The Highlander’s Bride Trouble by Mary Wine
Scottish Highlands, 1487
“Ye may be dismissed for the night.”
Abigail Ross, the Earl of Ross’s daughter, didn’t really look at her maid, Nareen Grant. She was too busy breaking the wax seal on the letter she’d just received. Her cheeks flushed and her eyes sparkled as she unfolded the parchment. Its crinkling echoed loudly in the quiet chamber. She was well past the blush of youth, but it was clear affection had no time limit. Even in her late twenties, Abigail was excited by her love letter.
Although, perhaps “liaison letter” might be a more appropriate description. Abigail enjoyed her lovers, and she enjoyed knowing she didn’t owe them the obedience a wife would.
“Go on, Nareen. I know ye like yer sleep.”
Abigail drew out the word sleep. She looked up for a brief moment, making it clear she knew what Nareen would be doing under the veil of night.
Abigail knew Nareen’s weaknesses too. It was the only reason Nareen served her, so she might enjoy freedom as well.
“The moon is full,” Abigail muttered before looking back at the letter. There was a subtle warning in her tone, indicating she would turn a blind eye only if Nareen returned the favor.
Nareen inclined her head before leaving the bedchamber. Once she passed through the arched doorway that separated the bedchamber from the receiving chamber, she allowed her pace to increase.
She wasn’t interested in sleeping, and luckily, her mistress didn’t have any issues with her nighttime rides. Of course, in return, Nareen was expected to ignore the unmarried lady’s lovers. So it wasn’t luck, it was an agreement. One Nareen enjoyed benefits from as well.
She shuddered, a tingle of fear rising from the dark abyss where Nareen had banished several memories she never wanted to think about again. Sometimes it was very hard to forget her cousin Ruth and the horrors Nareen had suffered while with her kinswoman.
Yes, the arrangement made it possible for Nareen to escape being under the care of her kin, and the unsavory plans Ruth had been making for her.
Nareen turned her attention to the moon. She could see it glowing through the seam in the window shutters. Just a faint sliver of yellow light, it was like a beacon, drawing her toward joyful abandon. The whisper of chilly night air coming through didn’t bother her a bit. In fact, it was invigorating.
Outside, she didn’t have to worry about being trapped within stone walls.
Nareen steeled her expression as she went through the doors that led to the stairs. Two Ross retainers stood there, making sure the earl’s daughter was well guarded throughout the night. They each held a five-foot-tall wooden staff topped with a wicked and deadly looking spear top. The metal gleamed in the moist Highland air. Their gazes followed Nareen as she left, and they stiffly pulled on the corners of their knitted caps.
No one really spared her much attention as she made her way through the partially lit passageways. Several of the torches had been blown out by the vigorous wind.
Nareen skipped down the stone steps, making the three stories to the ground floor in a flash. Abigail would be traveling again soon, if the letter held an invitation. That meant Nareen would be on a tighter leash once the highborn lady found a way to wheedle her father into granting her permission to return to court. The earl had sworn he wouldn’t allow it, but Nareen knew he’d soften. Once the wine began to flow, the Earl of Ross lost his will. Abigail always exploited her father’s weakness to suit her whims.
So tonight, Nareen would ride.
Many would tell her it was the demons causing the gusts of wind. Nareen scoffed at them. There were legends that went back farther than the Church. Tales of Celtic lore that were still told around the winter fires. She preferred the stories that told of strength and daring, to the Church’s teachings that tried to convince her to fear the witching hours.
Nareen pulled her arisaid up from where the length of Grant tartan draped down her back, and laid it over her head. During the day, the piece of wool was secured at her waist, and of little use except to make it clear she was proud to be a Grant. But at night, it would shield her from rain and keep her warm. She pulled it around to cover her shoulders before venturing into the yard. Most of the Ross retainers taking their ease in the yard looked her way, but they returned to whatever they were doing once they recognized the Grant colors.
She was just the mistress’s attendant.
That position suited Nareen well. She didn’t regret leaving her cousin’s keeping, not even when it reduced her to being a personal servant. At least she need not worry about Ruth selling Nareen’s maidenhead.
Nareen shuddered. The woman held no power over her now. Nareen had seen to that.
The horses greeted her when she entered the stable. Her mood improved as she reminded herself that she was free of Ruth and her unsavory plans.
Her mare tossed its mane in greeting. Nareen murmured softly to it in Gaelic as she eased the bridle on. Her mare pawed at the ground, eager to stretch her legs.
“Me thoughts exactly,” Nareen said as she slid onto the back of the animal. The gate watch raised the gate for her, but not without a stern look of disapproval.
Nareen didn’t bother to look back. She leaned low over the neck of her mare and let the animal have its freedom. The horse picked up speed, chilling Nareen’s cheeks as they raced across the open land that surrounded the Ross castle.
Saer MacLeod turned his head, listening to the night. He kicked dirt over the small fire he’d built to cook his dinner, and it died, leaving him in darkness.
It wasn’t that dark. He’d endured nights that were as black as a demon’s eyes, and this one wasn’t anywhere near that deep.
But there was something—someone—riding toward him. There was no way he was going to greet that stranger anywhere but on the back of his horse.
There was a whistle from his man. Baruch held up one finger.
Saer didn’t reach for the pommel of the sword strapped to his back. A lone rider wasn’t that much of a threat.
“I thinks it’s her…” Baruch rode up close to his laird’s side. “Just like the Ross lad told me, she’s riding by moonlight…”
“Good,” Saer muttered. He felt a surge of impending victory and savored it.
Nareen Grant had turned him down and dismissed him the last time he’d seen her.
He intended to make sure she knew he was not so easily brushed aside.
Nareen was sure her heart was beating as fast as her mare’s. The animal slowed, having spent its first burst of speed. Her arisaid had fallen back, baring her head, but she enjoyed the bite of the night air. She laughed, at ease for the first time all day. But her elation evaporated when her mare’s ears lifted. Nareen tightened her grip on the reins as she searched the shadows. “Who is there?” she demanded.
“Ye take a risk by riding out at night, lass.”
Her company emerged from the shadows cast by the edge of a woodland patch, where the forest trees thinned and gave way to the slope.
“But yer command of the mare is impressive, Nareen Grant.”
He was a large man. She could describe him as huge, but resisted the urge because there was already a chill tingling on her nape. If he knew her name, it was possible he was an enemy of the Grants. She tightened her knees, making ready to flee.
“Ye have naught to fear from me.” He nudged his horse farther away from the shadows. Her heart froze as the moonlight illuminated his hard body. There was no mistaking his prime condition, and his voice was deep and young enough to confirm she might be in true peril if he turned hostile.
“Name yer clan,” she stated boldly. She lifted her chin and stared straight at him. A weak plea would never do.
There was a husky chuckle from the stranger. “Are ye sure ye are in a position to demand things of me, lass? Most Highlanders do nae care for a lass who spits fire.”
“I do nae care for anyone who will nae speak the name of their clan without hesitation. Such actions mean ye have no honor.”
He rode a full stallion, the horse just as impressive as its master. The animal was prime quality, telling her he had coin in his purse, but that fact didn’t reassure her. Many times, noble lords were far more unscrupulous than a common villain. The law favored them in every way, and they took advantage of it.
He nudged the beast with his knees until it turned and the moonlight washed over his face. She gasped, recognizing him instantly. And a little too well for her liking. A rush of heat flooded her cheeks, for she had just accused a laird of having no honor.
“What are ye doing riding on Ross land in the dark of night, Saer MacLeod?”
He moved his horse closer to her mare and leaned down to pat the neck of the sturdy beast he rode. Her attention was drawn to his hand, fixating on the way he stroked the animal. There was a confidence in his motions that sent a tingle across her skin. He was more than bold, he was supremely at ease in the night—so much so, she envied him.
More heat teased her face, this time flowing down her body.
“This is hardly dark,” he said at last.
She jerked her gaze up to his face to find him grinning at her. She tossed her long braid over her shoulder, detesting the way he made her feel vulnerable. “Ye’re right, it is hardly dark, which is why I am enjoying it. Good-bye, Laird MacLeod.”
She tightened her grip on the reins and sent her mare in motion again. She wasn’t running away; it was simply a matter of doing what she pleased. Aye, indeed it was.
Abigail already told her what to do most of the day. Of course, it was far better than answering to a husband or to her cousin Ruth.
Her dark memories stirred again, so she leaned low over the neck of the horse and felt the wind pulling the shorter strands of her hair from her braid. The steady beat of the mare’s hooves filled her head, but there was something else too, a deeper pounding. She turned her head to find Saer MacLeod keeping pace with her, an amused grin on his lips.
She kneed her mare, urging the animal to go faster. It was an impulse that irritated her because she was letting herself be goaded. There would be no responding to Saer MacLeod.
She pulled up, the mare settling into a slow walk, tossing her head as Nareen worried her lower lip. “I’m sure ye have important things to do, Laird MacLeod.”
He guided his stallion in step beside her mare. “Ensuring ye do nae get set upon by the MacKays is important. I hear they have no love for the Ross. They claim the earl killed their laird and have vowed vengeance.”
“I am a Grant.”
“But ye serve the earl’s daughter,” Saer countered. “There would be more than one man who would consider that enough to include ye in their feud.”
Her heart was beating faster. She drew in a deep, slow breath to calm herself. “I do nae need yer protection.” Her tone was far from smooth, further irritating her. She didn’t need the man hearing how he unsettled her.
