How does a woman tell her betrothed that she murdered her first husband?
Shipwrecked in the Scottish Highlands, American heiress Elise Kingston quietly plans revenge for the deaths of her daughter and the brother who sacrificed his life to save her. When Marcus MacGregor, Marquess of Ashlund, returns to his Highland home to discover a stunning American woman has been taken in by his clan, his attraction is instant and he resolves to make her his--no matter what secret she's keeping. Elise is shocked by her need for Marcus and, too late, discovers that her feelings make him a target of her enemy--a man powerful enough to destroy even a Scottish nobleman.
"The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away." Or so her eulogy would begin.
The heavy gold wedding band clinked loudly in the silence as he grasped the crystal tumbler sitting on the desk before him. He raised the glass in salutation and whispered into the darkness, "To the dead, may they rot in their watery graves." He finished the whiskey in one swallow.
And what of that which had been hers? He smiled. The law would see that her wealth remained where it should—with him. A finality settled about the room.
Soon, life would begin.
* * * *
Solway Firth, Scottish-English border
Elise jumped at the sound of approaching footsteps and sloshed tea from the cup at her lips. The ship's stateroom door opened and her grip tightened around the delicate cup handle. Her husband ducked to miss the top of the doorway as he entered. He stopped, his gaze fixing on the medical journal that lay open on the secretary beside her. A corner of his mouth curved upward with a derisive twist and his eyes met hers.
With deliberate disinterest, Elise slipped the paper she'd been making notes on between the pages of the journal and took the forestalled sip of afternoon tea. She grimaced. The tea had grown cold in the two hours it had sat untouched. She placed the cup on the saucer, then turned a page in the book. As Robert clicked the door shut behind him, the ship's stern lifted with another wave. She gripped the desk when the stern dropped into the swell's trough. Thunder, the first on the month-long voyage, rumbled. She released the desk. This storm had grown into more than a mere squall.
Robert stepped to her side. "What are you doing?"
"Nothi—" He snatched the paper from the book. "Robert!" She would have leapt to her feet, but her legs were shakier than her hands.
He scanned the paper, then looked at her. "You refuse to let the matter lie."
"You don't care that the doctors couldn't identify what killed your daughter?"
"She is dead. What difference can it possibly make?"
Her pulse jumped. None for you. Because you murdered her.
He tossed the paper aside. "This has gone far enough."
Elise lifted her gaze to his face. She once thought those blue eyes so sensual. "I couldn't agree more."
The ship heaved.
"I will give you a divorce," she said.
"Divorce?" A hard gleam entered his eyes. "I mean to be a widower."
She caught sight of the bulge in his waistband. Her pulse quickened. Why hadn't she noticed the pistol when he entered?
Elise shook her head. "You can't possibly hope to succeed. Steven will—"
"Your illustrious brother is in the bowels of the ship, overseeing the handling of the two crewmen accused of theft."
Her blood chilled. When her father was alive, he made sure the men employed by Landen Shipping were of good reputation. Much had changed since his death.
"One of the men is wanted for murder," Robert said.
"Murder?" she blurted. "Why would a stranger murder me?"
Robert lifted a lock of her dark hair. "Not a stranger. A spurned lover." He dropped the hair, then gripped the arms of her chair and leaned forward. "Once the board members of Landen Shipping identify your body as Elisabeth Kingston, the stipulation in your father's will shall be satisfied and your stock is mine."
The roar of blood pounded through her ears. If he killed her now, he would never pay for murdering their daughter. And she intended that he pay.
Elise lunged for the letter opener lying in one of the secretary compartments. The ship pitched as her fingers clamped onto the makeshift weapon. As Robert yanked her to her feet, she swung the letter opener. Bone-deep pain raced up her arm when the hard mass of his forearm blocked her blow. The letter opener clattered to the wooden floor.
She glimpsed his rage-contorted features before he whipped her around and crushed her to his chest, pinning her arms to her sides with one powerful arm. He dragged her two paces and snatched up the woolen scarf lying on the bed. In one swift movement, he wound it around her neck.
