Highland Warrior Series, Book 2
The second book in the breathtaking Highland Warrior series, get ready to fall in love with The Rebel of Clan Kincaid.
LOVE IS A BATTLEFIELD
Since childhood, Magnus has been led to believe he is the Laird Alwyn’s bastard, and raised to hate the Clan Kincaid. But when he learns he is without a doubt the son of the murdered Laird Kincaid, his life as he has always known it is shattered. Now, hiding his knowledge and his fury, he returns to Burnbryde Castle, awaiting the chance to strike against the man whose treachery robbed him of his legacy. His first act of rebellion: to steal a kiss from the redheaded beauty who’s betrothed to the Alwyn’s eldest son and heir.
Since her arrival at Burnbryde, Tara Iverach has been confined to a tower to guard her virtue before she marries. But after a surprise embrace with a lean, bare-chested Highlander who claims to be the Alwyn’s oldest son, she can’t contain her excitement over her good fate. Unfortunately, he is the wrong eldest son, and she is set to marry his cruel and lecherous half brother, Hugh. Can Magnus conquer his rivals and claim his Kincaid destiny before the woman who’s captured his heart becomes his sworn enemy’s bride?
“Blackwood is a fantastic new voice in Scottish romance. Get ready to be carried away!”—New York Times bestselling author Monica McCarty on The Beast of Clan Kincaid
Near about the same time.
“Awaken, child,” said a woman’s voice, low with urgency. The dim light of a lantern washed over the stone walls of Tara Iverach’s small chamber. “Your guardian sends word that he travels near and wishes an audience.”
Tara pushed up on the narrow bed. The drab blanket fell away, exposing her skin to the chill. She shivered and seized the wool back against her neck and shoulders. Sister Agnes’s words echoed in her ears.
Her guardian … Alexander Stewart, the powerful Earl of Buchan … here, in this humble place?
To see her?
“You must be mistaken,” she said, her voice thick with sleep.
She had never even met him. Her “guardian” had shown no interest in her in the five years since her parents’ deaths, when he had become responsible for her and her older sister, Arabel. Almost immediately he had summoned Arabel to be presented at court, while Tara had been delivered to Duncroft Priory where she had remained ever since, with only a rare letter from Arabel—once, perhaps twice a year—to remind her she had not been completely forgotten.
“I wish that I were mistaken,” Sister Agnes replied with a peevish lift of her brows. “I would much rather be sleeping than tending to you. Now hurry. You must be ready before sixth hour prayers.”
Tara’s heart jumped, beating faster. At long last, she would meet Buchan … the man who controlled her destiny. But what did his visit mean? Would she be taken away from Duncroft? Would her life change somehow, from this day on? Or did the earl simply pass by in his travels, and seek to lay eyes on her for a brief moment before continuing on?
Sister Agnes took hold of her braid. Deftly unfastening it, she combed out Tara’s hair with quick, brusque strokes.
Tara gasped, wincing, and rubbing at her temple.
Others entered then, two sleepy-eyed sisters carrying a small hip tub and novices with steaming buckets of water. Oh … a real bath—a rare luxury here. Most certainly she would be rushed through, and not allowed to enjoy it. Tara had learned early on that the sisters of Duncroft were not ones to waste time on indulgent pleasures, and she very much doubted her early-morning, harried bath would be the exception. After five years of living among them, each day very much a mirror of the day before, she’d learned not to expect special attention or coddling of any sort.
In less than an hour, she stood in the chapel along with the other inhabitants of the priory reciting prayers, her skin scrubbed pink and her hair tightly braided—and covered, as it was always covered with a veil. She dutifully murmured the words, but her thoughts wandered elsewhere.
She could not subdue her feelings of optimism. Might this be the last time she stood here? The last time she would wear this shapeless gray gown? It was almost too much to hope for. After years of the cloister’s quiet, uneventful existence, she had come to believe she would be confined here forevermore, forgotten by all, her life unlived—her heart never having loved.
