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MacLeod land, late summer 1488
“Ye are nae me husband…”
“Maybe I want it just that way, marriage is boring…”
Daphne MacLeod kicked...
MacLeod land, late summer 1488
“Ye are nae me husband…”
“Maybe I want it just that way, marriage is boring…”
Daphne MacLeod kicked at her bedding, but the dream held her tight. Part of her was content, maybe even eager to sink down into the memory of being in Norris Sutherland’s arms.
“I want ye demanding and passionate, nae filled with duty, lass…”
She twisted again, feeling his arms around her. His strength had been impressive and arousing. Never had she imagined how much she’d enjoy being pressed against a man, beneath him or when she decided to straddle his hips and take charge of their pace. Just as long as she felt his hands holding her as though letting her go might devastate him.
“And I want ye to stop telling me what to do…”
Need and yearning filled her. It traveled along her body, teasing parts of her she hadn’t known could feel so good. The sensation was building, twisting tighter as her body neared the point where it would burst into a shower of pleasure.
Instead, she jerked out of her sleep, escaping the hold of the dream only to discover that her freedom was cold and dark. She pressed her fist against her mouth to silence her cry. The chamber was silent, and yet it felt as though Norris was in it. She could sense him, would swear she felt him close enough to reach out and touch.
But there was no need to light a candle. The wind rattled the window shutters, blowing inside through the broken glass to chill her arms. She lay back down and pulled the bedding up. Her thick comforter was a luxury, and she snuggled beneath it gratefully. But her belly growled, reminding her there had been little comfort set out at supper. The stew the cook produced had been more water than anything else, but it had needed to fill many bowls.
It was a sure bet Norris Sutherland, heir to the Earldom of Sutherland, wasn’t awake in the dark hours of the morning with an empty belly. Even his accommodations in a military camp had been grand, the bed on which he’d taken her maidenhead a comfortable one.
Ye mean the one ye joined him on as his lover…
She closed her eyes and ordered herself to sleep while she might. The summer days were long, and there was much to do. Once winter closed its icy fist around the Highlands, there would be naught to do but seek out her bed for warmth.
She certainly wouldn’t be seeking out Norris Sutherland. No. She might have enjoyed the time she spent in his bed, but she could not ever forget that she had gone there to avoid wedding a man who loved another. She must not forget, because a man such as Norris certainly did not lack for willing bed partners. She would not join the ranks of his mistresses.
Even if she did dream of the man.
Dunrobin Castle, Sutherland
“Is there anything else ye desire, me laird?”
The serving girl was pretty, and she had curves in all the places Norris liked women to have them. Her dress was open enough to allow him a generous view of her breasts.
Disappointment flashed across her face, her gaze sweeping his chest before she picked up his empty mug and placed it on her serving tray. When she turned around, he was treated to a view of her backside as she descended the four steps leading down from the high-table landing to the floor of the great hall.
Yes, definitely curves in all the right places, and she moved with a sultry motion that should have sent heat through his veins. But his cock lay slack and uninterested beneath his kilt. He reached for the fresh mug of ale the serving lass had delivered but didn’t lift it to his lips. This was becoming tiresome—exceedingly so.
He scanned the hall, catching the smiles of other lasses all watching him to see if he would summon them forward. There were dark-haired ones and blondes, even a redhead, but none of them sparked even a twitch from his cock. The thing had been useless for nearly three months.
“I’m growing worried about ye, me boy.”
There was only one man who would call him boy and not get smashed in the face for it. Norris stood as his father appeared from the archway that led to his private study that was hidden behind the raised floor at the end of the great hall. Norris had helped outfit the room to give his father a sanctuary when he needed a few moments of rest. It would never do for the Highland earl to appear fatigued in front of his clan. The chamber had become the earl’s favorite for business, but Norris did wonder if part of the appeal was being able to sneak up on his son.
Lytge Sutherland walked straight to his chair, even if he did it slowly. Norris didn’t sit until his father was settled in the huge, ornately carved chair set at the center of the high table. Even so late at night, they showed respect to each other, for there were many watching.
“Ye have naught to worry about, Father.”
Lytge reached for the mug of ale Norris had left untasted and drew off a long draught. He nodded then set it down. “Nonsense. Ye have nae been the same since returning from Sauchieburn.” His father settled against the high back of the chair. “I went to so much trouble to secure ye that royal-blooded bride. Ye allowed her to ride out of here wearing the colors of the MacNicols.”
“She was in love with Broen MacNicols…”
Lytge stroked his beard. “Ah yes. The same reason young Daphne MacLeod used to explain why she did nae wed Broen MacNicols as her father arranged. Ye seem to have helped Broen twice in the matter: once by taking Daphne to yer bed so she could be disgraced, and again when ye allowed yer own bride to escape the consummation of yer union.”
Norris reached for the mug and took a swig. “I wondered how long it would take ye to hear of the part I played in helping Broen out of his betrothal with Daphne.”
His father grinned, as arrogant as any man half his age, but his hair was completely gray now. “I’ve known, boy. Everything ye do is important to me.”
There were men who would have bristled, but Norris returned his father’s grin. “Sometimes helping out a friend is a pleasant duty.”
His sire’s eyebrows rose. “I imagine it was a fine bit of fun to help Daphne MacLeod lose her virtue so her betrothal might be broken, but what did ye gain from it? What did you bring home to yer clan, me boy?”
Norris felt the bite of his father’s displeasure. It was there, glittering in the older man’s eyes. What made it sting was that his father wasn’t railing at him. The subtle stab was more wounding than a raised voice rich with insults, because his father was speaking to him like the future leader of the clan. A laird never forgot to weigh the benefits of any situation.
“Securing the loyalty of Laird MacNicols is worthy of note,” Norris offered.
His father nodded. “Aye, it is.”
“And Clarrisa may have been royal-blooded, but she did nae come with a dowry,” Norris finished.