Robert released her waist, grabbed the scarf's dangling end, and yanked it tight around her neck. Elise clawed at the scarf. Her nails dug into the soft skin of her neck. Her legs buckled and he jerked her against him. His knees jabbed into her back and jolts of pain shot up both sides of her spine. She gulped for air.
His breath was thick in her ear as he whispered, "Did you really think we would let you control fifty-one percent of Landen Shipping?" He gave a vicious yank on the scarf.
No! her mind screamed in tandem with another thunder roll. Too late, she understood the lengths to which he would go to gain control of her inheritance.
The scarf tightened. Her sight dimmed. Cold. She was so cold.
Amelia, my daughter, I come to you—the scarf went slack. Elise dropped to her knees, wheezing in convulsive gasps of air. Despite the racking coughs which shook her, she forced her head up. A blurry form stood in the doorway. Steven.
The scarf dropped to her shoulders and she yanked it from her neck. Robert stepped in front of her and reached into his coat. The pistol. He had murdered her daughter—he would not take Steven from her. Elise lunged forward and bit into his calf with the ferocity of a lioness.
Robert roared. The ship bucked. Locked like beast and prey, they tumbled forward and slammed against the desk chair. The chair broke with the force of their weight. The secretary lamp crashed to the floor. Whale oil spilled across the wooden floor; a river of fire raced atop the thin layer toward the bed.
Steven yanked her up and shoved her toward the door. Robert scrambled to his feet as Steven whirled and rammed his fist into Robert's jaw. Her husband fell against the doorjamb, nearly colliding with her. Elise jumped back with a cry. Robert charged Steven and caught him around the shoulders, driving him back onto the bed.
The ship bucked. Elise staggered across the cabin, hit her hip against the secretary, and fell. The medical journal thudded to the floor between her and the thick ribbon of fire. Her heart skipped a beat when Robert slammed his fist into Steven's jaw.
She reached for the open book and glimpsed the picture of the belladonna, the deadly nightshade plant. Fury swept through her anew. She snatched up the book, searing the edge of her palm on the fire as she pushed to her feet. Elise leapt forward, book held high, and swung at Robert with all her strength. May this belladonna kill you as your powdered belladonna killed our daughter. The crack of book against skull penetrated the ringing in her ears. Robert fell limp atop Steven.
The discarded scarf suddenly blazed. Elise whirled. Smoke choked her as fire burned the bed coverings only inches from Robert's hand. Steven grabbed her wrist and dragged her toward the door. He scooped up the pistol as they crossed the threshold and they stumbled down the corridor to the ladder leading up to the deck.
"Go!" he yelled, and lifted her onto the first tread.
Elise frantically pulled herself up the steep ladder to the door and shoved it upward. Rain pelted her like tiny needles. She ducked her head down as she scrambled onto the deck. An instant later, Steven joined her. He whirled toward the poop deck where Captain Morrison and his first mate yelled at the crewmen who clung to the masts while furiously pulling up the remaining sails and lashing them to the spars.
Steven pulled her toward the poop deck's ladder. "Stay here!" he yelled above the howling wind, and forced her fingers around the side of the ladder.
The ship heaved to starboard as he hurried up the ladder and Elise hugged the riser. A wave broke over the railing and slammed her against the wood. She sputtered, tasting the tang of salt as she gasped for air.
A garbled shout from the captain brought her attention upward. He stared at two men scuttling down the mizzen mast. They landed, leapt over the railing onto the main deck and disappeared through the door leading to the deck below. They had gone to extinguish the fire. If they didn't succeed, the ship would go down.
Elise squinted through the rain at Steven. He leaned in close to the captain. The lamp, burning in the binnacle, illuminated the guarded glance the captain sent her way. A shock jolted her. Robert had lied to the captain about her—perhaps had even implicated Steven in her so-called insanity. The captain's expression darkened. He faced his first mate.
The ship's bow plunged headlong into a wave with a force that threw Elise to the deck and sent her sliding across the slippery surface. Steven shouted her name as she slammed into the ship's gunwale. Pain shot through her shoulder. He rushed down the ladder, the captain on his heels. Another wave hammered the ship. Steven staggered to her side and pulled her to her feet. The ship lurched. Elise clutched at her brother as they fell to the deck. Pain radiated through her arm and up her shoulder. The door to below deck swung open. Elise froze.
