My Daring Highlander Excerpt
Assynt, Scotland, May 1619
Something in the early morn air didn’t feel right.
Keegan MacKay rode at the front of the MacKay party of just over two dozen, his gaze scanning the surrounding misty green hills and gray granite mountains. As head guard of the MacKay clan, Keegan took his duty seriously. He was to spy danger before it presented itself.
Had his outlaw cousin, Haldane, returned to kill Chief Dirk and claim the chiefdom for himself? This wouldn’t be his first attempt. Although Dirk’s youngest brother was but twenty summers, he was a formidable foe and slippery as an eel when it came to capture. Haldane and his band of outlaws had escaped Dunnakeil’s dungeon last November. Then, they’d vanished.
No doubt they would come out of hiding again soon.
Wanting to travel as far south as possible before sunset, they’d left Munrick Castle and the MacLeods at daybreak. Though more than two hours had passed, the sun had not yet burned off the thick gray mist rising from the nearby loch.
Their journey had two purposes—Dirk’s wife, Lady Isobel, wished to travel to Dornie for a visit with her brothers, and Keegan was in charge of taking Lady Seona Murray back to her home near Inverness. A task he dreaded for he’d grown attached to her.
A prickle of warning passed over Keegan. Was there danger behind them? He glanced back, then guided his horse, Curry, off the narrow muddy trail, turned about and waited until several in their party rode past.
Keegan’s gaze settled on Lady Seona. Though she wore a plaid cowl over her head now, he had memorized how glossy her chestnut-colored hair was. More than once, he’d fantasized about running his fingers through the loose strands. They would surely be silky and cool against his skin.
Her dark blue eyes met his, bewitching as always… and so were her Cupid’s bow lips. Damn, how he craved kissing her. Like a fool, he had longed for her for months, but he had never dared to touch her. Her chaperone aunt pinned her vicious eagle-eyed glare on him, as she always did.
Keegan had tried to tell himself he was daft for wanting Lady Seona so badly. He was not a chief or titled laird, and her father would never allow them to marry. Cousin of the chief wasn’t good enough.
Dirk paused beside Keegan, startling him from his wayward thoughts. “Is something amiss?”
“’Tis only a gut feeling that someone is following us,” he said, keeping his voice low.
“Aye. I had the same feeling.” Dirk narrowed his piercing pale blue eyes and glared back at the hills they’d just passed through.
People had often remarked that Keegan had eyes like Dirk’s and that they were more like brothers than cousins. Keegan agreed with that assessment and highly valued his role within the clan of protecting them and the chief. He was happy Dirk returned last fall to take the position he’d been meant for since birth. He was an excellent chief and a strong warrior.
From the mist behind them, a distant horse’s whinny carried on the breeze.
“Did you hear that?” Keegan asked, his gaze searching the murky landscape.
Keegan caught a glimpse of a black horse and dark-clothed rider as they veered off the trail and behind a yellow-blooming gorse bush. “There.” Keegan pointed.
“Aye. We’re being followed.” Dirk moved toward their party, giving quiet orders to the guards to surround the three ladies and their four maids, then he and several guards joined Keegan.
“I wager ’tis Haldane,” Keegan said.
Dirk nodded. “He will never give up trying to kill me until one of us is dead.”
“’Haps you should wear a cowl so he cannot identify you so easily,” Keegan suggested. Dirk’s bright copper hair made him easy to spot from a great distance. And an easy target.
“Hmph. I’ll not hide from that wily weasel,” he muttered.
“I wasn’t suggesting you hide, cousin. Merely use caution and disguise yourself so we can protect you better.”
“I don’t wish for anyone else to be struck with an arrow either. I want Haldane and his whole band of outlaws taken out before he kills someone else.” They had murdered two MacKay guards last winter and stolen almost a dozen horses.
Dirk’s friend, Rebbie, the Earl of Rebbinglen, halted his horse on Keegan’s right. “How many did you see?” he asked, his expression as dark as his eyes and hair.
“One, but I’m certain there are more,” Keegan said.
“Without doubt. That damned McMurdo highwayman is likely with him.”
“Aye, they have been fast friends since Haldane turned outlaw.” None of them held any fondness for Donald McMurdo. They’d had several run-ins with him in the past. For a certainty, Keegan detested the murderer who had slaughtered at least eighteen people in the Durness area, including one of Keegan’s cousins.
