SINS OF THE HIGHLANDER

Chapter 1


The peat fire had burned out and the ash gone gray, but Rob MacLaren didn’t feel the least bit cold. Not while his hot-blooded woman writhed under him. Their breaths mingled in the frosty air of the bedchamber. Fiona tilted her hips, welcoming him deeper, and he bit the inside of his cheek to keep from emptying himself into her.


It was too soon.


He never wanted it to end, this joining, this loss of himself in the woman he adored.


Rob raised himself up on his arms and gazed down at her. The candles had burned down to nubs but still flickered enough to cast her in soft light. He could see his wife clearly. Her strawberry nipples peaked, with cold or arousal he couldn’t be sure, but he loved looking at them just the same.


“What are ye doing, daftie man? ‘Tis too cold!” Fiona raised herself up and clung to him for warmth.


“That’s what ye get when ye marry a man on Christmas Day—a cold bridal night.” He gently pushed her back down and she sank into the feather tick.


“It doesna have to be cold.” Her skin rippled with gooseflesh. “Come back under the covers, love.”


“I canna. I need to see the lass I wed,” he said. “I want to watch ye melt for me, to see your face when ye make that wee kitten noise just afore ye come.”


“Wee kitten noise, is it?” She shook with laughter. “Have a care, husband, lest I bare my claws.”


She raked her nails across his chest and the sensation made his balls clench.


He lowered himself and kissed her, devouring her lips and chasing her tongue. He withdrew for a heartbeat for the sheer joy of sliding slowly back into her slick wetness. Then he raised himself again and reached between them to stroke her over the edge.


“Oh, Rob.” Her inner walls clenched around him and he felt the soft tremor that signaled the start of her release. “When ye do that, I don’t care a fig if it’s so cold I catch my death . . . my death . . . my death . . .”


Her voice echoed round the chamber and faded into the distant thatch overhead.


Rob jerked awake.


He wasn’t in his bridal bedchamber. He was lying on stone hard ground with a stone hard cock still primed to make love to the woman in his dream. Stars wheeled above him in a frigid sky. His band of men snored nearby.


And the fact that Fiona was dead slammed into him afresh.


He’d married her two years ago at Christmas and she’d been gone by Epiphany. Twelve days, he’d been a husband. Only twelve.


And now a night didn’t pass without his wife visiting him as some phantom, sometimes tender, sometimes terrifying. She lived in his dreams, but always he was powerless to hold her to earth.


She was so vibrant, so real by night, he suffered all the more in the waking world with the knowledge that he’d not find her there.


One of the men in the clearing let out a loud snore and mumbled in his sleep. It was hours till dawn and even more till Rob could accomplish what he intended in the coming day. But he would not seek sleep.


He couldn’t bear to lose Fiona again so soon.

***


Rob narrowed his gaze at the stone kirk across the glen. The bagpipes’ celebratory tune ended with an off-key wheeze. He and his men, concealed on the edge of the forest, had watched the bridal procession and the arrival of the groom’s party. Now he heard nothing from the kirk. The only sound was the harsh cry of a jay from the branches above him.


The ceremony must have been beginning in earnest. Rob snorted, his breath like a curl of dragon smoke in the chilly air.


“’Tis time, Hamish.”


“Whist, man, I wish ye’d reconsider.” His friend shook his head, his scruff of red beard making him look like an alarmed hedgehog. Hamish never let his beard grow beyond the stubble stage. A metal worker couldn’t chance much facial hair. Even his eyebrows were habitually singed off. “If ye go through with this, folk will say ye’re . . . that ye’re—”


“Mad? They say that already.” Rob mounted his black stallion. The beast sensed his agitation and pawed the dirt, restive and spoiling for action. “I see no other path before me. Now will ye help me or no?”


“Aye, Rob, ye’ve no need to ask, but—”


“Then get the men ready to ride. I hope to be in a wee bit of a hurry when next ye see me.” He shot his friend a mirthless grin and spurred his mount into a gallop across the glen.


It was possible the next time Hamish saw him, Rob might be in no hurry at all.


He could very well be dead.

***


The smell of incense was so cloying, Elspeth Stewart feared she might faint dead away. But a bride must stand before the altar.


She drew a shallow breath and swallowed hard. That was better. As the priest droned on, she sneaked a glance from under her lashes at the man who would be her husband.


Lachlan Drummond.


Tall and commanding in his dress plaid, he wasn’t altogether unpleasing. His face was tanned and the lines at the corners of his eyes suggested he’d squinted into countless northern suns. Those lines didn’t trouble her. They proved the laird was a man of action, not like the dainty fops who visited from the English court from time to time.