Not that the other women who resided at the priory served an unimportant or unfulfilled purpose. They had chosen to devote themselves to the Lord, striving each day to center their thoughts and energies on Him.
Well, most of them had chosen to be here. Some were here, not precisely by choice. There was Lady Gavina, a lively and intriguing gentlewoman who had been deposited here around the same time as Tara, but by a husband who claimed she was mad in order to repudiate her so that he could marry her prettier and much younger cousin.
Lady Gavina was not the only “mad” wife at Duncroft Priory. Indeed, there was a row of rooms, just beside Tara’s, each one occupied by a raving lunatic who never raved, never lunaticked. Scattered among them were a few accused adulteresses.
Some of the sequestered ladies seemed completely content to exist in the peace and quiet, away from the turmoil that had committed them here. Indeed, some only left their chambers for prayers.
Others ached to return to at least some aspects of the life they had left behind—as did Tara. She remembered happy scenes of life as it had been when her parents were alive. Now, no longer a child, she wanted to attend festivals and tournaments, as her sister described in her letters. She wanted to gossip with friends, and dance and laugh, and be introduced to—and flirt—with young men, the sort of creature she’d not caught a single glimpse of in her five long years here. Her chest tightened with wistful hope.
She wanted to live.
And now Buchan was coming. Perhaps now that she was twenty, he would present her at court, as he had Arabel, and she and her sister could spend their days together in happy coexistence, as they had when they were younger. Maybe not every day, because Arabel would be married soon, if she was not already, as the last letter she’d written several months before had shared the news the earl had betrothed her to the eldest son of a powerful ally.
Alwyn. It was a name she had never heard, but she heard very little within these quiet walls. Unfortunately, Arabel had always been a disappointing writer of letters and as usual, her letter was maddeningly devoid of the details Tara craved. Was Buchan a kind and considerate guardian who acted with Arabel’s happiness in mind? Was she pleased with his choice of husband for her? Would she have a new gown for the occasion. If yes, was it threaded with glass beads or pearls—or both? Instead, Tara was left knowing very little about the earl’s temperament, and what she might expect from him as a guardian, and whether Arabel was even happy …
Just as the prayers came to an end, from behind Tara there came a sudden, excited whispering of female voices. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw two dark-haired, angular-jawed young men in the doorway wearing fine leather hauberks belted with silver-studded scabbards, their boots splattered with mud. They peered inside, their cheeks ruddy, their hair ruffled as if from travel, smiling arrogantly, at least to her unpracticed eye, though she could not claim to be an expert on male expressions. Several of the younger ladies from the Mad and Adulterous Wives corridor smiled back at them.
An older man with a close-trimmed dark beard and imperious bearing joined them, shouldering between them, his features drawn with impatience. All three men had similar prominent noses and dark eyes that identified them as kin to one another. Tara’s pulse tripped. It had to be Buchan. She had imagined someone older, and gray haired.
“Where is my ward?” he demanded testily, causing her heartbeat to ramp higher. “Come now, my time is important. Please don’t waste it.”
Sister Agnes approached him quickly, nodding and extended an arm toward Tara. “Mistress Iverach, this way.”
Tara moved quickly as well, not wishing to be barked at for tarrying overlong. All along her way, the ladies stood back, watching the moment unfold. As she drew near, three pairs of male eyes latched onto her. It had been years since she had drawn the attention of anyone besides that of her fellow ladies. Her cheeks betrayed her self-consciousness, filling with heat.
Her gaze met the earl’s for the briefest moment—and his eyes struck her through with their intensity.
“My lord,” she murmured, bowing her head and curtsying as her mother had taught her to do so many years before, arms slightly extended.
“Mistress Iverach,” he said in a low voice. “How … lovely you are.”
“This way,” said Sister Agnes.
Tara held back, waiting for the men to follow, but they only stared at her in darkly amused silence.
The earl gestured that she should go before them. “I insist.”