Last winter, Keegan had scuffled with McMurdo in Smoo Cave, and the old highwayman had kicked Keegan in the groin. He’d fought past the pain and subdued McMurdo by holding a knife to his throat. He shouldn’t have been so lenient with the bastard.
Keegan and those beside him stared back at the elevated green hillside. ’Twas too quiet, water trickling in a small burn and the late spring breeze fluttering the leaves of a nearby bush the only sounds. How he wished the mist would clear away, taking with it the outlaws’ cover.
Keegan glanced back at Lady Seona, glad to see eight armored guards surrounding her and the other women. They were well-protected. One less thing for him to worry about when the outlaws decided to show themselves.
Isobel held a lethal-looking dagger in her hand. ’Twas one she often carried in a scabbard at her side. Did Seona own a weapon? Would she even know how to use one? He should’ve taught her how to use a blade before this journey.
“Ready yourselves,” Dirk said, pulling a pistol from his belt.
Four archers on foot nocked their arrows and drew back the bow strings.
Keegan unsheathed his basket-hilt broadsword and held a targe before him to deflect any arrows or sword strikes. His gaze traveled up the green hillside, swathed in vibrant bracken fern where men could easily hide. Plaid flickered in the hazy gray mist. “Look.” He pointed with his sword. “They’re going to try to ambush us from the hill.”
“Move the women over there,” Dirk directed the guards, pointing toward an indention in the hillside surrounded by rocks and scrubby bushes. “And help them dismount. Put the horses in front of them.”
“Have a care,” Lady Isobel said low, but her concerned words to her husband were clear.
“Aye,” Dirk responded.
Keegan envied their relationship. ’Twas obvious they were mad for each other. He yearned for that closeness with Lady Seona. But now was not the time to ponder such things. He needed to focus and clear his mind. Lives depended on it.
Movement at the top of the hill drew his attention.
“He may have stones the size of cannonballs,” Rebbie said. “But I’d love naught more than to shoot them off.”
Dirk snorted. “I hope you get the chance, my friend.”
All the men except the archers held swords and round targes, ready for battle.
“’Haps you should move back, Dirk. The last thing we need is for the chief to be hit by a stray arrow.” Keegan felt daft even suggesting it, considering Dirk was probably the most capable warrior of them all, tall and broad of shoulder and about the same size as Keegan. They had sparred much over the past few months, training and keeping in practice. Sometimes Keegan won their matches and sometimes Dirk did, proving they were evenly matched.
“Don’t worry over me, cousin.”
An arrow whizzed down from the hill. All the men lifted their targes. The arrow struck Keegan’s and bounced off the central brass boss or one of the metal studs.
“That little bastard,” Dirk muttered and dismounted. He led his beloved horse, Tulloch, to a safer spot and the other men did the same, including Keegan, not wanting their horses seriously injured or killed.
“Show yourself, Haldane!” Dirk yelled toward the hill. “Coward!”
A head popped up out of the bracken. ’Twas difficult to identify the person at this distance but he appeared to have red hair like Haldane.
Dirk aimed his pistol and fired, but his target ducked.
“I don’t want to kill my own brother, but I will if he forces my hand.” Dirk shoved the pistol into his belt. “There he is again! Archers, shoot!”
At this distance, and with the mist reducing visibility, Keegan could not tell if the man was indeed Haldane. If not, he was likely in his gang. Besides that, he’d shot the first arrow, provoking retaliation.
The MacKay archers let fly several arrows.
“Come out and fight like men!” Dirk called out.
Arrows streaked toward them from the hillside. With their targes, they easily deflected or caught each one.
Annoyance twisted through Keegan. He was tired of this cat and mouse game and eager for a good fight. “I’m going after him.”
“Not without me,” Dirk said.
“Nay, you stay here. The clan needs you.”
“The clan needs you as well,” Dirk grumbled.
“You are the chief,” Keegan argued, matching his cousin’s fearsome glare.
“Do you think that matters? Haldane is my problem and I’ll deal with him.”
“I’m ready to go after him and McMurdo,” Rebbie said, eager battle-lust gleaming in his dark brown eyes.
