Lilidh MacLerie has never forgotten Robert Matheson—the man who broke her heart. But now she is his hostage! Read on for an exclusive extract of At the Highlander’s Mercy, one of four exhilarating books in this box set by USA Today bestselling author Terri Brisbin!
Lilidh MacLerie, eldest daughter of the MacLerie laird and Earl of Douran, looked out her window and tried to sort through her options. This silent time between the gloaming and the night was her favourite when she needed to make decisions or choices. Remembering now that she’d made the decision that had brought her to this time and place made her pause. Mayhap she should wait until morning instead?
Turning from the window and gazing across the large, well-furnished chamber, she knew she had little time or choice…again. The parchment remained as she’d left it and she lifted it, tilting it so that the light of several candles made it able to be read. For the fiftieth time, she said the words and could not yet decide what else to write, when so much more was needed.
To the Earl and Countess of Douran, it began, using their formal titles first. Father and Mother, next.
And then the words disappeared.
How could she explain the private misery behind the very public death of her husband of only two months? The MacGregor’s death had been kept quiet for now until his heir, his younger brother, was approved by the clan elders as chief. Her purpose in this marriage—to bind their clans and to produce an heir for the MacGregor—was a failure. Though, even as an innocent young woman coming to this marriage, she understood that things were not as they should have been between her and Iain MacGregor.
The parchment in her hand moved in the current of the warm air created by the heat of the candles and reminded her that this task also went unfinished. Sitting at the table, she lifted the quill, dabbed the ink so it would not splatter and forced the words on to the page that would both embarrass and humiliate her in her parents’ and clan’s eyes.
I find myself in need of your counsel concerning the situation of my position here in Iain MacGregor’s household and family. As his widow, though with no hope of producing an heir, I know…
What did she know? She had married him under a contract negotiated by her uncle and signed by her father. Her dower portion was protected for her use and she had been given the choice of remaining here as part of her husband’s clan or to return to her own. Her uncle had made certain to protect her in the contract, but giving her such a choice made things more difficult than if she’d been simply told what to do.
If she remained, there would be another marriage arranged for her, to a suitable eligible man, to keep the bonds between the clans strong. If she returned home, there would be another marriage, but also she would face the disappointment of her family in her failure. And with no way to explain and with no one to speak candidly about it, what could she say? Lilidh dipped the quill again to freshen the ink and placed the tip of it on the parchment.
She was being a silly ninny. Her parents loved her and would accept her back, explanation or not. Her mother was the only one to whom she could speak on personal matters. As she had before her marriage, even if that conversation did not explain what had happened or, as it was, not happened between a husband and wife. Looking off at the flame of the candle, she took and released a deep breath, and did the only sensible thing she could: she asked leave to come home.
I find little reason to remain here and would ask your permission to return to Lairig Dubh as soon as an escort can be arranged. I would seek your counsel on other important personal matters, but I hesitate to put them in this letter.
Father, please send word if this is your pleasure.
Mother, please keep me in your prayers and ask the Almighty to watch over me during this trying time.
It was short, but to the point, and there truly was little else to say in her missive. Sanding it, Lilidh allowed the ink to dry and then folded the letter, sealing it with the ring her father had given her on the anniversary of her birth a year before. She would send it off on the morrow with one of the MacLerie servants who had accompanied her here. Hopefully, within a fortnight, she would have an answer from her parents and know what her future held for her.
But how could she explain that though she was a bride and a widow, she’d never been a wife?
* * *
Jocelyn MacCallum, wife to Connor MacLerie, held the parchment before her and read it once more. The sadness in her daughter’s words was clear to her. Lilidh, her eldest daughter, was never anything but confident and self-assured. But the words, nay, the tone of this latest letter, told her that Lilidh was lost.
‘You will give her permission?’ she asked her husband as he climbed from their bed and walked to where she sat. As she glanced up, her mother’s heart grew heavy in her chest. Lilidh was far away and all Jocelyn wanted to do was to take her in her arms and soothe away the pain that was so evident in her words.
‘I am discussing it with Duncan and the other elders,’ Connor replied quietly as he lifted the parchment and placed it back on the table. ‘The MacGregors have kept Iain’s death quiet until his heir is in place. With tensions so high and war with their rival clan the MacKenzies in the air, they do not wish to open themselves to attack. But, for this night, there is nothing to be done, Jocelyn. Come back to bed.’ He took her hand in his and entwined their fingers, tugging her to stand.