She lowered her gaze and followed Sister Agnes. The heavy fall of their boots sounded on the stones close behind her and she felt their stares on her back. Perhaps it was only her lack of familiarity with men, but there was something distinctly unnerving about the earl and his companions. Though handsome and clearly schooled in all manner of noble manners, they cast an intimidating … predatory energy that put her on her guard. Was it intentional? Her instincts told her yes.
Her guardian was a powerful man—the king’s youngest son. She realized that. Still, she had hoped to be meeting a different sort of man, someone warmer and kinder, who she might look upon as a fatherly sort of figure.
Yet … wasn’t it wrong of her, and more than a little foolish, to render judgment based on just a few moments spent together? She was only nervous, having never met them, and unused to the company of men. And most certainly Arabel would have warned her if the earl was anything less than honorable.
No doubt Buchan and those who accompanied him were simply travel-worn and hungry, and not at their best, just as she would not be under the same circumstance. She must express gratefulness that he had traveled out of his way to visit her, and more importantly, keep her heart and mind open. Her mother, if she were still alive, would insist upon it. Also, if she impressed him perhaps he would allow her to leave the cloister for a life outside the walls, if that was not already his intention.
Sister Agnes led them to a room, in which a large table had been laid out with an extensive breakfast. Only as Tara and the men went inside, the sister drew back, remaining near the door like a sentinel statue, silent and watching. The scent of baked bread, meat, and eggs hung in the air, driving a stab of hunger through her stomach as she had not yet eaten, but she assumed they would break their fast together after introductions. Tara moved toward the hearth until she felt its warmth through her clothing, and turned to face her visitors with what she hoped was a welcoming expression.
“Welcome, my lord,” she said. “I am so pleased to finally meet you.”
“Hmmm, yes,” the earl answered. He approached her, coming to stand so close she smelled the scent of earth and mist carried on his garments. “And I, you.”
He smiled, his mouth drawing back on one side, enough to show teeth … something that struck her as a display of arrogance rather than a greeting of sincerity and warmth. His eyes, sharp and scrutinizing, moved over her face—and then her person—in a way that made her want to step away. To turn away. Instead, she forced herself to hold still, her arms at her sides, and her shoulders straight.
She heard one of the earl’s companions chuckle, though she knew not which.
Inside, she bristled, for the laugh offended her. It was neither noble nor gentlemanly to make a young woman feel as she did now, as if she were the object of some private jest.
She looked at her guardian, with all hope and expectation that he would, in the next moment, redeem himself.
But Buchan’s smile widened by a degree—as if he too were deeply amused by her—and then dropped from his lips completely. He peered down his nose at her as he removed his leather gloves, one by one.
“As you have surmised, I am your guardian, Buchan. These are my sons … Duncan Stewart, my elder—” With the hand that held the gloves, he gestured to one, with a wider face and a lock of hair that fell across his forehead, who nodded solemnly—and then to the other, who boldly held her gaze like a sharp-eyed, overconfident wolf. “And that is Robert.”
They were indeed related, then, as she had surmised. Although she had already decided she did not like either of them very much, Tara acknowledged each of Buchan’s sons with a nod.
He tucked his gloves into a wide belt at his waist—but his eyes … his eyes consumed her.
“And you, Mistress Iverach are … a child no more,” he murmured. The earl moved closer to her, slowly circling her, coming so near she could feel his breath against her cheek and the heat of his body through the leather he wore. So close the skin at the back of her neck pricked in alarm. “A woman full grown.”
He stood too close. And the way he looked at her …
“A woman full grown indeed,” he growled, low in his throat.
He made her very uncomfortable. She looked to Sister Agnes for reassurance, but the woman stood motionless and stone faced, watching in silence.
All of a sudden, his arm came up behind her, and he caught her by the shoulder. She gasped, startled.
“Don’t be frightened,” he murmured intimately.
“I am not frightened,” she answered, between clenched teeth.