He grinned more broadly in the face of her temper, a cocksure, arrogant, full curving of his lips that sent a tingle through her belly. She was amusing him and nothing else.
“I do nae need yer permission to ensure ye come to no harm, Nareen. Just as I did nae need yer brother’s consent to let me ride along with him to deal with yer cousin Ruth.”
She jerked, involuntarily pulling on the reins. The mare stopped, snorting with frustration. Saer reached out and stroked the animal’s neck again. The horse quieted immediately and made a soft sound of enjoyment.
Nareen’s mouth went dry at the way his touch pleased.
She wondered… “Let me mare be.”
Nareen tried to pull the horse away. Saer reached out and captured her hand to keep her from commanding the mare.
The contact was jarring, his warm flesh shocking her. Her own fingers were chilled from the pace of her ride, but his were warm and inviting. More than a warmth that chased away the night temperature, this was a heat that touched something deep inside her. She licked her lower lip because it was too dry, drawing his gaze to her mouth.
She jerked her hand away.
“I told ye at court, I want naught to do with ye.” At last, she’d grasped enough of her composure to say what she truly needed to.
“Aye, ye did.” He patted her mare’s neck, stroking the velvet surface of her skin with a long motion before answering. “Look at me, Nareen Grant, and tell me if ye see a man who is easily told what to do.”
His tone was soft and menacing, carrying a warning that even the mare sensed. A chill shot down Nareen’s back, her gaze locking with his. She was keenly aware of him, her lips tingling with anticipation. She felt like there was something inside him that was drawing her closer, some force that reached out to stroke her, entice her to do his will.
He jerked the reins right out of her slackened grip.
“What are ye doing?”
Saer didn’t answer her. He held the reins, and her mare began following his stallion as he sent the beast forward. Her only option was to drop down the side of the animal while it was in motion. One look at the ground warned her against such a rash action. Moonlight illuminated the rocky ground they rode across, promising her a rough landing.
But she was still tempted, because Saer’s back promised her something else. His shirtsleeves were rolled up and tied at his shoulder. She was as fascinated by his back as by his keen gaze. A long sword was strapped across his back at an angle so the pommel was behind his left shoulder and easy to reach with his right hand. There was nothing ornate about the weapon, just solid purpose. He was bastard-born and raised among the isles. The Highlanders called him a savage, and his actions proved he was exactly that.
He took what he wanted, just as he was taking her.
She looked at the ground again, but the sound of water drew her attention to where he was leading her. The noise grew until it was loud enough to drown out the steps of the horses. He guided them around a granite outcropping and down to where the moonlight shimmered off a river. It was swollen from rains farther up in the Highlands, the moonlight lighting the white peaks raised by the current.
There was a fire burning near the face of the outcropping they had just come around. It was completely hidden from the open space. Over six dozen horses and men were taking their ease near the fire, the scent of roasting rabbit floating in the air. The orange flicker from the fire showed her the colors of the MacLeod plaid in their kilts. They looked up, but turned their backs once they realized their laird had returned with a female.
“Ye would never see trouble coming, lass. The Ross have no idea we are on their land.”
Saer let out a whistle, which was answered in kind. She didn’t care how much truth there was in his words. He slid off his horse and handed the reins to a younger boy who had come up to serve his laird. Saer handed off the reins of her mare to another lad before dismounting.
“Will ye dismount, or shall I assist ye, lass?”
Nareen lifted her leg and slid to the ground. She did it too fast, and her ankle bent, but she recovered, welcoming the twinge of pain, because it gave her something to focus on besides his unsettling presence. Once on the ground, she battled the instinct to feel small next to Saer MacLeod.
She would not be made to feel anything by the man, and that was final.
“Ye have no authority over me, Laird MacLeod.” She reached for the reins of her mare, but the lad was leading the horse away. “I’ll be going where I please.”
“Go into the night, and I’ll follow ye.” His eyes flickered with a warning. “As much as I admire the wild streak in ye, it will nae protect ye from men set on feuding. Yer brother is me friend and ally. ’Tis me duty to see ye protected.” His tone was firm.
She bristled. “I do nae wish to be under yer protection,” she insisted. “I’ve made me own place. Ye may tell me brother I absolved ye of any responsibility.”
“I’ve clasped yer brother’s wrist and called him friend. Honor is not absolved by words.” He stepped closer. “But that is nae the only reason I will ride out after ye, Nareen Grant.”
His voice had deepened and his tone made her knees go weak. She detested the reaction, willing herself to ignore it. Yet it persisted, turning and twisting through her like some sort of dark suggestion she couldn’t ignore because it was inside her.
“I must return to me mistress.”
“Ye’re hiding in yer position,” he accused softly. “Ye are the daughter of an ennobled laird, nae a serving lass.”
“I made a place for meself when the one me noble family sent me to was sordid,” she defended.
“Something ye are to be admired for.” His expression changed, the hard set of his lips softening as he moved even closer. She lost the battle to ignore her response. He was too near to ignore completely; the soft night breeze carried the scent of his skin to her.
She stepped back. His lips parted, flashing his teeth as victory filled his eyes.
“Ye intrigue me, Nareen Grant. Ye are noble-born, yet ye did nae meekly accept yer plight with yer cousin.”
“Of course I did nae, I am a Grant,” she answered with pride. His dark eyes brightened with approval and something that looked like intent. “Do nae be intrigued.” She stepped to the side, to place more space between them. “For I am nae interested in ye a bit.”
One of his dark eyebrows rose. “I’m willing to wager I can change yer mind, lass.”
Her eyes widened, a sickening twist of nausea shooting through her belly. “I am nae something to be made sport of.”
And she couldn’t bear it. The need to retch was growing as she battled the image of him taking her on the ground while his men ignored them.
There was nothing to stop him. Once more, she had only her wits, and it shamed her to know that was by her own doing. Reckless choices often delivered harsh consequences. But she was nae going to submit easily.
“Ye claim me brother is yer friend,” she reminded him. “I believe he would nae care to know ye are trifling with me.”
His expression hardened. “Yer cousin Ruth has paid for her deeds, but I wonder if stripping her of her freedom and placing her and her entire estate under the guardianship of a trusted man was enough. She bred a fear in ye. For that, she has nae been punished enough.”
It was true, but she couldn’t share such a thing with him. Not with anyone.
“Ruth no longer rules her estate?”
Saer shook his head. “Her choices are limited to what fare she might enjoy from the kitchen and what dress she may wear.”
For a moment, Nareen recalled the gleam that always brightened her cousin’s eyes when she was laying out her plans. The staff lived in fear of being singled out by their mistress. “Ruth thrived on control. She’ll hate having none.”
“Then it was well done.”
His voice had a deep timbre that struck her as too familiar, too kind, too focused upon her. She recoiled from it, shaking her head because she didn’t want anything about Ruth to matter to her. “I do nae care what became of her. She means naught to me.”
He reached out and stroked her cheek. “’Tis a sad thing to see how hard yer feelings are. But there is naught more to fear, she’ll nae have the opportunity to inflict such ills again.”
Nareen jerked away from the contact. She even took a swipe at his hand, but he moved faster, withdrawing in time to avoid being struck. Someone chuckled from where his men clustered near the fires, but Saer was watching her from narrowed eyes.
“I am nae afraid of anything,” she assured him.
“Is that so?” Saer inquired in a silky-smooth tone.
Nareen nodded. Satisfaction began to fill her, but it was cut short as he reached out and stroked her face again. She jumped, completely unable to control her reaction.
“Ye are making sport of me in front of yer men, like a savage.”
His eyes glittered, but it wasn’t with the outrage Nareen had intended to provoke. Instead, there was an unmistakable pleased looked in those dark orbs.
“I am a savage, Nareen.” He stepped forward, placing himself within touching range again. “I do nae let words stand alone. If ye truly have no interest in me, there is no reason to avoid me touch. Stand steady and prove ye are nae moved. I have no taste for a frigid woman.”
She laughed at him but stepped back again. “Then it seems we have a common ground, for I crave no man’s touch.”
His lips thinned. “Now that is something ye shall have to prove as well.”
“I will nae. Me word should be enough on the matter, if ye truly are me brother’s friend.” She didn’t care to hide behind her brother’s name, but the circumstances offered her few alternatives.
“As ye noted, I am a savage, and I always demand proof before I believe.”
This time, she was ready when he reached for her cheek. She stepped aside, avoiding him. She was just beginning to smile with her victory when he closed his hand around her wrist. He really was huge. His fingers closed easily around her smaller wrist, clasping it in an iron grip. She braced herself for pain, but there was none, only a secure hold that defied her attempt to break it.
“Release me.” Her voice had risen, and she shut her mouth before revealing any more of her unsettled state.
“Prove ye are unmoved, lass, and I shall be content to accept yer dismissal.” His tone had deepened, becoming something hypnotic.
“I am irritated.” And remaining still was proving too difficult. She twisted her hand, trying to break his hold again.
“Aye, ye are that.” He lifted her hand to his face and pressed a kiss on the delicate skin of her inner wrist. She shuddered, the touch intensely intimate. She’d never realized her skin might be so sensitive. The simple touch of his lips unleashed a bolt of sensation that shook her all the way down to her toes. His eyes filled with satisfaction.
“But ye are also affected.”