“We’ll all go,” Dirk said, motioning to a half dozen of his men.
Lady Seona Murray watched with sickened dread as Keegan, Dirk and several more men charged boldly toward the hill where the outlaws lurked.
She’d stayed with the MacKays for several months and almost considered them her clan now. They had certainly shown her more care and consideration than her own clan had.
“Dirk,” Lady Isobel called, but not too loud. If her husband heard, he ignored her. “He is mad,” she grumbled through clenched teeth as the men disappeared from sight, the eerie mist enfolding them. “Haldane will kill him if he has half a chance.”
“They are capable warriors,” Seona said, knowing she was right, but at the same time realizing they were not invincible. She said a silent prayer for their safety.
“Aye,” Isobel said, her dark brows furrowed.
The eight well-armed guards would not let the women move from the cover of the huge rocks surrounding them on three sides.
Seona was equally worried about Keegan, but could not voice her concerns. Her Aunt Patience, standing on Isobel’s other side, could never know that Seona held Keegan MacKay in such high regard. All winter and spring he had made a point to greet Seona at every opportunity with a charming smile and a bow. Sometimes she would catch him watching her with an intense focus from the other side of the great hall, but he had not done anything more intimate than usher her to the high table and pull out a chair for her almost every evening.
His pale blue eyes enchanted her, made her feel vibrantly alive. They reflected great interest and longing. She wanted to do naught but stare into his eyes for hours. His thick, tawny mane looked as if it would be soft and silky; her fingers itched to find out. Though he was a tall, broad-shouldered warrior, his size did not intimidate her, for he had an easy smile. The only part of him she had touched was his arm when he escorted her. Each time she slipped her hand around his elbow, she savored the hardness of his well-developed muscles.
A few times this spring, on rare and precious sunny days, she and Isobel had watched the men training with swords in the walled barmkin outside Castle Dunnakeil. She could not tear her gaze away from Keegan then, especially when he grew warm and threw off his doublet. His muscles were obvious through the thin damp linen of his shirt, and his calf muscles beneath the bottom edge of his plaid intriguing.
She only hoped he would be careful as he and the men pursued the outlaws. With each minute that passed in relative silence, Seona’s stomach ached more and more. The mist before them, strangely lit from behind by morning sunlight, hurt her eyes. She squinted against the brilliance.
“Why have they not returned?” Isobel grumbled a quarter hour later.
Having no answer for her friend, Seona shook her head. Indeed, what could be taking so long? Had they been ambushed and killed silently? A chill passed over her.
“Will one of you go check on them?” Isobel asked the bearded guard closest to her.
“Nay. The chief has commanded us to stay and protect you ladies,” he said in a brusque tone.
A sound from within the white mist caught Seona’s attention and then a movement, low to the ground.
Seona shoved Isobel into her aunt, toward the left side of the stony enclosure. Something struck the sandstone, spraying rock particles over them.
“What on earth?” Aunt Patience squawked.
The women ended up in a heap on the ground. Seona’s knee pained her, but she hoped she hadn’t injured the others.
Seona looked behind her. “An arrow,” she said, pointing to the broken shaft and feathers on the ground where it had bounced off the rocks exactly where Isobel had been standing.
“Men advancing from the rear!” a guard shouted. A clunk against wood sounded as an arrow drove into his targe.
The other guards cursed and moved into position to better shield the women.
“Saints, Seona, you saved my life,” Isobel said in a stunned voice.
Seona knew not what to say; she’d simply acted on instinct. Isobel had become like a sister to her over the past few months, and obviously she’d help her in any way she could. Just as she wished to return home and help her own sister.
Seona’s attention was riveted to the four enemies on foot, wielding swords, storming from the bright mist in front of them, the opposite direction from where Keegan and Dirk had charged earlier.
Who were the men materializing out of the blinding mist? As of yet, Seona could not see them well enough to distinguish their features.
Four MacKay guards leapt from their horses, drew swords and lashed out at the attackers. Blades clashed and clanged. From her crouched position, Seona caught a glimpse of one of the outlaws—Haldane, with long red hair and a scruffy beard. His face possessed a gaunt, hungry look, and his green eyes glinted wildly.