She allowed her husband to wrap her in his arms, much as she wanted to do to Lilidh, but Jocelyn realised quickly that his aim had little to do with comforting a lost child. She caught her breath as he lifted her in his strong arms and carried her back to their bed. She understood that her husband’s need for her as well as his attempts to distract her from her sadness and taking too much interest in clan decisions brought on his intimate attentions. She’d allow it, later, for those same reasons.
For now, she asked her last question once more, not content to let the men make this critical decision without her counsel.
‘Will you bring her home?’ She watched as many emotions crossed her husband’s face, but the final one that settled was acceptance. As she knew it would.
‘Aye. I was simply waiting on her word.’
She leaned into him and kissed his mouth. ‘Did you send her word yet?’ He pulled her close, surrounding her with his strength and his love. Kissing her forehead, he rested his chin on her head.
‘The message to the MacGregor will go out on the morrow. She should be home in a sennight.’
‘And the implications?’ she asked. This marriage arrangement had been between clans and chiefs and not simply between a man and woman. And it had been part of their, the fathers’ and the mothers’, wager to find the best match for their children. Since this involved her daughter, Jocelyn had been left out of most discussions, except for the private ones she’d had with Connor. Ones that always seemed to end up with them in bed!
‘You know the implications. No questions have been raised to me about her involvement in Iain’s death, so the MacGregors must be at peace with how it happened. Her dowry will be returned to us and any future marriages will be at my discretion.’
Those were the words she wanted to hear. Lilidh would return home to her family and her future happiness would again be in her father’s hands, along with the counsel of his closest relatives and advisers…and her.
But since Jocelyn had thought this marriage a good one, she could little complain about Connor’s choice. Whatever had happened—between Iain and Lilidh and to cause his death—had ended any chance that it could prove out.
Comforting done, Connor lifted his head and touched their mouths together. In only moments, the passion between them flared and Jocelyn savoured it. This is what she’d hoped Lilidh would find in her marriage. Even though older and married before, Iain had seemed a kind soul and appeared to worship Lilidh. Their betrothal and marriage showed promise and Jocelyn had no doubt that she would soon have grandchildren from the match.
Now, Iain was dead and Lilidh returning home.
She would get to the real reasons and to the true situation once she had Lilidh back and they could speak plainly. Her letter asked for such counsel, almost begged for it, and she would help her daughter in any way she could.
But, for now, her husband demanded her attentions and when the Beast of the Highlands called to his mate, she always answered.
Robert Matheson clenched his teeth until he thought they would crumble under the pressure. Anything, anything to keep from letting his anger and frustration spill out the way he wanted to. Clenching his fists did not help either and finally he could not allow this madness to continue.
‘Halt!’ he called out to those bickering before him. ‘Attacking the MacLeries will lead only to our destruction.’ Looking from one to the next, he met their gazes and realised the futility of trying to stop them. If he could not stop them, he must delay them. ‘If we are to do so, we must have a plan and ready ourselves. It cannot be done as quickly as you would like.’ Or as easily as they thought.
The Matheson clan elders had approved him as chief when his father passed, but it had been a hard-won battle. His cousin, Symon, the son of his father’s older sister, had been in contention and was suited for the warmongers among the councillors. Rob, on the other hand, had a clear understanding of the strength and power and fighting might of the MacLerie clan for he had spent years among them.
As Connor MacLerie’s foster son.
Rob had lived for five years with them, learning his own fighting skills from the best of their warriors, learning battle strategies from their tacticians and the ways to prevent battles from their negotiator. Now, he had no intention of leaping into a fight with a clan he could not defeat. Or worse, with a clan who would destroy them and leave not a piece of wood or stone standing on their lands. Though listening to some on the council drone on and on about all the reasons they should and listening to those who knew nothing and understood less made him think about letting them all charge into the fray unprepared.
Still, his innate loyalty to his family, kith and kin stopped him from goading them into such an act. Glancing at his other cousin, Dougal, the one who did not wish to be laird, he waited for the only person with some sense to speak up and support his plan. Dougal did and though those wanting war did not quiet completely, it did make them listen.
‘Robbie is right,’ Dougal called out, gaining their attention. ‘To rush in against such a clan will result in all our deaths.’ Some grumbled at his declaration, but the others quieted and waited on his words. ‘Let the laird study this and make the necessary plans. Hear him out when he does for no one knows the MacLeries as he does. If there is a weakness to be found, he is the one to find it.’ His voice rang out in the silence, but Rob did not know whether to cheer or to strangle him.
