Stolen by a Highland Rogue
Scottish Highlands, June 1619
"Where the devil is it?" Chief Dugald MacKerrick demanded, staring down into the empty wooden chest in his bedchamber. He didn't carry the King Richard dagger with him day to day. 'Twas far too valuable. He only placed the sheathed weapon on his belt during ceremonies and celebrations, just as he had a few days ago when his sister, Mairiana, was betrothed to the Lindsay chief's eldest son.
"I don't ken, m'laird," Geordie, his manservant, answered.
"Damnation!" The word exploded from Dugald's mouth, a sense of dread consuming him. Surely, it could not be gone! "Search these chests and the whole of Rornoch Castle if you must."
"Aye, m'laird." Geordie rushed to the nearest chest and knelt to open it.
Through marriage and alliance, the dagger had been passed down from King Robert the Bruce, himself, centuries ago. And long before that, the large ruby in the hilt had belonged to King Richard the Lionheart. Dugald would not be the one to lose the dagger.
He flung open a large mahogany and brass chest in the corner and tore everything from it, his own clean clothing mostly—linen shirts, plaids. No weapons. Annoyance consuming him, he let fly several loud curses. "One of the Lindsay whoresons must have stolen it!"
Aye, now he remembered Chief Angus Lindsay had wanted to buy it, offering him a ridiculously low sum, and then a much higher one. Dugald had informed him 'twas not for sale at any price. Even Lindsay's son, Alec, had eyed the dagger with a spark of greed in his eye.
"What is all the shouting about?" Dugald's twin brother Tòmas barged into the room. His long dark hair in a queue, he was dressed impeccably, as always, in a belted plaid, pressed white shirt and blue doublet.
"The King Richard dagger is gone," Dugald said, rage crawling over him. "Stolen by some damnable miscreant! I always kept it locked in this chest when I wasn't wearing it."
"When did you last see it?"
"After the betrothal ceremony, four days ago."
"Do you think one of the Lindsays stole it?"
"Of course! Who else?"
Unfazed as usual by Dugald's flaring temper, Tòmas answered, "Why would they need it? They're as rich as Midas."
Tòmas' calm logic grated on Dugald's nerves. "Because the dagger would make them twice as rich. The ruby alone is worth a king's ransom! And both Angus and Alec were near drooling over it. When I told them the dagger was not for sale at any price, they looked vexed and even more determined to have it. At which time, Angus made a veiled comment about always getting what he wanted." The smirking Angus had been kissing the gloved hand of his new, young bride when he'd said it, but Dugald did not mistake his meaning. He detested the whoreson and now regretted allowing Mairiana to marry into the family.
"But his son is marrying our sister. Surely he would know she could easily identify it as yours if he had it."
That made sense, but still… 'twas telling that the dagger disappeared around the same time the Lindsays departed. "Well, if not them, one of their servants or guards could've done it, looking to sell it to become independently wealthy."
"Indeed," Tòmas said, stroking his freshly shaven, square chin as if in deep thought.
"'Haps Angus intends to sell the ruby from the dagger's hilt in order to keep his new French wife in the latest styles from Paris. Such fancy silks are expensive."
"'Tis a possibility, but the large ruby would not be easy to sell without drawing notice. In order to obtain its worth, he would have to approach only the very wealthy, a member of the nobility, perhaps. Word would travel."
Dugald sucked in a breath, trying to dispel his fury and watched Geordie search the remaining trunks. He even looked beneath the giant oak bed.
Of he and Tòmas, Dugald was the eldest by a few minutes, but he'd always felt his twin should share in the leadership of the clan. And he did. Tòmas was his main advisor and they often made important decisions together. Tòmas was the voice of reason, while Dugald wanted to charge in and attack the offending party. He didn't understand how Tòmas could be so patient.
The dagger was not only Dugald's, but it also belonged to Tòmas and the whole clan. It mattered not to him that history had long since forgotten the significance of the legendary dagger and its link back to Richard the Lionheart of England. For Dugald, 'twas the most important object his father had entrusted him with before his death.
His father's trust was no small or easy thing to attain. Dugald had earned it by slow degrees only a short time before his da had passed three years before. During Dugald's wild and reckless youth, his da had often voiced his reservations as to whether Dugald would make a good chief because he acted first and asked questions later.