Seona envied Isobel’s dagger for she had naught to defend herself with besides the tiny knife she used while eating. She prayed the older, more experienced guards could easily defeat the young outlaws.
Shouts echoed from the opposite direction, startling her. More enemies? Or the MacKays returning? Behind the tall rocks and horses, Seona was unable to see who was approaching. She and Isobel stood. Abruptly, Haldane and his three cronies fled into the mist. Keegan, Dirk, Rebbie and several more men chased after them on foot, swords drawn, battle-cries echoing.
“Dirk!” Isobel shouted. “They could be hiding in the mist!”
None of the men listened; not that Seona expected them to. She knew how men were—although they might show caution at times, warriors such as these would display no fear or hesitance. They’d charge right in to the midst of trouble with their blades.
Near silence reigned for several minutes.
Seona held her breath, waiting to see what would happen next. Praying Keegan and the men helping him would not be ambushed in such poor visibility.
Moments later, broad-shouldered, indistinct silhouettes appeared in the bright mist and strode toward them. Was one of them Keegan?
When Keegan emerged, walking with Dirk, Rebbie and some of the other guards, she released a calming breath.
“Thank the saints,” Isobel whispered.
Seona felt the same gratitude, but could not voice it for her aunt waited beside her, scared stiff.
Sheathing their swords, Dirk and Keegan strode closer and the guards moved aside. Keegan’s intense blue gaze was on her but she tried not to stare at him. Saints! Anytime he was near, she almost overheated.
Isobel launched herself at Dirk, who caught her and pulled her close for an affectionate embrace and a kiss on the cheek.
Seona admired their closeness, but Aunt Patience let out a gasp, her lightly-wrinkled ivory skin reddening and her dark blue eyes narrowing in disapproval at the public display. Seona wanted to ask her what was wrong with a husband and wife showing love and concern for each other? Certainly Seona’s father had never shown any care for her mother. In fact, she remembered him showing utter disdain for her many times.
Isobel drew back. “Seona saved my life.”
“What?” Dirk frowned. “What happened?”
“A stray arrow was flying straight toward me, and Seona pushed me to the ground.”
Dirk’s fierce gaze lit on her. “I thank you, Lady Seona.”
She tried to curtsy but her legs were too shaky to perform the motion adequately. “’Tis naught more than I’d do for mine own sister.”
Dirk hugged Isobel close again and whispered something in her ear. But Seona’s gaze darted to Keegan, standing next to his cousin, and the compelling expression on his face—a proud grin. His blue eyes seemed even brighter than usual as he observed her.
He took her hand in his large one, lifted it, and kissed the back. “You are very heroic, Lady Seona. I thank you for your good deed.”
A thrilling heat suffused her and she dropped her gaze. Heavens! He’d never kissed her hand before, nor should he whilst her aunt was present. She would disapprove. ’Twas not her aunt she feared, but what her aunt might tell her father.
Still, Seona savored the warmth of Keegan’s skin against her own and the tingles showering her body.
“No thanks necessary,” Seona mumbled, refusing to look at Keegan or her aunt. They could be glaring daggers at each other for all she knew. But at least Patience was silent this time.
After a long moment, Keegan released her hand, but her skin still burned where his firm warm lips and the scratchy stubble on his chin and upper lip had brushed over it. Seona realized Dirk was talking and forced herself to focus on his words.
“When we went that way…” Dirk nodded to the right. “We saw neither hide nor hair of them. They were decoys to lure us away so that Haldane and the others could attack from this side. We couldn’t find them when we went that way either and didn’t want to risk pursuing them up the mountain in the thick mist.”
“There must not be very many of them.” Keegan turned aside and crossed his arms over his chest. “Else Haldane would’ve had more men with him on this side.”
“Aye,” Dirk said. “Last winter he had around a dozen. No way of knowing whether he’s added to his band of outlaws or whether some have died or found more profitable thieving grounds.”
“I’m thinking McMurdo has trained them to be as elusive as he’s always been,” Keegan said.
“Just what we need. A dozen more McMurdos.” Dirk shook his head, then glanced at the sky. “After the mist lifts, we’ll travel south until we reach a village or until dark, whichever comes first. ’Tis unfortunate there are no castles between here and Ullapool.”
They waited for over an hour and, finally, the mist rose further up the mountains.
