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Authors: Cathy Maxwell

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BOOK: In the Bed of a Duke
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He smiled. “Always curious,” he accused.

“It’s my besetting sin,” she confessed.

Phillip chuckled, valuing the wit and friendship he was discovering in this woman, before confessing soberly, “I don’t know what will happen. I only pray that whatever it is, I can make it right.”

“You will. You’re the duke.”

But even dukes could be wrong
.

“I believe,” he said wearily, “that tomorrow we’ll both return to the English garrison at Fort William. I can’t do this alone. I shouldn’t.”

She stirred. Her eyes still closed, “If you find your brother, what of your right to the title?”

He hadn’t thought that far. It was the one question he avoided, even in his own mind. “It’s his by right,” he whispered.

Against his chest, her lips curved into a smile. “It’s the honorable thing to do,” she murmured as if pleased. She fell asleep.

However, Phillip couldn’t quiet his mind. He thought of a brother he’d never known, a history
of Scottish intrigue…and a woman he wanted to trust.

It was a long time before he fell asleep.

 

Charlotte had never slept so well.

Cool air roused her. It tickled her nose, which she rubbed against warm flesh. Memories came rushing back. Colster. No wonder she felt so content.

She would have put her arms around him for a good morning hug, except his arm came over her first, but not in a lover’s embrace.

It was a warning that something was wrong.

At the same moment, a strange, male voice said, “Good morning, Your Grace.”

Charlotte opened her eyes and discovered a party of some eight rough-looking men crowded around them in the hayrick. They had beards and hair reaching down to their shoulders. They wore leather breeches and boots, swords and pistols. They could be robbers or rebels.

Their leader, a lean man approaching thirty with a hawkish nose, golden hair and beard, and green eyes so piercing they could have been shards of glass, stood over them holding the dress she and Colster had left hanging by the stream last night. “I can see the two of you enjoyed a romp in the hay.” His deep voice held a rich, rolling brogue, every syllable Scottish.

Thankfully Charlotte had slept under her coat, and her modesty was still somewhat intact. Colster grabbed the dress out of the golden-haired man’s hand. “Who are you?” he demanded with all the authority of a duke.

A gleam of derision appeared in the Scot’s eyes. “Gordon Lachlan, kinsman to the MacKenna. He sent me to find you—” His gaze dropped to Charlotte. “—And Miss Cameron.”

“You’ve found us,” Colster said coldly. “We have no need of your assistance.”

The corner of Mr. Lachlan’s mouth curled into a smile. “I can see that, Your Grace,” he said politely in his soft burr. “However, it is the wishes of my cousin that you return with us. As you have already learned, this is MacKenna country, and there is more than one here who carries a grudge against you. The laird fears for your safety.”

The stern, stoic faces of the men behind Mr. Lachlan added an element of truth to his warning.

Charlotte knew Colster wanted to wish the man to the devil. However, when he spoke, his voice betrayed no emotion. “Give us a moment to dress,” he said.

“As you wish, Your Grace,” Mr. Lachlan said, his manner more mocking than respectful. With only the hint of a bow, he nodded for his men to join him outside.

Colster rolled to his feet. Seeing that Mr. Lachlan had moved his men a respectful twenty feet away, he offered Charlotte her dress, then held up his greatcoat to screen her from prying eyes. “Relax,” he said. “Take your time. We don’t dance to their tune.”

“There are so many of them,” she whispered.

He pulled on his own shirt and tucked it in his waistband before turning her around and tying her laces. His head close to hers, he said, “I want you to get away.”

A shot of anxiety went through her. “What about you?” she asked.

“Don’t worry about me.” He reached for his jacket. Keeping his back toward the Scots, he pulled out his money purse and the letter, folding it around the leather bag. He slipped the package to her. “If the opportunity arises, I want you to run. Save yourself.” He removed his signet ring from his finger and slid it on the thumb of her right hand, the only place it would fit. “Use this however you see fit.”

“What of you?”

He pulled a piece of hay from her hair and tossed it aside before meeting her worried gaze. “I was meant to be here. That was decided the day I was born. I will settle this matter now.” He picked up his stockings and boots and started to finish dressing.

The boot reminded her of helping him the night before and its aftermath. They shouldn’t have lingered. They should have known the danger they were in and run while they’d had a chance.