The best way to defeat the MacLerie? The Beast of the Highlands?
There was none.
Rob’s actions so far must even be considered a betrayal of their bond by Connor. Attacking would simply be a death warrant for him and the rest of the Mathesons. The only weakness the man had was for his children and, other than that, he was ruthless in weeding out enemies and dealing with betrayal. Breaking his ties with Connor at the behest of the council and currying favour with the MacKenzies had been the hardest thing he’d ever done. He did not doubt there would be hell to pay over it.
Dougal finished and stepped back, allowing Rob to move to the centre of the dais while the men were yet calm.
‘I have been gathering information already,’ he said. ‘Even now, I’ve sent messengers out to determine their weaknesses and vulnerabilities. In a few days or a sennight at the most, we will meet and prepare our plans.’
He dismissed them with his most imperious wave, hoping they would obey—and they did. All save Dougal left him in peace. He returned to the table and filled his goblet with ale. When Rob turned back, Dougal remained. He poured another goblet and handed it to his cousin, the one who did not wish to be laird.
‘You sounded convincing, Rob,’ Dougal said. He drank a couple of mouthfuls and then wiped his mouth with his arm. ‘Do you have a plan?’
‘Other than praying to the Almighty for a flood?’
‘You had that look in your eyes,’ Dougal said laughing. ‘You never could bluff.’ Dougal met his gaze and all mirth disappeared. ‘What will you do?’
‘Stall for more time,’ Rob said. ‘I cannot figure out why they want to go up against the MacLeries. Come now—I cannot be the only one who knows their strength?’
Rob drank deeply, watching the servants in the hall preparing for the evening meal. It was not as spacious or well appointed a hall as the one at Lairig Dubh, but it was his. He’d sworn an oath to protect his family and if it had to be from themselves, so be it. Something more was going on here, something he could feel, but could not see, and getting the real reason why some in the clan wanted to ally them with the MacKenzies and break all past ties with the MacLeries was critical.
‘How can I help?’ Dougal asked, putting the now-empty goblet down on the table.
They both watched as a comely maid approached and took the goblet and the pitcher to refill it. Unmarried and one of the most beautiful of his cousins, removed by several generations, Ellyn smiled at them and sauntered away, her shapely hips moving in a rhythm meant to entice and draw attention. A moment or two passed before they regained their senses and their subject.
‘As I said, how can I help?’ Dougal repeated.
Rob looked at his closest friend and decided he must trust someone in this matter before everything went out of control. Stepping closer, he lowered his voice.
‘Someone is behind this effort to make the MacLeries our enemies. Though not friends or enemies of the MacKenzies, they avoid each other’s areas of concern and properties. So this intentional goading is not something either one wants and not something we can afford to get in the middle of now.’ He paused and checked to see who was near them. Seeing no one, he said, ‘I suspect that my cousin Symon is the one, but without proof, I cannot accuse.’
Dougal studied him and then nodded. ‘I will see what I can do.’
Rob smacked his shoulder. ‘I will be in your debt.’
Dougal strode off, leaving Rob behind to deal with the other matters that faced a clan chief and laird every day. Complaints from villagers. Requests from the clan. Demands from the elders that he marry his betrothed—Symon’s sister—as his bride sooner to unite the two fighting factions. And on and on each day.
When he had been fostered by Connor, he’d never dreamt of being in this position—chief of his family and in charge of their holdings. The laird, his natural father, was hardy and young enough to produce a male heir in addition to the lasses he’d had with several wives. With his new wife heavily pregnant, the expectation was that a son would be born. A direct, legitimate heir.
As son of the laird’s older sister, Symon should have had no expectations other than being counsellor to the next laird, or to serve him in some capacity. As the laird’s bastard, Rob’s expectations were lower still. Now, his father and his wife were dead in an accident and Rob, illegitimate or not, had been chosen to lead the clan.
And his cousin Symon, legitimate or not, was not.
As Rob watched Dougal make his way out of the hall, he knew Dougal would find out the truth. In the meantime, Rob needed to gather those loyal to him and be ready to head off this foolish attempt—both to usurp his position, a position he’d discovered he truly did want, and to throw the existing treaties with the MacLeries and the MacKenzies into disarray.