As they rode south, Seona and the ladies were heavily protected, with a guard on either side, when the trail was wide enough. She wished Keegan would guard her personally, but she knew that wasn’t possible. He rode further forward, his head turning right and then left as he scanned the hills and mountains for an impending attack.
Although summer days were long, their party was still several miles away from the nearest village when gloaming descended over the Highlands. Seona glanced west. The sun was but a glowing smudge of pink and violet when they stopped beside a stream in a wee glen. ’Twas a beautiful spot with bare mountains all around, some green and some gray granite.
A few of the clansmen built a fire while several others guarded on the outskirts. Soon the scents of roasted rabbit and quail teased her nose and made her stomach growl. Despite her hunger, her full attention had been captured by Keegan on the opposite side of camp where he removed the saddle from his horse.
When Seona noticed Isobel and Dirk approaching her, she curtsied.
“I cannot thank you enough, Lady Seona, for saving the life of my dear wife. Is there anything I can offer you in repayment?” Dirk asked.
Seona swallowed hard for she was momentarily speechless. “’Tis not necessary. Isobel is like a sister to me. I value our friendship greatly.”
“Och. Well, I can understand friendship, for I highly prize my own friends,” Dirk said. “Still, if there is ever anything you need, and if ’tis within my power to grant it, I will do so. Just let me know.”
Seona nodded. “I thank you, my laird.”
Dirk bowed, kissed Isobel’s hand and moved away from them to talk to the guards.
“You are like the sister I never had.” Isobel drew Seona into a tight embrace.
Seona hugged her, then stepped back. “I feel the same. One can never have too many sisters.” She grinned, wishing she and Isobel could live near each other, but once Seona went home she might never see Isobel again. Her throat tightened.
“I know what you want, but ’tis not in my power or Dirk’s to give it to you,” Isobel said.
Seona frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I should’ve said who, not what.” Isobel darted a meaningful glance at Keegan across the way. “Why do you not go speak with him?”
Heat washing over her, Seona stared down at her broken fingernails. “I think… that would not be very wise.” Surely Isobel knew of the precarious position she was in. Seona would never be allowed to choose her own husband the way Isobel had.
“It appears that Lady Patience is focusing all her attention on that handsome guard, Hugh MacMillan. You might have a few free minutes.”
Seona glanced at Patience, laughing and conversing with the guard who was about her age. Seona had never seen her aunt so talkative with a man before. What a transformation. At least she was enjoying life for once.
Seona shifted her gaze to Keegan again, where he brushed his horse while it picked grass at the edge of the camp. Everything about him enticed her—his broad shoulders and strong arms, his tall height and his many other masculine attributes. His plaid was belted about his narrow waist and weapons hung from his belt. Being a guard, he was always heavily armed. But it wasn’t just these physical things that appealed to her. He had a charming, friendly and protective nature.
“I wouldn’t know what to say to him anyway,” Seona said. Despite staying in the same castle for months, they had not truly had a conversation. They had only spoken in a very impersonal manner. A greeting, a curtsy, a mumbled thanks when he complimented her. The kiss on the hand he’d given her that morn was the only time he’d shown so much affection.
“You are in love with him,” Isobel whispered.
“Shh.” Seona turned to see who might be listening. Thankfully, no one met her gaze. “I certainly won’t be telling him that.”
“But ’tis true, aye?” Isobel grinned in a teasing manner.
“It matters not. My father would never allow me to marry anyone less than a clan chief or a titled laird. And I wouldn’t want to play with such a good and honorable man’s affections,” she said, glancing at Keegan. “It could be dangerous if my father were to think we’ve had a tryst.”
Her father had slapped her more than once for minor infractions, which was why she had to get her younger sister away from him. She prayed Talia was well and still living with their cousin, Genevieve, but many months had passed since she’d seen her. Talia was eighteen summers and Seona feared her father would marry her off to some violent barbarian before she saw her again.
“I’m not suggesting you marry him,” Isobel said as if Seona were overreacting. “And your father will never find out if you merely have a brief conversation with Keegan. Who knows? You may not even like him when you get to know him.”
Ha. That was highly unlikely. She feared she would fall even harder for him if she learned more about him. Some nights she had trouble sleeping because of thoughts and imaginings of him—what it might be like if he kissed her and held her close. He haunted her dreams.