He released her, and she stumbled back a pace because she’d been resisting his hold so greatly. Laughter erupted from his men. Saer stiffened, and he crossed his arms over his chest.
“What?” she said. “Are ye trying to impress me by controlling yerself now that ye see yer men are enjoying the sport ye are making of me?”
“Aye, I am,” he answered darkly. “I am nae the one who chose this setting for our meeting, Nareen. Ye should nae have refused to see me again at court. That left me no choice but to chase ye.”
“Ye have no right to chase me, nor take me mare’s reins.”
He offered her only a slight tilt of his head. “Riding through the night hours is nae safe.”
“Ye were doing it,” she pointed out.
He reached back and grasped the pommel of the long sword that was strapped to his back. “I am more prepared than ye, lass.”
“So ye think,” she warned.
His eyes narrowed again, this time sweeping her from head to toe. He wouldn’t find her dagger. At least, not until it was too late.
“I can see to meself,” Nareen assured him, her confidence was high when it came to protecting herself. The knowledge restored her balance, and it was a relief.
She turned and made to go after her mare. She felt his gaze on her, but he didn’t try to stop her. The young lad who had taken her mare watched as she untied the knot that secured her bridle to the other horses. No one spoke a word, but they watched her, some of the retainers stroking their beards.
Nareen mounted and turned her mare toward the path that led away from the hidden campsite. She pressed her knees into the sides of the mare to get her moving.
Saer was no longer in sight. The urge to look around for the MacLeod laird was almost irresistible, but she lifted her chin and headed up the path. Her jaw was aching by the time she gained the high ground, because she was gritting her teeth.
But she was satisfied.
She was on her way, going where she wished.
Once out of the woods, her mare picked up speed, crossing the open space that allowed the Ross fortress to see invaders coming—the site for the castle had been chosen because of the natural clearing. The gate watch made her wait while they scanned the land. She glanced behind her, looking back toward the wooded area. For a moment, something moved, and Saer emerged for just a split second.
“Open the gate,” she called up.
“Ye’ll wait on the captain’s word,” a retainer called back down. “Do nae say the Grant leave their gates open in the dark of night.”
Of course they didn’t. No one did. The only reason she was allowed out was because the Ross truly did not care if she returned. A servant was replaceable, especially one from another clan. She’d taken solace in that fact, but now, she realized how foolish she had been.
Saer MacLeod could have kept her, and no one would have bothered to send out even a single rider to look for her. As much as she detested the facts of the world, she could not deny that the Grants had enemies—every clan did. Even on Ross land, she might find herself under attack from one of her brother’s enemies. If Saer could find her, so could others.
It was time to think about her circumstances.
“It’s clear,” the captain of the watch called from the top of the corner tower.
The portcullis was raised just enough for her to enter. But the moment the gate closed behind her, she realized she was there only because Saer had allowed it. His stallion was capable of running her mare to ground.
He’d allowed her to return.
That knowledge unleashed several emotions she wanted to ignore. But as she returned her mare to her stall and rubbed her down, there was no way to hide from her own thoughts.
Saer MacLeod had allowed her to decide what she wished. His fellow Highlanders might call him a savage, but he was far more accommodating than she expected of a man.
It was what he wanted, no doubt. All men craved the same thing from women.
It was more than a word. The idea whispered through her thoughts and along her skin, raising goose bumps. She shivered, but realized she was actually trembling. She hissed, letting her temper flare in the hopes it would burn away the memory of his touch.
Another emotion teased her, warm as a flash of temper, but it wasn’t anger. She frowned as she failed to understand it. Even if she detested the man and everything about him, the memory of his lips against her wrist filled her thoughts, leaving behind a slight sting on her cheeks.
She shook her head and made her way toward her bed.
She would not think about his touch or the way it made her feel. There would be no lament over the choice she had made to reject him.
There would not be.
“I’m surprised ye let her go back into that fortress,” Saer’s captain remarked when he joined him at the edge of the clearing. “I do nae think she’ll be making it simple for ye to catch her again.”
“I hope not.”
Baruch chuckled. “Are ye sure ye want that one, Laird?”
Saer cut his captain a hard look. “That is what I’m here to discover. She intrigues me, and I confess I’ve never been impressed with a lass’s strength before.”
“Her brother agreed to yer suit,” Baruch reminded him. “It would be a lot simpler to learn what it is ye want to know if ye had kept her.”
Saer looked back at the Ross fortress. “If I did that, she’d be able to dismiss me the same as those her cousin allowed to make sport of her.” His tone betrayed his anger. “She will come to me.”
“And how do ye figure to make that happen?”
Saer turned his stallion to head back to the camp. “She craves freedom. Nae the inside of that fortress.”
Baruch slowly smiled. “And ye’ve cleverly made it so she is the one who has caged herself. Well played, Laird. Even a spitfire cannae claim ye forced her inside that gate.”
“She will not,” Saer confirmed. “Nareen Grant will notice exactly what I did. She is no simpleton.”
Baruch let out a low whistle. “Careful, Laird, a spitfire is often more trouble than she’s worth. Once the passion cools, ye’ll be stuck with a harpy for a wife. One that will have the care of yer daughters.”
“Or I might just have found a woman who is nae afraid of me.”
Which was what he truly craved. Now that he was Laird, there were offers of brides, but he didn’t have the stomach for a shivering woman in his bed. His father’s bride had been one of those, a daughter offered up by her father, and white as a ghost on the day of her wedding. His father had turned to Saer’s mother for passion when the years went by and his noble wife never warmed toward him.
Saer wanted nothing to do with a marriage like that.
Nareen trembled, but she also spat at him. What he really wanted to know was would she reach for him once she surrendered to passion?
It was a gamble, one that carried a large risk. Saer wasn’t blind to the facts. But he also couldn’t ignore the way Nareen blushed for him. Her cheeks had been hot, even in the cold night air, just as they’d been when he’d encountered her at court.
Every moment they’d shared was branded into his memory. If he was given to superstition, he’d suspect her of casting spells. Court ladies had reputations for bewitching men with their wiles.
He grinned, the burn of a challenge warming him. If Nareen had enchanted him, he was going to make sure she suffered the same fate.
“Where are ye going, Laird?” Baruch inquired.
“To introduce meself to the Earl of Ross,” Saer answered without looking over his shoulder. “It would be terribly rude of me to cross his land and nae clasp his hand. Such an action might start rumors about me lack of social graces.”
“Well now, we wouldn’t be wanting that,” Baruch agreed as he followed his laird toward the castle. “But ye know, ye do nae have to spend the night inside the fortress. The summer night is fine.”
“Aye.” Saer continued toward the gate.
Baruch snorted behind him and abandoned further argument. “She’s under yer skin,” he groused instead.
“Perhaps.” Saer ignored the temptation to wait until morning to enter the castle. There was one thing he disliked more than being surrounded by stone walls, and that was ignoring a challenge. “Since I plan to claim her, it matters not.”
“Aye,” Baruch answered.
Whether or not Nareen was teasing him was not the reason he moved closer to her refuge. He wanted to know why she invaded his dreams. He’d stand in her path until she faced him. The answer would be revealed only when she stopped running.
Saer MacLeod blended with the night. Where other men braved the darkness, Saer was comfortable in its velvet embrace. It was enticing, alluring in a way that was sure to be wrong. How could it be anything else when it sent such a rush of heat through her?
Nareen jerked awake, disoriented as she tried to disengage her mind from her dream.
The image of Saer MacLeod didn’t fade quickly or easily. It lingered, keeping her from waking up completely. She saw his dark stare, probing her eyes and forcing her to acknowledge him.
She kicked her bedding aside and sat up.
She would ignore the man.
The sun was rising, and she could hear the bells calling the inhabitants of the inner castle to morning Mass. She reached for her stockings and pushed her feet into them. Now that the summer was fully upon them, she lamented being forced to wear so many layers. But there were standards to be maintained.
Next she pulled her boots on and worked a lace around the antler-horn buttons sewn along the sides, knotting the laces in place. When she stood, her chemise fluttered to her calves. It was creased from sleeping in it, but no one would see the lack of ironing. Not that she had time for such vanity anymore.
Nareen reached for her simple wool skirt and lifted it over her head, using a tie to belt it at her waist. Her bodice was unfussy, with boning sewn into it instead of a separate corset, and it opened up the front. Nareen threaded a lace through the eyelets and tugged it tightly closed. The stiff front supported her breasts. Her sleeves attached to her bodice and were also simple in design.
There had been a time when she had been the mistress. Dressing took more time when there were more layers. Like underskirts and overskirts, inner sleeves and outer sleeves all decorated with trim and lace. She did not miss it.
Well, perhaps she missed her silk gowns from time to time. But not enough to return to her father’s house.
A stab of regret pierced her heart as she brushed the tangles from her hair. Her father had not been in his right mind for many years. He’d begun losing his grip on facts, and it had only grown worse. He was Laird of the Grants, but her brother, Kael, had kept him above stairs to keep his illness from being known. As his daughter, she should be there to tend to him. But to do so, she’d have to return to where her brother was master.
Her brother had sent her to Ruth. Even if she believed Kael had done so believing Ruth would instruct her on how to run a large estate, Nareen couldn’t stomach the idea of being beneath a roof where he ruled. So she stayed as Abigail’s companion.