He prayed only that there was time before the disaster he could feel in his bones arrived on his doorstep.
Lilidh turned to the right, trying to decide if she truly was seeing someone moving along their path in the shadows or if it was a trick of the light and the leaves. She peered into the darkness of the forest and watched more carefully for a few moments. Not certain, she rode on, never mentioning it to either of her companions or their guards. Then, just as they followed the turn in the road that would take them south to Lairig Dubh, the attack came.
One moment they were riding quietly along and in the next, the men descended from the hills around them and, though Lilidh was a good rider, she found herself unhorsed and standing encircled by five armed warriors. She gazed at them as she drew her dagger. She would fight them if only her leg would remain strong.
And she did, turning the handle of her blade in her palm for a better grip and swiping it around her to keep them from getting too close too quickly. Glancing around to see how the others fared, Lilidh realised only she remained standing while the rest lay scattered around the area either dead or unconscious. She took a deep breath and tried to run, but someone grabbed her from behind and dragged her up against their large, muscular body. Like being thrown against a rock wall, it forced the air from her body. A beefy hand entangled in her loosened hair and her head was dragged back. With her neck exposed so, she knew it was only a matter of moments before she died. Offering up a silent prayer asking for forgiveness of her sins, she waited for the death-blow to strike.
‘Who is she?’ a gruff voice demanded from beside her. The one holding her turned their bodies as one until she could see her maid across the clearing. Or at least her lifeless body as one of the other men touched her with his foot.
Isla made no sound and did not move. Lilidh drew in a ragged breath at the possibility that the older woman who had helped raise her was dead. Her eyes burned with tears, but then her anger rose at such a thought. The woman was there to see to her comfort and now lay dead because… Because of what? Of whom? The daughter of the Beast of the Highlands felt his pride rise in her blood.
‘Who are you to attack those travelling under the MacLerie banner?’ she asked, struggling to pull free. ‘What do you want?’
One of the men broke away from the others and strode towards her. The expression in his dark gaze made her take a step back, but the taller man behind her was like a wall that kept her in place. ‘You are the MacLerie’s girl.’
It wasn’t a question so Lilidh did not answer. Her chin lifted. Her pride would not allow her to slink away or hide her heritage. Still, she would know who dared to attack them.
‘And who are you? Why do you need to kill an innocent woman?’ she said, refusing to cry out as the man holding her prisoner wrenched her head back with a rough tug.
The dark-eyed man nodded to the one holding her and the other one nearer to Isla. She opened her mouth to demand her freedom when the blow hit her from behind and her world went black.
* * *
Each of the next several days went from bad to something that resembled his idea of hell. Rob managed to calm one faction of his family only to have another rise up in complaint. He wondered many times through those last days how Connor MacLerie made it look so easy. Peering over the rim of his goblet as yet another storm brewed in his hall, Rob realised that the one thing that Connor had to help him was his terrible reputation, one not completely undeserved, as the murderous Beast of the Highlands. As he glanced from one squawking Matheson to another, he considered murdering them all and gaining himself a similar reputation.
Symon had been quieter than usual, but that only worried Rob more. At least when he was making noise or complaining, he knew what Symon was up to. His cousin had been absent from the keep and village without word. A worrying thing, that.
He was about to summon Dougal when the doors to the hall were thrown open and a large group of warriors, under Symon’s control and with him in the lead, came crashing in, yelling and calling out to each other as though celebrating some great victory. Rob nodded to the man he’d appointed as his commander and by the time his cousin and the others reached the front of the hall, additional soldiers had entered and taken positions around the chamber. If Symon noticed, he did not say, but his swagger and manners spoke of trouble walking towards him.
‘Rob,’ Dougal said as he approached from the other side. He took his place behind his laird as Symon reached the dais. ‘He is up to nothing good.’ Rob only nodded, never taking his gaze off the seething group of men, and waited. The attack was not long in coming.
‘You have dragged your heels long enough, Laird,’ Symon began, using his title as a curse. ‘The Mathesons will not serve a leader who will not lead them.’
Shouts both for and against him rippled through the men gathered there and they gained the attention of anyone who might have otherwise passed on through, carrying out their duties. Soon an even larger audience listened to Symon’s threats to his position as chief. Symon waited and then waved them quiet.
‘It matters not now, for I have done what you could not and would not do.’
