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Authors: Temple Hogan

Tags: #Historical Erotic Romance

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BOOK: The Laird's Daughter
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“Nay, I will not do that, but am I not sending you some of my best fighting men? If the Campbells can’t defend their property, the MacIntyres can. My daughter will be safe with you.”

“I’ve a need to travel swiftly,” Rafe tried again. “Can’t we postpone her visit to Dunollie until I’ve taken care of this problem?”

“You hammer yourself too much, lad,” MacIntyre remarked, unperturbed. “You’ll drive out Baen and his outlaws. You’ve the look about you of a man who succeeds at what he sets out to do. I’ve no qualms about leaving my daughter in your care. Besides, Jean won’t hold you back. She can ride with the best man I’ve got or you, for that matter.”

“I’ve no doubt,” Rafe said, although in truth, he had plenty. He clamped his teeth together in frustration.

“Aindreas,” MacIntyre bellowed and kicked his stallion into a full gallop across the field toward his assembled men.

“You took that very well,” Jean said brightly.

Rafe had forgotten she was there. His lips tightened, and he said nothing, afraid that in his irritation, whatever came out might give offense.

Jean laughed. “Don’t worry yourself, Rafe. My father spoke the truth when he said I’d not hold you up. You know what he’s about, I suppose.”

Rafe turned in his saddle to meet her amused gaze.

She laughed again. “The old fool’s trying his hand at matchmaking.” Her tone was filled with affection for her father. “He’s not happy with the choice I’ve made for my husband and he hopes my head will be turned by your handsome face.”

Rafe flushed. “I don’t know what to say, m’lady.”

“Och, you’re not to say anything, Rafe Campbell. I’m not longing for you, nor am I likely to. I’ve a need to have sons round about me, but they’ll not be your sons, brave and handsome as you be.” She turned her head and gazed toward the men who’d gathered around their chief. “Nay, ‘tis Aindreas’ sons I’ll bear or no other. My father will have to accept that.” She glanced back at Rafe. “Besides, I’ve seen your face at times when you thought none watched. You’ve the look of a man distraught with an illness.”

“I don’t understand what you’re talking about,” Rafe began stiffly, still unused to her teasing.

“If you don’t, then you’re not as smart as I’d counted you, Rafe. Of course, love can do that to a man.”

“There’s nothing for me to love,” Rafe said. “A wisp, a goddess bathing in a pool, a mermaid drying on a rock, while her voice is that of Lorelei willing the ships to the rocks.”

“Do you know her name?” Jean looked at him expectantly.

“Nay, I’ve but seen her once, but I can’t forget her.” He shifted in his saddle, his expression rueful. “You’re an uncanny lady, Jean MacIntyre. I had no wish to tell anyone of my feelings.”

“Your secret is safe with me, but you must do me a favor in return.” She leaned forward in the saddle.

“I’ll do as you ask,” he pledged, smiling slightly at this forthright woman. He had no fear that she’d ask him something that went against his nature.

“Persuade my father you’ve a need for Aindreas to accompany you to Dunollie. You’ll not be sorry. He’s a fierce fighter, and he’s loyal to a friend.”

“Aye, I can see that. He and Gare have hit it off, and they’ve much in common.”

“Aindreas is no common man,” she said, her voice gone all soft and womanly.

“Nor is Gare,” he replied. “You’re a woman of strong convictions and determination, m’lady. I admire that in a woman.”

She glanced at him. “You give a pretty speech, Rafe Campbell, but I know the truth behind your words. You’re just grateful I have my heart set on another.”

“I see I’ve missed a truly fine prospect for a wife. Aindreas is a lucky man.”

“Then you’ll do what you can with my father? This is one time when I can’t beseech him on my own behalf. He mustn’t guess I’m behind this request for Aindreas to accompany us.”

“I’ll be the soul of discretion,” Rafe replied. He nudged Bhaltair forward and eased him into a gallop across the field. He was surprised when he glanced over his shoulder to see that she rode nearly shoulder-to-shoulder with him, her sturdy pony making up in heart what it lacked in size.

“Ah, you’ve decided to join us,” MacIntyre called. He looked pleased that Rafe had lingered to talk with his daughter. Rafe took advantage of his good humor and requested that Aindreas be allowed to lead his battalion of fighting men to Dunollie, to which MacIntyre agreed.

