Defended by a Highland Renegade

 

 

Chapter One

 

Angus, Scotland, June 1619

 

Sitting at the high table, Lady Mairiana MacKerrick frowned. She was listening to her fiancé, Alec Lindsay, as he murmured to the young guard who hovered about on the other side of his chair.

"Meet me in the stables in a half hour." Alec's voice was barely audible to Mairiana over the roar of conversation in the crowded great hall of Lenor Castle, but what she heard crackled with impatience and irritation.

What was Alec riled about? He'd always kept such a tight rein on his temper, she hadn't realized he'd had one. But over the last few days, his easygoing charm had begun to slip into a dour mood. He'd shoved down one of the young stable lads when they'd first arrived, then yelled at a serving wench shortly thereafter in the great hall. Mairiana had assumed he was simply exhausted and irritable, but what if it was something more? What if his true nature was rising to the surface? She was to wed him three days hence, but now she was growing uncertain about her future husband.

He had been acting oddly since they had been in Perth, several days ago. That was when her brother Dugald, chief of the MacKerricks, had accused someone in the Lindsay clan of stealing a valuable dagger from him, the MacKerrick family heirloom known as the King Richard dagger. Mairiana hadn't seen the dagger since Dugald had carried it at her betrothal ceremony, and she'd defended Alec's innocence the entire time. She'd thought her short-tempered brother was overreacting and blaming whoever was convenient. But now, she was starting to suspect her brother might have been right.

A cold, prickling dread settling into the bottom of her stomach, she pretended not to hear Alec speaking to his attendant. Instead, she gazed down at the jeweled thistle brooch Alec had given her a short time earlier—a wedding present, he'd said. 'Twas not a new brooch. It appeared to be a hundred or more years old. Most of the silver had been polished recently, but some tarnish remained in the tiniest cracks and crevices. Not obvious unless one examined it closely. Surely the rubies, sapphires and emeralds were real. It felt heavy and valuable.

Alec leaned down close to her ear and murmured in what seemed to be a warm, intimate tone, "Do you like it?"

"Aye, 'tis lovely." She glanced briefly at the lanky guard of about a score years who strode toward the stairwell. She still wondered what they were up to. "Was the brooch your mother's?" she asked Alec. His mother had passed many years ago, and now his father, Angus Lindsay, was married to a much younger woman.

"Nay, 'twas passed down from my father's great aunt." Alec's blue eyes twinkled in that captivating way which had always beguiled her. From the moment she'd met him, she'd considered him perfect for her, from his golden hair to his strong muscular body. But was he sincere?

"I love family heirlooms. They're so important in the traditions of a clan." Mairiana watched his handsome face closely, wondering if he truly had stolen her brother's dagger.

One of Alec's tawny brows twitched. "I agree." He glanced aside, scowling toward the door where the guard had disappeared, then he forced a smile. "More wine, my love?"

A pang of anxiety struck her, making her fear she'd allowed Alec's good looks and charming manner to blind her to what lay beneath. She had to find out what he was hiding. "Nay, I thank you." She forced a smile. "I believe I will retire for the night. I'm still exhausted from all the travel." They had just arrived the day before.

He nodded, lifted her hand and kissed the back. "Sleep well, my sweet."

"You, too. I bid you good night." She arose from her seat, and he assisted her as always, then released her. At the stairs, she glanced back to see him pouring himself a generous helping of whisky.

The members of his clan she'd met upon arriving had given her a lukewarm reception. She'd met the rest—those who'd been a part of Alec's entourage as he'd traveled to get her—weeks ago. Now, they paid her no mind and she was glad.

After placing the brooch into the pouch at her waist where she kept a few coins and a small knife, she rushed up the steps to her chamber. She grabbed her black cloak and put it on. She must slip into the stables before Alec and his guard arrived there. She had to find out what secret they kept.

Exiting the room, she closed the door behind her, then hurried down the servants' stairs in back.

In the ground floor kitchen, she paused and took a washed carrot from the basket on the cook table. "For my mare," she said to the maid who stood nearby, frowning.

"M'lady." The girl bobbed a curtsy, though her expression remained unfriendly. She had no inkling what the lass might have against her, nor did she care.

Ignoring her, Mairiana exited and pulled the cowl over her head. She rushed across the cobbles and through the low light of gloaming toward the stables. Blazing torches flanked Lenor Castle's front entrance.

No one was about, thank the saints. Evidently the stable staff was also having supper.

After entering her black mare's stall and latching the door behind her, Mairiana gave Fern the treat, the horse's whiskers and velvety lips tickling her palm. While the mare munched the carrot, Mairiana crouched in the dark corner. Alec should be meeting his young guard soon.

