My Highland Captor by Miriam Minger

Chapter1

Dumbarton Castle, Dumbartonshire, Scotland, 1307

Forgive me, my lord king, but I dinna want a bride!”

Conall Campbell had no more than entered the antechamber when his vehement protest burst from him, the same words that had echoed in his brain from the moment a messenger had arrived at Campbell Castle three days ago with a summons from King Robert.

A summons stating that the king might have found a bride for him and to ride straightaway to Dumbarton to discuss the matter, and Conall had reluctantly obeyed.

The entire journey a torment. Each passing league like a noose tightening around his neck.

Now he had voiced his pent-up objection, yet he felt no relief at the immediate darkening of King Robert’s expression, which did not bode well for their meeting.

Och, not at all. Drawing a deep breath, Conall planted his feet and stood at attention as the king approached him, though his heart still thundered in protest.

King Robert wasn’t as tall as Conall—aye, few men were taller, other than his older brother Cameron and their longtime friend and former commander, Gabriel MacLachlan—but he cut an imposing figure, nonetheless, with his muscular physique and air of authority.

An authority that Conall had challenged the moment he had entered the room leading into the great hall of Dumbarton Castle, God forgive him.

He might have helped to save Robert the Bruce’s life some weeks ago, but that did not give him the right to overstep his overlord and king. As King Robert’s light brown eyes bored into his own, Conall swallowed hard but did not allow his gaze to falter.

“What are you, Conall Campbell? A petulant youth tae greet me with such an outburst? Where is your sense of discipline?”

Conall had no answer, for he was convicted by his rashness. He could just hear Cameron’s rebuke if his brother had witnessed such a display, reminding him as he’d done since Conall’s boyhood to think before he spoke—or acted. Yet the fact remained, a tic working along the hard set of Conall’s jaw. He wanted no bride!

“You’re a wild one, Campbell…only your usually good-natured temperament sparing you a reputation as a seducer of the worst kind. Did you think for a moment that I’m not aware of your exploits with women? I can imagine a wife for you might seem a terrible prospect, aye, a burdensome yoke around your neck. A hindrance tae the wanton life you wish tae lead. Yet the time has come for me tae reward you for helping tae save my life, and your marriage is part of that plan.”

“I need no reward, my lord king,” Conall interjected, feeling somewhat unsettled by King Robert’s blunt—yet accurate—assessment of him. “Serving you is honor enough, my loyalty unwavering—”

“Good, so now you’ll have a chance tae prove your allegiance. I want revenge for the deaths earlier this year of my brothers Alexander and Thomas, and you’re the man tae help me accomplish it.”

Conall could only stare at him, wholly taken by surprise.

He knew of the sea invasion in February against King Edward’s forces that had gone terribly awry, with Alexander and Thomas Bruce’s men slaughtered and the brothers taken prisoner and executed in Carlisle.

A grisly death, the two of them hung, drawn, and beheaded. King Robert was no doubt thinking the same thing, for his scowl had deepened as he held Conall’s gaze.

“Your fame as a fearsome warrior is matched only by a few—your brother Cameron among them—though you’re also known for daring on the battlefield that borders on foolhardiness. You’re quick-witted and fleet of foot, and as strong as three men when caught in a fight. All qualities that will serve you well when you steal Euan MacCulloch’s intended bride right from under his nose. I hold him most responsible for my brothers’ capture and death—and for this offense, he will pay.”

“Steal his bride, King Robert?” Conall echoed. “Wouldna it be easier for me tae find the bastard and cut his throat?”

“Easier, aye, but too quick a punishment for his unforgiveable crime against my family. He’ll suffer in ways large and small until I drive him and all of his kinsmen from Scotland—starting with the abduction of his bride, Isabeau Charpentier.”

Conall could tell from the angry bitterness in the king’s voice that there would be no swaying him, which meant his fate was all but sealed.

A Frenchwoman no less, from the sound of her name, King Edward’s court filled with such arranged marriages between his long-time foes in France and his loyal supporters at home, English and Scots alike. How better to maintain a fragile peace?

Yet now Edward had died earlier in the month, his weakling son, another Edward, on the throne. The new king’s wife, Isabella, was a Frenchwoman as well—och, what did any of this matter? Conall wanted no bride of any ilk!

“You would force this woman upon me?” Conall asked with quiet bluntness. “This…Isabeau Charpentier? She will hate me. Make my life a misery—”

“Or you will charm her as you’ve done tae many before her,” King Robert cut him off, his tone as blunt. “It’s time for you tae think of the future, a wife and family. An estate a few hours’ ride from Campbell Castle will await you upon your return, with extensive lands and a castle by the sea, and your own forces tae command. The place has only recently been cleared of its MacDougall inhabitants, but that has been my charge tae your brother and Gabriel MacLachlan and you all along. While I fight tae subdue any resistance among Scots nobles tae my rule, you will remain in Argyll tae prevent Clan MacDougall from regaining power. A straightforward and worthy task, aye?”

Conall nodded, for he could do naught but agree.

King Robert had spoken. Conall had never yearned for a great estate, but one was being offered to him and he could not refuse.

Yet wife or no, he fully intended to go on as he had before, for no woman would ever rule his heart.

Unbeknownst even to his brother, he had given his love only once and it had been hurled back in his face. Never again would he suffer such humiliation, such pain. Never.

“Do you accept my plan for you, Conall?”

“Aye.”