She braided her hair and grabbed a linen cap before hurrying out of the chamber. At least she didn’t have to sleep in Abigail’s private chambers. Many personal companions did. But Abigail was at her nastiest at sunrise, so she allowed her kinswomen to dress her in the morning because she didn’t want Nareen to leave her service. Abigail was wise enough to know Nareen had somewhere to go if she became displeased in her position. So she gave concessions, such as a private place to sleep and a stall for her mare.
Yes, a good agreement.
So why was she so full of discontentment this morning?
Nareen pushed her lips into a pout. The man was arrogant and presumptuous, so why did he continue to fascinate her so much that he invaded her dreams?
Perhaps she was better off not knowing the answer to that question. She’d decided she would not wed, so it was best to avoid thinking about men at all.
The inner yard was full of maids and retainers making their way to the small chapel inside the castle. Off in the distance, she could hear the bell tolling in the village church. The gate was lowered and barred, with only a few retainers remaining on the walls to keep watch. Everyone else made their way inside for the morning devotion.
The priest had already begun the first prayers. She dipped her fingers into the holy water, making the sign of the cross over herself as she hurried to find a place in the congregation. The other Ross serving girls shifted to make room for her. She was just feeling relieved, when she looked at the front of the chapel.
Saer MacLeod stood there, his dark gaze on her instead of on the altar.
She froze, and someone bumped into her. Saer’s lips twitched as she stumbled and half fell into one of the back pews. The priest turned around and caught her staring slack-jawed at Saer MacLeod.
The retainers manning the gate shouldn’t have allowed him inside during the night.
She bit her lip as she realized how something she counted as a benefit also worked to allow Saer to torment her. Granting shelter to other clans was common. When the man in question was a new laird, and there was an unmarried daughter in the Ross family, offering him hospitality just might have rewards for both clans.
Abigail was staring at the priest, completely ignoring Saer. There was a pinched look to her lips that Nareen recognized. Her mistress was not pleased at all.
The moment the last prayer finished, Abigail jerked her skirt up and headed down the main aisle. The rest of the Rosses held still, making way for her.
“There ye are at last,” Abigail grumbled.
Nareen fell into step behind her as Abigail made her way through the double doors of the chapel and into the dark entryway. Two passages led to smaller workrooms built alongside the main chapel, that were used by the priests as they worked on manuscripts—places of peace and quiet. But Abigail felt none of those things. She scowled at Nareen, her eyes bright with anger, and jerked her head toward one of the workrooms. Nareen followed, her cheeks reddening, because the Rosses were standing behind their mistress and watching the entire exchange. At least deeper in the stone passageway, she was able to hear the congregation making their way out of the sanctuary.
“I thought I told ye back at court to make sure that savage MacLeod stopped looking at ye.” Abigail sent her a stern look. “He’s followed ye here.”
“I doubt that,” Nareen responded firmly. “No unwed laird needs to chase women. Most of the daughters in the Highlands are plotting on how to get him to wed them.”
Abigail didn’t care for how easily Nareen spoke her mind, but she put up with it because she didn’t want one of her own clanswomen tending to her. They would tell her father anything he asked. Their loyalty was to the clan first.
“Then why is he here?” Abigail demanded.
“It is summer,” Nareen offered. “It’s likely the man is traveling on business.”
Her cheeks heated as she recalled Saer’s words from the night before. Abigail didn’t miss the bright color.
“Did ye sneak out to be with him last eve?”
There was a glimmer of excitement in Abigail’s eyes as she rolled her lower lip with her teeth. The raw lust was shocking, but it also brought back the odd twisting feeling in Nareen’s belly. She could not lust for Saer MacLeod.
Or any man. But most especially not him.
Abigail was still watching her. She let out a little sigh. “So ye like the savage ones.”
“I do nae,” Nareen defended herself.
Abigail let out a husky, knowledgeable laugh. “Ye’re virgin.”
“Of course I am.”
Abigail wasn’t impressed. The woman looked at Nareen like she was a babe in need of instruction.
Abigail shrugged. “Even the Holy Mother Mary rid herself of virginity. Ye’ll see what a nuisance it is once ye grow up enough to stop worrying that God will strike ye down for enjoying yer own body. I am impressed, though. I suppose ye chose to become me servant to avoid being sold by yer cousin. Ruth did know how to please her customers. Some men like virgins above all else. She’d have gotten quite a tidy sum for ye with those plump tits ye have. I had two offers for ye last Season at court. Don’t be foolish with the savage. He’ll give ye nothing for yer maidenhead.” Abigail offered her a sly smile. “Let me arrange a liaison at court for ye, and we’ll share the gold.”
Nareen was struck dumb. Abigail turned and headed toward the center of the church again. She moved confidently through the sanctuary and out the front doors without a hint of remorse for her torrid words, spoken so boldly in the very house of the Lord.
Known what Ruth planned and had not offered help until Nareen reached out to her. For the first time, Nareen realized it might not be so good an arrangement for her. Abigail had much in common with Ruth, it seemed.
“It appears ye have nae escaped from yer cousin Ruth’s plans for ye.” Saer MacLeod spoke from behind her, his tone low and edged with anger. Every muscle in Nareen’s body drew tight.
“Abigail Ross is no better a mistress for ye,” he said grimly. “Ye’ll leave with me at dawn.”
Nareen drew herself up and locked gazes with him. “I’ll be going nowhere with ye. Serving the Ross is me choice.”
Even if she now doubted how safe she was. But she wouldn’t be reaching to Saer MacLeod for help. No, she’d fend for herself.
She made to walk away, but Saer stepped into her path. For so large a man, he moved quickly.
“Ye need counsel, Nareen. I’ve been in the country for only two years, and I know of Abigail’s reputation. She was very serious, lass,” he offered gravely.
Nareen shook her head. “I will simply make it clear that I want none of it.” But she didn’t care for how little confidence she had in her own words.
Saer was no fool and heard the way her voice faltered.
“She feeds only her desires. Her clan could have benefited from her marriage. Instead of doing her duty to her kin, she cannae wait to begin planning new schemes.”
There was no way to ignore the truth of his words.
“I know she’s selfish,” Nareen confessed, “but she will nae sell me without me consent.”
“Do nae be so sure,” he warned.
She didn’t care for the sense of vulnerability his words unleashed. It raced through her, threatening to undermine her confidence. “Abigail is pleased with me, and I with her. She will nae jeopardize our arrangement.”
Nareen tried to go around him, but he lifted his arm and pressed his hand flat against the wall next to her head, blocking her way. Heads turned their way as the rest of the congregation passed by on their way back to their duties. Yet no one interfered.
He leaned closer and lowered his voice. “Are ye certain?”
She shivered, the reaction instant and uncontrollable.
“Ye should nae be, lass,” he said. “Nae a single Ross will even stop to ensure ye are well. They have left ye here to deal with me on yer own.”
“They have no reason to think ye would harm me,” Nareen snapped.
“It should cross one of their minds to make certain I am nae as savage as me reputation.”
“Ye are twisting things to favor yer opinion that I should leave with ye,” she countered. “I will nae be changing me mind about me feelings for ye.”
She propped her hand onto her hip, and his eyes narrowed. His expression gave her no hint to his thoughts, but her knees weakened as anticipation twisted her.
“I accept yer challenge,” he informed her.
Her mouth went dry.
“I am nae challenging ye.” But her voice had turned husky with longing.
His lips lifted in an arrogant grin. “Ye are, Nareen, and I enjoy it full well.”
She shook her head, but his dark eyes flickered with determination. A moment later, he pressed his lips against hers. She gasped, recoiling, but the wall was solid behind her and gave her no room to escape. Saer cupped her nape, sending another shiver down her spine at the strength in his grip. There was something primitive about the way he controlled her, holding her in such a place.
He might snap her neck if he chose.
Instead, he kissed her.
She stiffened, rejecting him with every fiber of her being. But he didn’t smash her lips beneath his. Saer pressed a firm kiss against her lips and then another before he swept his tongue along her lower lip. One soft lap that made her notice how velvety the surface of his tongue was.
It didn’t hurt.
And his fingertips weren’t digging into her nape.
Surprise flashed through her, making her gasp.
Saer took advantage of her open lips, deepening the kiss. This time she couldn’t help but notice how pleasant his lips felt against her own. She’d never considered that a man’s lips might be soft. Saer’s were.
He coaxed her with gentle pressure to kiss him back. He teased her with slow laps along the sensitive surface of her lips to open her mouth farther. When she did, he deepened the kiss and unleashed a need that twisted her insides. Heat flashed through her, making her clothing feel constricting. Her breasts felt swollen as her nipples slowly contracted behind her bodice. It was overwhelming, and she shoved against his chest, struggling to slip away from him.
When he prevented her, she reached up and slapped him.
The sound was loud and echoed inside the chapel. But there was no one to hear. Even the priest had disappeared. She was utterly abandoned.
Fear bit into her, its venom nauseating her. She shook her head, trying to stave it off, but her eyes brightened with unshed tears. Saer’s keen gaze settled on her eyes, infuriating her, because she was very much afraid he saw how glassy they were.
At least anger burned away the fear, so she welcomed it and cast aside any further attempts at being civil.
“I am nae yers,” she said, but her tone lacked all strength.
He started toward her but froze at the plea in her tone. She heard him pull in a harsh breath before he gripped the wide belt holding his kilt against his lean waist.
“A kiss is nae a claim of ownership.” His tone was gentler than she expected. The lack of arrogance surprised her, stilling her need to move away. But she still shook her head, unable to stop disagreeing with him.
