Scotland November 1512
A heavy frost sat on the frozen earth, and a full moon shone clearly between the heavy clouds dotting the sky. Lady Callie Whitcomb looked over her shoulder as she raced through the deepening gloom toward the lighted tavern ahead. Every shadow, every mournful sigh of the wind sweeping through the trees, every chilling animal sound filled her with terror. Fear for her life drove her to put all thoughts of danger aside. He would follow her, find her, and drag her home.
"Don't think of that now," she reminded herself fiercely, even while tears stung in the back of her throat and fear made her limbs tremble. "Don't ye dare think of home. It no longer exists." Nothing and no one could coax her back or make her believe there was naught but terror in the home where she'd been born.
"I will never marry Lord Huntington. Never!" she whispered fiercely, the chill night air solemnly echoing her words.
Her stepbrother, Archibald Covington III, made sure she could never return.
"There ye be, lass! I've been waiting for you."
The voice rose from nowhere and surprised her. Her heart froze, lurched, then began an erratic beat, while raw nerves snapped, sending a myriad of sensations racing down her spine.
"Archibald--" she whispered, panic sweeping through her. "He's found me." All she could hear was the pounding of blood in her ears.
Before she could reach her destination, before she could find safe refuge from him, his men had found her. No! Not now. Not when she thought she had eluded them all.
A wave of fear sweeping through her reminded her, that if caught, she would be taken back to Archibald and forced to marry Lord Huntington.
"I'll help you down, lass."
Before she could react and spur her horse forward, callous, rough hands centered on her waist then pulled her from her mount.
"No!" She cried out to no avail. Regaining her wits, she beat fiercely upon the man's broad chest, tearing at his face and his thick beard with her fingers.
"Ach, lass! Hold still! I mean ye no harm. Stop this--" His voice was gruff and impatient.
Fear for her life had spurred her haste. Terror she might see Huntington or Archibald with each turn of the road haunted every hour of her journey. Archibald had retainers everywhere. Messages would have been sent. A highlander could be bought.
"Ruffian! Unhand me! Ye barbarous Scotsman."
If Archibald had guessed what path she followed...
"Verra well, ne'er let it be said that I dinna do a lass' bidding." Just as suddenly as he'd grabbed her, his hold upon her vanished. She stumbled backward.
Instantly, she found herself sitting on the frozen earth. The man towering above her watched her with concerned dark eyes. Despite the scar stretching from forehead to chin, his mouth quirked upward in a humorous slant.
"Ye be a handful, lass."
"Get away from me!" Confusion blindsided her. If this man had anything to do with Archibald or Lord Huntington, he would have never let her go. Yet she could take no chances.
His arms outstretched, his hands beckoning her to him, he smiled. "Now calm down."
Crab-like, she scurried backwards. "I will not go with ye. I would rather die." Despite her proper upbringing, she wanted to scream her frustration and bellow with anger.
"Hawke is waiting for you, lass. There is no need for this panic. He means you no harm." The man stepped forward, bending over her as if to lift her from the ground.
"Hawke?" Callie did not want to meet Hawke. She sought Colin MacPherson. She stood before the man could touch her again, quickly dusting the dirt and leaves from her hands and moving sideways, ready to bolt. But the giant moved quickly and lethally, his huge hand closing over her upper arm. He pulled her along with him, heading toward the tavern.
"Aye, Hawke. You sound as if you've ne'er heard of the mon. Well, I suppose 'tis good you dinna let on about your identity to just anyone. He waits for you and the papers you were to bring with you."
To no avail, she dug in her heels. "I have no papers." Only the letter her father had written before he died and that was meant for Colin MacPherson, not some man named Hawke.
"'Tis all right, lass. You dinna need to tell me anything."
"No! It is not all right. I won't go with ye. I won't go back."
"We've got her, Hawke."
"Aye, I see that you have." Laughter rang out from the shadows of the tavern. "Bring the wee lass inside where we can talk."
"Nay, ye have no right." Callie stiffened, searching the porch, every nerve strung taut. "I am not chattel ye can push here and there."
