earl was looking at Ailis. She felt the weight of his gaze, the knot in her belly
becoming unbearable.

“Your father’s fate is in your hands, mistress. I leave the choice to you, since they
are still intent on fighting, even with the odds clearly against them.”

“I am one person,” she answered slowly, a tingle touching her nape. “What is it ye
suggest I do?”

The earl offered her a direct look. One that left no doubt in her mind as to how deadly
serious he was. If she failed, he’d hang her kin as she watched. She swallowed the
lump lodged in her throat.

“Ye are the laird’s daughter. Alliances are made through highborn daughters,” the
earl informed her. He pointed at the altar. “Kneel and take vows of marriage with
Bhaic MacPherson, or watch your father and his captains hang. Either way, you shall
kneel in prayer.”

She gagged. Her jaw fell open, and she couldn’t seem to close it. So she clasped a
hand over her mouth, trying not to retch.

“She will nae do it,” her father snarled.

“Me son will have no part of any wedding with a Robertson!” Shamus MacPherson declared
from the pews.

The earl gripped her arm and sent her stumbling toward the priests.

The earl spoke directly to Bhaic. “Then your son will live with the knowledge that
he sentenced you and your captains to their deaths. My marksmen have been told whom
to spare. If you choose death, your son will live with the knowledge that he stood
by and allowed it to happen.”

The gunners were looking down the length of their muskets, the smoldering rope they
used to touch off the powder in their weapons held securely in their fingers. They
had the ends of those deadly guns cradled in iron holders to help bear the weight
and make sure their aim was true. She could see the men in the pews, all trying to
calculate their odds of escaping. The first one to move would die; the only chance
to flee would be during the melee.

It was a sickening thought, but one she couldn’t dismiss. Highlanders had died in
groups before, and at the hands of their fellow Scots too. She looked out the windows
at the horses, the nooses nauseating her again.

She looked back over her shoulder at Bhaic.

He was everything she detested. Hardened. Huge. Devil-dark hair and ice-cold blue
eyes. Her father’s sworn enemy, and his father hated her. He was glaring at her, hatred
tightening his features. She fought to keep her own revulsion from showing.

She had to. The earl would keep his word. She had no doubt on that matter. None at

“It is a simple enough choice, madam. Prayers for the living or for the dead. Make
your choice,” the earl instructed her.

What a poor marriage it would be. Bhaic hated her: not her nature, but her blood.

But she couldn’t be so selfish.

Better to be hated than live with bloodstained hands.

She climbed to the altar and forced herself to kneel. It felt as though her knees
broke beneath the effort. Staying there took every last bit of self-control she had.

“A most sensible choice,” the earl muttered.

“Me son will nae be wedding that Robertson,” Shamus MacPherson insisted.

“That’s on account of the fact that MacPhersons are too bloody selfish to think of
anything but their own gain,” Ailis’s father announced. “Me daughter is near gagging,
but she will nae put herself above me life. Curse and rot ye, Morton, for using a
lass so.”

“Me son is naught to gag over!” Shamus growled. “I’ve got plenty of offers.”

“And the only one that matters is mine,” the earl interrupted. “I offer to end this
feud through a marriage, or wipe out the lot of you who continue to persist in fighting
over something your grandparents did. Captain, make ready to fire.”

“Ye’ll have yer way, Lord Morton.”

Ailis flinched, the timbre of Bhaic’s tone cutting through her resolve. Panic was
trying to take hold of her, the urge to bolt almost overwhelming. She gripped handfuls
of her skirt, squeezing until her fingers ached.

“At least today ye will,” Bhaic stated, “because ye are right about one thing: I will
nae stand here and watch me clansmen die while I do nae face the same danger. But
I say ye are a coward to fight yer battles through the use of a woman and a musket
leveled at me father.”

“Alliances have been made through marriage since the dawn of time. Even in the Highlands,”
the earl said. “Ye’ll wed that girl and end this feud because your children will share


Oh, hellfire.
They would have to beget those babes together.

She couldn’t lay with Bhaic MacPherson!

Ailis started to stand, losing the battle to kneel so submissively. She could feel
Bhaic closing the distance. Her heart was pounding, feeling as if it might burst.

But a hard hand caught her wrist before she made it very far off the hassock. Bhaic
cursed low and long in Gaelic, earning a scathing look from the priest.

“Keep yer hands off me,” she hissed and jerked her hands in front of her.

He cut her a mocking look as the priest began the opening prayer. “That will make
for an agreeable marriage as far as I am concerned,” he replied.

She felt the color drain from her face. Ailis looked toward the priest, but seeing
him perform the motions of the sacrament of marriage gave her no relief at all. She
glanced back toward Bhaic, and saw once again the horses waiting beneath the row of


She was caught, just like a rabbit.

It was a horrible feeling, made even worse by the sight of Bhaic MacPherson kneeling
next to her. His tartan was something she’d been raised to hate and fear. She’d seen
many a widow weeping because his clan had fought with hers. The great hall of Robertson
Castle rang with curses against them so often, the priest on Robertson land no longer
gave out penance for them.

BOOK: Highland Spitfire
3.19Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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