If Dugald allowed the dagger to be stolen so easily, then he was not worthy of his father's trust. He'd had to prove himself capable one time, and now he would have to do it again.
"Given that we've just made an alliance with the Lindsays, we must handle this situation carefully," Tòmas said.
Dugald ground his teeth, the urge to launch an attack against the guilty party nearly overwhelming him. His brother was right, of course, but Dugald didn't want to handle anything carefully. His blood rushed too rashly through his veins for him to be careful.
"And how do you propose we do that, oh wise one?" Dugald asked. Though his sarcastic tone was meant to needle his brother, he also had to admit that Tòmas often came up with canny solutions to problems.
Tòmas smirked and lifted a brow. "I will figure something out. I always do."
"Well, I hope you figure it out with all haste. Geordie and the other servants—indeed everyone in residence—will search the castle and stables. If 'tis not found, I'm chasing down the Lindsays. You will remain here and watch over the clan in my stead, brother." He stormed from the room.
"Aye, m'laird!" Tòmas called out after him with much sarcasm.
As usual, Dugald ignored him.
After two hours of every clansmen and servant searching the castle, outbuildings and grounds, no ruby-hilted dagger turned up.
Muttering curses, Dugald mounted his bay, a mean-tempered stallion he called Beast which suited him perfectly.
Two dozen of his best soldiers rode south with him over moors and between mountains. Chief Lindsay's holdings were east of Perth, but he couldn't let them get that far. Their large entourage had left two days ago. Considering the number of women with them, they would travel slowly, whereas Dugald and his men tore through the misty Highlands as swiftly as the red deer they often startled. Their mounts had great endurance and were used to this pace. 'Twas of vital importance they catch the Lindsays before they reached their home, or he might never see the dagger again.
"What are you doing here, Dugald?" his sister whispered, sending cautious glances around the common room of the White Ram Inn from the corner table they occupied. A plaid cowl covered most of her dark hair as if she were trying to hide.
Dugald frowned. He and his men had ridden hard the previous day in order to reach Perth by gloaming. Fortunately for them, dusk arrived late in June. Last night, he'd had several of his men search the town. They'd discovered the Lindsays were staying at the White Ram. Then, he'd sent a missive, asking his sister to meet him in the common room. For her sake, he hoped to keep peace between the two clans.
Dugald leaned forward and pitched his voice low. "One of the Lindsays stole the King Richard dagger, which has been in our clan for generations, as you well ken."
Mairiana's green eyes widened. "What?" she whispered. "Nay. They would not do such a thing."
"Chief Lindsay tried to buy it from me. When I told him it wasn't for sale at any price, he made a snide comment about always getting what he wanted."
"That doesn't make him a thief. Did you see him take it?"
"Nay. If I had, I wouldn't be talking to you right now, but breaking down his door instead," he said through clenched teeth. Her beloved Alec could be the thief, but if Dugald accused him, Mairiana might not help him. He had to keep his wits about him. "Mayhap not the chief, but one of his guards or servants, aye," he stated with firm conviction.
She frowned at him in stunned disbelief.
"I need for you to find out who stole it," he continued.
"I stay with the ladies most of the time. None of them would've taken it. I'm rarely near the guards or male servants."
"Find out from Lady Lindsay whether the chief has a fancy new dagger. I need to find it now, while the Lindsays are here in Perth," Dugald said with more urgency. "If they reach their home, I'll never get it back. You ken how much the dagger meant to Da. 'Twas one of his most valued possessions."
"Aye, of course." Appearing tense, she rubbed her forehead. "But this seems an impossible task."
"Nay, I refuse to believe that. I'll get it back by any means necessary," he said, his voice hardening.
"And what is that supposed to mean?" she asked warily.
"I could take you back home and refuse to let you marry Alec until he ferrets out the knave who stole my dagger."
"Nay!" she said in a loud whisper. "Surely you would not. I love Alec."
Although his sister appeared panicked and he truly didn't want to do such a thing to her, the bottom line was he had to regain his clan's dagger. 'Twas as priceless to him as the Honours of Scotland were to the king. Dugald shrugged, trying to appear more unconcerned than he felt. "What has that to do with it?"