“True enough. But blood has its worth. Why do ye think I keep Gahan near? He’s me bastard, and Sutherland blood is valuable. Yer bride may have cost me, but she was a York bastard, and yer offspring would have been kin to the King of England.” His father tilted his head to one side and returned to stroking his beard. “The MacLeod lass, according to Gahan, she’s a fair sight to behold.”
“A fact she despises.”
His father chuckled. “That’s her youth blinding her. Time will steal her beauty soon enough. Ye learn that by my age. Best to enjoy what ye have when ye have it. I hear ye did that well enough when the lass was in yer keeping.”
She’d been passionate too. Norris looked toward the hearth and signaled one of the serving girls forward to avoid having his father witness the flare of excitement that went through him. Daphne had blonde hair but dark eyes, which fascinated him. When he locked gazes with her, he had the sudden feeling he might lose himself in those dark orbs and be shielded from all life’s travails. He’d never been one to shirk his duty, but he would not deny how tempting it was to seek her out again and lose himself in her enchanting embrace until dawn broke the spell.
“Gahan seems to have had a great deal to tell ye,” Norris groused.
“As I said, he has his uses, and being the head of yer retainers is one of them,” Lytge stated. “But he is nae the only source of information I have. In fact, Daphne MacLeod is the subject of interest at many a table in the Highlands. The rumor is that the lass has a fortune for a dowry, one nae discovered when the MacLeod land was raided by those clans who claimed victory at Sauchieburn.”
“Who raided her lands?” Norris demanded.
“Comyn, Campbell, Lindsey. Does it matter? Her father fought on the losing side, and those who backed the young king took their pay out of the lands of those clans who did nae make so wise a choice.”
Rage heated up inside Norris. It turned white-hot before becoming a rapid boil.
“Why do ye care, Son?”
His father was astute and too keen for Norris’s mood. The serving girl delivered another mug of ale, and he lifted it to his lips. “It does nae matter.”
“A fortune for a dowry matters. I hear her father had a bastard, and the man is set to inherit the MacLeod lairdship. Being wed to his only sister would be a good alliance.” Lytge leaned forward and lowered his voice. “If there is a fortune involved, that is.”
Norris sat up, the idea immediately taking root in his head. He realized he shouldn’t, but still he couldn’t seem to squash the urge to see Daphne again. No, he wanted to let that urge loose and follow it.
“Perhaps I’ll ride out and see if it’s true.”
His father grinned. “And ye think she’ll tell ye? Do nae be thinking one night between her thighs will endear her to ye.”
His cock was hardening. His temper rose along with the organ. Still, he stood. Becoming a slave to his impulses was dangerous, but the opportunity was simply too tempting to ignore. He winked at his father. “Then maybe I’ll have to charm me way into her bed again.”
“I do nae take orders from ye.”
Daphne MacLeod had heard the same from more than one of her father’s retainers. She sweetened her expression, fighting back the urge to call the man a fool.
“I am suggesting ye recognize the logic in helping me round up the sheep before they stray too close to Comyn land. Their wool will be one of the few things we can harvest this season.”
Keith MacLeod frowned. “Better that ye should have used those honey-coated looks on Broen MacNicols. If ye had wed him, we’d nae have suffered being raided after the battle of Sauchieburn. If ye were the wife of another Highland laird, no one would have dared even to think about taking what was ours.”
“My father stood on the defeated side,” Daphne argued, dropping all hints of sweetness. “We’d have been raided, have no doubt. My actions had naught to do with that.”
“But we’d have a strong ally to protect us. One that might have made some of the smaller clans think twice before trifling with us. The MacNicols are vassals of Sutherland.”
“So are we.” Daphne lifted her head, drawing her back straight and glaring at the men standing before her. “I believe we are strong, and I will go after the sheep myself. I am not afraid, nor am I content to sit here and pity me plight. We were raided and have lost much—all the more reason to make sure we lose no more.”
She turned her back on Keith. She could feel him and his men staring at her, but she never faltered. Her cousins were still seated at the tables that filled the great hall. All three of them claimed they were the rightful heir to the MacLeod lairdship, and they were using their blood ties to her father to spend the day doing nothing of value. She passed them, but not without shooting them a hard look. They might label her many things, but they would not call her a coward.
Gitta waited where the great hall ended and the hallway began.
“Ye are nae endearing yerself to the men.”
Daphne didn’t slow her pace. “If they cannae see the need for us to work together to pull in enough of a harvest to survive the coming winter, I have no time for them. Arrogance and pride will nae fill bellies. Me brother is nae here. I am.”
Winter would close in on them too soon. Most of the seed grain had been stolen, and what fields were planted had been trampled. Some of the young plants were recovering, but time had been lost, and the yield would not be great.
“Ye should nae go riding. What if ye’re carrying?” Gitta whispered, panting from the exertion of keeping up with her.
“I am nae with child.” However, Daphne did slow her pace, and her cheeks heated with shame for making the older woman rush.
“Ye’ve nae bled,” Gitta insisted. “A Sutherland bastard would give us an alliance—a great one, if it were a son. The Sutherlands keep their blood close.” Gitta looked at Daphne’s belly, reaching out to smooth the fabric of her skirt flat.
Daphne flinched, jumping back a step. “Enough. If I am with child, it will nae be a matter to worry about for many months. Today our sheep are happily on their way off our land with their winter coats still on their backs. We need that wool to buy seed for next year. I will return soon.” She left Gitta at the tower steps and stalked toward the stable.
She couldn’t think about a possible child. Norris Sutherland was wed. The news had traveled quickly. What bothered her most was how upset she was to know he was bound to another woman. Hadn’t she suffered enough at the expense of fate? Everything she’d done had been for the right reasons. If she were shallow or greedy she’d happily have wed Broen MacNicols without a care for the fact that he was fighting with his best friend over her, or that when he discovered her still alive, the man was in love with another woman. Oh no, she would not have cared one bit how unhappy he was in their marriage. Legally, the man had been bound to wed her.
Yet she did not lament her actions to set him free of the contract her father had made with him.