He pointed a pistol at her. Her heart leapt into her throat. Steven sprang to his feet in front of her.
"No!" she screamed.
She spotted the pistol lying inches away and realized it had fallen from Steven's waistband. She snatched up the weapon, rolled to face Robert, and fired. The report of the pistol sounded in unison with another shot.
A wave cleared the railing. Steven disappeared in the wash of seawater. Elise grasped the cold wood railing and pulled herself to her feet. She blinked stinging saltwater from her eyes and took a startled step backwards at seeing her husband laying across the threshold. Steven lay several feet to her right. She drew a sharp breath. A dark patch stained his vest below his heart. Dear God, where had the bullet lodged?
She started toward Steven. The ship listed hard to port. She fought the backward momentum and managed two steps before another wave crested. The deck lurched and she was airborne. She braced for impact against the deck. Howling wind matched her scream as she flew past the railing and plummeted into darkness—then collided with rock-hard water.
Cold clamped onto her. Rain beat into the sea with quick, heavy blows of a thousand tiny hammers. She kicked. Thick, icy ribbons of water propelled her upward. She blinked. Murky shapes glided past. This was Amelia's grave. Elise surfaced, her first gasp taking in rainwater. She coughed and flailed. A heavy sheet of water towered, then slapped her against the ocean's surface. The wave leveled and she shook hair from her eyes. Thirty feet away, the Amelia bounced on the waves like a toy. Her brother had named the ship. But Amelia was gone. Steven, only twenty-two, was also gone.
A figure appeared at the ship's railing. The lamp high atop the poop deck burned despite the pouring rain. Elise gasped. Could he be—"Steven!" she yelled, kicking hard in an effort to leap above another towering wave. Her skirts tangled her legs, but she kicked harder, waving both arms. The man only hacked at the bow rope of the longboat with a sword. "Steven!" she shouted.
The bow of the longboat dropped, swinging wildly as the man staggered the few steps to the rope holding the stern. A wave crashed over Elise and she surfaced to see the longboat adrift and the figure looking out over the railing. Her heart sank. The light silhouetted the man—and the captain's hat he wore. Tears choked her. It had been the captain and not Steven.
Elise pulled her skirts around her waist and knotted them, then began swimming toward the boat. Another wave grabbed the Amelia, tossing her farther away. The captain's hat lifted with the wind and sailed into the sea. She took a quick breath and dove headlong into the wave that threatened to throw her back the way she'd come. She came up, twisting frantically in the water until she located the ship. She swam toward the longboat, her gaze steady on the Amelia. Then the lamp dimmed… and winked out.
England lay far behind him, though not far enough. Never far enough. Marcus breathed deep of the crisp spring air. The scents of pine and heather filled his nostrils. Highland air. None sweeter existed. His horse nickered as if in agreement, and Marcus brushed a hand along the chestnut's shoulder.
"It is good to be home," Erin spoke beside him.
Grunts of agreement went up from the six other men riding in the company, and Marcus answered, "Aye," despite the regret of leaving his son in the hands of the Sassenach.
He surveyed the wooded land before him—MacGregor land. Bought with Ashlund gold, held by MacGregor might, and rich with the blood of his ancestors.
"If King George has his way," Erin said, "your father will follow the Duchess of Sutherland's example and lease this land to the English."
Marcus jerked his attention onto the young man. Erin's broad grin reached from ear to ear, nearly touching the edges of his thick mane of dark hair. The lad read him too easily.
"These roads are riddled with enough thieves," Marcus said with a mock scowl. His horse shifted, muscles bunching with the effort of cresting the hill they ascended. "My father is no more likely to give an inch to the English than I am to give up the treasure I have tucked away in these hills."
"What?" Erin turned to his comrades. "I told you he hid Ashlund gold without telling us." Marcus bit back a laugh when the lad looked at him and added, "Lord Phillip still complains highwaymen stole his daughter's dowry while on the way to Edinburgh." He gave Marcus a comical look that said you know nothing of that, do you?
"Lord Allerton broke the engagement after highwaymen stole the dowry," put in another of the men. "Said Lord Phillip meant to cheat him."
"Lord Allerton is likely the thief," Marcus said. "The gold was the better part of the bargain."