After making that challenge to his leadership, Symon walked forwards and climbed the first step. Rob blocked him from moving forwards. Every man in the hall tensed and the air seethed with discontent and hostility. Dougal’s hand moved to the hilt of his sword, but Rob shook his head, holding him from taking that step.
‘I care not for your words, Symon,’ Rob said, stepping down and forcing Symon to move back. He did. ‘I am chief and will make decisions for this clan.’
Crossing his arms over his chest, he watched Symon’s expression as all those loyal to him lined up behind Rob. All the elders save one, Murtagh, gathered with him, but Murtagh’s move was not a surprise to Rob. The old man had supported Symon’s claim throughout the time of uncertainty and did not yield now.
‘You refuse to take action against the MacLeries, though we want it,’ Symon said. Rob’s gut seized, warning of something bad coming. The next words confirmed it. ‘Lachlan, come,’ he called.
Symon motioned with his hand and his men separated. One of the men strode forwards from the back of the hall while Symon’s gaze never left his. Lachlan carried a bundle over his shoulder and Rob could not guess what it contained. Then he saw the bundle move, much as a body would if carried in that manner, and he drew a breath through his clenched teeth.
‘Symon,’ he whispered, ‘what have you done?’
He turned from the self-satisfied smirk of his cousin and towards the man and the bundle. Taking no care, Lachlan dropped it on the rush-covered floor just in front of them and stepped back. This was not going to end well, for neither him nor the person they’d kidnapped.
‘You have orchestrated this. Carry on, Symon, and let us see who lies within,’ he said. Better to see what challenge he faced then drag this out, he thought.
Symon, not a small man, though not as large as Lachlan, walked to the bundle, untied the ropes encircling it and tugged an end free. With a grip on that and one good flick, the bundle unrolled and unrolled until a woman was freed and left lying at their feet.
A woman who had ropes around her wrists and ankles and a sack over her head. A woman who did not move now, in spite of Symon’s prodding foot. A woman who had suffocated to death from their harsh treatment?
‘What the hell did you do, Symon?’ he shouted as he bent over the woman. Tugging the sack off her head and then removing the gag he found there, he summoned one of the women over to see to her as he stood and dragged Symon aside. ‘Who is this and why did you kidnap her?’
‘We did not kidnap her, Rob. She is a prisoner of war,’ he said.
‘We are not at war,’ Rob said as one possibility began to tease his thoughts. Even Symon would not be so bold and brash as to… Nay! It could not be. Was it truly Lilidh MacLerie?
Rob had turned back to look at the woman who lay unconscious on his floor. The servant had pushed her hair from her face and was dabbing at her dirt-covered face with a wet cloth. He took in the costliness of her clothing and the jewelled rings on her hand, not missing the gold band that spoke of her married state.
Then he noticed the gently arching brows, the curve of her neck and the full lips that had enticed him even in his youth and yet haunted his dreams—and he knew it was her.
‘You kidnapped the MacLerie’s daughter? She is wed to Iain MacGregor.’
He swore under his breath now as the implications hit him. This was an act of war against two powerful clans. Worse, this was not simply taking their cattle or burning a few farms, which would be insult enough. This was a personal attack as well on both clans and their chiefs. Holy Christ, what had Symon got them into now?
‘Dougal, check the guards. Brodie,’ he called to the steward, ‘get the outlying families into the village and gather the stores.’
He pushed Symon aside and walked over to take a closer look at Lilidh. As he could have predicted, she’d fought against them when they took her—the bruises on her face and her torn fingernails showed that much. The markings of a man’s fingers on her neck made his own clench in response. What else had they done to her?
‘How did you find her?’ he asked, as he strode towards Symon. Nothing, nothing would give him greater pleasure now than pounding his face into the floor and breaking a few of his bones. Grabbing Symon by the neck, he forced him back several steps until his back met the wall behind him. ‘Where are the others?’
Symon’s gaze moved to something or someone over Rob’s shoulder and Rob knew Lachlan approached. With a nod of his head, his men took care of that threat. ‘Where are they?’ he asked again, squeezing hard until Symon choked for breath.
‘She was returning to Lairig Dubh. We took her on the road just after the river as she left the MacGregors’ lands,’ he forced out.
‘And her guards? Her servants?’ No daughter of the MacLerie and wife of the MacGregor would travel alone.
‘A few of the guards are dead. We left the rest of them and took their horses.’