Ye enjoyed the duty sure enough…
Her cheeks heated, and her pace quickened. She’d let Norris Sutherland seduce her so Broen MacNicols might renounce her and wed the woman he loved. Their night of passion had served a purpose. She had no reason to be upset over Norris Sutherland’s taking a bride. The man owed her no affection.
Keith wasn’t the only man wearing her father’s colors who resented her choices. But a child? She didn’t need the guilt of knowing she’d forced an innocent to wear the label of bastard. Even being the child of Norris Sutherland, heir to the earldom, wouldn’t save it from scorn. She smoothed her hand over her belly, searching for proof that it wasn’t rounding.
What she needed was for her courses to arrive and silence the rumors, but they had never been predictable, so there was no way of knowing if she were late or not. If she bled, it would make her happy, but she feared it would be yet another reason for her people to resent her.
At least the horses greeted her kindly. She rubbed the velvet muzzle of one and muttered softly to it.
“Shall we go and sample some of the fine summer weather?”
As if understanding, the horse tossed its head, sending its mane flouncing. No one would help her saddle the animal, but she knew the way of it. The stable master was a good friend of Keith’s and always sent his workers in the opposite direction when she appeared.
They thought she should be ashamed.
“Ye’ve a solid point about the sheep.”
Keith startled her. She jumped and muffled a curse when the horse sidestepped nervously. Keith frowned, but she reached up and took the bit, controlling the animal with a steady hand.
His disapproval softened. “Even if I think ye should have been thinking of yer clan when ye broke yer betrothal with Laird MacNicols.”
More retainers walked down the rows of stalls. Horses tossed their heads and snorted as the men began to saddle them. The stable was full of the scent of straw and leather.
“The first time I refused to wed him, I did it to prevent him fighting with Laird Chisholms. There would have been a feud.”
Keith pulled a leather strap tight before granting her a grudging nod. “I agree ye did a good thing there, even if they be the ones who should be ashamed for acting like lads no higher than me waist. We do nae need a feud, especially one started over a woman, even a laird’s daughter. I find meself liking that bit of action on yer part.”
She used the stall rail to help her mount and suffered the harsh looks of some of the men. She bit back the tart response she would have liked to make. Pointing out that she was a foot shorter than any of them would serve only to remind them she was a female trying to take on the duties of a man.
“But the way I heard it…” Keith continued as he led his stallion out of the stable, “the second time, ye defied even the young king by refusing to take yer place as Laird MacNicols’s bride.”
Daphne flattened her body across the horse’s neck to make it through the doorway of the stable and into the yard. “Which gained us Laird MacNicols’s good will. The man is in love with another woman. He’d have wed me sure enough and resented me.”
Keith mounted and reached up to adjust his knitted bonnet. He’d been her father’s head of retainers and still wore one of his three feathers upward. By tradition, he should have lowered the feather, since the new laird would be the one deciding who claimed the privilege of serving in such a high position. It was just one more detail that screamed out the lack of respect her father’s men had for her.
“The marriage contracts were agreed upon by yer father and Laird MacNicols. The man should have kept his word or at least made recompense to us, nae left it to you to disgrace yerself so he might be happy.”
“He didn’t. I made the choice.” And she refused to regret it. “Enough. I know yer position on the matter. Ye’ve told me plainly enough. Let’s get the sheep.”
Keith surprised her by grinning. He was a fair-enough-looking man when he wasn’t scowling at her. His hair was a dark sable, and his eyes a warm brown. There was a thin scar running along the right side of his cheek, but it served only to make him look capable.
“I do respect yer ability to recognize what we need to survive.”
She turned her horse toward the gate and rode through it. A smile graced her lips even as she leaned low to flow more fluidly with the motions of the animal. She rode a mare, but a young one with plenty of spirit. The animal took to the uneven ground easily as Daphne guided her toward the border of her father’s land. The wind was warm, and it tore at her blonde hair. She’d cut it off a year ago, and the strands were only a foot long now. They didn’t want to stay in the braid Gitta had woven at sunrise, but slowly worked free.
Well, it suited her, for her hair wasn’t the only part of her that didn’t want to be contained. She’d grown up with Broen MacNicols and hadn’t wanted to be his wife. The single kiss he’d pressed against her lips had left her cold.
Norris’s kiss had sent her heart racing…
She might never have known the difference—or worse, learned of it after she was wed. Maybe the Church was wrong about infidelity. Maybe those who strayed from their wedded partners were to be pitied because they’d been locked into unions with the wrong person.
Ye’re going to get locked in the stocks for thinking like that…
Well, only if she was foolish enough to voice such ideas. She raised her head and felt confidence rising inside her. Over the last year, she’d learned a thing or two about keeping her thoughts to herself.
Ye’ve also learned how to take a hand in yer own destiny…
Maybe she was meant to be alone in life. The Church also preached that women should remain humble and yield to a man’s authority. Well, she was far past yielding. She wrapped the reins around her fists and urged the horse faster. Maybe she wasn’t humble, but her father’s people needed someone to take action now.
Maybe she was exactly what she needed to be.
“Was there something unclear in me orders?” Morrell Comyn asked in a low tone. His retainers eyed him hesitantly. He slammed his fist into the table, and dishes clattered. A mug turned over, but the serving wenches were all cowering in the kitchen.
“Damn fools! Why do I suffer ye wearing me colors?” He sat back in the huge throne-like chair that had belonged to his father. The back rose a full foot above his head, so the carved stag was clearly seen. “Get out of me sight.”
The retainers tugged on the corners of their bonnets and hurried away.
“Ale!” Morrell roared. “And send it with someone pretty!”
He frowned when his second-in-command climbed the two steps to the high table with a mug for him.
“The lasses are all too afraid of young Katie to serve ye,” Ranald informed him before tugging on the corner of his bonnet.
Morrell snickered and grabbed the mug. He took a swig of the ale, wiped his mouth across the sleeve of his shirt, and pointed at the chair beside him.
“They should be. Katie is a little savage, but I like her wild ways.” He slurped his next measure of ale and belched. “I wanted that MacLeod bitch caught. Why do ye think I lured her sheep onto me land?”