Raising his voice, Colster said, “Lachlan, my lady’s shoes and stockings are out in that field. Bring them to her.”

None of the Scots liked being given an order. Lachlan frowned like the others, but turned to a tall, dark-haired, bearded man dressed in homespun. “Tavis, fetch the lady’s shoes.”

Tavis did as bid. He must have been accustomed to taking orders, for he didn’t even so much as offer a parting scowl in Colster’s direction.

Colster was on his feet now. He’d left the collar of his shirt open since the neckcloth had been used to hobble Homer. In spite of that, he still cut a dashing figure. He swung his greatcoat over one arm.

Charlotte had not moved from where he’d left her. “They could kill you,” she warned, her every instinct saying this was true.

Colster boldly laughed away her fears. “They won’t. Not yet, at least.”

“I don’t know that is true,” she whispered. “Don’t the Scots have a history of slitting throats?” Before she could say more, Lachlan’s man Tavis arrived with her shoes and one stocking.

“This was all I could find,” he said, his voice deep and musical with its soft accent. There was a kindness in this man that she sensed the others lacked.

“Thank you,” she murmured, so upset she couldn’t look at him.

“Charlotte,” Colster said, when Tavis had joined his compatriots.

She shook her head. Her nerves were stretched thin. She had a bad feeling in her stomach.

Colster took her in his arms in front of everyone. “Look at me.”

She raised her gaze, holding back tears.

He smiled at her and lightly ran his thumb across her lower lip. A lover’s gesture. “Be brave.”

It was what she’d needed to hear. She straightened her shoulders. “Laird MacKenna won’t hurt you. I won’t let him.”

“Any authority you have over him will be greatly appreciated,” he assured. “I’m not proud when it comes to my own neck. Now come. Let us show them our courage.”

The stocking by itself was worthless, and the red garters she’d once been so proud of were lost in the hay. She slipped on her nearly ruined shoes, allowed Colster to take her hand in his own warm, reassuring one, and let him lead her outside.

The day was going to be warm. The skies were clear and blue. The air was filled with the gurgling sounds of the stream and birdsong. Nothing untoward could happen on such a beautiful day, or so Charlotte told herself.

Mr. Lachlan was already mounted on a handsome bay. He’d been speaking to a black-haired man of his height and age. They were quarreling but stopped when she and Colster walked out of the hayrick.

“Your Grace,” Mr. Lachlan said, “my laird bid me to personally ride to him with the news of your capture. My cousin Bruce shall escort you.”

Charlotte took an immediate dislike to Bruce. He was a handsome man but had cruel eyes.

“Bring that horse over here,” Mr. Lachlan ordered, indicating Homer, who was snoozing in the sun. Again, it was Tavis who did the work.

“Don’t tarry, Bruce,” Mr. Lachlan warned his cousin. “The laird will be waiting.” He put his heels to his horse and rode off.

Bruce watched him go. He looked to the others. “Gordon wants it all for himself, doesn’t he?”

“He’s doing as he was told,” one answered in Mr. Lachlan’s defense.

“I should have been in charge,” Bruce muttered. “As it is, I’m being treated no better than Tavis.”

Another man spoke up. “The laird treats both you and Gordon equal.”

“But we are not, are we?” Bruce countered.

No one dared to answer him, and the response seemed to take his temper a notch higher. “I should have been in charge of this. I should have been in charge from the beginning. I know what needs to be done. Mount up,” he ordered. He climbed into his own saddle before swinging his hard gaze toward Charlotte and Colster. “So you are the grand duke. You don’t appear so mighty now.”

Colster held his tongue.

Bruce turned to a rider with brown hair pulled back in a long queue, a broken nose, and a sweaty shirt. “Dougal, take the woman up with you.”

Before Charlotte knew what was happening, Dougal grabbed her by the arm and heaved her up into the seat in front of him.

Colster moved forward to protest. “She rides with me.” But before he could take a step further, his way was blocked as one of Bruce’s men nudged his horse forward.

“You needn’t worry about her, Maddox,” Bruce said, speaking to Colster. “Especially since you won’t be riding. Robbie,” he said, addressing a barrel-chested horseman blocking Colster’s path. “Do you have the rope?”

Before Charlotte realized what they were about, a running noose was thrown around Colster’s shoulders. It fell to his feet. She cried out
a warning but it was too late. Robbie pulled the rope tight around Colster’s ankles and he fell to the ground with bone-jarring force.

