The Highlander’s Ambush by Violet Malvik

CHAPTER ONE

Ross Stewart had always known that he would one day return to his hometown. What he had not anticipated, however, was the fact that on that day—which had now turned out to be a night—he would sneak into town, with the burden of a small child slung across his shoulder and a lady in distress walking quietly after him. The baby was sound asleep; she seemed to have been deprived of good sleep since the departure of her mother. Ross felt a deep sense of compassion toward her, but his shoulder was the little he could offer as comfort for the child.

Ashton Town was quiet on the night Ross and Malvina arrived. It seemed as though a great spirit had cast a stillness upon the land. Ross had never known his town to be like this. The town he had left a few years ago had been a lively one that stayed awake until the moon was fully cast above in the sky.

The fact that Malvina, too, refused to utter a word all through their journey made it a lot more awkward than it normally would. Malvina was deep in thought. She was never going to see her sister again, and the reality of that called for deep reflection.

From time to time, when Ross was not looking in her direction, she let the tears lurking within her crawl out of her eyes like sneaking burglars. The days of her bravery had quickly been taken away, and she was completely shattered at the news of her sister’s death. It was sad enough that she had been trapped in some abductor’s den at the same time. Life was complete misery.

The house Ross led them into was an old cottage. Dust layered every item in it, and it was obvious from the instant Ross lit a lamp he found in one of the alcoves that the room had not been attended to right from the moment he had left it. The door to every room creaked loudly, and it was hard to tell just how long they could stay in the abode. The fear of it caving in was not very distant from their hearts, but they needed the shelter for the night, and on the morrow, they could decide what to do.

The illumination from the lamp made the cottage look smaller than it actually was, but the dust on everything was the main point of concern. Malvina retrieved the baby from Ross, and she stood aloof, staring as he cleared out the places necessary for their night’s survival.

In the morning, after they had managed to sleep on separate beds in different rooms, which seemed to offer no comfort, Malvina would see the aftermath of the disaster that ensued before Ross fled. Although most of the items they had seen sprawled across the living room had been tidied by then, there were still the remnants that showed the fight.

Malvina could not tell at what point she slept. She had the baby cuddled in her arms as she pondered on her misery. The bed was as stiff as a rock, and she liked the way it made it hard for sleep to crawl into her eyes. It was apparent evidence of her stiff world.

In the morning, however, the rays of the sun cut into the room and shone into Malvina’s eyes. The lids of her eyes fluttered open, and as she rose, she found Ross walking into the room she had slept in with the baby. Elion was cradled beside her. It took a few seconds before Malvina identified the items in Ross’ hand: a drink and breakfast.

“Morning,” he said to her.

“Morning.” She sprang up to sit on the bed. The baby rolled, assumed a more comfortable position, and continued sleeping. Poor thing! Malvina thought as she admired the sleeping lass.

“I brought breakfast.”

At the sound of that, Malvina realized how hungry she was. The burdens of the previous day had not afforded her the time to eat anything. She’d only managed to get half a loaf of leavened bread squeezed into the baby’s mouth.

The thoughts about her sister quickly hurried into her head again, but Malvina shoved them away almost instantly. There were a lot of things ahead of her, and she could not spend the rest of her life mourning Arabella. She had a child to take care of, and even Arabella would not want her to mourn for long.

“Thank you,” Malvina said as she allowed the man to place the tray beside her. “How, though, were you able to cook such an aesthetic and appetizing meal in this dirty house?”

Ross chuckled. “You should see how everything is now. I am left with cleaning only this part of the house.”

Malvina took a few bites of the steak, and she stood up from the bed and ambled off to the main room. To her surprise, everything had been thoroughly cleaned, and rather than the dusty old home they had entered the previous night, it now glistened like a fine, new cottage.

“An impressive clean-up within a short time,” she commended him, smiling for the first time since they had left her town.

“You are really beautiful when you smile,” he complimented, and she shrugged it off. Somewhere in her heart, there was still the thought of her sister, and that thought was potent enough to block his attempts at flirtation.

She walked around the main room and sighted the dry bloodstains that had been splattered along a portion of the floor. “That.” She called the spots to his attention.

“Yes, I will attend to those later. I left them there because I still wanted to see the evidence of the struggle. Right in this apartment, my brother and I had a bitter fight with some bloody blackhearts who had no morals.”

“Your brother?” she said, wishing somehow to know about that part of his life.

“Yes, he is dead. He was killed right in this cottage, and I was badly injured.” The expression that followed on Ross’ face indicated that he was close to tears. It had happened years ago, but he still felt stabbed in his heart at the recollection of the memory.

Having her own fresh wound, Malvina was unwilling to push him into talking further, but she was curious, and the curiosity in her propelled the words out of her lips, “And you know the men who did this?”