Ranald sipped his own ale. “Sure ye want her when ye just said Katie is a savage?”
“Oh, she is, I assure ye of that!” Morrell answered gleefully. “But I’m her master, sure enough. Katie will warm me cock no matter what bitch I bring here as me wife. I want that dowry, and I’ll bed whom I fancy, as well. I am master here.”
“Ye and half the Highland lairds sought that treasure, but not one could find it.”
Morrell waved his hand. “No one breached the tower. It’s there for certain. Why else would the MacLeod be willing to put up with a woman running the clan? They are doing it to keep the gold in their coffers.”
“That makes sense. I hear there are three claims to the lairdship, but nothing has been settled as yet.”
“Nae yet, but soon,” Morrell grumbled. “Which is why I need to catch that bitch and make her me wife before any single man has the backing of the entire clan. It’s nae as strong as it was before Sauchieburn, but there are still more MacLeods than Comyns.”
“Well, she has her sheep,” Ranald answered. “Ye’ll need to think of another way to claim her before those MacLeod get finished fighting among themselves.”
Morrell laughed. “Ye’ve hit the nail on the head, Ranald. The MacLeod are squabbling. A bit of action, and I’ll have that dowry.”
“She’s still got a castle to take shelter inside of.”
“I know that.” Morrell shot his companion a hard look. “It’s the only reason she still has her dowry. We’re going to set another trap for her, and this time, I’m going to see to the deed meself.”
Anticipation warmed his blood. His cock thickened with need, so he stood. “But tonight, I’m taking me cock to wild Katie.”
“Go on with ye.” Daphne wiped her hair out of her eyes and tried not to let frustration get the better of her. The sheep were unruly and foul tempered. She guided her horse around the ram, who was trying to return to the Comyn land.
“They’ve got his attention for sure.” Keith helped her block the animal. “Damn them for laying out feed for him. We’ll have to pen them, or they’ll return to Comyn land.”
“I’m going to enjoy selling the fleece the Comyn fed me sheep to produce.”
Keith’s eyebrows rose, and he laughed. The other retainers looked on before relaxing their stern expressions. As the men became more accepting of her, the tension that had drawn Daphne’s shoulders tight released. She wouldn’t say they were happy, but at least they no longer sent her cutting looks. By the time they got the flock near the castle, sweat had soaked her. The summer was warm, and she envied the men their bare knees. The sun beat down on her, and her wool skirts were a torment.
But she was pleased when they herded the sheep into a makeshift holding pen for the night. The younger boys were set to hauling grass down from the hill for the penned animals. They used sickles to cut it and piled it high on lengths of MacLeod plaid.
“In a few days, they’ll learn to stay on our land,” Keith remarked.
“We can shear them while they are here too.”
The wool should have been cut a month before, but the men had marched away at their king’s command. So the summer had come and almost gone while everyone was dancing to the tune of politics. But it was over now, and time for the living to get on with preparing for winter.
Daphne smiled at the hundred or so sheep. It was not much, but it would be something. Her aching muscles didn’t seem to hurt as much when she weighed the sting against the satisfaction of knowing she had been productive.
“Let’s wash the sweat off our backs, lads!” Keith announced. The men cheered and set off for the river. It was a short ride, and several of the women doing laundry came running up the bank with smiles on their lips.
Daphne turned her horse toward the gates of the keep. Perhaps fate was ready to bestow some kindness on her at long last. But when she slid from the back of the horse and turned to look at the keep, she discovered herself facing the priest. Her happiness froze beneath the chilling look Father Peter gave her.
“I had to heat the water again because Father Peter kept ye so long,” Gitta said. She used a large iron hook to pull the kettle out of the hearth where it was being licked by flames. “He looked powerfully unhappy with ye.”
As Gitta poured the water into the waiting tub, it sizzled. Daphne worked a brush through her hair then stepped into the bath.
“Father Peter doesn’t share yer hope that I’m with child.” The water felt wonderful against her skin. “In fact, he threatened to write to the bishop and tell him of my transgressions. The good father believes I’m setting a poor example for every woman in the clan.”
As well as telling her straight that she was on a path to damnation.
Gitta made a harsh sound and lifted a cupful of water to wet Daphne’s hair. The hearth was a small one, used mostly in the wintertime, when firewood was precious. It was set into the back of one of the towers, which allowed her privacy when she bathed. The tub was made of copper with a high back so she could relax while in it. Daphne tried to, but her shoulders were knotted again. Even the hot water washing over her skin wasn’t enough to ease her.
“I can hear him saying such a thing, but there is more to this life than just the ways of the Church.”
Daphne smothered a giggle behind her hand. “Ye’re going to get us in trouble with talk such as that.”
Gitta rinsed the soap from Daphne’s hair, and went to retrieve a length of toweling. “I’m more concerned with what we’ll fill our bellies with once Samhain comes and goes. It would be a blessing if yer brother would arrive and settle the matter of who will be laird. There will be bloodshed if Saer does nae show himself soon.”
Daphne walked toward Gitta but had to reach for the toweling, because the older woman was busy looking at her belly.
“I understand why yer mother put his mother out. She was a savage from the isles and had no decency when it came to the fact that yer father was wed to yer mother. She thought to take that place for herself simply because ye were a girl babe.” Gitta shook her head. “Yer father must have done something to displease fate, else his only son would nae have been a bastard born to a woman in exile.”
Her father hadn’t had a happy life. Daphne tried not to dwell on it, but it was true. She dried herself and picked up a clean chemise. Broen would never know just how much she’d dreaded following in her parents’ footsteps. She’d have truly taken vows as a nun rather than live the way her mother had while watching Broen turn bitter as her father had.
Ye did nae mind yielding yer maidenhead to Norris Sutherland…
She yanked the brush through her hair a little too fast, and it snagged on a snarl. The last thing she needed to think about was Norris. The man was certainly not spending his time dreaming about her. He was the heir to the earldom; women spent endless hours trying to think of ways to catch his eye. Half the lairds in Scotland were trying to secure a marriage contract between him and their daughters. Her own father had done the same. But she did not have as much noble blood as some others, and the Sutherlands always wed with an eye on advancement.