Colster set to work to free himself, but it was too late.

“Take the Maddox to the laird, Robbie,” Bruce said. “Take him
our
way.”

With a glad whoop, Robbie set heels to horse and took off at a gallop, dragging Colster in a mad circle around the perimeter of the field.

N
o one knew better than Tavis what Bruce was capable of. After all, he’d stolen Tavis’s wife.

However, dragging a man to his death without a hearing in front of the laird was not right.

It dishonored the MacKenna. It dishonored the clan.

Tavis glanced around at the others. Some appeared as uncomfortable as himself. Others grinned as if they thought it great sport. No one seemed ready to speak up against injustice.

And who was he to challenge those more favored—especially when this was his first, long-awaited opportunity to ride with the warriors?

Tavis had been raised an orphan. The laird himself had taken him in…but he’d always known he was an outsider, one who had desperately wanted to belong. Tavis wanted to prove his
loyalty to the clan that had adopted him and for years he had secretly practiced at swordplay, honing his skills and waiting for a day like this to arrive.


Stop this,
” Miss Cameron cried out. “You’ll kill him.”

No one listened.

Robbie spun his mount around and came charging back. The Maddox struggled bravely to free himself, but he was no match for a galloping horse. The only thing saving him right now was that the field had been freshly mowed. If they dragged the Maddox all the way back to Nathraichean, he’d be dead by the time they arrived.

If Tavis was wise, he’d mind his own business. Especially around Bruce.

But something he couldn’t explain urged him forward. He seemed to have no choice but to step forward, leaving the coach horse and putting himself directly in Robbie’s path.

Robbie realized the challenge. His face split into a grin, and he spurred the horse faster.

Behind Tavis, someone jested, “I put three guineas on the horse.” His wager was met with hoots of laughter. They all resented Tavis’s presence amongst them. They thought themselves better than he.

As a blacksmith, there were few horses in the
kirk that Tavis didn’t know. The animals trusted him, especially when their masters, such as Robbie, were vicious. Tavis used that trust now and gave a low whistle.

All
the horses lifted their ears. Even wild-eyed, Robbie’s Dodger heard the whistle. But would he disobey his master?

The ground pulsed with the horse’s hooves. Tavis refused to move, trusting the training he’d given the animal.

Dodger was almost upon Tavis when he decided to prove his namesake—he dodged to one side, so close Tavis could have touched the animal’s sweaty skin.

And then the horse stopped abruptly and Robbie went flying over his head facedown into the field’s soft earth.

Dodger looked at his fallen master, and then turned to Tavis, lowering his head. He knew there’d be hell to pay, but he had not betrayed the blacksmith.

The scorn and derision that had been directed at Tavis seconds before were now turned on Robbie.

Miss Cameron used the opportunity to escape Dougal. She scrambled out of his hold, hit the ground, and went running to help the Maddox. The man was either fortunate or had an extremely hard head. Other than his clothes being torn and
dirty, he’d obviously not suffered any great hurt since he didn’t waste any time in freeing himself of the rope.

However, Bruce was not pleased. He nudged his horse forward. The lines of his face were set in a hard frown. The laughter died immediately.

“Are you proud, Blacksmith, that you have shamed a man in front of his enemy?”

Tavis knew better than to answer. Bruce was a dangerous man. There wasn’t a crofter in the kirk who didn’t pray that the laird chose Gordon over Bruce as his heir. Unfortunately, the laird enjoyed playing the cousins against each other. He gave them challenges, asking them to prove who was the better man. Tavis could have answered the question for him—Gordon.

Robbie’s growl of anger interrupted them and was the only warning Tavis received before the smaller man ran at him with a knife in his hand.

Tavis had the superior strength and agility. He ducked what would have been a death blow. The knife harmlessly sliced air. Tavis came up beneath Robbie and threw him to the ground. Before the man could collect his wits, Tavis pulled the short sword he favored from its scabbard at his waist and pointed the tip at Robbie’s throat.

Seconds passed like hours as he waited for Robbie to admit defeat. He sensed the others’ amazement. He knew he’d surprised them all,
including Bruce. Regardless of what happened next, he had already won. The secret hours he’d spent teaching himself combat had paid off tenfold, and he was thankful the laird had let him ride out with the search party this day.