"You… would be jeopardizing the alliance," she rushed to say.
He leaned forward. "The dagger is more valuable to me than any alliance." And that was the truth.
"Do not act so shocked, sister. You ken I'm indulging you by allowing you to marry Alec Lindsay. In truth, I needed no alliance with them." They lived too far away to be of much benefit to him, and their soldiers were not as highly trained as the MacKerricks. But he didn't want to make his sister's life miserable by forcing her to marry someone she didn't wish to.
There were several other Highland clans he would've preferred an alliance with, but he and his brother would have to secure those partnerships when they eventually married. In fact, Dugald was in the midst of trying to decide between two chiefs' daughters… as he had been for several months. Their fathers had sought Dugald out and he had turned neither down as of yet, though they were growing impatient for his decision. Both ladies were young and lovely. He could choose either the sweet and demure, dark-haired lass who came with nine hundred acres or the voluptuous, outspoken ginger with ties to one of the most powerful clans in the Highlands. Either agreement would benefit his clan.
He didn't know what the hell was wrong with him. He didn't know why he didn't just pick one of them.
He never deliberated this long over anything. Was he trying to make Da proud by not coming to a decision too impulsively, or was he waiting for something else—some sign or indication of which woman would be right for him?
"Alec Lindsay is a good man," Mairiana blurted, glaring at him. She had no inkling how spoiled she was.
"How does the rogue treat you?" Dugald asked.
"He is no rogue and he treats me very well, I thank you," she snapped.
"Does he love you?"
"Has he told you of his feelings?"
"Aye, many times. As if you care."
"Well then, I'm glad to hear it." Indeed he was, for even if things went sour with this situation, hopefully Alec would treat his sister well and still wish to marry her. Dugald did not want to put his sister in danger but he had to reclaim the dagger somehow. "How long will the Lindsays stay here in Perth?"
"Two more days. The dowager Lady Lindsay wanted to rest from the travels."
Dugald nodded, knowing the chief's elderly mother would need rest. And no doubt the chief wanted to spend a couple of long nights in a soft bed with his nubile French bride. "Meet me here at the same time tomorrow and let me know what you've learned."
Mairiana scowled. "Very well," she said begrudgingly.
"Try to find out something. You must if you wish to marry Alec Lindsay."
Camille Bouchard sat in the common room of the White Ram Inn, eating her midday meal, even though it was well past noon. When the large, commanding Highlander in a belted plaid had strode in earlier, bold as the brass studs in his leather armor, she had almost choked on her roasted lamb. Sacrebleu! What a striking and gorgeous man he was, with long hair, dark as midnight. On second glance, she saw that his green eyes were angry as a stormy sea. What had riled him?
Not glancing her way, he sat at a nearby table and was, at present, arguing quietly with a beautiful and well-dressed, dark-haired lady. Camille wondered at their relationship until the man called her "sister." That explained their slight resemblance.
Although Camille could not understand much of what was being said since they were trying to keep their voices low, she found she enjoyed listening to the Highlander's deep, rumbling voice.
Camille's cousin, Angelique Drummagan, Countess of Draughon, had married a Highlander the year before. After a very rocky start, their passionate marriage had turned into a happy one and they were expecting their first child in a few weeks. Camille had come to Perth with a couple of servants to shop for the supplies Angelique would need upon the arrival of their new babe.
Camille sent another quick glance toward the brawny Highlander at the other table. In truth, she could hardly keep her eyes off him. Short beard stubble darkened and defined his stubborn jawline. His shoulders were as broad as one of the distant Cairngorms. His proud and confident bearing told her he was someone of importance, perhaps a leader. A chief? His clothes did not look new or expensive, however. Mayhap a war leader? Of a certainty, he appeared to be a strong warrior.
She glanced down at his plaid-covered thighs and muscular calves, sprinkled with dark hair. Good heavens, how she loved Highland clothing customs which showed off a man's fine form. Her mouth suddenly going dry, she took a large sip of spiced wine.
The Highlander's sister shoved to her feet, her mouth dropping open. "I cannot believe what a brute you are being about this, Dugald!"
His fist clenched upon the table. "I am most serious and determined in this," he growled.
With a huff, the woman stormed up the stairs.
