The Highlander's Outlaw Bride (2 page)

BOOK: The Highlander's Outlaw Bride
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She jerked violently at the man’s touch, her stomach clenched tight in terror. She twisted beneath the ironlike stricture, but the grip tightened, and the scream rising in her throat bled away to a muffled whimper.

“’Tis Gavin.”

Relief washed over her and she relaxed, though her heart still raced painfully in her chest as she swallowed the bitter taste of fear. Next to her, Duncan roused William with a touch, and to her surprise, Ewan was there to wake Rabbie. She longed to ask him how he came to be in prison with them, but the men rose silently, and she kept her questions to herself.

Gavin helped her to her feet and motioned for the others to follow. They slipped into the darkness, closing the iron gate behind them with care against its slow, protesting squawk.

Geordie awaited them behind the stable, horses saddled. Brianna accepted her mare’s reins and walked Maude silently into the night. Cloaked in shadow, the sky lit only by a shrouded, rising moon, they cautiously edged the bailey. A single, man-high gate set in the castle wall, large enough to walk through single file, yawned open before them. Brianna’s nerves stretched taut as she anticipated cries from the guards on the wall, but none came. Once through the gate, they hugged the shadows of the battlements until they were within easy reach of the forest and Gavin gave the signal to mount.

They rode at a punishing pace, neither slowing nor stopping until the palest hint of dawn appeared and Brianna’s muscles knotted with exhaustion. At last Gavin allowed them to rein their tired mounts to a halt. The horses milled about, stomping their feet as they snorted and blew. Steam rose from their hides and the odor of their sweat hung heavy in the mist-laden air. Brianna dismounted and drew a deep breath, savoring the aroma. It smelled like heaven. It smelled like freedom.

Relief was evident in the way the men moved, softly joking among themselves as they checked their horses and gear. Brianna glanced fondly at each one, her chest tight with gratitude as she considered the lengths they’d gone to in their attempt to keep her safe. She sought Gavin.

“May we talk now?”

He nodded and the men clustered around. Brianna burned with questions.

“How did we get away?”

“Geordie and Ewan took care of that.” Gavin nodded to the two men. They beamed with pride.

Brianna acknowledged their efforts with a nod. “How did you know where to find us?”

Geordie chimed in. “Ye dinnae make it home last night, and this morning Auld Willie was afraid ye had been caught by either the reivers or the sheriff. So Ewan and me went to Glenkirk, where we heard a lass and her men were to be taken to the king to be sentenced for stealing cattle.”

Ewan took up the tale. “It had to be ye, since we hadnae heard of another lass reiving in this land. We found where they were holding ye and, er,
inconvenienced
the guards.”

Geordie flushed and jabbed Ewan in the side with his elbow. “We bribed those we could.”

Ewan ground the knuckles of one fist in the palm of his other hand. “Aye. A few.”

Brianna glanced from Geordie to Ewan, then back to Gavin. “But why did they have to rescue us? The king would have pardoned us. I know it.”

Gavin shook his head. “Lass, they werenae taking ye to Troon.”

Brianna canted her head in confusion. “What do ye mean? The sheriff said we were to be taken to the king.”

He grasped her gently by the shoulders, forcing her attention. “Ewan and Geordie learned that the guards were to take us as far as the River Clyde and kill us there.”

A chill swept over her and her knees wobbled. She opened her mouth once, but no sound came out. She swallowed and tried again. “Why?”

“Someone wants ye dead, lass,” Ewan informed her solemnly. “They paid the sheriff to ambush ye and see ye hanged.”

Brianna tried to understand what the men were telling her.
Why would anyone seek to have me killed?
Head spinning, she listened bleakly to Gavin’s next words.

“When ye told the sheriff of yer kinship to Lord John of Islay, he couldnae hang ye at Glenkirk for fear Lord John and the king would be angry. So he plotted to send ye away, telling everyone he was sending ye to the king for him to decide what to do with ye.

“But he gave his men orders to take ye far enough away to keep his hands clean of the deed, then kill ye. Mayhap his men would have reported ye drowned in the river and we either drowned trying to save ye, or became so enraged they were forced to kill us to protect themselves. I dinnae know. But Ewan and Geordie stopped them before they could put their plan into action.”