"Lord Phillip's daughter is an attractive sort," Erin mused. "Much like bread pudding. Sturdy, with just the right jiggle."
A round of guffaws went up and one aging warrior cuffed Erin across the back of his neck. They gained the hill and Marcus's laughter died at sight of the figure hurrying across the open field below. He gave an abrupt signal for silence.
The men obeyed and only the chirping of spring birds filled the air.
* * * *
"Tavis," Elise snapped, finally within hearing range of the boy and his sister, "this time you've gone too far and have endangered your sister by leaving the castle."
His attention remained fixed on the thickening woods at the bottom of the hill and her frustration gave way to concern. They were only minutes from the village—a bare half an hour from the keep and safely on MacGregor land—but the boy had intended to go farther—much farther. He had just turned fourteen, old enough to carry out the resolve to find the men who had murdered his father, and too young to understand the danger.
Bonnie tugged on her cloak and Elise looked down at her. The little girl grinned and pointed to the wildflowers surrounding them. Elise smiled, then shoved back the hood of her cloak. Bonnie squatted to pick the flowers. Elise's heart wrenched. If only their father still lived. He would teach Tavis a lesson. Of course, if Shamus still lived, Tavis wouldn't be hunting for murderers.
Those men were guilty of killing an innocent, yet no effort had been made to bring them to justice. The disquiet that always hovered close to the surface caused a nervous tremor to ripple through her stomach. While Shamus's murderers would likely never go before a judge, if Price found her, his version of justice would be in the form of a noose around her neck for the crime of defending herself against a man who had tried to kill her—twice.
Any doubts about her stepfather's part in Amelia's death had been dispelled a month after arriving at Brahan Seer when she read a recent edition of the London Sunday Times brought by relatives for Michael MacGregor. She found no mention of the Amelia's sinking. Instead, a ten thousand pound reward for information leading to the whereabouts of her body was printed in the announcements section.
Reward? Bounty is what it was.
The advertisement gave the appearance that Price was living up to his obligations as President of Landen Shipping. But she knew he intended she reach Boston dead—and reach Boston she would, for without her body, he would have to wait five years before taking control of her fifty-one percent of Landen Shipping. She intended to slip the noose over his head first.
Elise caught sight of her trembling fingers, and her stomach heaved with the memory of Amelia's body sliding noiselessly from the ship into the ocean. She choked back despair. If she had suspected that Robert had been poisoning her daughter even a few months earlier—
Elise jerked at Bonnie's squeal. The girl stood with a handful of flowers extended toward her. Elise brushed her fingers across the white petals of the stitchwort and the lavender butterwort. She was a fool to involve herself with the people here, but when Shamus was murdered she been unable to remain withdrawn.
"Riders," Tavis said.
Elise tensed. "Where?"
"There." Tavis pointed into the trees.
She leaned forward and traced the line of his arm with her gaze. A horse's rump slipped out of sight into the denser forest. Goose bumps raced across her arms.
Elise straightened and yanked Bonnie into her arms "It will be dark soon—" Tavis faced her and she stopped short when his gaze focused on something behind her.
Elise looked over her shoulder. Half a dozen riders emerged from the forest across the meadow. She started. Good Lord, what had possessed her to leave Brahan Seer without a pistol? She was as big a fool as Tavis and without the excuse of youth. She slid Bonnie to the ground as the warriors approached. They halted fifteen feet away. Elise edged Bonnie behind her when one of the men urged his horse closer. Her pulse jumped. Was it possible to become accustomed to the size of these Highland men?
She flushed at the spectacle of his open shirt but couldn't stop her gaze from sliding along the velvety dark hair that trailed downward and tapered off behind a white lawn shirt negligently tucked into his kilt. The large sword strapped to his hip broke the fascination.
How many had perished at the point of that weapon?
The hard muscles of his chest and arms gave evidence—many.
The man directed a clipped sentence in Gaelic to Tavis. The boy started past her, but she caught his arm. The men wore the red and green plaide of her benefactors the MacGregors, but were strangers.
"What do you want?" She cursed the curt demand that had bypassed good sense in favor of a willing tongue.