“Good, then we’ve reached an understanding. Abduct her, wed her, and bed her before you return tae introduce me tae your new bride. I’ve full confidence that you’ll use every amorous weapon in your arsenal tae accomplish your mission—and my revenge against the MacCullochs will have finally begun. You’ll find your bride lodged at a convent just outside Dumfries until the wedding on Sunday. It’s tae be a grand affair, or so my spies tell me. I’d give anything tae see the look on Euan MacCulloch’s face when he discovers the beauteous Isabeau has been snatched away from him.”

“Beauteous, my lord king?”

“Aye, as lissome and lovely as they come, if that’s any consolation tae you. Dark hair, dark eyes, skin like alabaster…” Now King Robert’s expression held a flicker of amusement as he gave a short laugh. “You’re incorrigible, Campbell, the perfect man for the task. I almost pity the lass—och, enough. Will you join me for supper? The morning and a long ride south will arrive before you know it.”

The king brushed past him as if not expecting an answer. Conall could but turn and stride after him from the antechamber into the great hall crowded with courtiers, warriors, and sundry others as servants rushed between tables filling ale cups.

Ale. Just what he needed. He planned to drink a barrel of it.

Anything to dull the realization that his life would never be the same in a few days’ time.

A bride. A French bride. Would she even speak Gaelic? Probably so, if she had been pledged to a Scotsman.

“A dozen of my men, as well as those that rode here with you, will accompany you as close tae Dumfries as it’s safe for them tae travel,” King Robert said over his shoulder as he climbed the steps to the dais, gesturing for Conall to accompany him. “Since Edward regained the town last year, it’s overrun with Scots loyal tae England. One day I vow Dumfries will fall again tae my forces—but for now you’ll be on your own while looking for your bride.”

“On my own…” Conall said under his breath, taking the empty seat beside King Robert at the long trestle table where his closest advisors already sat.

“Aye. It’s better that way. You’ll draw less attention tae yourself. No one will suspect such an audacious act, but a disguise of some sort is probably in order. Mayhap a friar—och, but then you’d have tae trim that midnight hair.”

Conall sighed heavily, more eager than ever to drain his first cup of ale as the king snorted out a laugh.

“Your good humor seems tae have fled, Conall—och, I dinna blame you. It’s a dangerous mission and you might not survive it…though something tells me that you will. Ah, yes, a priest will also accompany you, Father Titus, and wait for you with the others. He’ll perform the wedding when you meet up with them again. Find a church so you can record the marriage, but dinna delay the ceremony even if she fights you.”

“God help me,” Conall muttered, that prospect as unappetizing as the platters of roasted meat being placed before them.

He didn’t want food, just strong drink and lots of it. A buxom serving maid with dark brown curls hastened to fill his cup, her creamy breasts nearly spilling from her bodice as she bent low before him.

“Is there anything else I can do for you?” she queried with a saucy smile, though King Robert waved her away before Conall could answer.

“Dinna you ever tire of it, man? Women swarming around you like flies tae honey? You didna say even a word tae her and she was ready tae jump onto your lap!”

Conall shrugged, for even the lasses seemed to hold no interest for him tonight. He found himself thinking about the one that had spurned him four years ago with her honey-gold hair and flashing green eyes, which only made him clasp his cup tightly and drain the ale with one long swallow.

He had sworn to himself never to think of Lorna, for she had wed a brawny blacksmith only days after telling him that the last thing she wanted was to marry a warrior.

“You’ll only die in battle one day—and then where will that leave me? Alone and probably with a mewling babe at my breast and another wee bairn at my feet, and no coin for food or even a roof over our head.”

Och, he had been only eighteen, and certain that he had found the love of his life, only for her to say that she had enjoyed their time together, aye, especially their lovemaking, but she was done with him. Cameron had been gone on a campaign with their overlord, Earl Seoras, the entire two months Conall had wooed her, and he had never once mentioned her after his brother returned—though Cameron had queried him in vain about his sullen demeanor.

Love of his life? Conall laughed wryly under his breath, though he could not deny that the pain of her betrayal lingered still no matter the beds he had shared since.

Outwardly, he was all lighthearted teasing, kisses, and caresses with the lasses, deceiving his brother and all others around him—aye, better that than to reveal he had been such a fool when it came to love. Another serving maid ventured near, her light-colored hair glistening like gold in the torchlight…like honey…and this time he smiled back at her when she bent over to refill his cup.

A warm, engaging smile he’d used so many times that always seemed to bring a heated blush to fair cheeks and a returned smile that showed an eager willingness for whatever else he might have in mind.

“Och, Campbell, I’ve never seen the like,” King Robert mused as his own cup was refilled. “I canna imagine being born as handsome and strapping a man as you—but I’ve done well for myself all the same, aye?”

Conall nodded in deference, sensing a deep loneliness in the middle-aged man seated beside him for a beloved and much younger wife that had been taken prisoner last year by the English, and whom he had no idea if he would ever see again.

Aye, if King Robert wanted revenge against the Scots enemies who sided with England against their own kind, Conall would oblige him with no further objections. No more outbursts. No drowning his dismay in ale or in the arms of a willing woman, though the idea of taking a wife still chafed him.

His loyalty to his king and a free and independent Scotland mattered above all else.

“A friar, my lord king?” Conall queried, forcing a smile and hoping to draw King Robert from the melancholy that seemed to have drifted over him no matter the raucous mood in the hall. “I was thinking mayhap a friar and a healer. They’re always needed and can gain admittance tae any household if one appears with a basket of vials and potions. Do you think your own healers might loan me some supplies tae help me pass for one of their own?”

The king lowered his cup to study him for a moment, almost looking relieved that Conall appeared to have accepted what lay in front of him, and then gave a nod.

“Quick-witted, just as I said—and as daring as they come. Aye, Campbell, whatever you need, it’s yours.”