Should she be?
At the moment she was merely appalled. She just did not like his touch—a forceful half-embrace, which joined her to his shoulder and his hip. It was too abrupt and intimate, and clearly intended as proof of his power over her.
But he was her guardian, and she must submit … mustn’t she? It was what she had been taught, since birth, as a well-bred young woman. To respect her father, and those men her father respected, and her father had chosen this man to be her and Arabel’s guardian.
“What do I see here?” he said, as his other hand came up.
She flinched, knowing he intended to touch her again.
“Sir,” she protested softly, but firmly.
“Be still,” he commanded.
He caught her chin, and forced her to look into his eyes, their faces so close she tasted his breath … smoke tangled up with ale, and night. Yet then he released her face and with a turn of his wrist deftly removed her veil.
She stood rigid and unmoving as his gaze moved from her face—to her hair.
His eyebrows rose, as he looked.
“How very … uncommon,” he breathed, nostrils flaring. His grip tightened on her arm. “The color … so unlike your sister’s.”
It was often remarked upon that she and Arabel looked nothing alike, but that wasn’t true. Their features were similar. It was only that her hair was red, like their father’s, while her sister’s was brown. Red hair was common enough, but she had been told more than once that her particular shade—
The earl’s voice grew husky. “Hair like that puts wicked thoughts into a man’s mind.”
Her stomach clenched. The sisters of the cloister had expressed similarly mortifying opinions.
Still held in his powerful vise, Tara’s cheeks flamed as the earl’s gaze raked over her with far more interest than proper, given that he was her guardian and, last she knew, a married man. Her head pounded with the wrongness of the moment.
Yes, he did frighten her.
She wrenched free from his grip, and stepped back several steps, turning toward the fire. She breathed deep, trying to calm herself. Trying to think of how she must speak to him, to instill a proper space and manner between them. Respect. She must command his respect.
She turned toward him, imposing a placid expression on her face.
“My lord, tell me, how does my sister fare?” she asked, her voice only slightly unsteady. “Arabel. What news can you share of her?”
Perhaps she ought not to have met his gaze again—for what she found there sent a strike of dread through her bones. Something beastly and cruel stared back at her, from the nether reaches of his dark eyes.
Behind him, his sons observed in sharp-eyed silence.
The earl’s attention shifted over her shoulder, to Sister Agnes. “Could you … leave us alone, please? So that we might speak privately?”
Tara rarely prayed outside of morning, midday, and evening prayers, but she prayed now, and fervently. Under no circumstance did she wish to be left alone with this man and his wolfish sons.
Sister Agnes responded unwaveringly. “Forgive me, my lord, but I cannot. It is not convent practice to leave a young lady alone with any man who is not her father or her husband.”
Tara held in her sigh of relief.
A sour expression flickered across the earl’s face. His nostrils flared, further conveying his displeasure.
“I am her guardian,” he answered imperiously.
Her relief evaporated. Would he demand and argue until he had his way?
The nun answered, with complete composure. “Which is not … her father or her husband.”
Tara decided, in that moment, that she loved Sister Agnes.
Buchan squinted his eyes menacingly, and scowled. “Must I remind you of the generous support I provide to the sisters of this abbey, in exchange for the care of my ward?”
Tara’s pulse rose as he continued to insist.
“No, my lord,” Sister Agnes replied, her expression unchanged. “You need not.”
The earl smirked in triumph. “Then—”
Sister Agnes stood straight, her slender hands clasped at the waist of her nun’s habit. Her eyes gleamed with challenge. “As I said, it is not … convent practice … to leave a young lady alone … with any man who is not her father or her husband.”
Buchan rolled his eyes and let out a condescending huff. Duncan chuckled, amused, and strode to the table, where he poured himself a goblet of ale, and lowered himself, sprawling, into a chair. Robert joined him, sliding a goblet for his brother to fill. Behind them, the window shutters rattled, harried by a strong gust of autumn wind.