Except for a flicker of surprise across the man's face, he sat unmoving.
Elise winced inwardly, remembering her American accent, but said in a clear voice, "I asked what you want."
Leather groaned when he leaned forward on his saddle. He shifted the reins to the hand resting in casual indolence on his leg and replied in English, "I asked the boy why he is unarmed outside the castle with two females."
Caught off guard by the deep vibrancy of his soft burr, her heart skipped a beat. "We don't need weapons on MacGregor land." She kept her tone unhurried.
"The MacGregor's reach extends as far as the solitude of this glen?" he asked.
"We are only fifteen minutes from the village," she said. "But his reach is well beyond this place."
"He is great, indeed," the warrior said.
"You know him?"
She lifted Bonnie. "Then you know he would wreak vengeance on any who dared harm his own."
"Aye," the man answered. "The MacGregor would hunt them down like dogs. Only," he paused, "how would he know who to hunt?"
She gave him a disgusted look. "I tracked these children. You think he cannot track you?"
"A fine point," he agreed.
"Good." She took a step forward. "Now, we will be getting home."
"Aye, you should be getting home." He urged his horse to intercept. Elise set Bonnie down, shoving her in Tavis's direction. "And," the man went on, "we will take you." The warriors closed in around them. "The lad will ride with Erin. Give the little one to Kyle, and you," his eyes came back hard on Elise, "will ride with me."
The heat in his gaze sent a flush through her, but her ire piqued. "We do not accept favors from strangers."
His gaze unexpectedly deepened.
She stilled. What the devil? Was that amusement on his face?
"We are not strangers," he said. There was no mistaking the laughter in his eyes now. "Are we, Tavis?" His gaze shifted to the boy.
"Nay," he replied with a shy smile. "No' strangers at all, laird."
"You know this man?" Elise asked.
"He is the laird's son."
"Marcus!" Bonnie cried, peeking from behind Elise's skirts.
Elise looked at him. Marcus? This was the son Cameron had spoken of with such affection these past months? It suddenly seemed comical that she had doubted Cameron's stories of his son's exploits on the battlefield. She had believed the aging chief's stories were exaggerations, but the giant of a man before her was clearly capable of every feat with which his father had credited him.
Prodded by the revelation, she discerned the resemblance between father and son. Though grey sprinkled Cameron's hair, the two shared the same unruly, dark hair, the same build… and… "You have his eyes," she said.
Heat flooded her cheeks. She pulled Bonnie into her arms. "You might have said who you were." She gave him an assessing look. "Only that wouldn't have been half as much fun. Who will take the child?"
His gaze fixed on the hand she had wrapped around Bonnie and the small burn scar that remained as a testament of her folly. His attention broke when a voice from behind her said in a thick brogue, "'Tis me ye be looking for, lass." She turned to a weathered warrior who urged his mount forward.
Elise handed Bonnie up to him. Stepping back, she bumped into the large body of a horse. Before she could move, an arm encircled her from behind, pulling her upward across hard thighs. A tremor shot through her. She hadn't been this close to a man's body since—since those first months of her seven-year marriage.
Panic seized her in a quick, hard rush. The trees blurred as her mind plunged backward in time to the touch of the man who had promised till death do them part. Her husband's gentle hand on their wedding night splintered into his violent grip the night he'd tried to murder her—the movement of thighs beneath her buttocks broke the trance as Marcus MacGregor spurred his horse into motion. His arms tightened around her and she held her breath, praying he couldn't hear her thudding heart.
The ambling movement of the bulky horse lifted her from Marcus's lap. She clutched at his shirt. Her knuckles brushed his bare chest and she jerked back as if singed by hot coals. Her body lifted again with the horse's next step and she instinctively threw her arms around Marcus's forearm. His hold tightened as rich laughter rumbled through his chest.
"Do not worry, lass. Upon pain of death, I swear, you will not slip from my arms until your feet touch down at Brahan Seer."
Elise grimaced, then straightened in an effort to shift from the sword hilt digging into her back.
"What's wrong?" He leaned her back in his arms and gazed down at her.
She stared. Robert had never looked so—she sat upright. "I've simply never ridden a horse in this manner."
"There are many ways to ride a horse, lass," he said softly.