‘Did they see you?’ he asked, but he knew the answer. They made sure they could be identified as Mathesons. Symon wanted the MacLeries and MacGregors to know who’d taken Lilidh. They wanted to force his hand into war.
He tossed Symon to the ground and turned back to the servant at Lilidh’s side. ‘Find a chamber for her.’
‘She is my prisoner, Rob. I want her held in the aerie.’
‘You think she is that dangerous?’ he asked, pointing to the unconscious woman on the floor.
The aerie was in one of the oldest parts of the keep and sat open to the winds. Lightning had struck the roof and blown it away and no one had ever repaired it. Though mostly unused, it had been used as a cell for prisoners in the past…the far, far past. Rob turned back to argue with Symon and to assert his control over any prisoner of the clan when she moved.
Within a few moments, she’d seized a dagger from one of his men and held the servant woman hostage. The wild expression in her eyes spoke of her confusion, but warned him of her uncertain behaviour. Spreading his hands out to show he was unarmed, he began to walk towards her slowly and evenly.
‘Here now, lass,’ Rob said softly. ‘Let Edith go and all will be well.’
His words might have worked until Symon began jeering at her and his men added their taunts. Overwhelmed and injured, she glanced left and right, estimating her escape routes, he was sure. She dragged Edith with her, using her as a shield as she moved. When Lilidh blinked several times and stumbled, Rob suspected a head injury. He tried to follow her moves, staying the same distance from her and speaking quietly to her, but his voice was drowned out by Symon’s men.
‘Silence!’ he yelled, trying to regain control over a dangerous situation.
Well, he did manage to get the men under control but it gave Lilidh the moment she was watching and waiting for and she pushed Edith at him and ran for the door. He passed Edith off once she regained her balance and ran to catch up with her before she got to the door or before Symon reached her. Symon was faster and he got between her and the door, forcing her to stop. He wondered how she could move so quickly on her leg.
‘Come now,’ Symon urged her towards him. ‘Do you want to try me again?’ he goaded.
Rob swore he would kill Symon for this, but first he must stop Lilidh before she was seriously hurt. He doubted that Lilidh knew where she was or even who he was. No glimmer of recognition filled her eyes when their gazes met, but years had passed since she’d seen him last and he’d done the usual growing up that young men did. No matter the manner of their parting, he would never forget what she looked like. Turning his attentions back to her, he decided that he would need to gain her trust.
‘Lilidh MacLerie,’ he called out to her. ‘Do you remember me?’ he asked while waving Symon off. When his men positioned themselves to intervene, Symon finally backed off, though the expression in his eyes promised it was not the end of his challenge to Rob’s leadership. ‘Lilidh?’
Her hand, holding the dagger out before her, began to shake badly and she lost her balance once more. Just when he thought she would tumble to the floor, she righted herself and pushed her hair out of her eyes and tried to focus on him.
‘Who are you? Why have you done this?’ she said as she looked from one man to another and to the next. ‘Does my father know about this?’ Rob waited for her to bring her gaze back to him and then he smiled at her.
A silent moment passed and then another and another before the light of recognition flared in her forest-green eyes. Then she shook her head, though whether in disbelief or confusion he knew not. Lilidh opened her mouth several times, but no words escaped. The distraction was all he needed to gain control of her without hurting her more so he crossed the empty space between them in a few paces, grabbed her wrist and squeezed until she dropped the dagger. Kicking it aside, he still held on to her. As she probably had when Symon took her, she did not allow his hold to remain there. She began backing away, pulling and tugging, trying to free herself.
Lilidh just did not realise she had no chance of escape. As Dougal and some others returned to the hall, he gave one sharp tug and pulled her close, wrapping his arms around her from behind. Rob noticed the smell of blood and saw the thick patch of it on her head—she had been struck and knocked unconscious. Tightening his hold on her, he leaned down and whispered in her ear so that only she could hear his words.
‘Lilidh, you are safe with me. No one will hurt you.’
All the times he’d dreamt of holding her in his arms he had never seen it happening this way. But his body reacted, regardless of how and why, as he felt the womanly curves resting under his arms. Once she realised who he was, any chance of holding her like this would disappear for ever. She belonged to another man and could never be his. She was the daughter of a powerful chief and he was a bastard pretending to be laird.
It would never be, so why not make that clear from this moment on? Taking in a breath, he spoke the words that would separate them for ever…again.
‘Lilidh, it’s me, Rob Matheson.’