Music, sounds of laughter, the scent of ale and peat smoke floated and clung to the heavy night air. A man moved forward, silhouetted by the backlight of the tavern.
"I have every right," he said, but he made no move to change her situation or to tell his henchman to unhand her.
Struck by his size and with every nerve tightened, she inhaled a deep, ragged breath. When he stepped into a pool of light, she nearly gasped aloud. Moonlight gave his strong, well-chiseled features definition and there was a strange, vulnerable expression on his face.
Oh, but he was tall and his hair was as black as the night and the shadows surrounding him. His long, dark hair was pulled back and secured at his nape with a leather strap, his muscles rippling with every movement. At his side, he'd strapped a claymore, and a dirk was tucked into the top of his knee-high stocking.
Behind her, Pansy moved uneasily then trotted off into the darkness. "Pansy--"
"Dinna fret, lass. Hawke will send a mon after your pony."
"Hawke," Callie said his name aloud, returning her consideration to the man on the porch. She sensed his attention bone-deep, and her heart thundered, every instinct within calling out for her to flee. They thought she was someone she wasn't. Sensations she'd never felt before swept through her.
She'd always known Archibald was wicked, but if she hadn't seen his evil with her own eyes, she would have never believed him capable of such horrific deeds.
She didn't want to remember. In the dusk of the evening, she had been where she wasn't supposed to be, retrieving a doll for Archibald's little sister. She'd followed the doll as it rolled endlessly down the steep embankment. Then she'd seen her stepbrother and the man she was supposed to marry, Lord Huntington, killing a man, the dagger piercing the victim's heart.
The next day she had risen before dawn and packed one bag. With all her money sewn into the hem of the dress she'd bought from one of her servants, she'd donned her warmest cloak, saddled her mare, Pansy, and left the keep. No one had stopped her or sounded an alarm. Callie had told no one about the murder because she trusted no one. She'd been too terrified of the very walls in the castle to tell anyone.
EXCERPT: HIGHLAND MAGIC
Scotland, Summer 1513:
For a moment the man's gaze met hers, bored into her heart, questioned. Blood curdling war cries rode the wings of death through the timeless night. Claymores clashed. Dark eyes the color of midnight flashed a challenge. The holy man's opponents hesitated then lunged once more.
Moonbeams reflected light from the gold chain he wore around his neck. Brown robes fell from massive shoulders. Three more enemies appeared from the trees. The priest fell to the ground, wounded by the broadside of his enemy's weapon. Motionless, he lay on her flower-strewn meadow, blood staining the grass and wildflowers, marring the colorful, summer landscape.
Keely Gray woke, heart pounding a rapid staccato. She pressed against her throbbing temples with sweat-slick palms, hoping to ease the horrific pain that always accompanied the dreams. Death--the scent of blood, fear and treachery still hung heavy in the darkened hut. The prickling sensation radiating from her spine to encompass her body was too familiar.
She listened and heard nothing.
A dark void impaled her. The usual night sounds stilled. She heard no hoot of owl, no chirp of crickets, no croak of frogs, nor could she hear the mournful sighing of the wind through the branches of the old oak trees.
Silence emptied her heart as well as her soul, leaving only an ever-present loneliness.
Keely wanted nothing more than to cuddle into her bed and pull the covers over her head. Despite the unspeakable agony deep in the pit of her stomach, she rose from her pallet. Her limbs trembling, she slipped a shapeless tunic over her head and soft-soled shoes onto her feet. As she swept past the front door, she grabbed her woolen cloak.
Light from a full moon illuminated the path. She could see, but she could also be seen, the moonlight both a curse and a blessing. Approaching the meadow she'd watched in her dreams, she slowed her pace and waited. Her fingers wound tightly around the amber pendant she always wore, her only keepsake from her mother.
The sounds and scents hovering on the wind would tell her if danger still lurked. Caution guided her. A vigilance she'd learned long ago held her motionless.
A familiar dragging sound reassured her she wasn't alone. "Whipple?" she whispered.