“I am verra sorry to tell ye this, lass,” Ewan added. “If there had been a chance the sheriff would let ye see the king, it might have been better to see this through. But the truth is, the king isnae even at Troon.”

Exhausted, her nerves frayed by events piled on her the past hours, Brianna took a stumbling step forward, bracing herself against the trunk of a tree as her knees buckled. Finally, she took a deep, steadying breath and faced the soldiers.

“Where is Jamie?”

It stood to reason if someone at Wyndham wanted her dead, it was because of the land entailed to her through her unfulfilled marriage contract. Though a sickly lad, Jamie was the only other member of her family who stood to inherit the property if she died.

“He is fine,” Geordie answered. “Auld Willie knows the lad could be in danger and has taken charge of him. Ye needn’t worry about him.”

Brianna nodded weakly. “What do we do now?” Her voice gained strength as she determinedly shrugged off her shock and readjusted the mantle of responsibility over her shoulders.

Gavin shrugged as though his plan was of the utmost simplicity.

“We wait for the king to pardon us.”

Chapter 2

Several days later, in Ayrshire

Connor MacLaurey reined his stallion to a stop at the foot of the hills just south of Troon. Satisfied with the protection the trees afforded, he turned to his two companions.

“We will stop here for the night.”

Sliding tiredly from his saddle, his legs trembled as he led Embarr to the edge of the glen. Water gurgled in a nearby burn, winding through the rocks and trees.

“’Twill be good to have this done and be away home.” He grunted as he stripped the saddle from Embarr’s back. “I shouldnae have stayed away so long.”

“I am sorry we are too late for your father’s funeral,
mon ami
.”

Conn nodded wearily. “I thank ye, Bray. And my sister’s warning of my cousin’s plan to take over the clan doesnae help, either.” He lowered his saddle to the ground with a groan of effort. “If the ship hadnae been forced to berth at Ballantrae, we wouldnae have had this ride to Troon. But at least it has given the mares a chance to stretch their legs.”

“Your king will be pleased with his gift. Perhaps enough to pardon your betrothed.”

Connor cut his friend a sharp glance. “I dinnae sign a betrothal contract before I left for France, and I dinnae approve my da arranging this for me. She was a plain, straw-headed lass when I last saw her as a wean, and I would suppose she is even less interesting now. And, if I remember, a widow in the bargain. Let us think on happier things, aye?” He shrugged the memory of a fiery-haired lass from the Firth of Clyde from his mind and returned to his tasks.

The two men watered and fed the horses in silence, but the words from Morven’s captain, Seumas, included in the letter from his sister, ticked through his head.

Yer betrothed has been accused of reiving but escaped the hangman’s noose. The sheriff has declared her outlaw and his men hunt her. Only the king can pardon her. Ye must find her, protect her.

The Wyndham lass an outlaw?
Connor shook his head.
Seumas exaggerates. She dinnae have a bold bone in her body.
He dredged up the memory of the lad she’d married more than two years ago.
Nae, she wouldnae have learned courage from him
. As for now being his betrothed—he would deal with that absurd notion as soon as he ousted his cousin Malcolm from his mischief at Morven. With a final glance at the tethered horses, he turned toward camp.

“I will see if Gillis needs anything.”

Bray lifted his head. “I smell smoke. I hope the lad has something pleasing planned for our meal.”

Conn ventured a short laugh. “Despite his assurances, I doubt the lad is much of a cook. But we shall see.”

Conn’s stomach rumbled and he hurried to the campsite, where deadwood piled haphazardly next to a small cook fire. He grabbed an oatcake from the stone at the fire’s edge.

“Ow!” He blew on his singed fingers, tossing the freshly cooked bannock back and forth between his hands. Deftly swiping two more of the sizzling oatcakes, he settled against a nearby fallen log to eat.

The Frenchman grimaced as he approached the fire. “Bannock
s
again?”

Conn shrugged off his friend’s complaint. He didn’t care if Bray ate or not.