Gitta helped her into a dress and began to braid her hair, when the bells at the gate began tolling.
“Where are ye going?”
Daphne didn’t stop. “I have to see who is here.”
“What if it’s trouble? Better to leave it to the men.”
“It’s me duty, Gitta.”
Even if half her clansmen didn’t agree. She hurried around the outside of the keep and into the larger tower. As the bells continued to warn them of approaching riders, women and children were rushing into the great hall to take shelter. Daphne fought her way past them to reach the doorways. The walls surrounding the yard prevented her from seeing who was approaching. The MacLeod retainers were pulling on their helmets and climbing to the top of the curtain wall.
She took a deep breath and followed them. There was more than one curse as she threaded her way through the men. Her small frame allowed her to pass them on the narrow walkway at the top of the wall.
“What in the name of Christ are ye doing up here?” Keith demanded.
“Seeing who’s approaching,” she spat back. “Like it or not, I’m the head of this family until me brother arrives.”
“Well I do nae like it, but I like it more than listening to yer cousins squabble over who has the better claim.” He pointed down into the yard. “Nae a single one of those cowards is up here.”
Keith didn’t lower his voice. Several of her father’s men looked at him and then scanned the yard. Daphne’s three male cousins were taking shelter below because there was no one to tell them to take their positions. The wind whipped at her dress, chilling her legs, but when the men standing along the ramparts looked back toward her, there was respect in their eyes. She couldn’t take time to enjoy knowing she’d impressed them. The curtain wall was topped with a facade to shield the men defending the keep from attack. She leaned around one to see the approaching riders.
Her belly knotted. Twin columns of riders were heading straight toward them. The lowered gate didn’t seem to worry them at all. Their pace was even and their number impressive. There were sixty of them, and every one rode a full stallion.
“They’re flying the standard of the Sutherlands,” Keith announced.
“It cannae be.” Daphne reached for the spyglass Keith held. He gave it to her, and she held it up to her eye. Once her vision adjusted, she aimed it toward the lead rider and the pennant he was holding: the rampant lions, denoting the nobility of the man riding with them.
“It is,” Keith assured her. “At least that is good news.”
“Until ye consider we’ll be expected to feed them,” Daphne muttered, dreading having to tell Norris how little they had. Her pride was suffering under the weight of the knowledge, but there was no help for it. He was their overlord. She could not refuse him entrance or shelter within the castle for the night.
The riders had made their way to the gate, and the man leading them held up one leather-gauntlet-clad hand. The horses were pulled to a stop, but the stallions pranced in spite of the tight hold their riders had on them. Full stallions didn’t stand still easily.
Norris Sutherland wore a leather doublet with studs worked into it for protection. He looked like a Highlander sure enough, just as ready to defend himself as any man riding behind him. The setting sun illuminated the red in his blond hair, making him look as though he were some sort of fire god from the Highlands’ pagan past. He raised his head and found her, his eyes narrowing.
“Lift the gate.” His voice rang out clear and full of authority. But Keith delayed giving the order until she nodded. Her insides were quivering, and she bit her lower lip to try and distract herself from her emotions.
He is nae here for ye… Why would he be?
She hurried down the stairs as the gate groaned and began to be lifted up by the huge gears used to wind the chains. Someone pounded on the doors of the keep, and they opened to allow the women and children out. They hurried to claim a good spot to watch the arrival of their overlord.
She drew in a stiff breath and forced herself to stand still. She’d made her choice and had known she’d have to live with the consequences of her actions.
Norris didn’t wait for the gate to rise completely. He leaned down across the neck of his stallion and rode into the yard the moment there was enough room. His men followed, their kilts flapping in the evening light.
“Are ye insane, woman?”
He was off his horse and standing in front of her in a flash. Somehow, her dreams hadn’t recalled to her just how large a man he was. The top of her head came only to his shoulder, and he was easily twice her weight. There wasn’t a hint of fat on him. His thighs were lean and cut with corded muscle, as were his forearms where he’d rolled up his sleeves.
“I asked ye a question, Daphne MacLeod.”
“It sounded more like a demand.” The women behind her gasped. Her belly did a little flip, but the words were spoken, so she lifted her chin and locked gazes with him. Father Peter could add being disrespectful to her overlord to the list of her sins.
She’d forgotten how intense his green eyes were too…
He frowned at her but scanned the men still up on the walls. “Who allowed a female onto the walls when ye had riders bearing down on ye?”
“No one allowed me,” Daphne informed him. “I went up myself, since there is no one else here to see to this clan.”
“So ye are insane.” Norris delivered his opinion in a hard tone. He hooked her upper arm with one hand and swept her toward the keep. The people standing on the steps scrambled to clear a path for them.
They were inside the great hall and inside the chamber her father had used for meetings with his captains before she shook off her shock. The weapons and armor that hung on the walls seemed to suit her mood.
And Norris’s, too, by the look of fury on his face.
“Enough, Norris Sutherland…” she sputtered softly, his name feeling foreign on her tongue. “I am not insane but seeing to the things that need doing until me brother arrives.”
“Ye do nae belong on the wall, woman. An archer could take ye out in a heartbeat, since ye have nae been trained to protect yerself and ye had no protective clothing covering yer chest and neck.”
“Well, that would please more than a few.”
Her comment surprised him. For just a moment he stopped glowering at her, and she had a glimpse of the playful nature she had a dim memory of. It was fleeting, though, and he crossed his arms over his chest. His gaze was keen, and he swept her from head to toe. His leather doublet had dust on it from the road, but his chin was free of whiskers. On his head was a knitted bonnet, just like his men wore, only the three feathers adorning its side all pointed up. He was every bit the laird, even if his father still lived. As far as the Sutherlands went, they were solidly united. Norris had the authority to do whatever he pleased, but at the same time, all knew he was a loyal son.