It was a pity Moira, the wife who had left him for another, wasn’t here to see his victory.

The Maddox and Miss Cameron unintentionally broke the stalemate. One of the men shouted an alarm that the twosome had taken advantage of everyone’s inattention and had start running for the shelter of the forest across the stream.

“Damn the lot of you,” Bruce swore. “You are letting them get away.
Catch them
.”

Dougal made up for his earlier lapse by riding them down, reaching the woman first. He jumped from his horse. She cried out as he knocked her to the ground. He yanked her up by her shoulder, his knife at her throat.

The Maddox stopped. He held out his hands. “Let her go. It’s me you want. Not her. Let her go, and I shall leave with you willingly.” It was an offer Tavis would have made. A man didn’t let a woman die for him.

Miss Cameron would have none of it. Even with a knife at her throat, she said, “Colster, don’t trust these men.”

Bruce rode up to them. “Quiet, woman.”

She met his eye. “I am an honored guest of Laird MacKenna’s—”

“Are you now?” Bruce interrupted. “Do you believe you will be so honored once he learns how we found you wrapped in your lover’s arms?”

Miss Cameron’s face flooded red, but she held her head high, defiance in her amazingly blue eyes. It was Bruce who looked away first.

“Tie him up, Robbie. Tavis, weren’t you told to fetch that coach horse? Bring it over here.” He indicated the stolen horse, the one Tavis called in his mind Ulysses. The laird didn’t name all of his animals save his favorites, but Tavis believed each of God’s creatures deserved a name. He’d chosen Ulysses because the tale was one of his favorites from those he’d learned from Father Nicholas.

Robbie angrily yanked back the Maddox’s arms and tied his hands while Tavis brought the horse over.

The Maddox’s hard gaze had never once wavered from Dougal holding a knife on the woman. He spoke to Bruce. “Release her. You have me. Leave her here.”

“Your orders carry no weight here, Sassenach,” Bruce said.

“She’s
my
woman,” the Maddox answered. “I’ll kill the man who harms her.”

The fierce certainty with which he spoke surprised Tavis. He’d been told the Maddox was a weak, pampered gentleman who had betrayed his proud Scottish roots for the foppish ways of the Sassenach.

This man wasn’t weak. Nor would he be a wise one to cross.

Bruce dismissed the threat. “You are on our lands now, Maddox.
Our
rules.” He looked over to Dougal. “Mount up and don’t lose her this time. And you, Robbie.” Robbie had remounted a very contrite Dodger. “Do you expect the Maddox to fly up onto the horse’s back what with you tying his hands? Do you have any bloody brains? No wonder the blacksmith got the best of you.”

“If you hadn’t stopped me, Tavis’s blood would be soaking into this field,” Robbie vowed.

“I’m not so certain, cousin,” Bruce answered. “You left yourself wide open. You got what you deserved. My
wife
is better with a knife.”

Tavis hated when Bruce mentioned Moira in front of him. He hated having to pretend it was fine the laird had helped Moira divorce him so she could marry Bruce.

There’d been a time when Moira had loved him and had been proud to be a blacksmith’s wife. That had been long before Bruce had noticed her and wooed her with gifts, money, and the possibility of being his lady if he was named laird.

Tavis had fought the divorce. He’d stood up to the laird, but in the end, the matter had been done without his consent. Money had been paid, church officials had winked, and the deed had been done. There’d been naught he could do to stop it. The laird had always favored Bruce. What he wanted, he usually received—that was until Gordon Lachlan had arrived in Nathraichean. And anyone who suspected Tavis was Gordon’s man was exactly right.

Sooner or later, Tavis would have the opportunity to repay both Bruce and Moira—one for stealing his wife and the other for breaking her vows. But for now, he was still the bloody lackey.

“Help the prisoner on his horse,” Bruce ordered Tavis.

Rebellion burning in his chest at being treated as a servant, Tavis laced his fingers to give the Englishman a leg up.

But the Maddox hesitated. “Thank you,” the Sassenach said in a low voice intended for their ears alone. “I owe you my life.”

The gratitude made Tavis angry. Saving the man’s hide had not been his wisest decision. “Go to the devil,” he told the Maddox, but the curse rang wrong in Tavis’s ears. It didn’t feel right.