No, it was the deep grooves between his brows and the hard set of his mouth that gave her pause.


“Dinna fret yerself,” her mother had assured her when she complained that she didn’t know her betrothed well enough to even speak to him if she met him in Queen Mary’s court. “An arranged match is a safe match. Yer father has chosen the Drummond for ye and ye’ll do well to bide by his wishes.”


The queen had approved too. She’d angered so many of the nobles with her other policies, she didn’t dare gainsay two of them on something as inconsequential as the marriage of one of her ladies-in-waiting.


Inconsequential to everyone but me, Elspeth fumed.


An exchange of breeding cattle, a grant of grazing rights, a promise of fealty between their clans, that was really all that was being solemnized now. It was certainly no marriage as she’d ever imagined it.


Or Seen it. Elspeth was gifted with a bit of the Sight and never in all her prescient dreams had she seen this match on her horizon.


This loveless ceremony was as far removed from the tales of courtly devotion in her precious little book of sonnets as the distant moon.


Yet when the priest asked Lachlan Drummond to pledge his faith to her, his voice was strong, the tone pleasing. He even sent her a quick private smile.


Elspeth jerked her gaze back to her own folded hands. Her cheeks burned as if she had a fever.


She wondered if her mother was right.


“Passion,” Morag Stewart had said, “is a dish that flares hot, but then goes cold as a tomb often as not. An arranged match is like a cauldron set to simmer over a low fire. A nourishing broth heated evenly warms a body from the inside out.”


Elspeth wasn’t sure how she could do the things her mother said her husband would expect of her. Bizarrely intimate things. Of course, she’d seen horses mate, and dogs too, but she never suspected people did something as . . . primitive as the mere beasts.


And now she’d have to do it with a man she barely knew.


Silence jerked her back from her musings. The priest had asked her a question and was waiting for a reply. She blinked stupidly at him. What had he said?


Suddenly the double doors of the nave shattered. A man on a large black horse was silhouetted in the opening for a heartbeat. Then he urged the stallion into the kirk and charged up the center aisle.


“Mad Rob!” she heard someone call out.


Half the horseman’s face was painted with woad and his cobalt eyes burned as brightly blue. With his dark hair flying and the fierce expression of a berserker on his features, he certainly looked mad.


“The MacLaren,” shouted another.


Her bridegroom was silent, but a muscle worked furiously in his cheek.


Her father reached for the horse’s bridle, but the MacLaren shouted a command and the stallion reared, pawing the air. Then it lashed out with its hind hooves and everyone scrambled out of reach of the slashing kicks.


Elspeth watched in disbelief as the man drew a long claymore from the shoulder baldric strapped to his back and laid the flat of the blade across Lachlan Drummond’s chest. Riding a horse into the kirk was bad enough. Mad Rob had broken the sanctity of holy ground by drawing his weapon. All the other men had laid their swords and dirks outside the doors, which now hung drunkenly from the hinges.


Elspeth half expected the Almighty to strike the blasphemer down with thunder bolts from the altar.


“Twitch so much as an eyelash, wee Lachlan, and I’ll take yer head,” Mad Rob said as pleasantly if he’d offered Drummond a plate of warm scones.


Then he leaned down and scooped Elspeth up with his other arm and dropped her belly first across his kilted lap.


She was too astonished to be afraid. All the air fled from her lungs with a whoosh. Her head and arms dangled on one side of the restive stallion and her legs kicked on the other. She couldn’t rail at the man since she was busy fighting for breath, but she struggled to free herself from such an undignified position.


“Hold still, lass, lest my hand slips and I lop off a bit of your groom.”


Now fear sliced into her. She froze and looked at Lachlan. The madman’s blade had slid up to his chin. Her bridegroom hadn’t taken his black-eyed gaze from Mad Rob’s face.


“I’ll be going now, Drummond,” Rob said in the same reasonable tone a man might use to discuss cattle or the weather. “If ye’ve the stones for a fight, ye may collect yer bride at Caisteal-Dubh. But dinna show your face till month’s end. Come for her sooner or try to follow us now, and I might have to kill her.”


Elspeth couldn’t look up at her captor’s face, but she heard a wicked smile in his voice.


Kill her reverberated in her mind.


And all she’d thought to lose when she woke this day was her maidenhead.


The madman wheeled the stallion around and Elspeth hooked an elbow around his knee lest she fall as the kirk and the people in it ran together in a blur of colors. Her mother keened like a banshee over the din of shouts. The stallion clattered back down the aisle and shot out into the crisp November air, making a beeline for the distant forest.