* * * *

Annie was high in the hills, having gone to check on Father Cowan. He grew feebler every day, and she worried about him. He’d been aloof to her ever since Rafe Campbell had come to their cottage, though she’d tried her best to mend the rift between them. Still, she’d learned one thing that day. Father Cowan loved her, and his anger was born from a fear for her safety as well as the clan’s.

So to let him know her heart’s blood as well, she’d climbed the hill to take him a special gift of haggis, a sheep’s stomach stuffed with oatmeal and grain and wild onions. They’d sat and talked with the high wind rattling around them and the herd’s soft bleating in the hillsides.

“You’re a good lass, Annie,” he said as she rose to return to the village.

“Have no fear for me, Father,” she said softly. “I must follow my heart, but it will not lead me from my clan. I swear you that.”

His tired old eyes blazed with light. “Aye, I see that about you. You’re the good Laird’s daughter in every way. I’ll pray for you, lass.”

“Do that, Father, for I’ve always need of guidance.”

Her heart was lighter as she descended. Her thoughts dwelled on the good Father and the conversation, so she did not at first see the riders below. Only when the high call of a hawk caused her to look up did she catch the glint of sunshine on Campbell livery. The outer bailey was filled with horsemen in strange tartans. MacIntyres. Rafe had brought them back as he’d promised he would. No matter what Baen and his men set out to do, they’d not succeed. Pure joy filled her heart as she recklessly raced down the mountainside toward Dunollie. Rafe was back, and she could think only of her first glimpse of him.

She was out of breath when finally she reached the castle and paused to hold her side and regain her senses. Only then did she remember her disguise and proceed with the slow hobble of Annie, the goose girl.

Rafe was nowhere in view, but his men and the visitors filled the bailey, tending their horses, greeting their sweethearts and bragging of their adventures. Disappointment swept through Annie as she moved through the crowd. Only when she was certain that Rafe was not to be found did she turn her footsteps toward the smithy.

“Aye, he’s brought his bride to be back with him,” a man said to a milkmaid. “Did you miss me, lass? Then give us a kiss.”

The girl giggled and ran away with the soldier in full pursuit, so Annie heard no more. Questions burned within her chest and her eyes stung with unshed tears at her need to ask about Rafe, but she could not. By the time she reached the smithy, her breath came in hiccupping little sobs.

“What ails you?” Bryce asked, pausing in his work to stare at her.

“I…ran down the mountain and…can’t get my breath.” She gasped.

“’Twas a poor choice to make,” he berated her, but his voice was not ungentle. “Sit on that stool and try to take slow, deep breaths.”

“Aye,” she answered, smiling slightly as she did his biding. “Why didn’t I think of that?”

“You’re an ungrateful lass,” he snapped and went back to pumping his bellows. “Did you see him?”

“Who?” she asked, although she knew to whom he referred. When he didn’t answer she shook her head. “Nay, he was nowhere about.”

“I’ve heard rumor he brought his betrothed with him. Mayhap, he’s inside the castle with her, making her comfortable.” Suddenly, he gave a short bark of laughter. “Aye, I’d like to be a fly on the wall this day. From all rumors, Dianne will not like this new arrival. She had her cap set for him herself or so I’ve heard.” He looked around at Annie. “What’s the matter, lass? You’ve gone as pale as a newborn lamb.”

“’Tis naught,” she answered in a low voice.

“Here, you really are sick. Do you need some help to your cottage?”

She shook her head and rose from the stool. “I’m better now.”

Without a further farewell, she left the heat of the smithy, left Bryce’s sharp, questioning gaze and made her way toward her hut. But the thought of closing herself away inside was more than she could bear. She veered toward the land gate. There were men everywhere, and no one seemed to notice her passing. When she reached the safety of the woods, she walked upright and with long strides to the pool. Her sanctuary. Once there, she undressed and slid into the cool, still water then swam to the other side and back. Finally, she floated on her back staring at the mosaic pattern of blue sky flashing beyond the canopy of trees. Her thoughts were tangled and painful, so she was content for a brief moment not to think of Rafe or his newly betrothed. The knowledge lay there in her mind, but she pushed it aside. Mentally prodding at it was too painful.

Why should she feel this way, she chastised herself. His clan had destroyed hers and stolen MacDougall lands and castles. True, they’d been given leave by Robert the Bruce himself, as punishment to Ewan MacDougall for his failure to support the king.