“I did nae hurt ye. I know me strength and how to control it.”
She gave a bitter bark of laughter. “All men do. Just as they all know when they no longer have to temper their will. I’ll nae make the mistake of putting meself at any man’s mercy.”
She turned away, intent on leaving him through the back of the workroom.
“We’re nae finished, Nareen.”
He was so close his breath brushed her ear. Saer moved with an unnatural speed, reaching out to encircle her waist. He bound her to him, bringing their bodies into contact from shoulders to feet. Her skirts compressed, allowing her to feel his legs behind her.
“I am nae a challenge,” she insisted, turning her head to make sure he heard her.
“Ye are,” Saer told her in a deep whisper.
She opened her mouth to argue, and he sealed his hand over it.
“But nae in the manner ye believe, Nareen. It is nae conquest for the sake of claiming a prize that I seek.”
She stretched her neck, trying to dislodge his hand. Victory was hers for a short moment, but he slid his fingers down her chin and along her neck to rest against the spot in her throat where her pulse throbbed. Shame filled her as he found the telltale proof of her racing heart. He made a soft sound of male approval that sent a shudder through her. She felt surrounded by him, and part of her enjoyed it immensely, begging her to soften and yield to his embrace.
“Ye are a challenge because ye test me control to entice ye until ye yield.”
“I do nae want ye to,” she claimed.
“Which is why I want to return to yer cousin’s house and beat her until she gives me the names of the men who laid rough hands on ye.”
She shifted, trying to ease her way out of his hold. “I do nae recall them at all.”
It was a lie. The boldest one she had ever told, and she was not sorry. She was going to say it again and again until she believed it.
“I’m going to teach ye the pleasure of touch.”
His voice had deepened and softened until it was like the stroke of a feather. Just barely there. She relaxed, sinking back against him to make sure she heard him.
She shouldn’t. It was a weakness, one that would see her suffer at his hands once he gained what he wished.
“Once I yield, all ye will do is take. It is the nature of a man.” She tried to gently push his arm away from her, but he held firm. “I lack a submissive nature, Saer. It might amuse ye now, but ye will lose patience with me in time.”
“Do ye hear the difference in me tone, Nareen?” He kissed the shell of her ear. “Listen to me and learn the difference between a man who knows pleasure should be shared, nae just taken.”
He stroked lower, across skin she’d never realized was so sensitive. Beneath his fingertips, her flesh was humming with appreciation. Goose bumps spread down her torso until her nipples puckered once again.
“Ye are using words to dull me wits.” She stretched her neck away from his hand. “To confuse.”
“Perhaps I am trying to prove me worth.” He stroked her neck again, this time all the way up to her chin, where his hand cupped her jaw. It was a slow motion, one that drew a gasp from her as sensation went thundering through her.
A pleasurable sensation, without a doubt.
There was no lying to herself.
He turned her face so she might see his eyes. “I prefer it this way, lass, for I have never been a man to be taken at merely me word.” His eyes closed to mere slits. “Showing ye is going to be me pleasure.” His lips curved, setting off a coil of excitement in her belly. “It will be yers too.”
She jerked her face away, unable to remain still with his gaze boring into hers. He saw too much. Noticed too many things she needed to keep hidden. She might bear it, so long as no one witnessed the ugliness.
“I…cannae.” The words were a plea. A tear escaped as the words made it past her resolve to remain strong. “Release me, please.”
“That would be an unkind thing.”
There was a solidness in his tone that made her heart accelerate. She battled the wave of panic trying to crest as he leaned over and kissed the side of her neck. The contact was jarring. She jerked, so tightly wound with anticipation. With all of her senses heightened, the impact of that gentle touch was extreme.
Her skin hummed with approval and begged for more.
Saer didn’t disappoint her either. He trailed kisses along the column of her throat, making a slow progress that drove her mad with longing. She found herself stretching her neck out for him, making certain he missed none of the tender flesh where her neck and collarbone met.
“That is the way, lass…”
His voice was merely a whisper. In the darkened hallway, with the sunlight blocked by the walls of the doorway, she was almost sure she had fallen into some sort of enchantment.
Except Saer was solid behind her. Everything about him was hard, but for some reason, she found it enticing. She lowered her chin, trying to force herself to open her eyes wide.
“Nae, lass, we are just beginning.”
He cupped her jaw and raised her chin until she was leaning her head back against his powerful shoulder.
“And I am eager to show ye how a man honors the trust granted to him by a lass.”
She didn’t realize she’d spoken until his chest rumbled behind her. But it wasn’t amusement. It was a deep, low growl that reminded her of just how powerful a creature he was.
“Aye,” he confirmed before tracing the surface of her lower lip with his finger. She was suddenly trembling with the need to feel his kiss. The delicate surface of her lips tingled. She moved against him in purely instinctual motion.
She didn’t understand it, but it felt good.
She moved again, and Saer did too. Rolling his body from side to side and pressing against her, he slid his hand over her eyes, blocking out the daylight and leaving her sinking into the sensation her body was experiencing.
“Feel, lass. Do naught but feel.”
She reached for his arm, eager to do as he commanded. With his shirt tied up to the shoulders, there was nothing to separate her from his warm flesh. His forearm was hard, the definition of the muscles clear. She stroked him, trying to absorb all of his strength. It fanned the flames of need smoldering inside her.
His body hair was thicker than hers and crisp. It delighted her in a way she couldn’t describe, so she merely sighed with contentment.
“That’s the way, lass…”
She smiled at his praise, and he drew his hand down the side of her face. She turned her cheek until it rested against his breast so he might stroke the other side of her face. Her cheek was warm with a blush of excitement, and she wanted him to notice.
Saer made a soft circle with his fingertips over the hot spot before trailing his hand down and over the corner of her lips. Just the corner, and she let out a little sound of disappointment when he continued along the column of her neck instead of teasing her lips.
His destination became clear.
Her eyes opened wide as he smoothed over her collarbone and onto her chest.
“Close yer eyes, Nareen…” he tempted her.
She didn’t, because the sight of his fingers traveling lower on her chest was too erotic to miss. It shouldn’t have delighted her, but she was fascinated, unable to look away. He teased the top of her breast where her bodice pressed it up. She drew in a stiff breath and found herself holding it as delight drew its claws down her body. She felt it all along her spine, a twisting, churning delight that begged for her to arch and increase the pressure between his hand and her breast.
He pressed a kiss against her neck, this one firmer and full of hunger. One she felt inside herself as well.
Her eyes fluttered shut, and everything intensified.
She leaned her head back, and Saer boldly stroked the swell of one breast. Her nipple was still puckered, but it felt like it was drawing tighter. Nareen reached behind her, seeking his thighs through the pleated fabric of his kilt. She needed more of him, craved the feeling of his hard body.
He kissed his way up her neck and across her jawline until she was turning in his embrace, his hands guiding her until he could cover her lips with his own. He closed his embrace around her once more, and she purred with contentment. Every inch of her was humming with delight, and she reached for him, sliding her hand along the side of his face until she threaded her fingers through the strands of his hair.
He growled softly, his mouth pressing harder against hers. She opened her lips, anticipating the touch of his tongue this time. When it came, she shuddered, her entire body responding to the touch. She fisted her hand in his hair, holding him to her as she tried to mimic his motions and taste him, just as he was tasting her.
Her actions sparked a response in him that was uncontrollable. For one wild moment, he claimed her mouth like a prize. His lips played across hers with a demand that had her clitoris throbbing between the folds of her sex and her hips straining toward his.
Suddenly, he put her away from him, cupping her shoulders and setting her back a full pace. He held her there as she heard him draw in a ragged breath. His eyes glittered with hunger, and frustration needled her.
“Concede the point, Nareen.” He stepped farther back and offered her his hand, the meaning unmistakable.
He wanted submission now that he’d proven her flesh was weak.
Of course he did. All men craved such from women. The kindness was over, and now the claiming would begin.
She shook her head and grabbed the front of her skirt. “I shall never concede any victory to ye.”
His eyes narrowed and glittered with a promise that made her lips tingle. It was more than a look. She felt his determination as much as saw it flickering in his eyes. It stole her breath and sent her heart racing. An insane urge to bare her teeth at him surfaced, terrifying her with how intense her feelings were.
Maybe her pride demanded she stand her ground, but there was something churning in her insides that convinced her she had no hope of prevailing against him. It was urging her back toward him, back into his embrace where she might be enchanted once again.
The blush stinging her cheeks had nothing to do with her running. She’d enjoyed his kiss and wanted more. It was a dark and wild craving, rising up from some place deep inside her, a feeling that overwhelmed logical thought, leaving her prey to her instincts.
She wouldn’t be a creature of weakness. Not like Abigail, and not like those who had come to Ruth with gold in order to purchase something that they craved uncontrollably. Most of them weren’t evil at their core. Lament often shone in their eyes when they were finished, but they were slaves to their needs.
No, she would not be like that.
“Me father will be at supper.”
Nareen took the pot of rouge away in response. Abigail had an affection for court and its lavish ways. Even in the Highlands, she still painted her face every night. Preparing for supper took the lady a full two hours.
Except for when her father was going to be at the high table.
“I’ll have to wear something boring,” Abigail groused.
Nareen opened a wardrobe and sorted among the dresses. There were many made of silk, which crinkled when she moved them. Rich velvet, as well as costly brocade, was soft beneath her fingertips.