Her heart pounded and her stomach ached with nerves. What if Alec was not the man she thought he was? What if he discovered her here, spying on him? She could say she was simply giving her mare a treat, but would he believe her?

Days ago, when they'd been in Perth, she'd watched Alec talking secretly with the same guard just before they'd rushed to leave town at dawn. He did not even allow their party to break their fast. Of course, his father—the chief—was in on it, for he had not protested the early departure.

Hearing footsteps approaching, crunching through the straw of the stable's corridor, she hardly dared to breathe. The footfalls continued, back and forth, as if the person was pacing. Someone muttered a curse. 'Twas Alec's voice.

Her heart thumped so loudly, it blocked out most of the sounds he made. Oh, good Lord. Please don't allow him to find out I'm here, she prayed.

Moments later, she heard more footsteps in the straw.         

"Where have you been? I told you a half hour. Get in there," Alec said.

She listened to the men entering the empty stall next to Fern's. In the low light from the lantern in the corridor, she caught a glimpse of Alec's golden hair between the wide timbers of the wall. She wished she could move closer and peer through the narrow crack, but any movement in the straw would alert them to her presence. Praying they could not see her through the cracks, sitting hunched in the corner, she hid her face beneath the large cowl of the cloak. Remaining perfectly still, she listened.

"Where the devil is the money?" Alec demanded.

"I apologize for my lateness." The young guard's voice cracked as if he was nervous. "Here you are, sir."

The jingling sound of a leather coin pouch dropping into a palm reached Mairiana's ears, and then the tinkling of coins being stirred with fingers.

"Where's the rest of it?" Alec's voice was low but hard as steel.

"With all due respect, sir, you… you said I could keep half for doing such a risky job."

"You daft lad, this cannot be half," Alec growled. "How much did you sell it for?"

"The arms dealer refused to pay more than twenty pounds for it."

Alec quietly muttered a string of curses. "That damned dagger was worth a small fortune. The massive ruby in the hilt was genuine."

"Aye, but when I told him the price was two hundred pounds, he laughed and told me to get out. I tried to negotiate with him, but he would hear none of it. He said twenty pounds was his final offer. I took it because you told me to get rid of the dagger forthwith, before we were discovered."

"You imbecile," Alec hissed.

Saints! 'Twas true then. Tears burned Mairiana's eyes. Dugald had been right—Alec was a thief. She had trusted him. She had… loved him. But no more. If he'd lied about that, what else had he lied about? Her heart breaking, she held her breath for fear he would hear her. What would Alec do to her if he knew she eavesdropped and had learned he was behind the theft of her brother's priceless dagger?

"Give me the rest of it," Alec commanded in a low voice.

"What?" the guard asked.

"The rest of the money, you dimwit."

"I already spent my portion." The guard's voice trembled. "I owed a debt to the cobbler in the village. Shoes for my mother and sister."

"Liar," Alec growled.

"Sir? Wait… what…"

Mairiana could not identify the next sound until the guard gave a brief, gasping grunt. When she realized it had been the sound of a dirk stabbing through flesh and bone, icy terror paralyzed her.

"Bastard," Alec grated, sounding like a vile stranger. "No one betrays me."

More gasping and coughing.

The sound of a body slumping to the straw followed, then faint hints of pilfering and searching through a sporran and clothing. Straw rustled loudly, giving her an opportunity to lean over and peer through the crack. Alec was busy covering the body with straw. Saints! The guard was dead, surely. Fingers of revulsion crept over her and nausea welled in her stomach.

Alec hastened to the stall door, exited and latched it back, then his footsteps receded down the corridor.

Oh dear God in Heaven. Alec had murdered the poor guard. Her throat tightened and tears burned her eyes. 'Twas all she could do to hold back a retch. She covered her mouth. The man she thought she loved was a murderer, a thief and a liar.

She could never marry him. She had only known his façade. Not the real Alec.

Good lord, the wedding was to be in three days. How could she get out of it now? Alec would be furious if she left him standing at the altar. And if he knew she'd listened to him murder his own guard… he might even kill her, or threaten to, if she opened her mouth.

The wedding celebration would begin tomorrow, with feasting and dancing. The Lindsays' neighbors and friends from miles around would start arriving.

She would have to flee this place tonight and return home. Rornoch Castle was many miles away, several days' journey. She would have to travel alone—something she had never done. She knew no one here, beyond the Lindsays, and they certainly wouldn't help her escape. She had traveled to Lenor with Alec, his family and their guards. No one from her own clan had accompanied her.