“What is it going to hurt to simply speak to him for a few moments?” Isobel persisted in an innocent tone, reminding Seona of a mischievous fae.
She watched Keegan, crossing behind the horse and brushing the other side. He had removed his dark blue doublet, making the play of his generous muscles beneath his shirt almost visible.
Aye. ’Twas too tempting by far. And speaking to Keegan in private would only make her yearn for more. She could not have him. Her father would never allow it. He had come down hard on one of her past suitors, the youngest brother of a chief. They were of the same social station, in a manner of speaking, but the man had no title or lands. Her father had punished them both for one innocent dance. With Keegan being the chief’s cousin and guard, her father would find him even less suitable.
Seona’s father had sent her to marry the MacKay chief… whom she’d thought would be either Aiden or Haldane. ’Twas what her father thought, too, but neither of the young men was chief. She was thankful she hadn’t been required to marry either of them when their oldest brother arrived and took over the position.
Though Dirk was a handsome man, they were not suited. Besides, Dirk had been in love with Isobel when they’d arrived in Durness. Therefore, Seona was being returned to her father. He would likely find her another chief to wed. She dreaded to see who he chose for her this time and prayed her future husband would not be abusive. She hoped to marry a kind man who would allow her younger sister to live with them.
“You may never again have such an opportunity to speak with Keegan,” Isobel said, growing more serious and slightly sad… for Seona’s sake.
She gazed across the grassy area toward him… and he was staring at her. Mortified he’d caught her, she quickly shifted her gaze to Isobel. “He is looking this way,” she whispered, trying not to move her lips.
Isobel glanced his way, but Seona refused to do so again. She did not wish to lead Keegan on. And she certainly didn’t want him to know they’d been discussing him.
“Well, I’ll let you decide,” Isobel said with a tiny smile. “Shouldn’t be long until we can eat.” She strolled away.
Why had she ended the conversation so abruptly? Seona turned to watch Isobel approach Dirk.
She spun to find Keegan behind her. Saints! She slapped a hand over her thumping heart.
“Pray pardon. I didn’t mean to scare you.” He gave a slight, concerned frown.
He was so handsome and disturbing to her, his sandy-brown hair blowing back in the breeze, that she could hardly think what to say.
“Nay.” She waved a hand, trying to catch her breath and act normal. “I am well. I didn’t know you were there, and I was only a wee bit startled. That’s all.”
“Good. I but wanted to thank you again for saving Lady Isobel’s life. We all know how much she means to Dirk.” Keegan’s blue gaze was warm upon her.
“There is no need. I merely acted on instinct.”
“Well, I must say you have excellent instincts.”
“I thank you.” She could not look away from his charming smile with a hint of devilment. It bewitched her. “I’m glad you were not injured when you pursued the outlaws.” ’Twas true her demeanor was formal and far too stiff, but she knew not how to converse with him, or any man, in a more relaxed way. Besides, he threw her off balance and made her feel strangely feverish.
“I thank you, m’lady.” He gave a hint of a bow.
She swallowed hard, trying to think of something else to say. “You are… very brave to defend and protect us.”
He grinned, appearing far more relaxed than she was. “’Tis naught more than my duty. And ’twas certainly no hardship to protect you.”
She felt humbled and flattered that he’d singled her out. She trusted him to protect her better than anyone.
“’Tis disappointing that we must return you to your father,” he said in a lower tone. His gaze grew more intimate and, indeed, his disappointment was clear upon his face.
“Aye. I have enjoyed spending time with your clan.” And you.
“I wish…” Keegan shook his head, his expression sobering. “I wish you could stay longer, Lady Seona.”
A shiver passing over her skin, she savored his deep voice pronouncing her name. “As do I.”
His gaze intensified upon her, becoming as hot as a blue flame. He had given her interested looks before, but never one so breath-stealing. She felt near paralyzed. Captivated. But quickly tore her gaze away, her heart thudding loudly. She must protect herself, and him. This delicious enticement could only be destructive. As she had expected, talking to him caused her to want to draw closer to him.
He cleared his throat. “Have you a weapon?” he asked.
My Daring Highlander © 2013 Vonda Sinclair