Short-tempered Gillis bristled. “Ye willnae find yer Frenchie
mishmak
food here,” he huffed, waving an oatcake in the older man’s direction. “This is Scots fare, and good enough for the likes of ye!”

Bray leaned down with a glower for the lad. “From what I have seen, Scots food is merely another word for plain and
inintéressant
.”

Conn sighed. Why must Bray insist on needling the hot-headed lad?

“’Tis better than ye got aboard that ship!” Gillis glowered and bit into his bannock.

“Is that why you jumped ship when we docked in Ballantrae?”

“I dinnae jump ship!”

Conn felt moved to intervene. “Dinnae
fash
the lad, Bray. He isnae cut out for life at sea. Leave it at that. Ye will get other food when we arrive at Troon.”

Bray’s feigned chagrin matched the mocking flash of his grin. “My apologies.”

With one smooth movement, he bent to snag an oatcake in one hand, delivering a smack to the back of Gillis’s head with the other as he stepped past the boy. Gillis sputtered at the abuse, but had enough sense not to physically challenge the older man. Conn watched with mild amusement as Gillis returned to his supper, muttering against all things not Scottish, and against Frenchmen in particular.

Rising, Conn lifted his arms in a bone-popping stretch.

“I am away to the burn to wash.” He glanced sternly from Bray to Gillis. “Stay out of trouble whilst I am gone.”

Bray gave him a bland, innocent look, and Gillis hunched his shoulders to indicate he couldn’t be responsible for Bray’s actions. Conn shook his head. Tossing his plaide over one shoulder, he headed for the inviting little pool of water beneath the waterfall.

He halted on the edge of the burn, the high, full moon’s silvery light sparkling like diamonds across the rippled surface of the water. He glanced around the clearing, instinctively alert for danger. Seeing no threats, he stripped away his travel-stained clothes and stepped into the pool.

The icy water burst with fine needle pricks over his tired body, washing away the day’s accumulation of grit and grime. Adjusting to the frigid water, he lifted his arms, stroked to the center of the pool and dove beneath the water. He surfaced with a shake of his head, sending silver droplets of water flying in all directions. Refreshed, he glided to the bank. Climbing from the water, he strode back to his clothing. The evening breeze rippled softly through the moonlit grass, and the gurgling water whispered a murmuring counterpoint beneath the velvet sky. Appreciating the peacefulness, Conn decided to linger a bit longer, away from the certain strife at camp.

Seated on one corner of his plaide, he used the other edge to wipe most of the clinging moisture from his body. Declining to pull his dusty clothes back on over his clean, damp skin, he rolled onto his back and draped the woolen fabric across himself to block the slight breeze, his sword close to hand. He stared at the spangled sky as the words from his sister’s letters ran through his mind.

Ye must come home. There has been an accident.

I dinnae know how to reach ye—pray God this letter finds ye.

Cousin Malcolm brought men with him to Morven. Da is dead. Ye must come home. Please, Conn. Please come home.

Fists clenched against the tightness in his chest, he forced his breathing to slow
. I am sorry yer letters dinnae reach me in time, Mairead. I am sorry I wasnae there to help him. I will finish my business with the king, and then I will right things at Morven.

* * *

Brianna jolted awake, her body awash with the cold sweat of fear. The nightmare from a week ago had invaded her dreams again. This time the rasp of the hangman’s noose about her neck felt all too real.

The days in the wild had grown long and tiresome as they moved from place to place, careful not to linger at a campsite longer than a day or two, aware the sheriff’s men still hunted them. Ewan and Duncan had been dispatched to Troon to await the king’s arrival. Brianna longed to present her plea for mercy to the king, to have her good name restored and the stain of outlaw removed. And she longed for home, her friends and family—even little Jamie’s never-ending chatter.

Too restless to go back to sleep, Brianna rubbed the back of her neck, feeling the grime of travel roll beneath her fingers. The gown Rabbie had filched for her from a wash line at a cottage a few days ago had been too long without a good scrubbing for her personal sensibilities, and her head itched from a lack of proper grooming.

BOOK: The Highlander's Outlaw Bride
6.94Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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