Her body stiffened for a moment and then she tried to turn to look at him. He relaxed his grip a tiny bit to allow her to do that. Her green gaze searched his face, seeing the changes that growing up and fighting had wrought there, and he watched as her expression changed. The fear remained, but shock entered it now and she trembled again. It only took a few seconds before the next emotion filled those beautiful green eyes and it was the one he was hoping for. It would help her survive whatever happened around them.
Anger. Her eyes filled and flashed with it and her hand lifted as he’d expected it to. Although she swung with all her might, he captured it easily and held it between them.
‘’Tis good to see you, too, Lilidh. It’s been a long time,’ he goaded her a-purpose.
‘You bastard,’ she swore at him. ‘You are behind this?’
Before he could answer, Dougal called out to him.
‘Some of the villagers come. The gates are secured,’ Dougal said as he approached, not missing the lovely woman still in his arms. ‘This is the MacLerie’s daughter, then?’ he asked, his appreciative gaze clear to everyone watching.
‘Aye. His eldest girl.’ Rob pitched his voice to sound uninterested.
‘And you two are acquainted?’ he asked, meeting Rob’s glance.
‘Do not be a fool, Dougal. Here…’ he held out Lilidh’s hand towards the man and pushed her closer ‘…put her some place for now.’ Dougal’s gaze narrowed and he looked from him to Lilidh and back again.
‘Symon said the aerie. Is that where you want her?’ Dougal watched him closely as he asked his pointed, probing questions.
Where did he want her? In his bed, naked, was the first place he thought of, but the one he could never admit. Shaking his head to clear the lust from his thoughts, he considered the aerie, with its position high in the old tower, one that could be approached by only one stairwell and would be easily defended. Putting her there would keep Symon satisfied and make him less of a problem. And, if her family came calling sooner than he expected, her position there would make them think twice before assaulting the keep.
Hell! What was he thinking?
The aerie was barbaric with its open walls, cracked wooden roof and nothing in the way of comfort. Putting her there would be another way to tweak the MacLeries and the MacGregors into acting against him faster than they already would. Rob stepped away from Dougal and Lilidh and dragged his hands through his hair. The others stood watching and waiting on his word—Symon, Dougal, his men, the elders, all the others who called him chief and those who would remove him with but a wrong word.
‘Take her to my chambers,’ he ordered quietly, hating the way that Dougal’s right eyebrow lifted in silent censure, but not willing to deny it.
The hall erupted with shouts from those backing Symon and those backing him. He would bring this under control and make Lilidh hate him even more than she probably did at this moment.
‘She is my prisoner!’ Symon demanded, shaking his fist at Rob. Rob quickly and without warning strode over to Symon and punched him in the jaw, knocking him to the floor as he’d wanted to do for days.
‘I am chief here and she is my prisoner. You wanted to anger the MacLerie and draw him into a fight? ’Twas your thought that kidnapping her would do it? Well, you have brought her here and she is mine now. Taking her to my bed will be even more effective in drawing him here.’
‘I will not be—’ Lilidh began to say but he gave her no time to say more. Rob turned and was in front of her before she could finish any declaration she would make.
To show her, to show them, who was in charge, he grabbed her by the shoulders and lifted her to him, taking her mouth in a claiming kiss that told one and all that he would possess her body and soul before this was done. His demonstration was so successful that all of them began to cheer and urge him on.
Her mouth that was closed against his now softened and he deepened the kiss, tasting the sweetness he had craved for years. Tasting the passion that had lay dormant between them for so many reasons. Reasons that were important then, but now flew off like a flock of summer geese in the autumn’s chill. His thoughts scattered as his body reacted to her mouth and the enticing way she touched her tongue to his.
Until she latched on to the tip of his and bit him! Chiding himself for losing his mind under the guise of putting on a show for those watching, he pushed her back into Dougal’s arms and laughed as he wiped blood from his mouth. Blood she’d drawn.
‘Symon, you wait for me in the solar. Dougal, put her in my chambers. Use a rope or chains if you need to keep her there. I will see to her later,’ he ordered.
Lilidh didn’t say a word as Dougal led her away, but the expression now in her eyes resembled the one in Symon’s eyes just minutes ago. One that promised death and mayhem—with him as the target.
He turned away to see to another task before dealing with those challenging his position and wondered if he or his clan would survive this encounter with Lilidh MacLerie.
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