“Not the wool,” Abigail instructed. “I detest it so.”
Wool was the fabric of the Highlands. Abigail was a foolish brat to shun it. When it was wet, wool would still keep the body warm. No other fabric offered its wearer such an amenity, or protection from the harsh Highland climate.
Nareen selected a brocade dress with silver trim.
“I suppose I must,” Abigail complained when Nareen brought it to her.
Nareen gave her no reply but got on with helping her dress. Abigail was older than she was but often reminded Nareen of a child.
The Great Hall was lit with over a hundred candles. The scent of beeswax floated through the air as the Ross retainers and castle residents settled onto the long benches to enjoy the evening meal. With the sunlight gone, it was their opportunity to relax and enjoy one another’s company. Only a fool wasted the daylight hours, one who would learn their lesson when they had empty bellies and leaking roofs during the winter.
The kitchens began to send in platters of hot meat pies and fresh bread. Since it was summer, there were greens and berries. Pots of fresh butter and even honey sat on the table.
The Great Hall was large and filled with long tables. At the end of the Hall was a raised platform that held the high table. The Earl of Ross presided over the evening meal from a chair that had a high back. It rose above his head and had the Ross coat of arms carved into it. From the back of the Hall, there was no missing who was master. He had a benevolent smile on his lips and looked strong enough even though his hair was gray.
Saer MacLeod sat next to the earl. He actually wore a doublet, but it was open halfway down his chest, and the sleeves were open and tied behind his back.
Nareen shivered and bit her lip to distract herself.
Did the man never feel the night air?
He’d certainly looked at home in the darkness the night before. He was at home behaving like a savage, too. Kissing in church was for those who didn’t fear the wrath of the priests and their love of sentencing offenders to the stocks.
Of course, a laird didn’t often suffer the same penalties as the rest of the congregation. Saer could buy his way out of a public reprimand if it came to it.
Her cheeks heated, and she aimed her gaze at Abigail’s back to keep her thoughts off him. But it was not so simple to erase the memory of his kiss from her mind. She still felt the steady grip on her neck and the way she’d irrefutably enjoyed it.
That was a sin.
“There’s me lass.” The earl looked up from his meal. He pointed a small eating dirk at Abigail. “Ye’ve kept me guest waiting, Daughter.”
Abigail stopped at the foot of the stairs that led up to the high table. She lowered herself, if it were possible to call the quick bob she made such a thing. It certainly lacked any sincerity. Her father frowned at her, but she flounced up the steps to take her place beside him.
“Laird MacLeod is nae here to see me, Father.” Two burly retainers stepped forward to assist the lady. They pulled her chair back and waited while she fussed with her skirts before pushing it up to the table. Nareen fell into place behind her mistress’s chair.
“He’ll make no offer for me,” Abigail said.
“What’s this ye say, Daughter?”
“He was watching Nareen Grant back at court.” Abigail held up her hand for her goblet. A young lad retrieved it from the cupboard and brought it to her. “And kissed her in the chapel this morning.”
Nareen’s cheeks burned, but she had to maintain her position behind her mistress. More than one sly look was aimed her way.
“What’s this?” the earl demanded.
Abigail took a long drink, then smirked at Saer. “It is simple, Father. Laird MacLeod was raised among the isles and lacks any sort of refinement—”
“On the isles, children do nae use such tones with their parents,” Saer interrupted. “If that is a lack of refinement, I am content with me rough ways.”
“Ha!” The earl laughed. “What have ye to say to that, Daughter? Laird MacLeod is nae impressed with yer tart words and, unlike the last few whelps who sat at me table and tried to call themselves yer suitors, Saer MacLeod speaks plainly. That is nae a lack of refinement. It is the mark of a Highlander.”
Abigail pouted. “I have no suitors any longer because ye insult them. Which is why I must return to court, to find another.”
Saer’s eyes narrowed. He wasn’t the only man in the room who cast disapproving looks toward the highborn daughter of the house. “If a few harsh words were enough to banish them,” Saer informed her, “ye are better off not wed to a coward. A Highlander should speak only the truth. If a man cannae look the father of the woman he desires in the eye, he is nae worthy of her.”
“True!” The earl nodded. “I cannae stomach a man without courage.” He leaned toward Saer. “I growled at her last suitor only once, and he turned white! I cannae have that sort of blood in me grandchildren.”
“Yer daughter should desire better,” Saer decided firmly. “The Ross are nae weaklings.”
There were nods and grunts of approval from the people watching from the lower tables.
“Well, I shall nae stand for a savage instructing me on any matter.” Abigail began to wave her hands at the retainers standing behind her father. “I shall sup above stairs.”
“Ye’ll stay, Daughter.” The earl’s expression tightened. The soft old man had vanished. His fingers were clenched into a fist now, his gaze sharp. “And ye’ll mind that tongue of yers in front of me guest.”
“Yer trust is misplaced, Father.” Abigail wasn’t willing to back down. “This savage kissed me companion in the church this morning. He has no sense of propriety, and I shall nae listen to him.”
The earl pounded the tabletop. “Enough!” he commanded. “Where is this lass? Come around where I may see ye.”
Nareen had no choice. She went around the end of the long table and lowered herself in front of the earl. He leaned forward to inspect her. His gaze was still sharp, and he made two passes up and down her length before nodding.
“I believe I’d think less of ye, Laird MacLeod, if ye didn’t kiss such a fetching lass. If I were young enough to catch her, I’d do the same.”
The Hall filled with laughter.
“Father, ye are being a toad!”
The earl turned and looked sternly at Abigail. “Ye need spend more time worrying about yer own sins! Ye are a gossip, and ye spend too much time thinking about what others are doing, when ye should be securing yerself a husband. A fortune has been spent on yer trips to court, and what do we have to show for it? Suitors who cannae sit through a single supper with me?” He chuckled and pulled on a gray tuft of his beard. “I am such a fearsome sight, after all. I will have me secretary sort through the offers I have for ye tomorrow, since it seems Laird MacLeod has eyes for another. I admit, I had hoped he was here to offer for ye.”
Saer didn’t even try to hide his disgust at the mere idea of having Abigail for wife. Behind him, his captain’s expression was tight and disapproving. He even leaned slightly away from her.
Abigail’s mouth hung open for a moment. She was fuming, but she closed her mouth and took a deep breath before speaking.
“I will find a better match at court,” Abigail insisted in a tone that was far more respectful, even if one look in her eyes confirmed it was only a sham. “Please, Father, I beg ye to let me know what sort of man I’ll wed. Proposals written on paper are so cold.”
The earl drummed his fingers on the table. “What of this scandal that had ye sent home to me? The king was most displeased. The Ross do nae need the king’s wrath. He sent ye home for me to deal with. Make no mistake, Daughter, I’ll keep me house in order, even as old as I am.”
“It was a misunderstanding only.” Abigail aimed wide eyes at her sire. “I swear it upon me sweet mother’s memory.”
The earl instantly changed his demeanor. His gaze became soft as he became lost in his recollections. “Yer mother was a spring blossom. She never said an unkind word. Never. Her heart was so tender, I could deny her nothing.”
“Ye promised her I might choose me own husband.”
Her father grunted before lifting his hand for his goblet. “Only so long as the man is a good match, Daughter! Marriage is a business.”
“Of course, Father, which is why I must return to court. With the king nearing the age of his majority, everyone is there to make sure they are seen.”
The earl gripped his goblet and peered at his daughter over its silver rim. “Aye, that’s sensible enough.”
Abigail watched him take a long drink, and the corners of her mouth twitched. The earl wasn’t content, and continued to drink until he’d drained his goblet.
“That’s how to enjoy supper!” he declared, turning his goblet over to show one and all it was empty. The moment he handed it back to his cup boy, the lad was rushing back to the cupboard to refill it. The earl kept his hand out, his fingers opening and closing restlessly as he waited for the goblet to be returned.
“Ye are falling behind, Laird MacLeod.”
Saer leaned on his elbow so he might make eye contact with the earl. “Yer daughter is correct on one account. I was raised on simple fare and find it to me taste. I have no affection for French wine, but yer cook is talented.”
The earl frowned then returned to eating. “It’s sad I am to hear that, but I suppose it shall leave ye clearheaded enough to nae allow me daughter too much rein tonight. She is spoilt, I confess. I should have remarried and provided her a mother. It’s me failing.”
Abigail was turning red, but she didn’t argue. She smirked again when her father took his goblet and drank long and deep. Within an hour, he’d be senseless.
Nareen had watched it all before. The earl was not a bad man, but he still mourned his dead wife. Another goblet of wine, and he would begin telling stories of their years together. Pinned to his shoulder was a gold-framed miniature painting of her. He’d pass out right in his chair with that painting cradled in his hands. His men would carry him to his chamber, leaving Abigail to her own devices.
It was not her concern.
And yet…it was. The memory of Abigail’s words needled her, undermining the trust Nareen had in her position. It might not be as safe a haven as she’d decided it was.
That didn’t mean she would be taking Saer’s offer.
No. The Highlander represented another danger, one that was far more personal, because she felt drawn to him. The only way to protect herself from that curse was to ensure she was nowhere near him.
Nareen stood behind her mistress, waiting for the woman to finish supper. It was her place. She didn’t resent it, because she enjoyed the freedom being a servant provided. So what if she had to wait to eat until Abigail dismissed her?
It was her choice.
And that was worth everything.