The Lindsay clan would hate and revile her if she dared to break the betrothal now and call off the wedding. If one or both of her twin brothers were here, they would help her. Dugald or Tòmas would report Alec's crime to the authorities. Could Mairiana do that? She wanted to, but the local constable might be a beneficiary of the Lindsays' generosity. Besides, the clan would take their revenge against her. Even if he was a murderer, they would take his side. He was to be the future chief. He could do no wrong in their eyes.

How would she get through the portcullis and outside the curtain walls? The place was a fortress. Mayhap she could borrow a servant's clothes and slip out.

Someone walked by, outside the stall, leading a horse. She froze.

"Now that you've got a full belly, get to mucking out the stalls, Grant, or you'll be out on your arse," the stable master yelled. She remembered his strong Irish accent.

"Aye," came the low-growled reply.

A moment later, the stall door was yanked open and a tall man entered, carrying a pitchfork.

 

***

 

Darack MacGregor Grant stepped into the horse's stall, wishing he could take the pitchfork to O'Quigley, the stable master. Nay, 'twas the thief Alec Lindsay he wished to see on the end of the pitchfork—or better yet, a sword.

Darack forked up a pile of horse dung and tossed it into the large wooden wheelbarrow sitting just outside the door. As clandestine missions went, this was one of the worst, but he would do almost anything to see his mother smile again.

He turned to scoop up another pile but his gaze landed on a small dark form in the corner of the stall. He froze, at first wondering if the person hunched there would ambush him. They did not move.

"What are you doing there?" he blurted in a quiet tone. Were his eyes deceiving him in the low light? Had he lost so much sleep he was imagining things?

As his eyes adjusted to the dimness, he saw 'twas a lass wearing a black cloak, sitting on the ground with her knees drawn up. Her face was pale and her eyes wide.

"Hurry up in there, Grant!" O'Quigley yelled in the doorway as he passed. "You've ten more stalls to clean afore bedtime. Several guests will be arriving in the morn. The stables will be full to overflowing."

"Aye," Darack called back, forking more dung into the wheelbarrow. His gaze returned to the lass.

She placed a finger before her lips.

"What are you doing in here?" he whispered.

She rose to her full height, which was still almost a foot shorter than his own six feet, four inches. Even though the stall was dimly lit, he now recognized her—Lady Mairiana MacKerrick. Of course, he'd heard all the servants talking about how Alec was to marry her in a few days' time. He remembered her from a few years ago, when he'd gone with his cousin, the Grant chief, to Rornoch Castle to visit with her brothers. He'd thought her an overindulged and bratty young lass.

He doubted she would remember him.

When she didn't answer, he asked, "M'lady? Is something amiss?"

She took a step forward. "Darack MacGregor?"

"You must not speak that name here," he whispered, glancing at the open doorway. "I'm known as Darack Grant now." She should well remember the MacGregor name had been outlawed near the whole of their lives. To claim the name was to ask to be strung up on the gallows. His own father, the MacGregor chief, had been executed in Edinburgh when Darack was just a lad. Since then, they had lived like outlaws and vagabonds.

"I'm surprised you remember me," he said. "Do you need help, Lady Mairiana?"

"Aye. Do you promise to tell no one?" she whispered.

"Of course."

"I must find my way home, back to Rornoch." Tears glistened in her eyes.

Confused by her words, he frowned. "I thought you were going to marry Alec Lindsay in a few days."

"I was going to but… I cannot. He…" Clamping her lips between her teeth, she shook her head, blinking back more tears. "He is not the man I thought he was. Can you help me get back to my brothers?"

"Saints, lass," Darack hissed. What the devil was he supposed to do now? Hearing the footsteps of the stable master, he forked more manure into the wheelbarrow. If he left now, he couldn't complete the task he'd come here for.

Once O'Quigley's footsteps receded, he turned back to her. "Why did you decide not to marry him?"

"Alec is a thief, a liar and…."

Darack knew that already. 'Twas why he was here pretending to be a stable hand in need of work. The bastard Alec had stolen his mother's valuable brooch at a gathering of Highland clans two months ago. His father had given her the brooch on the day they married, many years ago. His mother treasured it above all things. 'Twas the only material possession she had from his father. Because of the king's proclamation fifteen years ago and the many MacGregor men executed, those still living—mainly women and children—had been forced to flee their own lands and take refuge with allied clans. Darack and his mother had sought the protection of her clan and, since then, pretended to be Grants. The MacGregors disbursed to the four winds like so much thistle down… Children of the Mist.

He couldn't give up on finding the brooch, the rightful property of his mother, something she valued so highly she'd rather starve than to sell it to buy food. Of course, he would never let it come to that, anyway. He and his kin always provided for his mother.

"What did Alec steal?" Darack asked.