Elise snapped her gaze to his face, then jerked back when her lips nearly brushed his. She felt herself slip and clutched at his free arm even as the arm around her crushed her closer. Her breasts pressed against his chest where his shirt lay open. Heat penetrated her bodice, hardening her nipples. A surprising warmth sparked between her legs. She caught sight of his smile an instant before she dropped her gaze.
* * * *
Their ascent steepened. Marcus closed the circle of his arms around the woman's waist. She leaned into him. It was a shame she wore a cloak. Without it, her bare arms would lay against his chest. He hardened. Bloody hell. Shift even a hair's breadth and the challenge he'd seen in her gaze an hour ago would resurface, accompanied by a slap across his face.
She had betrayed no fear when he came upon her—other than her open assessment of his weapon. Odd his sword should be what frightened her. She must have known if he meant mischief, he needed no weapon save his body. An erotic picture arose of her straddling him, breasts arched so he could suckle each until she begged him to lift her onto his erection.
He forced back the vision and focused on her determination to defend the children with her life… or perhaps, her body. He smiled, then gritted his teeth when he further hardened at the memory of her leaning over Tavis's shoulders as she scanned the forest for the riders he'd sent. Hands braced on her knees, her posture revealed the curve of a firm derriere.
When she turned at their approach, the wind had blown her brown hair about her shoulders, bringing his attention to the sensual curve of modest breasts visible just above the edge of her bodice. He envisioned hips tapering into long legs and wondered what those legs would feel like wrapped tightly around his waist while he thrust deep inside her.
Her accent had caught him off guard. What was an American woman doing on MacGregor land, and how had she come to know Tavis and Bonnie well enough to track them through the woods? Hot fury shot through him. The little fool. Had the wrong man come upon her, she might well have ended up like Katie.
The majestic heights of Brahan Seer's west tower abruptly loomed in the distance. Marcus's steed unexpectedly faltered, then steadied. The woman tensed and Marcus's body pulsed. He closed his eyes, breathed deep of her hair, then looked again at the tower. For the first time in his life, he regretted the sight. His ride with her cradled in his arms would soon end.
Higher they climbed, until Brahan Seer's walls became visible. The gates were open. At their approach, his captain Daniel hailed from the battlements. Marcus nodded as they rode through the entry. Inside the courtyard, he halted and Daniel appeared at his side.
"Elise," he addressed the woman, surprise apparent on his features. He glanced at the children, his gaze lingering on Bonnie. His mouth tightened. "Mayhap Marcus can take a hand with you, Tavis. Get along, and take your sister. Your mother will be worried."
Marcus handed Elise down to him. Before Marcus's feet touched the ground, she had started toward the castle. He dismounted and clasped Daniel's hand while watching from the corner of his eye the sway of her cloak about her hips as she answered a welcoming smile from two of his men headed toward the stables.
"What were they doing out alone?" Marcus demanded of Daniel.
"I've ordered the boy not to go wandering the woods," he replied.
"This is the first. I imagine she chased after her brother."
Elise turned the corner around the castle and Marcus cut his gaze onto her the instant before she disappeared. Lust shot to the surface and tightened his shaft, but he turned back to Daniel. "Why is Shamus letting his children run wild—never mind. I'll speak to him. You look well."
Daniel hesitated, then said, "Chloe is with child."
Marcus smiled in genuine pleasure. "Congratulations, man."
Daniel smiled, then took the reins as Marcus turned toward the castle.
Through the busy courtyard, he answered greetings, but his thoughts remained on the image of Elise as she vanished from sight. She had a forthright, strong quality. Yet—he bent his head to breathe her lingering scent from his clothes—the lavender bouquet in her hair was decidedly feminine. It would be some time before he forgot the feel of her buttocks across his thighs. But then, perhaps he wouldn't have to. Marcus entered the great hall to find his father sitting alone in his chair at the head of the table.
Cameron brightened. "So, ye decided to come home?"
Relaxing warmth rippled through Marcus.
"Tired of wandering the land?" Cameron made a wide sweeping gesture.
"You knew I was on my way, but, aye." He stopped at the chair to his father's right and lowered himself onto the seat. "I am pleased to be home."