Parbleu! What had the argument been about?
The Highlander—Dugald—arose and, with angry strides, left the building. Was he truly a brute as his sister had said? Why should Camille care? Oui, she had been searching for a Scotsman of her own for many months, and he was a most attractive man. But she had no need for a brute.
The next day, Dugald met with Mairiana in the inn's common room again, but she knew no more than she had the day before.
Annoyance bored through Dugald. "Damnation, you ken how important this is to me, sister." He spoke in hushed tones. "The Lindsays will be leaving at daybreak the day after tomorrow. I must have the dagger before then."
At that moment, Dugald noticed Alec Lindsay and his men entering the inn's common room. Alec saw them right away and came forward alone. "Chief MacKerrick." Offering a fake smile, he held out his hand and Dugald shook it. "What are you doing here, my friend? Pray, tell me you have not changed your mind about your sister marrying me."
That remained to be seen but he would keep that information to himself. "I've run into a problem and I hope you can help me with it."
After kissing Mairiana's hand, Alec took a seat at the table with them. "Aye, what is it?"
"While your entourage was at Rornoch Castle, my valuable dagger disappeared." Dugald observed the other man carefully. "You remember it, I'm sure. I wore it during the ceremony and at supper afterward. It has a large ruby embedded in the hilt."
Alec frowned. "Are you saying one of the Lindsays stole it?"
"Someone did. 'Haps one of your guards or servants."
Alec narrowed his eyes while Mairiana appeared to be holding her breath.
Dugald went on, "I need your help in finding it. It has been in my clan for generations and is always passed down to the next chief."
Drawing himself up into a regal posture, Alec said, "I'm offended that you would accuse my clan of stealing."
"Well, I'm sorry to offend you," Dugald said in a steadfast tone, "but the fact is, someone in your entourage stole it."
The other man's face darkened. "You don't know that. Maybe someone in your own clan stole it and hoped to implicate the Lindsays."
Dugald gave a humorless smile. "My clansmen would not commit such a shameful and dishonorable deed. They own it as much as I do. It is an object of much pride and admiration within the clan. Now, are you willing to help me ferret out the thief or not? Question your men. Search them and their belongings."
Alec watched him with calculating eyes for a long moment, then glanced at Mairiana. "Aye, I'll see what I can do."
Dugald was glad to have his cooperation, even if he wasn't yet sure he would follow through. "I must have it back before your party leaves Perth."
"As I said, I'll see what I can do," Alec snapped.
"I am staying at the Boar's Tusk Tavern across the street. Report to me there at gloaming."
With one last glower, Alec arose, took Mairiana's hand and escorted her from the room. Dugald did not trust the wily bastard.
Alec did not show up in the tavern at gloaming, or after. "The whoreson," Dugald seethed. "Come." He motioned to his two personal bodyguards, Owen and Rufus. They proceeded out into the misty rain and across the muddy street to the inn. Neither outside, nor within the common room, did he see hide or hair of any of the Lindsays. Surely, they had not left. He inquired with the proprietor and learned they were still in residence.
Alec had simply decided to ignore Dugald's request to meet him. The bastard would not help him unearth the dagger.
Grinding his teeth, Dugald returned to the sparse room he'd rented over the tavern.
He turned to his clansmen who waited by the door, addressing the one with brown, shoulder-length hair and a short beard. "Braden, you and Mason stay out of sight and keep watch at the inn across the street. Tell me immediately if the Lindsays attempt to leave."
Dugald switched his gaze to the two brawny Highlanders beside them. "Grant and MacFarley, you two take a turn at watch just after midnight."
After they all agreed, Braden and Mason hastened down the stairs, while Grant and MacFarley joined the rest of the clansmen in the chamber next door.
"Get some sleep," Dugald told his personal bodyguards who remained in the room with him.
"What about you, Chief?" Owen asked, his bald pate gleaming in the dying light from the small hearth.
"I'm not sleepy." Dugald was too annoyed. He paced the floor and kept an eye on the inn from his window. How could he reclaim the dagger without instigating a battle here in Perth? Was Alec Lindsay a man of his word, or was he a conniving whoreson?
He was strongly suspecting the latter. He was daft to allow Mairiana to wed him.