Still, it had the desired effect on the Maddox. His gaze hardened before he let Tavis give him a lift up onto the horse.

Tavis handed the lead rope to Robbie, who began haranguing the Maddox that he’d best stay on. They’d not pick him up if he fell “…although the blacksmith might.”

The others caught the jibe and laughed. Tavis ignored them.

The other men—Dougal, Peter, and Wills—gathered at the far side of the field, ready to leave. Robbie rode with his prisoner to join them. Bruce waited beside Tavis’s horse Butter. She was an ill-tempered mare who was known for throwing the best foals and for throwing her riders. Tavis was certain it had been a joke amongst the men that he’d been given her to ride.

“You surprised me, Tavis,” Bruce said. “I didn’t know you were such a fighter.”

Tavis mounted. Butter was anxious to join the other horses. She kicked out her impatience, but he easily maintained his seat. “We all do what we must in the service of the laird.”

“Do you think he’ll be pleased with what you did today?” Bruce asked, showing his crooked front teeth in a smile that didn’t reach his eyes.

“MacKenna was keen to meet this Maddox,” Tavis said. “He would not want him ripped to shreds.”

“You may be right. Then, again, he may be concerned his blacksmith is taking on airs above his station.”

“He chose me for this task,” Tavis reminded him. “I’m here at his express order.”

“And none of us can understand why.” Bruce ensured he had the last word by kicking his horse forward. Setting off at a trot, he raised his hand, a signal they should all follow him.

 

Charlotte should not be here. She was not a player in this drama.
The knowledge kept Phillip’s back straight. He had a purpose and that was to protect her.

The man Dougal had tied her hands together so that even if she did escape, it would be difficult for her to run.

Phillip knew he was the reason MacKenna had invited her. What he couldn’t understand was why? All of London knew that he and the Cameron girls were enemies—

He was stunned by the thought. Could that be MacKenna’s purpose? Was she here as a witness to whatever MacKenna had planned? He glanced over to her.

She might be frightened out of her wits, but no fear showed in her face. Her pride wouldn’t let it. He now knew her character well enough to understand that she wouldn’t have let him in so close to her if she’d meant to betray him. That wasn’t how Charlotte Cameron behaved.

Of course, that didn’t mean she hadn’t wanted
to wring his neck a time or two, and rightfully so.

Once they’d made it through this and returned to London, Phillip vowed he would make all amends possible—which included offering her his complete protection.

He’d also set her up as his mistress. She could have anything her heart desired. She’d never have to worry about her sisters again. He’d take care of all of them.

But first, he had to see the two of them through this situation.

Phillip studied each of the riders, searching for an ally. The man Tavis intrigued him. He was the outsider. The others didn’t accept him, especially in the face of Bruce’s open antagonism toward him.

He was about Phillip’s height and a year maybe two older or younger. It was hard to pinpoint his exact age with that beard.

It had been Phillip’s experience that, in every group, there was always one person who could be persuaded to do the right thing. Tavis had already demonstrated he had a conscience and the courage to act upon it. It was unfortunate he didn’t have more power in this small group.

They were coming closer to the sea. The forest disappeared. Rolling moors, green from the recent rain, stretched out before them. The sky seemed to touch the earth here in a way Phillip
had not noticed anyplace else in Britain, while gulls and terns rode the wind currents overhead, curious about the riders.

The road went up and over a knoll, bringing them to a windswept moor and his first sight of a medieval tower surrounded by a walled fortress sitting on a cliff overlooking the sea.

A chill of recognition went through Phillip. He’d seen this tower before. It had been a figure in his dreams, one he’d never understood. It now filled him with a sense of foreboding. Soon, he may learn the answers to not only Nanny Frye’s letter, but also to disquieting questions he’d sensed in his own soul.

This section of Scotland was believed to be sparsely populated. Phillip could almost hear his peers laughing about nothing living up here but puffins, kittiwakes, and barking seals.

They were wrong.

A busy village of crofters’ huts, daub buildings, and tents surrounded the perimeter of the fortress. He’d guess there may be as many as a thousand of them in the shadow of Nathraichean’s tower. Sheep roamed freely across the moor along with goats, dogs, and children.

A shepherd noticed them and put out a cry, which set the dogs to barking. Men, women, and children came pouring from the direction of the makeshift village to watch their party ride by.

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