"My brother's priceless dagger. He is also…" She snapped her mouth closed.

"What?"

She crept closer to him, then tugged at his arm until he leaned down. "He is also a murderer," she whispered so softly into his ear he could hardly hear her. She motioned with her thumb over her shoulder.

He frowned. What the devil was she trying to tell him?

"He killed one of his young guards and left him lying in that stall."

Shock spiked through Darack. "When?"

"About a quarter hour ago."

"And you are a witness?"

"I did not see everything. I heard it. And then I saw him covering the body with straw to hide it."

"Mayhap the guard is not dead." Even as he said it, he knew 'twas not the case. Even if the guard was only badly injured, he would not live long after a stab wound.

"I hope not, but… since I heard the stabbing sound and his cry of pain, he has been silent."

"I'll go see if he lives." Although it would put his own life in danger, Darack could not let a person lie suffering. "But if he is dead, I have to get you out of here before the body is discovered."

She nodded. "I fear if he finds out I know what he did, he will kill me, too. I thought I knew him well, but I know him not at all." In the low light, more tears gleamed in her eyes. "I have no friends here, no one from my own clan."

"Damnation," Darack muttered. Of course, he had to help her. He couldn't abandon her to Alec and his kin. "Hide here for a while longer and I'll slip you out later tonight. But first, I'm going to check on the guard." He prayed that being in the vicinity of the body would not implicate him in the murder.

 

***

 

"Aye, he is dead," Darack whispered through the cracks between the stalls.

"Saints preserve us. I knew it." Terror twisted in Marianna's gut. How could Alec do such a thing to his own man, a lad really, who had done nothing to him? 'Twas true he had helped steal the dagger and sell it, but he didn't deserve to die for that. Life was far more valuable than any jewels or weapons.

She heard Darack slip from the stall, latch the door, then push the wheelbarrow away over the straw.

Trying to remain calm and keep her dread at bay, Mairiana quietly petted her mare… well, Fern was not truly her mare. She was one Alec had allowed her to ride. But Mairiana had become attached to her during the past couple of weeks. She was a sweet, gentle animal.

"I'll miss you, Fern," she whispered softer than a breath.

O'Quigley paced up and down the corridor of the stables, demanding that Darack hasten his stall mucking.

Why on earth was Darack employed here, and in the stables, no less? He would be considered a gentleman of his own clan and not expected to do menial labor. Besides, he was from much further north. As the son of the long executed chief, he was in fact the rightful chief, but since King James had outlawed the MacGregors, he could not claim that title. Times were hard for his clan. Obviously, he'd been forced to assume the name Grant. She remembered he was the cousin of the Grant chief from when they had visited her brothers a few years before.

Mairiana would owe Darack a grand debt of gratitude if he helped her make it safely back home. She would convince Dugald to pay him, even if it took part of her dowry. She never wanted to marry now anyway.

What a fool she'd been, proclaiming to her brothers how much she loved Alec. They had rolled their eyes and indulged her, allowing her to choose her own husband. 'Twas highly irregular but she loved them for it. But now, since her judgement was so obviously flawed, no doubt Dugald would try to force her to marry some cantankerous old laird of his choosing. The thought made her nauseous. She would refuse.

In regards to Alec, Dugald would tell her I told you so in that arrogant and superior way of his. She deserved no less.

The stall door swung open, startling her, and Darack stood there, tall and imposing, his expression as dark as his eyes. "Get in," he murmured and motioned to the wheelbarrow crusted with manure mixed with straw.

She frowned down at it. "Are you mad?" she whispered. Not since she was a wee lass had she done such, and received a severe scolding from her mother for ruining her clothing. "This is one of my best gowns."

"Do you want to leave this place or not?"

"I'll walk out before I'll let you hide me beneath a pile of fresh manure. I'm sure they would hear my retching and gagging all the way into the great hall." Her voice was low but fierce.

"I'm going to throw this old canvas over you. No one is about, but if the guards should be watching from the ramparts, this will conceal you. Then I'll put you on the wagon."

"The manure wagon?"

"Aye. I'll drive it out beyond the portcullis toward the fields, where they use the moldering horse dung to enrich the soil for their crops."

She blew out a sharp breath. What the devil had she gotten herself into?

"Forget it then," he said with a dismissive shrug. "I was only trying to help you."

"All right." It appeared she had no other choice. She huffed and crawled onto the wheelbarrow while he held it steady.

"Lie down and draw your legs up close to your chest," he whispered. When she did, he threw the oiled, blackened canvas over her and tucked it around her.

"Grant!" O'Quigley yelled from the stables' entrance. "What are you doing?"

Copyright Vonda Sinclair 2016

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