With every jarring stride, Elspeth’s ribs took a pounding. Then she felt both the MacLaren’s hands at her waist. He lifted her without slowing the stallion one jot, controlling the beast with his knees and will alone.


“Can ye ride astride?” he shouted.


“Aye.” She threw one leg over the horse’s neck and settled herself before him, matching his rocking movement to keep her seat. She dug her fingers into the horse’s mane. Trying to leap off at this speed would mean a broken neck. There’d be another chance to escape later.


For she must escape. A month, even a night, with this madman would mean ruin.


Lachlan Drummond would surely come for her. He’d be obliged to, according to the contract between him and the house of Stewart. And her father and his men with him.


She twisted and glanced under MacLaren’s arm. Men were milling before the church, not giving pursuit, clearly taking Mad Rob’s threat to kill her seriously.


Once they reached the trees, a shout went up behind them. Rob pulled the stallion to a stop. Elspeth gasped a shuddering breath as his arm around her waist tightened. They turned to see her bridegroom and her father mounting up to follow.


“Apparently, they hold your life less precious than your honor, lass,” the MacLaren muttered. “Hamish! Tell the lads to lay the trails. Now ride.”


A half dozen other horsemen appeared from their places of concealment in the trees. They circled the small clearing, obliterating any particular tracks, and then they all hied off in different directions, Mad Rob, Elspeth and his black stallion included.


They rode wildly over hill and down dale, zig-zagging through copses of spindly trees. The MacLaren’s horse was hill-bred. Not as showy as the palfrey Elspeth had ridden to her wedding, but hardy and deep-chested and willing to run till it dropped if the man on its back demanded.


Shouts of discovery rose behind them. The men in pursuit must have split up and someone followed their trail. Elspeth’s heart nearly burst from her chest with hope.


“Hi-up!” Mad Rob bellowed at the stallion, and it leaped into a burst of speed as if being chased by a thousand demons, but feared the man on its back even more.


The MacLaren leaned forward. Elspeth bent over the horse’s neck, Mad Rob’s hot breath searing her nape, and held on for her life. They dodged trees, leaped over fallen trunks and splashed through a burn in full spate. The world ripped by her in a green blur.


Her pearl-studded snood peeled off as the wind whipped past them. Her long brown hair uncoiled and fluttered behind her. She hoped it was flying in the MacLaren’s face, but a quick glance back showed it waving over his shoulder like a banner.


When they reached a rise, Mad Rob paused long enough to look back. A dozen horsemen were in pursuit.


“Drummond is a better tracker than I credited him,” he muttered.


Elspeth squinted at their followers but didn’t see her father’s dun mare in the pack.


“Your horse carries two,” she said. “Surrender and I’ll convince them to spare you.”


“Drummond wouldna know mercy if it bit him on the arse.”


“Ye’ll never outrun them.”


“Then we’ll go to ground.”


An angry swarm of crossbow bolts buzzed around them. Mad Rob whipped the stallion’s head around, and they plunged down the far side of the hill.


When they reached the bottom, he reined the horse to a slow trot along the base of the hillside.


Elspeth tried to wiggle free as soon as they slowed their pace.


“Hold still,” he snarled. “Dinna try me, wench. I’ve nothing to lose.”


She settled then, taking hope from shouts of the men following them. Their voices echoed from one rise to the next. The horses’ hoof beats on the far side of the hill sounded like approaching thunder.


Mad Rob seemed not to hear them. He just kept scanning the craggy slope. Then he turned the stallion’s head back up the incline, making for an outcropping of dark granite. “They’re almost upon us!” Elspeth shouted. “Surrender and live.”


He didn’t slow his determined flight toward the rocks. Then when they almost dashed into them, Rob brought the stallion up so short it nearly sat down on its haunches.


“Get ye behind the rock.” He nearly threw her off the horse and leaped down behind her. He pushed her between a pair of cottage-sized boulders, leading the stallion behind him. “To the right.”


There was a yawning hole in the hillside, a cave whose entrance was hidden by the rocks. Elspeth staggered into the darkness as the MacLaren and his mount followed. The ground was uneven beneath her feet as she left daylight behind.


The cave was cool and dark and ripe with must. She extended her hands before her lest she walk into a wall.


“How did ye know—”


Mad Rob clamped a hand over her mouth and pulled her back against his chest. “Not a word if ye wish to keep breathing.” His whisper tickled her ear.