The earl thrust her crumpled veil into her hands. Crossing his arms over his chest, he paced a few steps. In the next moment, he turned to her, eyes narrowed, and pronounced, “I have come to see you because it is time, my dear child, that you are wed.”
The ground shifted beneath her feet—or very well seemed to.
“Wed,” she repeated softly.
Did he speak generally or had an agreement already been made? She had hoped to go to court and to live life away from the abbey and its restrictions for a time, not be married to a stranger straightaway—
But in light of the previous moments, she warned herself to tread carefully with the earl. Arabel’s words returned to her then, warning her to be patient, when she had complained about being left overly long at the nunnery. Not to displease the earl—
The air left Tara’s lungs. Perhaps her sister had warned her as best she could, and she, in her innocence, hadn’t understood. Perhaps Arabel couldn’t convey the truth to her. What if she’d been prevented from doing so? Someone could have read her letters. A servant in service to the earl … anyone. And refused to deliver anything that did not meet with his approval.
It was a terrible thought—one she didn’t want to believe. But true? She did not know. Perhaps she was conjuring wild untruths, when in reality her sister had never made any real mention of the earl’s qualities because he was an absent guardian, just as he had been to Tara. One who traveled extensively, immersed in his own affairs. That explanation made just as much sense.
She would only know the truth once she was reunited with her sister. Really, that was all that mattered. That she and Arabel were together again, if only for a time. So that she could see for herself that her sister was safe and well and happy. The only way to achieve that wish, was to remain in the good graces of their guardian, at least for now.
“Yes, my lord.” Dutifully, she bowed her head even as her heart sank in her chest.
One corner of his lips turned upward, offering half a smile. Lifting a hand, he grazed a knuckle down her cheek.
“Good, obedient girl.”
Turning toward the fire, he extended his hands and rubbed them together, warming them.
“My sister,” she began in a soft, conciliatory voice. “It has been five years since I saw her last. I would very much like to see her before I am married. Is she in Edinburgh, or—”
“A beneficial betrothal has already been arranged for you,” he said, speaking toward the mantel, as if he did not hear her. But she knew he had. “You will be conveyed to your new home posthaste, and married to the son of the Chief Alwyn, a powerful northern laird.”
The Chief Alwyn.
Though she knew nothing of the Highlands, her heart filled with sudden brightness at hearing that familiar name—one mentioned in her sister’s last letter, as the name of her own betrothed.
“To a younger son of the chief?” She nodded happily. “And so my sister will be there as well, with her husband, the Alwyn’s elder son?”
“No,” he answered abruptly.
He moved toward the table where his sons devoured their meal with ravenous fervor. He perused the repast that had been laid out.
“No?” she softly questioned.
Glancing at her over his shoulder, he shook his head, looking distracted. More interested in the food now than her. He took up Duncan’s goblet and drank from it, and reached toward a platter. “It is you who will have the good fortune to marry the eldest son. His name is … Howard or”—he waved a hand—“Hugh.” He paused and nodded. “Yes, that is it. Hugh.”
Hugh. But that was the name of her sister’s betrothed. Her chest went tight.
Tara drew closer. “Was not Arabel to have married Hugh?”
Buchan turned to her, a capon leg held in his hand.
“She can’t very well do that now, can she?” he said quietly.
The earl took a bite, and chewed slowly, his lips shining with juices, as his gaze hardened … and narrowed on her. Tara’s heart skipped a beat, stumbling over some unknown warning, some instinctive fear.
“I don’t understand what you are saying,” she whispered.
His sons paused in their eating, glancing at their father, and at each other.
The earl swallowed, and his eyes grew dark as a crow’s. “What I’m saying is that your sister is dead. And that you will take her place.”
A hole opened beneath her feet, and in that moment, Tara felt as if she was falling into darkness. Arabel. Dead? She prayed she had misheard. That this was a terrible dream, and that she would awaken, but she did not. Instead, Buchan’s words echoed inside her ears and her heart broke. A powerful tremor of grief rippled through her, so strong she had to struggle … gasp for her next breath.