After pacing for an hour or longer, while Owen and Rufus snored from their pallets on the floor, Dugald lay down on the bed. He'd only fallen into a light sleep when a loud knock sounded at the door. Stumbling through the darkness, he almost ran into Owen who was headed in the same direction. Pausing, he let Owen open the door. MacFarley waited outside, carrying a lantern. "M'laird, the Lindsays' horses are being saddled behind the inn."
"Damnation!" Dugald turned to the window, unable to see the whoresons or their horses. "'Tis not even sunrise yet! He thinks to escape me."
"Aye, Grant overheard Alec Lindsay discussing their early departure with one of his guards."
If that was the game Alec wished to play, the bastard would regret it. Dugald turned to Owen and Rufus. "Tell all the men to go to the livery stables and saddle the horses quickly."
"Chief?" In unison, they frowned at him.
"Just do it." After grabbing his baldric and sword, Dugald rushed down the stairs and outside.
Morning was just starting to dawn as he slipped around the inn and into the side servants' entrance. Though 'twas difficult for a man of his tall size, he moved stealthily up the stone staircase and along the corridor where the guest rooms were. 'Haps he was daft to kidnap his own sister, but if Alec would not return his treasure, he would take Alec's. 'Twas the only leverage he had. Aye, his sister would be angry, but if Alec was truly a whoreson and thief, why would his sister wish to marry him?
When a door opened, he hid in the window alcove behind the drapery.
"The chief wishes you to hurry, Lady Lindsay," the soft female voice urged. "He sent me to fetch you."
Lady Lindsay? Dugald frowned and peered from behind the plaid material and down the corridor. All he could see was a drab-clothed maid waiting before an open door, then she disappeared inside. More maids rushed out of the room, carrying various small trunks. He drew back and watched them trot down the stairwell. Aye, obviously the whole of the Lindsay party was in an unnatural rush, all because Alec and Angus wished to escape with Dugald's dagger. Thieves and cowards, the lot of them.
He peered out from behind the curtain again. Though the corridor was dim in the dawn light, he could easily see the short, blond woman, wearing a dark cloak with the cowl over her silk gown. Lady Lindsay, herself. Saints, she would be even better leverage than Mairiana! Of a certainty, the chief would want her back, and he would find the thief with all haste in order to return the dagger. Dugald's muscles tensed as she walked past his hiding place. Now was his chance.
Silently approaching Lady Lindsay from behind, Dugald gently but firmly clamped his hand over her mouth, lifted her and carried her quickly down the narrow servants' stairs toward the side exit. Amid muffled screams, she kicked and elbowed him. What a fiery hellion! Though he hated to terrify her and use her for leverage, he had little choice.
"Stay calm," he whispered in her ear, anticipation rampaging through him. "I won't hurt you." He glanced behind himself. Thank the saints no one was about.
Once outside, he ran with her, along the side of the inn and across the street to the livery stables where his clan's horses were saddled and waiting. She was a wee, light thing but she struggled hard, her elbows jabbing into him.
"Come." He motioned some of his men behind the tavern next door.
"Chief?" Owen asked, wide-eyed as he took in Dugald's captive. "What the devil?"
"Help me with her. Tie a gag in her mouth," Dugald demanded, his heartrate and breathing elevated. "But don't hurt her."
"Are you certain this is wise?"
"I don't need you acting like Tòmas," he snapped. "This is the only way to get the dagger back."
"Is she Chief Lindsay's wife?" Braden asked.
"Aye. You and Mason stay behind," Dugald said. "Braden, scribe a missive to Chief Lindsay, telling him I have his wife. She will come to no harm if he will return my ruby dagger to Rornoch Castle. He is to only bring ten men or less with him. Once you leave the missive, head home as soon as you can. Don't get yourselves captured."
When the infamous King Richard dagger is stolen from Highland chief, Dugald MacKerrick, he will do whatever it takes to reclaim it, even abduct the wife of the aristocratic thief, but what if his beautiful French hostage isn't who he thinks she is? Deep in the rugged Scottish Highlands, Dugald discovers not only is his captive, Camille Bouchard, more than he expected, so is the passion raging between them, threatening everything he thought mattered to him.
Previously published in this USA Today bestselling anthology (no longer available.)