Nareen shifted her gaze to Saer MacLeod without realizing it. He represented many of the reasons she was happy with her position as Abigail’s servant. Saer MacLeod would likely please her brother as a match, and then she would become his servant, even her body no longer her own.
But the memory of the way Abigail’s voice had filled with anticipation when she spoke of arranging a liaison returned, and it would not be banished. Perhaps Nareen couldn’t allow herself to be near Saer MacLeod, but she would be a fool not to heed his advice to leave her position. She had no intention of acting the fool.
With either Abigail or Saer MacLeod.
“Saer MacLeod is a beast.”
Abigail was pacing the length of her receiving chamber. Beyond an arched doorway her huge bed awaited, the flicker of candles dancing over the costly cotton bedsheets.
“I cannae stomach being here any longer,” Abigail wailed. “This banishment from court is intolerable!”
“It is nae forever,” Nareen offered in a tone that betrayed just how little pity she had for her mistress. Abigail turned to glare at her, but Nareen offered her no apology. “It is only a single week longer.”
Abigail huffed. “Yet it is too long. The king is a child! Insisting on virtues and pious behavior. Just wait, he’ll take a mistress soon enough. Just as soon as his beard comes in and his cock starts to keep him awake at night.”
Abigail sat down and began to fuss with her letters. She reread them with bright eyes that glistened with unshed tears.
Nareen’s belly rumbled, but Abigail was absorbed in her own concerns. It afforded Nareen the chance to slip away. Supper was long finished, and the tables cleared. Small groups of people lingered in the Hall, enjoying the warmth from the hearth. Only a few candles remained lit, allowing the night to creep across the space. She enjoyed the shadows. They offered refuge from those who might seek her out when she would rather be alone.
Along one side of the Hall, Ross retainers had pulled out their pallets for the night. These were the younger men, the ones without wives. Each one had his sword resting beside him, and the portion of his kilt that lay over his shoulder during the day raised up to cover his head. At some point during the night, they would trade places with the men standing watch on the walls.
Nareen only peeked into the Hall. The stairs ended at a junction. She could go right and be in the Great Hall or straight ahead to the armor rooms. Off to her left was the hallway that would take her to the kitchens. There were large hearths in the Hall itself for porridge and stews, but most of the cooking was done in the kitchens. They were built outside to protect the castle from fire. In the summer, it also served to keep the kitchens from becoming too hot to endure.
There were only a few lanterns left alight in the hallway to fend off the night. The gate was down, and most of the inhabitants had taken the Church’s warning to shut themselves in to avoid the demons that ruled the night.
“Yer mistress is a brat.”
Nareen stiffened, stepping sideways, because she just couldn’t squelch the urge to put space between herself and Saer MacLeod.
“I do nae deny it.”
Saer was leaning against the wall, his arms crossed over his chest and one foot lifted and set against the wall behind him. He looked remarkably at ease, but one look into his dark eyes and she realized just how sharp his focus was.
“Did someone forget to show ye to a chamber for the night, Laird MacLeod?”
He flashed a grin. “Are ye offering to see to the duty? I might just rethink me opinion of sleeping inside stone walls if it means following ye above stairs.”
His tone was teasing, but her throat contracted, like a noose was knotted around it. “I am nae. If ye do nae care for stone walls, why are ye here?”
Saer studied her for a long moment, his lips settling into a firm line. “Ye do nae need to hide here, Nareen. I will escort ye to yer brother if ye wish.”
It was a kind offer, one she might have considered if she trusted herself to be near him.
“I thank ye for the offer, but I am well enough on me own.”
“I admire ye for being resourceful, but ye need not serve in this house. They do nae respect ye for yer diligence.”
It was true, and she wasn’t comfortable hearing it spoken aloud. “I am nae hiding. I have simply nae decided on where it is I wish to go from here.”
He flashed a roguish grin. “Is that a fact?”
She nodded but realized too late she was letting her guard down by engaging him in conversation. With amazing ease, he had abandoned his position against the wall and blocked her path.
“I have a suggestion for ye, sweet Nareen.”
She had to tip her head back to lock gazes with him. A shiver raced down her spine as she caught the flicker of determination in his eyes.
“I’ve heard yer idea of where I should go, and I will nae be returning to Donarch Tower and me brother’s rule.”
“Yer brother thought he was sending ye some place safe,” Saer counseled her gravely.
There was an edge to his tone that shamed her. “I know,” she whispered, the words harder to say than she’d anticipated, the sting of being banished still too fresh, but she knew she would have to forgive her brother. Kael had meant well. Ruth was the guilty one. “As I said, I have nae yet decided on where I wish to go, only that it will nae be back to me father’s house.”
“Ye should hear me suggestion, since ye are considering making a decision.”
He moved even closer, indecently close. She shivered. Acute sensation was flooding her, numbing her wits.
“Honor demanded I offer to take ye to yer brother.”
She could feel the heat from his body. She stepped away, only to collide with the wall.
“I’ll confess that I’d prefer to have ye to meself, lass,” he whispered.
She detested the idea. She told herself she did. But she quivered, sensation coursing through her insides and leaving her curiously elated. Just as she had been that morning.
“This morning in the chapel, ye made it clear what sort of offer ye have for me.” She struggled to maintain her composure. “I’ve no interest in the urges of men. That is why I am here, and it is why I will nae agree to leave with ye. Ye shall nae be claiming I challenged ye, so ye have a reason yer hand at tossing me skirts once we are away and there are only yer men surrounding us.”
She was being overly bold with a man who was her better, but she lifted her chin in the face of his scowl. “Do nae be so insulted. Yer men are loyal to ye. I’d be a fool no’ to think on that fact. Ye deserve such words for the arrogant way ye took what ye wanted this morning. The Ross will think me a slut now. I wonder what ye would have thought of any man treating yer own sister that way.”
His eyes narrowed, and he frowned.
“Yer tongue is sharp.” He surprised her by speaking in an even tone. “Yet it is yer strength that draws me to ye, even when it is delivered in the form of blunt, but true, words. I was thinking only of proving ye would enjoy me touch, since I’ve wanted to taste ye since I saw ye at court, but it was insensitive of me to do so in public.”
His words stunned her. She’d never expected such tenderness from him, much less an apology. He was a laird, set above her by God. Even the priest would tell her that.
But she didn’t need to know he’d followed her from court. Something stirred inside her at such an idea. Some feeling she wasn’t comfortable with, a feeling that might quickly turn into needing. Because she liked it, and she couldn’t allow herself to like Saer MacLeod.
But his admission also made her feel desirable. Court was full of beautiful women, the fairest in Scotland, and she was not blind to how she compared. Her features were not too harsh, but she was no rare beauty.
“Find someone else ye crave.” She lifted her chin. “’Tis disgust ye stir in me.”
He’d hooked his hands into the wide belt holding his kilt around his lean waist. “Aye, that’s true enough, and it makes me want to beat yer cousin to death for allowing ye to be preyed upon. There is a fire in ye, one that should nae be tempered with fear.”
“I am well enough,” she said and slid along the wall to escape. “Me opinion of ye has naught to do with me cousin. It is simply the way I feel.”
He stepped forward, caging her with his body in one, lightning-fast motion. “Do nae lie to me. I felt ye tremble.”
“I am nae—”
He lowered his head, until his lips hovered over hers. She wanted to reject him, but a soft gasp escaped her, betraying her rising excitement. Her fingers clenched in a vain attempt to grip the wall and keep herself from leaning toward him.
The urge was there, curling through her insides like a living force.
“I also felt ye gripping me hair,” he whispered. “Why are ye trying to hold on to the wall behind ye? Is it to keep yer hands off me?”
There was a wicked suggestion in his tone that stoked the embers of the flames he’d brought to life inside her in the chapel. She sucked in a horrified breath, her eyes widening. She looked away, but he cupped her chin, returning her gaze to his. A shudder shook her, and his lips curved.
“That is a reaction, lass, but nae one of disgust.” His voice was edged with too much confidence. “It is the reaction of a woman to a man.”
He admired her. The realization set a bright glow off inside her, but it also stirred a warning. She needed to reject him, find some way to wound his pride so he would never look her way again.
For a moment, she was torn. Uncertain of what path was truly best. She searched his eyes, seeking more hints of his true nature, but only time would deliver those facts. Time and trust. If she trusted wrongly, she would suffer.
But then her belly rumbled.
His expression tightened as he bit back the desire to kiss her.
“Ye have nae eaten.” He stepped back, offering her the space to precede him to the kitchens. “That damned brat let ye stand through supper without leave to fill yer belly.”
“Ye do nae know that.” It wasn’t an outright lie, but she still cringed at how dishonest she was being. If he didn’t matter to her, she had no reason to fear his knowing anything about her. Yet she was almost desperate to hide every detail about herself. But the words slipped past her lips before she realized how telling they were. “Ye cannae know what I am about during all the hours of the day.”
His lips twitched with satisfaction. “I am here for ye, lass. Me attention is on ye and naught else. I know where ye have been this day and that yer mistress did nae give ye leave throughout supper. But I certainly expected she had supper for ye above stairs. Ye followed her up there several hours past.”
There was a memory, a recollection of a time when she was not alone and someone else cared if she went without. She’d be a liar if she claimed she hadn’t missed such a feeling.
But she’d be a fool to bask in the glow of anything Saer made her feel. He’d made his intentions plain, so she’d have to make her choice even plainer.