She stood perfectly still, inhaling the scent of leather from his gloved hand. All she heard was his soft breathing. The stallion’s tack creaked as the horse shifted its weight. Then in the distance, she made out the tattoo of hoof beats and muffled shouts as the men who were pursuing them overran their hiding place.


Then those sounds faded and all she could hear was the pounding of her own blood coursing through her veins. The heartbeat of the man standing behind her thudded against her spine. He relaxed his hold and removed his hand from her mouth.


She turned to face him and shouted out: “I’m here! Hel—”


His mouth descended upon hers and swallowed up her cry.


She’d been kissed sweetly before, stylized expressions of courtship during some of the dances favored by Queen Mary’s court.


This kiss bore no resemblance to those. This was a ravishment, a demanding plunder of her mouth.


He stole her breath, but she was so surprised by the sudden invasion, she didn’t think to pull away. She froze like a coney confronted by a fox.


He filled her with breath from his own body, warming her to her toes.


I should be revolted. I should be screaming to get away.


But then his mouth went suddenly soft and beguiling on hers. Elspeth had never imagined the like.


How strange, this shared breath, this mingling of souls.


Without conscious thought, her fingers curled around his collar. She received a flash of Sight. Not exactly a vision. More like a deep Knowing.


Rob MacLaren had a hole in his heart, a void nothing could fill.


He no longer seemed mad to her. Just empty. Her chest constricted in empathy.


An image forced itself into Elspeth’s consciousness, creeping in softly but with determination. The willowy form of a woman with long coppery hair took shape in her mind, distant and hazy. Elspeth couldn’t see her face. The woman turned and fled into the mist.


She sensed deep sadness in MacLaren, an ache that wouldn’t be stilled. A loss for which there was no comfort.


He’d abducted her from the altar, but she couldn’t feel anything for him but pity.


As the Sight faded, pain seared through her brain. It always did when she was touched by her gift, but it paled in comparison to the nameless hurt he bore. Elspeth reached up a tentative hand to comfort him, palming the cheek that wasn’t covered with woad.


He wrapped an arm around her waist and tugged her closer. Her lips parted. His tongue swept in. Her belly clenched and a warm glow settled between her legs.


He left her lips and began kissing her chin, her cheeks, her neck. “Ach! Ye’re sweet, lass.”


Pity dissipated like morning mist. Instead, little wisps of pleasure followed his mouth’s path. The stubble of his beard grazed the tops of her breasts, and her nipples tightened almost painfully. She sucked her breath over her teeth to keep from crying out in pleasure and surprise when his palm covered her breast, the pressure sweet even through the stiff boning of her pink silk bodice.


She’d been sickened by the thought of submitting to Lachlan Drummond’s intimate caress. Now her whole body thrummed with life. She tingled with awareness as Rob touched her.


She’d never understood how a maiden could allow herself to be ruined before. Unruly, unwelcome urges seared through her. The sensations were so unlike her, she wondered if they were somehow part of what she’d Seen from the copper-haired woman.


To her amazement, she ached to lie down beside this man. To feel his body cover hers. To give to him what Lachlan would have taken.


This was madness, but she couldn’t bring herself to end it. With each kiss, his sadness lessened and her pleasure increased. She’d never dreamed she’d experience such astonishing delight.


Only a little longer, she told herself as bliss sparked across her skin. His kiss was like a draught of heady wine. The discomfort that usually accompanied the Sight was leaving, but her head still felt fuzzy. Was it clouding her judgment?


One kiss more. Then I’ll stop.


She splayed her fingers across his chest. His muscles were like a brazen shield beneath his shirt and plaid. He growled with satisfaction. She smoothed her palms up to his shoulders and down his arms.


And encountered sticky wetness on the left side.


“You’re bleeding,” she whispered. One of the crossbow bolts must have found its mark.


He dipped his head and mumbled into the well between her breasts. “’Tis nothing.” It was enough to recall her to sanity. To serve Queen Mary, she must be either a pure maid or the wife of a nobleman. If she couldn’t remain the first, she’d never be the last. She pulled away from him.


“Truly, ’tis naught but a scratch. Come, lass.”


He folded her into his arms again and delivered a string of kisses along her jaw line.


“No!” she said with force.


When he tried to kiss her again, she delivered a ringing slap to his cheek. Reason flooded her mind again. Perhaps he was called “Mad Rob” because he could entice others to insanity.


“Now get away from me,” she ordered.


He chuckled mirthlessly. “Lass, I’ve killed dozens of men. Do ye really think ye can stop me from whatever I may decide to do with you?”


He took a step toward her, his eyes glittering fiercely in the dark.



 

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