Should she not feel some anger toward her father for his choice? Should he not have been more prudent in his decision, protected his clan, his daughter? Nay, she could not in good conscience blame her father. He’d acted on his convictions, true and unwavering. He was not a man to swear his fealty to a man he did not believe in.

Tears filled her eyes as she thought of her father, dim though his memory had become over the years, and she was forced to turn onto her stomach rather than drown in her tears. In so doing, she heard her father call to her, his voice clear and joyful, his laughter quick and hearty. So real did the sound seem that she turned quickly this way and that, expecting him to come up behind her and dunk her as he was wont to do.

She cried then, her sobs unchecked, her heart that of an eight year old who’d never resolved the loss of her father. She cried for his laughter and his strong arms as he heaved her on his shoulder and pranced around the bailey until she squealed with delight. She cried for the comfort and security she’d known as the laird’s daughter and for the hardships she and Father Cowan had endured since. She cried until it seemed her heart could bear no more. Drawing a shaky breath, she straightened herself and gazed around at the woods.

She refused to shed more tears over her plight. She must play the role of a poor, mute cripple for the good of her people and if the man she fancied turned his eyes to another. So be it. He was her enemy. He’d never been anything else. Bryce was right. She must hold her heart true to their cause.

Exhausted and drained from her emotional purging, she swam to shore in slow, lazy strokes that formed silvered arcs of water. When she reached the shallows, she stood and waded to shore. She heard a gasp and looked up. Rafe Campbell stood watching her.

She might have felt anger at him for spying on her at such a moment, but she was too startled by his presence and by the expression on his face. He made no effort to avert his gaze, but neither was there anything lewd or lustful in it. Rather, he seemed awestruck as if he hadn’t really expected to see her and now that he did, he was entranced by the whole of her. Nonetheless, to cover her own joy at seeing him, she took him to task.

“Sir, I beg you,” she cried in a low voice, drawing her arm across her chest and cupping a hand over her mons. “Don’t dishonor me by gazing at my nakedness.”

“I could never dishonor such beauty as yours,” he said, his voice trembling slightly. “Don’t ask me to look away. I’ve searched these many weeks since first we met, and I fear if I turn my gaze away, you’ll disappear again. Are you real or a figment of my own demented imagination? If I touch you, will I feel flesh beneath my fingers?”

He took a step forward and held out his hand, but she drew away.

“I’ve heard this very day you’ve brought your betrothed to Dunollie.”

“You’ve heard wrong, beautiful lady. I am not betrothed to anyone except perhaps to you.” Lightly he touched her shoulder and drew in his breath. “Aye, you’re real enough. Your flesh is soft and warm to my touch.” His eyes held her mesmerized.

She wanted to pull away and run through the woods, but she was held as captive as a rabbit caught in his snare. “I must go.”

She breathed the words. They trembled on the air like the muted song of a nightingale. She willed herself to move, but she could not. He stepped closer to her, so she felt his breath against her cheek, felt the brush of his shirt against her nipples.

“May I kiss you?” he asked softly.

She shook her head, the slightest of denials, even as her lips parted. Her gaze dropped to his firm, chiseled mouth and shadow of a beard along his jaw. He lowered his head, and she felt his lips settle on hers, soft and tentative at first as if he feared she’d yet disappear in a poof of air, then more fiercely as he pulled her to him, wrapping his arms around her waist and hips to hold her firm. She made no move out of his embrace. She was too caught up in the wonder of his mouth against hers, of his tongue, hot and possessive, slanting across her lips, effecting entry, setting her blood on fire. She swayed and leaned against him, least she fall. His arms held her tighter, his kiss deepening until she felt she might faint like some maiden of old. She returned his kiss. She had no experience with how to answer such passion as he aroused but opened her mouth farther, dancing her tongue to meet his. The taste of him was intoxicating, the heat of his mouth, the strength of his body melded to her own. Sensations swept through her. Of their own accord, her arms came up to slide around his neck and her body arched automatically.

He was breathless when he released her mouth, and she realized she’d forgotten the need to breathe herself. She opened her eyes to gaze into his.

“What is your name?” he whispered, running his lips along her jaw to her ear. His breath was hot, bringing tingles that reached all the way to the juncture between her legs.

BOOK: The Laird's Daughter
8.39Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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