A self-appointed guardian angel appeared as if from nowhere then nodded, though there was a wary cast to his faded blue eyes. "Aye, lass, I'm here. I heard ye leave your hut. I would not leave ye alone to face whatever dangerous mission awaited."
Keely waited for Whipple to close the distance between them before she spoke. "I would argue with you about your appearance here at this great hour, but I ken it would do no good. You should not be here. Your heart--"
Whipple spat. "My heart is fine."
She determinedly stepped forward, approaching the meadow of her dream, knowing she wouldn't like what she found.
"Have it your way, then." Given a choice, Keely wouldn't have come to this meadow. But she had to know the truth--had she seen the future or something happening at that very moment?
Whipple didn't reply. On his clubfoot, he followed her, his trailing leg sliding behind him with a soft swish. The hard thud of his crooked oak cane followed at a slightly skewed interval.
Together they crested the hill. Below her, she saw her dream. A priest lay on the ground, his head twisted at an odd angle. For a moment her heart stopped. She bit down on her lower lip while she studied him.
EXCERPT: HIGHLAND SONG
Lainie MacPherson let the crumpled wanted poster drop to the ground. Her stomach knotted and fear snaked down her spine. Beneath the shadows of the hooded cape she wore, Lainie searched the room for her enemies.
Every man here fit that description.
Forced into a trap of her own making, out of courage, friendless, and terrified Lainie did the only thing she could think of to bring the pig Bertram to his knees.
She would steal the temptingly displayed secret papers that were on the table in front of her. Papers she hoped showed troop movements--papers stamped with the King's seal--papers she could hand over to her brother, Hawke.
First Lainie made sure the shadows in the tavern hid her from view, shrinking into the dark interior, hiding her face with the hood of her cape. She tried not to stare at the dark-haired stranger who had absent-mindedly set his jacket and satchel on a table with the documents she sought poking out almost as if they challenged her with a secret invitation. The man’s dangerous, dark looks sent a strange sensation of heat coursing down her spine.
English soldiers like Jericho Manning and Rory Slater were more dangerous and more terrifying than any highland lass should have to deal with. To make the situation worse, she didn’t need a dark-haired stranger to make her fingers shake and her insides quake.
Lainie inhaled a deep steadying breath. Easy, she told herself. Go nice and slow. The stranger looks half-drunk and the tavern maid sitting on his lap has all his attention.
"What’s in it for me?" Rory asked Jericho, his haggard features lighting up with anticipation and snagging Lainie’s attention.
"Only what Bertram wants to give you himself." The dark stranger looked at the
English officer. The fingers on one hand tapping the oaken table top impatiently.
Rory’s toothless grin sent a shiver of fear down Lainie’s spine.
"Jericho always gives me his left-overs," Rory said. “You going to give me this one?”
Rory’s diabolical laughter sealed the darkness in her heart.
Jericho nodded then leaned forward. "I want the lass. And I’ll have her before I give her over to Bertram. She’s only a whore."
Lainie nearly gasped but stopped herself. Courage, Lainie, you’ve been in tighter spots than this. It was not her plan to give herself away to these men.
She inhaled a long, deep breath once more and reached for the satchel beneath the soldier's jacket. A few more seconds and all would be hers. A few more seconds and she would hand the papers over to a friend. Someone who would carry them to the Scottish King.
She committed no treason here.
She was Scottish to the core.
This was for the good of her country--not England. Besides she’d already been labeled a traitor by the crown of England. She had nothing to lose.
If Bertram suffered a set back, his lack of attention caused the problem.
Aaron Slade let his hands slide up and down the arms of the lass sitting on his lap while his steely gaze seemed to be riveted on Lainie MacPherson.
He knew what the young woman was up to before she’d committed herself to stealing. He had read the determination in the girl's posture when she backed into the shadow-filled corner of the tavern, pulling her dark cloak around her slender frame and letting her hood shadow her face. The combination of steady eyes and slightly trembling fingers had given her away.
He would make sure neither Jericho nor Bertram could get their sweaty hands on the girl. He’d heard stories. He believed them--every word.