“I am off to the kitchens now and do nae need an escort.” He was too large, both in stature and intensity. She felt overwhelmed and needed to push him away so she might catch her breath.
“Since ye have brought it to me attention that I’ve cast doubt on yer character, ye do,” he countered.
She shook her head, every fiber of her being denying him. Saer made a low sound that was a cross between a growl and a snarl before scooping her off her feet.
She gasped, stunned by his audacity. “Put me down!”
“Raise yer voice a bit louder, lass. It will nae bother me a bit to have us caught in a compromising position.”
“I believe ye would.” For there would be only one solution, to wed or face being shamed in the pillory.
She slapped his chest because she had to keep her voice low, but all the beast did was chuckle. He stole down the corridor, carrying her with an ease that was unnatural.
No man should have such strength.
No woman should enjoy it so much.
But she did.
He shouldered his way through the doors that led into the yard and then into the kitchens. The hearths were still glowing red, but the flames had died down. New wood wouldn’t be added until the morning. It was stacked up nearby, but to use it during a summer night would be wasteful, as it was warm, and there was still plenty of light. Saer deposited her on a stool and looked far too pleased with his actions.
“Are ye trying to impress me with yer tender concern for me empty belly?” She sprang off the stool as though it were a spike. “Or do ye want to make sure I know ye may force me to yer will?”
She didn’t care for how it made her feel, the idea that he might be darkening her name on purpose. Men used women as they pleased. It was a lesson she’d learned by witnessing what her cousin Ruth did with her charges. But part of the lesson had come from watching Ruth’s customers pay so eagerly for what they wanted with no concern for those being sold.
“I plan to make sure yer belly stops rumbling. I know that pain.”
He was busy looking through the bowls left on the long worktable in the center of the kitchen. They were all covered with cloths to protect the food from dust. There was always food left out for the retainers watching the castle wall. When they finished their duty, they would come to sup.
“If all I wanted was a rough tumble, Nareen, I’d have had it last night before ye even saw me face.” He sent her a hard look. “I wouldn’t have taken ye to yer brother, but carried ye into a church and declared the truth. If forcing ye to be me wife was what I wished, it would be done.”
His words were blunt. But true.
He looked back at her. “I’m telling ye so there is no misunderstanding between us. I admire strength, for I know how painful it is to build. Many fold rather than grow stronger.” His eyes flashed with admiration. “Ye did nae fold. Breaking ye is nae what I crave.”
As far as compliments went, it was far different than what she had been raised to desire from a man. Yet it pleased her in a way no comparison to a summer rose might have.
She sat down, her anger deflating. He slid a plate onto the table in front of her. Just the sight of the food drew a low rumble from her empty belly. Her last meal had been so long ago, her mouth began to water, and her fingers shook as she reached for the food.
Saer missed none of it, but she saw a look of bitter experience emerging past the controlled expression he so often hid behind.
“There were times me mother could nae provide for me. She had been turned out by me father because he had a wife who cared naught for a reminder that another woman had given him a son when she had naught but a tiny daughter. The land he banished her to was difficult to cultivate. I was chasing rabbits for our supper as far back as I can recall. I have hard thoughts for me father when I remember just how grateful me mother was when I brought one home. But now that I am grown, I wonder if he did it to make sure I would grow up strong, since he would not be able to see to it himself.”
“That is a hard way to grow up.”
She tore a piece of bread in half. She could smell its nutty aroma, in spite of the fact that it was cold. Her fingers shook as she stuffed some into her mouth. To her starved body, the taste was intense.
“That brat has no grasp of how many hours she makes ye go without food. Just as me laird father did nae know how many times I went to bed hungry before I grew strong enough to catch those rabbits. But maybe he wanted me to know what those born beneath me position felt like, so I would nae be like Abigail.”
He filled a goblet with fresh milk from the night milking and sat it near her.
Once she was able to control the urge to keep shoving food into her mouth, she asked, “Yet yer father must have paid for yer sword training. Such training is nae given for naught.”
“He did. Yet it was made plain to me that every day might be me last if his legitimate wife produced a living son.” Satisfaction glowed in his eyes. “I trained longer and harder than any other lad. I could best them all by the time I was growing me first beard. Of course, me master pit me only against those older than me to make sure I did nae grow arrogant.”
“I am nae sure that worked.” She spoke with soft amusement.
He shrugged. “Yet I earned what I am.”
“True.” For a moment, it was easy conversing with him, a sense of common understanding growing between them. He had often been spoken of at court, for no one knew much about him, and against the odds, he was laird of the MacLeods.
Little wonder he was as massive and hard as he was. Her gaze slid over his face, finding the details of his harsh life. It was there in the scar on his left cheek and the bump in the center of his nose. Another scar ran through his right eyebrow, and there were several on his bared forearms.
“That is a harsh way to live,” she whispered.
His dark gaze locked with hers. “As difficult as lying down in yer bed and knowing yer own kin might be selling yer body?”
Nareen looked away, unable to share that pain with him. It was too deep, too personal, too intimate.
“We all endure what we must,” she countered. “Only babes think life is fair.”
“Aye. As I endure being inside these walls to be near ye.”
He was leaning against the wall again. There was a hint of discomfort in his expression, and she realized it was because he truly did not care for the walls surrounding him.
It was another thing they had in common.
She shook off the feeling. He inspired too many emotions in her. She finished her meal and took the plate to a bucket used for dirty tableware. They’d be taken outside in the morning for washing.
“Good night, Laird MacLeod.”
He remained leaning against the wall, arms folded across his chest. Even with night fully fallen, his shirtsleeves were still tied up to the shoulder to bare his arms.
“Good night, Nareen Grant, may yer rest be peaceful.”
There was something too calm about his words. She hesitated in the kitchen doorway, trying to deduce what it was.
“As for meself, I am wide awake,” he continued, lowering the foot he’d had braced against the kitchen wall. “Would ye care to ride with me?”
The impulse to nod was too strong, and she was already lowering her head before she realized what she was doing.
He chuckled and rolled his shoulders before stretching his neck and casting her a devilish look.
“But would ye dare to, Nareen?” He moved toward the door that led out into the yard. He turned and offered her his hand. “That’s what I really want to know. Are ye going to waste yer free time or find the boldness to enjoy it?”
“I do nae need to accept yer invitation to do as I please, now that Abigail is finished with me for the night.” She walked past him to prove it. The night air was cool and fresh, making her smile. With her belly full, her energy returned. She made her way to the stables, and her mare let out a sound of greeting.
But Saer was the one who fit the bridle over the mare’s muzzle. He rubbed her head gently too, showing he had a care for her feelings.
“I am nae riding with ye,” Nareen insisted.
“I’m sorry ye lack the courage to be in me company.”
She stiffened and faced him. “It is nae about courage.”
Saer turned, his kilt flaring out as he slid a hand around her waist and pulled her against his body. She pressed her hands against his chest, but lost the urge to push him away when she felt how hard his body was beneath his shirt.
“Ye should wear a doublet.”
He cupped her nape and leaned his head to the side so she felt his breath against the skin of her neck.
“And miss the feeling of yer hands against me skin? Nae, lass. I came here for ye. It is yer touch I was determined to feel.”
She trembled. “Have ye no shame?”
It was a foolish question, considering their position. He lifted his head and locked gazes with her.
“What I have, is no use for pretense. Clothing is for keeping warm. I am nae cold, but ye can feel that, cannae ye, lass?”
She could, and it pleased her in a way she had never thought of before. The urge to slide her hand along the ridges of hard muscles covering his chest was gaining strength, undermining her determination to remain unmoved. In another few moments, she’d be nothing but a servant of her cravings.
“Fine. I’ll ride with ye.”
His eyes narrowed, and the grip on her nape tightened just a bit.
“So release me, and I’ll accept yer invitation.”
He grunted, frustration clear in his expression. But he complied, opening his embrace to allow her free.
“I think ye are toying with me, Nareen.”
She grasped her mare’s bridle and began to lead her from the stable. “No more than ye are with me, Laird MacLeod.”
She was sure truer words had never been spoken.
He chuckled, sending a blush onto her cheeks. “Which only proves what a fine match we’d be.”
It only proved how well he could find her weaknesses. She should turn around. It would be the sensible thing to do, but she didn’t. The night was warm enough and the air so fresh. A smile curved her lips, and she simply didn’t have the strength to turn her back on the freedom she’d find in a night ride.
At least riding was a weakness she might indulge in.
But she would have to make certain it was the only weakness she allowed to be fed tonight.
Nareen didn’t wait for him.
She made her way through the yard as Saer readied his stallion to ride. He might have caught up to her easily, but he trailed behind her. Perhaps stalk was a better word, for it fit his feelings better.
She was going to use his name before the dawn.
It was a possessive thought, one he really had no business thinking. Nareen didn’t belong to him, and she was a virtuous woman. Although riding out in the dark of night didn’t fit the ideals of virtue. At least not for the more civilized—which he was not.
Yet neither was Nareen.
Saer made his way through the open gate and swung up onto his stallion’s back. Beyond the walls of the castle was the village, but Nareen didn’t ride toward the flickering lights. She headed into the dark, where the starlight reflected off the stones.
He enjoyed the surge of anticipation warming his blood and grinned.
Savage. Aye, he was that. But Nareen Grant was wild, which made her his match. He was looking forward to running her to ground, and the lass was going to enjoy it. That was his solemn vow.