“How?” she rasped, tears flooding her eyes. “When?”
“Perhaps a fortnight ago. A fever … I believe.” He looked at Duncan. “Or was that the old war horse, McGrayvan’s, wife?”
Buchan looked at her again, his expression blank. “I am an important man, dear. I receive many important letters, about many important things. Certainly you understand I cannot be expected to remember all the lesser details. She is dead. Is that not the only thing that matters? And now, we must carry on.”
Carry on? Could he be any more dismissive of her only sibling’s death? Any more cruel in his conveyance of the news? Oh, Arabel … her dear sister! Her friend. The only family she had left.
Tara stared at him, dizzied by sadness and outrage. “I will not marry my dead sister’s betrothed.”
She would not do anything this awful man said. She would assert her own path, from this moment forward.
The earl rolled his eyes, and examined the gleaming bone in his hand. “Don’t be tiresome. Of course you will. It is what young ladies of good breeding do. They marry.” He looked piercingly at her again. “They do as they are told.”
She stood taller. “I would have you dissolve the betrothal agreement, as I intend to return to Menteith.”
Her family’s ancestral home. “I am twenty—and I will live there from now on. The steward will assist me with whatever needs to be done—”
“If only that were possible,” he answered, tearing off a chunk of bread and stuffing the bite into his mouth. “But Menteith, like Arabel, is no more.”
The words repeated inside her head. “What do you mean, no more?”
Dread consumed her. She was both desperate to hear, and fearful of the words he would speak next.
He nodded, drinking from his cup. “Granted to me—”
“No!” she shouted.
“—by full agreement of your sister,” he bellowed back, his face a mask of fury … before again normalizing his voice and his features to their former calm. “Did she not inform you? For that I am sorry. That was wrong of her, truly it was, but it all made sense. The properties were so distant from her new home, and she—nor you—without the maturity, wisdom, or ability to oversee them.”
“You stole them from us,” she hissed.
Arabel had always been gentle, and trusting. She could only imagine how she had been bullied or tricked into agreeing to Buchan’s wishes.
He gaze narrowed on her. “Careful with your accusations, child. I would not wish for our loving guardian-ward bond to be destroyed. Your estate received due compensation, and as sole heiress of the Iverach estate, you will inherit it all—”
“Give me my fortune, then,” she demanded, swiping the tears from her cheeks.
She would not fall into helplessness. She would go and live elsewhere. Anywhere, abroad, if necessary—away from this man and his machinations.
“Indeed,” he answered, easing back in his chair. “I will gladly convey your inheritance, in its entirety … to your new husband, Hugh of the Alwyns, in the form of your tocher.”
She had awakened to a new day only hours before, and in that short time her life as she knew it had been ripped away. She wanted nothing more desperately than for her mother and father to be alive. Her sister. To be at Menteith, surrounded by familiar faces and belongings. For things to be as they had once been. But life would never be the same again.
“What a despicable man you are,” she said, backing away, already making plans for escape in her mind.
She had many skills. Fine embroidery. She could read and write, in more than one language. She would find a place in a noble household as a maidservant or tutor if necessary, and live under another name until she educated herself on what to do. How to legally petition the courts to end Buchan’s guardianship over her. There had to be a way.
Moving toward the door, she found Sister Agnes waiting there, her eyes filled with sympathy. The nun reached for her, and placed a comforting arm around her shoulders, while opening the door.
And yet, before they left the room, Tara froze at hearing Buchan’s voice call after her.
She stood rigid, listening.
“Be prepared to travel at morning’s first light. And Duncan…”
“Yes, my lord,” his son answered.
“Place guards outside Mistress Iverach’s chamber, and below her window as well. I wish her to rest well tonight, rather than tiring herself attempting to carry out any childish, unwise plans.”