Jericho didn’t even realize the girl he sought stood in the corner. Moreover, Slade didn't mean to tell Jericho. Slade had his orders. He was to find her and bring her to Edinburgh where she would be tried for high treason. The charges were lame. Now that he watched her stealing the phony papers he’d planted in the pocket of his jacket, he wasn’t quite so sure.
The rumors had it that a lot of men had wanted the lass, but none had gotten her. He’d thought all along Bertram had been one of those men. A cynical smile shifted the line of Aaron’s black mustache. There was nothing new in that particular game. Teasing and promising men something they wouldn’t give was a primal game played by every woman ever born.
But there was something very different about this woman.
An air of sadness and vulnerability emanated from her. Aaron methodically lowered his lids when he glanced from the girl who sat in his lap to the woman whose fingers were closing over the sealed documents. He couldn't help but stare at her. The woman's eyes were a clear, uncanny blue that matched the color of the sky on a bright summer day. The few strands of hair escaping her hood were so blond they were nearly white. The cloak she wore was plain, but did nothing to hide the lush fullness of her figure beneath the cloth. The vision he imagined set him to thinking about what it would be like to unfasten the cloak, strip away all the other fabric covering her and touch the luminous skin that lay beneath the tattered cloak.
Aaron was irritated at the direction his thoughts went. He was certainly experienced and old enough to keep sexual need away from his mission. He had been taught and teased by the most expert females on this earth. He’d learned more than one lesson at their hands.
Looking at Aaron, Jericho swirled the contents of his tankard.
"I don’t figure I can trust any man. Who’s to say that if you find the girl, you won’t want to keep her for yourself," he said to Aaron. "She might be worth a damn sight more than what old Bertie is paying you to bring her to him."
The devil you say," Rory retorted with a smug grin. "I have it on good authority and knowing old Bertie for years, he likes nothing better than to share soiled goods. We both know he’s the only one who can save the girl from a conviction of treason."
Jericho looked coldly at Aaron but didn’t refute Rory’s statement.
Aaron urged the tavern wench from his lap and kept his eye lids lowered slightly. He watched the girl, and if he was right, she was about to dip her hand into the pocket of another man. She had moved from her spot near his table, using the shadows in the tavern to hide herself. She brought up a fat purse and slipped it inside a different sack than the one she’d put the papers she’d stolen from his satchel.
The stories about her were intriguing enough, but it was the rumors of Lainie MacPherson’s spying that held his interest. To him any one who could spy on his country was a traitor. But Lainie MacPherson, if she was anything like her brothers, was Scottish bone deep. To Lainie, what she did here would not be treasonous because she would be loyal only to the Scottish King James. In addition, the rumor--the ones of Lainie prostituting herself for information--didn’t bother him. Women did what they had to do to survive. And if the rumors were true, he would find a way to enjoy her charms while he took her to Edinburgh for trial. To him women’s flesh was sweet and soft, but women were as fickle as newborn kittens. They were far too easily corrupted, and so many times they turned out to be less than they seemed. He never let any woman touch his heart.
Silently, Aaron measured the distance between the door and the MacPherson wench and wondered at the innocence, or was it guilt, he saw flash in her eyes for one brief moment when she met his glance. From what he’d heard, the Scottish cause was everything to the MacPhersons. This would not be the first time they pitted their clan against the English crown.
But this time it was the most foolhardy.
The smile he gave Lainie made her look away. He watched as her shoulders quivered, and she shrank back into the shadows. He felt a wave of nausea sweep through him when he thought of Lainie being at the mercy of a man like Bertie for even a single night, much less until Bertie grew bored with her and gave her to Jericho and Rory.
Silently, he told himself he would never let her fall into Bertie’s hands, because he meant to bring her straight to the authorities in charge. If she were guilty of treason, she would be prosecuted. If she were not guilty, he would see she was set free and he would personally escort her home.
For the first time, he felt justified in his mission and the exorbitant pay he would receive for handing the girl over. If anything, there was a certain justice in cheating Bertie out of his spoils. He acknowledged that once he caught Lainie, he would have not only Rory and Jericho after him, most likely the MacPherson brothers would be on his tail as well.