She lowered her eyelashes for a moment, unwilling to let him see the hunger in her eyes. “What do ye want, Norris Sutherland? If ye are seeking shelter for the night, we’ve pitiful little to offer ye. I can barely feed me own kin.”
“Is that why ye are so thin?” he asked with too much knowledge for her pride. She could see him tracing her exposed cheekbones. It irritated her because she didn’t need everyone in the Highlands to know their plight. They’d bear the burden, and it would pass into memory soon enough.
“We’re well enough.”
“How much did they take?” he demanded softly.
“All they could,” she admitted. “We’ll survive. But as I said, we have little to offer yer men for supper.”
Norris Sutherland was an important man, and the huge retainer who stepped out of the doorway was no doubt charged with his safety. She recalled him, and he nodded to her and then aimed his attention at his laird. Gahan was Norris’s half brother, born to his father’s mistress. He was Norris’s opposite, with dark hair and black eyes.
“Select one of the rams and set it to roasting,” Norris instructed.
Gahan tugged on the corner of his bonnet before leaving.
“Ye’ll be compensated for the animal,” Norris informed her.
“We do nae need—”
“Yes ye do,” he interrupted her. “The crops are not going to yield ye much this season. Why are the sheep penned?”
“Because me neighbor lured them away and set out feed to keep them on his land.” She hated how weak her reply sounded. “But I retrieved them, so there is naught to worry about. Tomorrow they will be sheared, and we’ll begin rebuilding. There is naught for ye to concern yerself with. Ye can be on yer way in the morning.”
His lips rose, something glittering in his eyes. “Why, lass, I’ve only just arrived. What is yer reason to send me on me way at first light? It’s been so long since I saw ye last.”
“It has been mere weeks.”
Triumph gleamed in his eyes. “’Tis nice to know ye are counting the days we are separated.”
“I’d be a fool to do so. Besides, I heard ye wed.”
He stepped closer, crowding her. She shivered and lost her nerve, stepping aside rather than allowing him to loom over her. “The terrible truth of the matter is that me fair bride, Clarrisa, decided to do very much the same as ye did and lie with another man rather than consummate her vows. She’s wed to Broen MacNicols now.”
She smiled, emotion taking control of her in a flash of white-hot happiness. But horror followed it, and she shook her head, trying to master her impulses.
“Just how did yer bride elude ye in yer own castle?” she inquired suspiciously.
Norris grinned, cocky and full of confidence. “I may have had a hand in making sure Broen could interrupt us. Be sporting enough to admit that was right kind of me, considering they were in love.”
It had been, and for a moment, Daphne found herself liking Norris Sutherland a great deal more than she’d ever anticipated. The man could be compassionate.
“Well, it matters naught. Yer father will likely be well on his way to selecting another bride for ye, and I do nae need any rumors linking us.”
“I rather enjoy the memory of the facts linking us.” His voice had dipped low and deep, just as it had the night they…
“Ye should nae voice such things,” she sputtered.
He was amused by her, his eyes twinkling with pleasure. “And why nae? Ye enjoyed making those memories—a great deal.” Now there was a hint of pride in his tone.
Daphne fought the urge to shiver. Emotion wanted to wash away her sense and leave her helpless in front of him.
“Enough, Norris. The priest is already threatening to write to the bishop about me transgressions.” She bit her lip, stunned by how easily she was sharing personal information with him. “I have enough to worry about.”
“I see…” he muttered in a tone she recalled instantly from their more intimate moments. “Ye mean the man is threatening to write about our transgressions, do ye nae, lass?”
“No,” she snapped and sidestepped once more to avoid him. “Father Peter would never accuse ye.”
He paused for a moment, his expression turning pensive. “In that case, the man is a hypocrite. I recall being deeply involved in your transgressions. In fact, I’m very tempted to add to the list. If the man is going to carry tales to his superior, I believe we should make sure he has something unique to report. I know a few positions he’s likely never heard of.”
Her eyes widened. “Ye’re going to end up locked in the stocks for saying things such as that.”
Norris grinned, flashing his teeth at her. He shook his head, irritating her. She couldn’t seem to shake the urge to argue with him. She stepped forward and pointed her finger at his wide chest.
“Don’t think being the son of an earl will save you. The Church will no doubt double their efforts to make ye repent, so ye set a good example. Mind yer words, and do nae be grinning at me like that.”
“I’m grinning because I assure ye, lass, if I get locked in the stocks for impious behavior, it will be for me actions, not just me words. Which means I would nae be alone.” He caught her up against him in a motion that was almost too fast to see. One moment she was pointing at him, and the next moment his arms bound her against him. She had only a moment to inhale the warm scent of his skin and notice just how solid his body was before his mouth claimed hers.
His kiss was demanding. His lips pressed hers apart while he cupped her nape and angled her face upward for the assault. She struggled against him, trying to push him away, but he held her prisoner. It was a desperate attempt to maintain her sanity. A moment later, her discipline crumbled beneath the teasing motions of his lips. He wanted her mouth to open, and she had lost the will to deny him. What was worse was the fact that she wanted his kiss, needed it to be harder. She curled her hands into his doublet, holding him close as she kissed him back.
The kiss changed instantly. He became more demanding, and it fanned the flames smoldering inside her. Passion leapt to life between them, as though they hadn’t parted for weeks. It twisted and bit into her, potent as a drug. But she wasn’t its only victim. Norris growled softly, the savage sound one she recalled from the darkest hours of the night they’d spent together. He trailed his lips along her jawline and onto her neck, where he bit her gently. She shivered, the reaction instant and uncontrollable. His grip held her in place as he raised his head and locked stares with her. For a moment, he let her see what the darkness had prevented her from gazing upon the night they shared his bed. Hunger glittered in his green eyes, making them glow. She was mesmerized by the sight, because it echoed her own longings so closely.
“Since ye kissed me back so passionately, ye’ll be in the stocks beside me.”
His words were bold. She tried to shove him away and would have bitten the beast if he hadn’t released her. Her skirt got caught beneath her feet, and she stumbled farther away.