“Nay,” he replied, “but ’tis my suspicion that they are from his mistress’ husband.”

“Did your brother have a wife?” she asked, sauntering toward the bloodstains as though merely looking at them could help her have some further sense of what transpired on the said day.

“Nay,” he replied and shook his head. He recollected his several warnings against Scott’s promiscuous life and his insistent defiance. “He only loved exploring women.”

“So there was no one he loved?”

“That mistress whose husband sent men to us? He really loved her,” he said with distant eyes that were filled with memories. “She had a child for him. I ne’er saw the baby.”

Malvina’s face contorted into different emotions—a fair reward for the unfortunate man for frolicking with the bride of another? An unfair conclusion by the killer? The entire blame, perhaps resting on the shoulders of the perfidious cheating wife. “I guess ’tis true one shouldna play with fire then.”

“Aye.” Ross nodded agreeably. “It scorches.”

The baby woke and shrieked, perhaps surprised about the sudden change of environment and her loneliness. Malvina rushed to the room so that she would see a familiar face. At least, if the baby saw her face, she would understand that the place was a safe habitation.

Ross walked into the room seconds after Malvina had picked up the baby. He leaned by the door and stared. In his transparent eyes were the delights of the world. His eyes seemed promising, and as she stared at them, Malvina realized how truly handsome his eyes made him appear.

While journeying the previous day, she had deliberately avoided staring into his eyes because it made her feel uneasy, and it was an unreasonable uneasiness. The fact that Ross had played a prominent role in saving her and the others from the men who had abducted them made him deserve her weakness. Somehow, though, losing her guard didn’t seem ideal at that moment because she had just lost her sister.

“So, what is the plan?” he inquired, shooting his piercing green eyes at her. The reflection of the sun graced his black hair and made his eyes even more noticeable. His dark golden hair fell across his brows, but it had been brilliantly trimmed just above his eyelashes to allow him to see the world.

Malvina turned her face away. “I divna know yet,” she replied truthfully. All through their return journey, she had been thinking about her life and the child, but she had not reached any conclusions on those thoughts.

“Take your time,” he offered as he watched her distracting herself with another piece of steak. “This cottage belongs to me and only me now. We can stay in it for as long as we want.”

She nodded agreeably, chewing so quietly that he felt it was deliberate. When she swallowed a lump, she found her voice again. “How will we survive?” she probed. The steak was a delicacy, but how were they to maintain such satisfaction in the coming days? He seemed only too confident in what he was saying to her, but it was not the time to feed themselves with false hopes. They needed to ascertain that there was an actual life ahead of them.

Malvina was not comfortable living with a strange man under the same roof, which only he was familiar with, especially not with a child. It also didn’t help that he was a handsome, almost irresistible man. There was no denying that that was not her major concern about him, but she couldn’t tell if they would both stand resistance for a very long time.

“I’ll hunt,” he said proudly. “I’ve always hunted for survival, and I am now better at it with my training at the warrior’s camp.”

Malvina smiled. That offered some hope. At least, it offered the little she needed. What was left of her fears would be expressed later. As soon as he indicated that he would be the breadwinner, Malvina wanted to tell him right away that she also had some training in combat and sword fighting. But, given her capture, she couldn’t lay claim to such prowess at that time. It wouldn’t make much sense, and so she kept it to herself and imagined what her life would be like, sitting at home with the child and waiting for the man to bring in their daily bread.

“Thank you for having us,” she said.

“I should thank you instead. I can’t imagine what life would be like if I had to stay in this cottage alone.”

“I promise that we will try not to be a burden on you. We do not have any interest in doing that, and as soon as we find better comfort, we will be out of your hair.”

Ross said nothing about that but simply muttered, “Welcome,” and ambled out of the room. He too had to think about his new life. He had only been keen about leaving the warriors. He had not made plans as regards to how he was to live now.

As he walked out of the room and entered his own room, it was one similar thought they both nursed—thoughts about vengeance and nothing more. But without any doubt, they were only a poor pair. They needed strength and several other amenities to be in a better position against their foe. At the moment, there was still an air thick with uncertainties hovering above their roof.

Later that day, Ross walked around the town to acquaint himself with what was going on. Quite a lot of things had changed. The people seemed to live under a fresh fear of regular invasions, and in many short conversations that his ears caught, Ross easily noticed how people seemed afraid of the frequenting invaders.

“You have to tell me what ’tis you want to buy. I canna put my goods on display,” a fruit seller informed him fearfully.

Ross had no intention of buying anything, but he wanted to confirm what he had heard from the lips of the people. “Why?” he inquired.

“Are you new to this town? Have youna heard bout the invaders?”

The woman provided the information Ross needed. The town of Ashton had indeed become a frequent zone for pillagers and thieves, and the mere realization of that made his blood rise in anger. It was apparent he would be more than a mere hunter in the new town.