"How is my grandson? I see you did not bring him with you."
Marcus sighed. "Nay, Father. You knew I wouldn't."
Cameron snorted. "We would not want to offend the mighty Sassenach."
"Father," Marcus said in a low tone.
Cameron shook his head. "The clan never asked you to concede to the English, you know. I never asked for it. Did you ever wonder if the sacrifice is worth your son?"
"Aye," Marcus murmured. He'd wondered. Politics had ruled the MacGregor clan for centuries and that wasn't easily changed. He paused. "Have I been gone too long, or is something different about the great hall?"
"You have the right of it, lad." Eyes that mirrored his own looked back at him. "More than you can imagine."
Marcus looked about the room. "I can't quite place it. What's happened?"
Cameron took a long, exaggerated draught of ale.
"Enough of your looks, lad. They do not work with me." He chuckled. "I taught them to you. Remember? It is no mystery, really. Look around. When did you last see the tapestries so bright, the floors so clean?" He motioned toward the wall that ran the length of the room, framed by stairs on either end. "When have you seen the weapons so polished?"
Marcus scanned the nearly two hundred gleaming weapons mounted across the wall. He rose and walked the wall's length, perusing the weapons. Each one glistened, some nearly as bright as newly forged steel. He glanced at the floor. The stone looked as if it had just been laid.
He looked at his father. "What happened?"
"The women came one day—or rather, one month—and swept out the cobwebs, cleaned the floors, the tapestries, weapons."
Marcus rose and crossed the room to the kitchen door where the women worked. The housekeeper sat at the kitchen table. Ancient blue eyes, still shining with the bloom of youth, smiled back at him. Winnie had been present at his birth. Marcus knew she loved him like the son she'd never had. He, in turn, regarded her with as much affection as he had his own mother.
She turned her attention to the raw chicken she carved. "So, you've returned at last."
A corner of her mouth twitched with amusement.
"I am looking forward to the company of some fine lasses tonight," he said. "'Tis a long and lonely trip I've had. Perhaps next time I shall take you with me." He gave her a roguish wink before striding back to his seat in the hall.
Marcus lowered himself into the chair he had occupied earlier. "Must have taken an army just to shine the weapons alone. Not to mention the walls and floors."
"It did. You will see the same throughout the castle. Not a room went untouched."
"Whatever possessed them to do it?"
"It was the hand of a sweet lass," Cameron replied.
"Which one? Not Winnie—"
"Nay. The lass Shannon and Josh found washed ashore on the coast. They brought her when they returned from the south."
"An American woman. Her ship perished in a fire."
Cameron scowled. "Are you deaf? Shannon is the one who discovered her at Solway Firth."
"What in God's name was she doing there?"
Cameron gave his chin a speculative scratch. "Damned if I know. They were headed for London."
"London? Sailing through Solway Firth requires sailing around the north of Ireland. That would add a week or more to the journey."
His father's mouth twisted into a wry grin. "You know the English, probably got lost."
"I thought you said she was American."
"English, American, 'tis all the same." Cameron's expression sobered. "But dinna' mistake me, she is a fine lass. She came to us just after you left for Ashlund four months ago. You should have seen her when they brought her here. Proud little thing."
"Proud, indeed," Marcus repeated.
"'Tis what I said." Cameron eyed him. "Are you sure something isn't ailing you?"
Marcus shook his head.
"At first, she didn't say much," Cameron went on. "But I could see a storm brewed in her head. Then one day, she informed me Brahan Seer was in dire need of something." He sighed deeply. "She was more right than she knew."
Marcus understood his father's meaning. His mother's death five years ago had affected Cameron dramatically. Only last year had his father finally sought female comfort. The gaping hole created by her absence left them both thirsting for a firm, feminine hand.
"It's a miracle she survived the fire," Cameron said. "'Course, if you knew her, you would not be surprised."
"I believe I do," Marcus remarked.
"What? You only just arrived."
"I picked up passengers on the way home—Tavis, little Bonnie, and an American woman." Marcus related the tale. "I recognized her accent," he ended. "Got accustomed to it while on campaign in America."
Cameron smiled. "Elise is forever chasing after those children."
His father's expression darkened. "Shamus was murdered."