A man bumped into Lainie near the door. Aaron thought he would see her pick this man’s pocket too. The movement was quick. Except for the slight of hand and Aaron’s vigilance, he would have never seen the exchange of the satchel from Lainie’s hand to the man's. The document Lainie just handed over was worthless, but the stolen goods were not. They would find out soon enough he had baited her, set the trap, and she’d fallen for it. Would he have Lainie in his possession when that was accomplished? Or would Jericho?
Aaron shifted slightly, not wanting to give Jericho and Rory any indication that he meant to leave. His hand was on the hilt of his sword. Silently, he measured the catlike elegance of the girl with the determined posture and long back. It would not be much longer when Jericho and Rory discovered their own missing goods.
He rose and walked toward the door, barring her way if she meant to flee yet he was not sure he would stop her. "You sure you wouldn’t want to stay a while and keep me company, Miss…what was the name again?" Aaron asked, though he knew very well.
"’Tis naught your business," she said softly, lowering her dark sooty lashes as if she meant to flirt. "A gentleman would not ask a lady he didn’t know."
Lainie MacPherson’s voice sounded calm and controlled. Nevertheless, he knew she’d been in this position often enough, that she knew how to handle herself and no longer hesitated, knowing full well the consequences if she did. In any case, her compliance was not a part of his plan for her abduction.
Aaron’s instincts kept whispering that this woman was somehow different from women like Sarah and Anna, unfeeling women who cared nothing about anyone save themselves and the fortune and titles that could be gained from marrying into the right families. At the same time, he had no doubt Lainie MacPherson could kill a man.
"You should take heed," Aaron said softly, ignoring the other man who had now slipped quietly out the door.
"Remove your hand. sir," she told him indignantly.
Aaron shrugged, outwardly indifferent, his fingers settling once more on the hilt of his sword, ever wary of the girl and her next move.
The tavern’s hush changed into a humming of male voices as people left their drinks and focused on the pair standing so close to the door where unbeknownst to them an unspoken challenge had just been issued by both parties.
The stakes revolved around a woman named Lainie MacPherson and release from the commission he’d bought so many years ago he couldn’t remember. As for the bounty, Aaron Slade didn’t care a damn about it.
Aaron was certain he would end up the winner in this cat-and-mouse game. Besides the obvious, he wondered how the woman with trembling mouth and steady blue eyes had ended up on a wanted list issued by King Henry himself and standing in one of Scotland’s most infamous taverns. So intrigued by her he would move heaven and earth to learn her story.
"I know what you handed over to your companion," Aaron said with a bit of impatience, trying not to give away his purpose before it was necessary.
"I don’t know what you mean," she said softly with a sardonic smile gracing her intriguing mouth.
"You stole something that was mine. I mean to get it back. You need to remember that England rules this land--all of it." He inhaled deeply the soft scent of her that seemed to be hers alone. It seemed to possess all his senses.
Her shoulders stiffened as her gaze raked over him. "I’m Scottish, and loyal to James," she said, her voice wavering. "Henry doesn’t rule me or my kin."
"Slade," Jericho said, stepping forward, "what’s--"
The wolfish smile Aaron gave Jericho stopped him cold in his tracks.
"Who’s the girl?" Jericho asked pointedly. "You the sharin’ kind, Slade?"
"No one of interest," Aaron said smoothly lying to Jericho.
Aaron moved in front of Lainie, blocking the men from seeing her face and her hair. He didn’t know if they’d recognize her but something Rory had said earlier made him think Rory at least had met her. Given a choice, he would have taken her by the arm and escorted her away from these two cutthroats. Now he didn’t have a choice. He would have to let her go and hope he could catch up to her.
Lainie could melt into the forest if given a chance. She knew these lands better than most. And her companions were sure to be waiting for her a safe distance from the tavern. If her friend wasn’t waiting for her, where would she go? A sudden and unmistakable sickening feeling swept through him. Fear for this slip of a woman clouded his judgment.