“Ye insufferable marauder.”
He tipped his head back and roared with amusement. Her temper sizzled, turning her cheeks scarlet.
“Take yer demands somewhere else, Norris Sutherland, for I do nae care whose son ye be or what title ye’re set to inherit.”
He smirked at her, but it was a very personal expression, one that reminded her he knew her… intimately.
“Since yer father is dead and yer brother has yet to arrive, ye’ll face me demands, Daphne MacLeod, as a vassal should. I’m here to see what condition yer land is in.” He closed the gap between them, gripping a handful of her skirt to keep her near so his last words could be shared only between them. “But if ye’d like me to run ye to ground, I will be happy to do so. So turn yer back on me, lass… I dare ye.”
Insufferable brute. Dare her?
How could he suggest such a thing?
Daphne stormed into the storeroom and picked up a mortar. She used her frustration to grind the peppercorns into a fine dust. The grains tickled her nose, but she didn’t take any pleasure in the scent of the costly spice.
Damn Norris for that, as well. She had precious few luxuries for her table. The man didn’t need to irritate her so much she failed to enjoy the ones she had.
Gitta spoke softly. “It would help if ye softened yer heart.” Daphne turned on her with a whirl of her skirts but froze at the look on her old nurse’s face. There was the unmistakable sheen of desperation there.
“He’s sought ye out, lass. Think before ye toss what fate offers ye out the window.”
“To what end, Gitta? Father Peter is already threatening me with Church authority.”
Her old nurse shook her head and grinned. “Ye are his vassal. ’Tis a tradition, which goes back to before the Church meddled so much in the doings of everyday life. Go to his bed, and yer child will bring us good fortune. Father Peter will baptize it sure enough, with the heir to the Earldom of Sutherland swearing it is his babe.”
Gitta took the mortar from her and sniffed. “This will help light a fire in yer blood. I’ll help the cook make ye a fine rabbit pie to share with his lairdship.”
“I doubt he is accustomed to eating something so common as rabbit.”
Gitta raised a hopeful look toward her. “Ye’re right. I’ll have one of the ducks brought in.”
“Ye will nae,” Daphne protested. “We need their eggs more than their meat, and we need every last one of them so there will be additions to the flock next year.”
“But we must set a good supper for yer courtship. If Norris Sutherland is yer protector, he’ll ensure we all have more than enough. I hear the tables groan under the weight of the plenty set upon them on Sutherland land.”
“We can nae trust in gossip. Everyone likes to tell tales of how easy life is elsewhere.”
Gitta offered her a blunt look. “It is certainly nae so grim as it is here, and the labor ye’d have to shoulder as a leman would be pleasurable. Stop talking like a bride of Christ. I never raised ye to detest the very flesh ye are made of. I saw the blush staining yer cheeks after he greeted ye.”
Daphne had to resist the urge to rub her face. Gitta’s gaze was too knowing for her comfort.
“Ye raised me to be respectful to the Church.”
Yet she’d already fallen from grace when it came to Norris…
Something rippled down her spine that she refused to allow herself to acknowledge. She wouldn’t admit he made her quiver. “Ye’re a fine cook. He’ll sing yer praises, no doubt.”
She choked back the rest of what she wanted to say, because it was surly, and she had enough sins to answer for.
Like lusting after Norris Sutherland…
“Ye must be getting old.”
Norris eyed Gahan, and his captain chuckled at his sour humor. The remains of the duck sat in front of Norris, the scent of rosemary and pepper lingering. Daphne MacLeod had never joined him at the high table for the evening meal.
“The fair lass did nae show a single one of those blond hairs tonight…” Gahan continued as he sat down and tore off a piece of remaining meat. “Ye must be getting old and ugly to prompt her to choose an empty belly over sharing supper with ye.”
“Is that a fact?” Norris growled, balling his hand into a fist.
Gahan only smirked at his threat before popping the meat into his mouth and humming with enjoyment. He smacked his lips and pointed at Norris. “Well now, I suppose it could be on account that ye failed to impress her when she was in yer bed, but I did nae want to be overly harsh when I’m merely speculating.”
“That would be a mistake,” Norris retorted as he stood. He leaned over to make sure only Gahan heard him. “She was very well pleased, more than once.”
“And still she is nae here when we’ve ridden so far to see her.”
“Ye’re an arse,” Norris snarled.
“Aye, but nae a blind one.”
Norris straightened. “Possibly a dead one before dawn if ye do nae cease to badger me.”
Gahan considered him for a moment then reached for another piece of the duck. He drew a bone slowly from his lips once he’d sucked the tender meat from it. “If ye’re staying here, do nae expect me to shine yer ego by ignoring the reason behind yer grumbling… Laird.”
Norris stared at the look in his captain’s eyes and left. Gahan was bold, but it was the very same quality that made him such an indispensable man. When Gahan told him something, it was the truth. The man had no use for ego polishing, and he was making a point by needling him.
He had come to see Daphne, and that was exactly what he was going to do.
Her chamber was freezing.
Daphne snorted and rubbed her hands together, reminding herself this was nothing to the misery they’d feel in a few months when winter arrived. Better to keep herself from being dramatic; reality would be harsh enough.
Someone knocked on the door.
She turned around and felt her belly twist when Norris appeared in the doorway.
“No… ye stay out.” She covered her mouth but not quickly enough, because her voice was high and squeaky, betraying her turbulent emotions.
“If ye are going to hide, the least I might do is chase ye to make it worth yer time.” The door shut behind him with a soft thud.
“What audacity,” she accused. “I did nae invite ye to me chamber, ye rogue. Ye knew me reasons for allowing ye… intimacies with me.”
“Ah, but I am more interested in learning why ye refused to share such a fine meal with me when I know ye will nae sup upon anything so grand again for a long time.”