Marcus straightened. "Murdered?"
"By God, how—Lauren, what of her?"
Sadness softened the hard lines around his father's mouth. "She is fine, in body, but… her mind has no' been the same since Shamus died. We tried consoling her, but she will have none of it."
A tingling sensation crept up Marcus's back. "What happened?"
"We found him just over the border in Montal Cove with his skull bashed in."
"Any idea who did it?"
"Aye," Cameron said. "Campbells."
Marcus surged to his feet. He strode to the wall, where hung the claymore belonging to his ancestor Ryan MacGregor, the man who saved their clan from annihilation. Marcus ran a finger along the blade, the cold, hard steel heating his blood as nothing else could. Except… Campbells.
Had two centuries of bloodshed not been enough?
Fifty years ago, King George finally proclaimed the MacGregors no longer outlaws and restored their Highland name. General John Murray, Marcus's great uncle, was named clan chief. Only recently, the MacGregors were given a place of honor in the escort, which carried the "Honors of Scotland" before the sovereign. Marcus had been there, marching alongside his clansmen.
Too many dark years had passed under this cloud. Would the hunted feeling Ryan MacGregor experienced ever fade from the clan? Perhaps it would have been better if Helena hadn't saved Ryan that fateful day so long ago. But Ryan had lived, and his clan thrived, not by the sword, but by the timeless power of gold. Aye, the Ashlund name Helena gave Ryan saved them. Yet, Ryan MacGregor's soul demanded recompense.
How could Ryan rest while his people still perished?
Marcus removed his hand from the sword and faced his father. "It's time the MacGregors brought down the Campbell dogs."
Feminine laughter spilled from the kitchen into the great hall during the evening meal. Marcus sighed with contentment. Light from sconces flickered like a great, filmy curtain across the room. Two serving girls carrying trays of food stepped from the kitchen, and the men, who blocked the doorway, parted. The sense of contentment came as an almost unconscious realization. He had missed sharing the evening meal with his clansmen. Marcus leaned forward, arms crossed in front of him on the table, and returned his attention to the conversation with Cameron and Daniel.
"We will be ready at first light, laird," Daniel said.
"The Campbells will not be expecting trouble," Cameron put in.
"If word has reached them that I've returned, they may be," Marcus said.
Cameron grunted. "Lot of good it will do."
The feminine voice Marcus had been waiting for filtered out from within the kitchen. "Easy now, Andrea," Elise said.
The conversation between his father and Daniel faded as Marcus watched for her amongst the men who crowded between the door and table. The thought of seeing her beautiful body heated his blood. Elise stepped from the kitchen, balancing a plate of salmon. She passed the table's end where he sat and carefully picked her way through the men until reaching the middle of the table. She set the oval platter between the chicken and mutton.
"Beth, place the carrots to the left. Andrea—" She took the plate of potatoes from the girl, then set it to the right and turned toward the kitchen.
"Elise," one of the young warriors called, "come, talk with us, lass."
Her mouth quirked. "If I play with you, who will finish dinner?"
The man's hearty chuckle gave evidence she hadn't fooled him, and he approached with friends in tow.
Cameron stood. "Elise," he called over the men's heads, "come here."
She turned. When her gaze met Cameron's, warmth filled her eyes. She dried her hands on her apron and headed in his direction.
"Go on, lads," Cameron said to the men who teased her. "You have better things to do than dally with the lassies."
When she came within arm's reach, he gripped her shoulders. "Meet my son. He's returned today." He turned her.
Her gaze met Marcus's. Her smile faltered but quickly transformed into polite civility. "We've met."
"Oh?" Cameron replied, all innocence.
"Yes. He came by when Tavis, Bonnie, and I were on our way home this afternoon."
"Ahh," Cameron said, then turned and gave the man beside him an energetic greeting.
Elise looked again at Marcus and motioned toward the kitchen. "I have work to do."
"Aye," he said. The memory of her breasts pressed against his chest caused him to harden.
She backed up a few steps, then turned and ran headlong into the man behind her. He reached to steady her. A flush colored her cheeks and Marcus bit back a laugh when she dodged the warrior. Marcus leaned forward, catching one last look at her backside before she disappeared through the kitchen door.