He took several more steps inside her chamber and planted his feet solidly. There was something in his eyes that looked like determination. Of course it was; the man was accustomed to getting everything he desired. Norris Sutherland was every inch a Highlander, from the bonnet on his head with its three feathers pointing upward to proclaim his rank to the edge of his pleated kilt where it brushed the tops of his knees. He looked at her like he meant to have her.
So dramatic again… he can have any lass he wishes. Do nae be vain.
“Ye have no right to be cross, Laird Sutherland. Ye have been afforded the best we have.”
His eyes narrowed. “I disagree, lass. Ye are the jewel in this keep.”
She’d been complimented before, but a blush stung her cheeks. She rubbed at the heat, trying to rid herself of the odd reaction. “This beauty is a curse. It has brought naught but discontentment to everyone who admires it.”
He moved closer, and she found herself mesmerized by his approach. She’d dreamed about him so often, it was like having her fantasy right before her. He reached out and stroked the scarlet surface of one cheek.
“’Tis men who are cursed with the nature to want to own ye like some bit of finery.”
For a moment, she was captivated. There was nothing wrong with his presence in her chamber or in the way his gaze settled upon her lips. The tender skin tingled, anticipating his kiss.
Gitta’s words rose from her memory and collided with the harsh ones from Father Peter.
She scooted back, her long smock fluttering and allowing the cold night air up her bare legs. “Enough, Norris. ’Twas me serving woman Gitta who prepared the duck for ye. She hoped I’d try to lure ye into me bed so I might have yer bastard and make ye responsible for our well-being.”
He crossed his arms over his chest, clearly displeased. “Ye need a new waiting woman.”
“Nae. ’Tis my fault she is so desperate. I am the one who refused the match me father made. So I’ll be the one thinking of a way to make sure everyone is fed.” She drew in a deep breath, trying to restore her confidence. “Now go. There will be no more kissing, because I do nae prostitute meself.”
“Ye did nae mind the chore of losing yer maidenhead to me. In fact, I recall yer being very eager for our union.”
Her jaw dropped open, shock striking her mute for a long moment. Flashes of memory from the night they shared went through her mind like lightning.
“Ye’re too bold with yer tongue,” she muttered crossly.
He grinned at her. “So yer sweet cries told me, but ’tis a skill I would gladly practice upon ye.”
“Is it?” he demanded, his voice losing its teasing note. “Or is it time for me to toss ye into yer bed, since ye have so cleverly greeted me in a chemise thin enough to let me see the little pebbles of yer nipples?”
She crossed her arms over her chest in response. “I was seeking the warmth of me bed when ye arrived. I did nae send for ye.”
“Did nae ye, lass?” He moved closer, crowding her. “Ye climbed the walls to assume the duty of leading this clan, but ye do nae break bread with me? Maybe ye’re daring me to try my hand at catching ye.”
Her anger froze, and it chilled every other emotion coursing so freely through her body.
“Ye are no different than any of the others.” Her voice was low and hard now. “All ye see is what ye can possess because it is yer right.”
She grasped her chemise and drew the garment up her body and over her head. She didn’t care that the air was chilly; it suited the moment.
“Ye are me overlord, so ’tis yer right sure enough.” She lay down on her bed and turned her face toward the wall. Tears pricked her eyes and slid down her cheeks. Time seemed to stand still, the space between each heartbeat long while she waited for him to touch her. She was a fool to allow him to bruise her feelings, and yet she could not seem to stop the hurt.
“I deserved that scorn in yer tone, Daphne.”
As he sat down next to her, the bed shook slightly. He cupped her chin and drew her face back toward him.
“Aye, deserved it well and truly, for I’m acting like a brute,” he continued.
He smoothed his fingers over her cheek, sending little ripples of delight through her. She jerked her head away, unwilling to enjoy such tenderness when he was being so arrogant.
“If ye want to make demands of me, do so, but do it quickly, for I am cold, Laird. Do nae waste yer breath on gentling me. I am already submissive.”
It would be simple for him to take her, but disappointment tore at her. Her memories of their night together were all pleasant, yet he was shattering her illusions of who he was.
He reached into the front of his open doublet and pulled out a small round of bread. With her belly empty, she smelled it instantly, and her mouth began to water. Her belly rumbled low and loudly, shaming her with just how little they had.
He placed the bread on the bed beside her and then stood. His gaze traveled along her length, inspecting her. He tugged the coverlet over her. Satisfaction filled his eyes for a moment; then he turned and left the chamber.
She shuddered, her body shaking as she rose and sat on her knees. When she reached for the bread, her hands trembled. Her belly rumbled, but she merely held it for a long moment, savoring the feel of it.
Father Peter was correct; she was damned.
“A fascinating look into a part of history we don’t usually see represented in fiction, this book will captivate any lover of historical fiction.” - Carabosse’s Li...
“A fascinating look into a part of history we don’t usually see represented in fiction, this book will captivate any lover of historical fiction.” - Carabosse’s Library
“Oh how I loved this book. When an author and the story can get my emotions flowing, and I go from happy, to sad to angry ( where I wish I was part of the book and want to murder the evil wench), I know it's a winner.” - Under the Covers
“I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a good sizzling Highland romance.” - Swept Away By Romance
“Oh my this was a delicious story. I could not put this book down and devoured it in less than twenty four hours.” - Yankee Romance Reviews
“A sexy romance and a thrilling story make this a must read! TOP PICK” - The Romance Reviews
“I loved this book. The chemistry between Daphne and Norris was perfect.” - Books Like Breathing
“Out of this world... I couldn’t put it down.” - Romancing the Book
“Wine’s crisp writing, intricate plot, and deep insights into clan politics make this a fun and satisfying read, even for those who aren’t Highlander fans” - Booklist
“Wine’s understanding of the Highlands is fantastic, and she skillfully shares this with readers through her well-developed characters, their dialogue and the descriptions that also propel the story. 4 Stars” - RT Book Reviews
“Wine delivers a steamy fourth installment of her historical Highlander sheet-sizzlers.” - Publishers Weekly
Length: 6.875 in
Width: 4.1875 in
Weight: 5.60 oz
Page Count: 320 pages