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Authors: Joanne Rock

Tags: #Contemporary, #Fiction, #Romance, #General, #Historical

For the Highlander's Pleasure

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Scotland, 1306

Violet of Caladan refuses to be any man’s prize, though her father insists she marry a warrior who can protect their land from a vicious killer. Highlander Finn Mac Néill has answered her father’s call for a champion to hunt the murderer, but it is Violet who catches the seductive warrior’s eye. She cannot long resist Finn’s sensual pursuit, blaming a faulty love potion for her heated response to him. But the longer she serves the Highlander’s pleasure, the more she discovers her own desires….

For the Highlander’s Pleasure

Joanne Rock

Dear Reader,

My joy in all things historical is rooted in my time in high school when I started reading books like
Beowulf
and
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
. From there, I started reading about knights and King Arthur, devouring everything I could about the “Dark” Ages.

Beowulf
remains a favorite piece and I couldn’t help but give a nod to it in
For the Highlander’s Pleasure
, where a famed hero answers the call to save a village from an outside threat. Of course, in my version, he falls in love while he’s in the process! I never could the knack of writing a story without a happy ending. And yes, lots of sizzle along the way. I hope you enjoy this sexy step back in time and thank you for reading!

Joanne Rock

About the Author

The mother of three sports-minded sons, Joanne Rock has found her primary occupation to be carting kids to practices and cheering on their athletic prowess at any number of sporting events. In the windows of time between football games, she loves to write and cheer on happily-ever-afters. A three-time RITA® Award nominee, Joanne is the author of more than fifty books for a variety of Harlequin series. She has been an
RT Book Reviews
Career Achievement Award nominee and multiple Reviewers’ Choice finalist including a nomination for
Making a Splash
(Blaze #636) as Best Blaze of 2011. Her work has been reprinted in twenty-six countries and translated into nineteen languages. Over two million copies of her books are in print. For more information on Joanne’s books, visit
www.joannerock.com
.

Chapter One

 

Spring 1306

 

There was no magic in the herbs.

Violet of Caladan knelt at the riverside, her hands covered with stems and leaves that were wet after she’d plunged them into the chilly spring flow. She had known as much when she accepted the pouch of fragrant herbs from the wily forest sage who’d given her the makings for a love potion. But she had not realized there’d been a small, secret part of her heart that truly wished for such foolishness.

“You’ll catch your death,” her maid, Inna, groused. “Besides, you’ve no need of
love
when your da speaks of marriage to a Highland warlord. Instead of wasting a coin on an herb pouch, you would be wise to harden your heart and find a sturdy lock for your bedchamber.”

Harrumphing and tsking, Inna clutched her horse’s mane, making no secret of her hope to return home and ward off the chill the fickle April sun did little to alleviate.

“My father only wishes to protect me,” Violet reminded herself as much as Inna. The Earl of Caladan had all but lost his wits to the pain of an old war injury and the strong drink he used to soothe it daily. Yet he remained adamant that his only daughter wed a warrior who could keep the Caladan lands safe.

Yes, Violet
understood
her father’s plan to secure a strong warrior chieftain to protect her. That did not mean she had to like it.

But her preferences did not change the fact that danger lurked close to home. After many moons of growing speculation that the forests of Caladan harbored ghosts and unnatural beasts, a body had washed onto the shore of the riverbank as if spit out by the dense copse of trees. Lips tinged unnaturally blue, the victim did not have any visible wounds, though the pale corpse suggested some kind of bloodletting.

Violet shivered anew at the memory. She had not wanted her da to send armed men into the forest when she had friends like Morag who made their home within the woods. She refused to believe a killer dwelt within their lands, preferring to think the body came from a town farther upriver. No one had recognized the poor soul, after all. But her father was determined to flush the evil from the forests by hiring a champion to wage battle with the unseen threat.

“No mortal man can protect you against whatever demon beastie prances around a woodland fire each night,” Inna maintained, turning her mount in the direction of the keep. “Now I pray you hurry so we can wash off that godforsaken mess of plant matter ere the earl’s feast of gathering.”

Standing, Violet scowled.

“Do not remind me.” She resented the banquet to welcome warriors into the Caladan earldom. Her father searched not only for a champion to rid the woods of a vicious predator, but also for a husband for her. “You should return without me, Inna. It will take me a minute to wash this off.”

“And leave you out here alone?” Inna peered over her shoulder, her long gray braid slipping from beneath her linen cap. “What if the beastie is about even as we speak?”

“Then he will have only one maid for lunch instead of two,” Violet grumbled, certain they were in no danger from ghostly threats. If any danger lurked in their forest, it could only be human. More likely, the body discovered in the woods had been a victim of some new wasting illness. “Besides, I will be within shouting distance behind you. No doubt I shall catch up to you before you have returned to the keep.”

Hastening away her maid without much trouble, Violet studied her herb-covered hands, shoulders and chest. She had doused the region above her heart with cold water, as Morag had bid her, to make the love potion work. Then Violet had pressed the herbs to her breast.

Of course the heavens had not opened up to send her a strong and wise man to help her cope with an ailing sire, his weakening hold on the earldom, and a forest under threat.

Still, she had hoped
something
would happen. As a secret apprentice to Morag’s teaching, Violet understood that some beauty potions were no more than a bit of sheep fat to plump an aging woman’s weathered cheeks. But since the benefits of such a potion were all too real, if not magic, they were valuable nevertheless. Why could she not feel
some
softening of her heart now?

“By the saints,” she prayed, pressing one more handful of the herbs to her kirtle, just beneath the neckline. “Make me amenable to the man I should wed. Soothe the wildness in my heart that I may bow to his will and my father’s without undue pain. Or distress. Or fury.”

Her prayers turning a bit more vehement than she intended, Violet ground her teeth against the urge to say any more. Instead, she simply leaned forward into the chilly current of the water and opened her tunic to the icy kiss of the fast-flowing stream, allowing the water to wash away the evidence of her small flight of fancy.

* * *

 

By the saints.

Highlander Finn Mac Néill had walked the Scots borders long enough to know the oaths of the Lowlanders. And at a sight like the one before him—a wanton maid enraptured by the flow of water over her bare breasts—he thought the plea appropriate.

Stilling himself utterly so as not to be overheard, he saw no harm in helping himself to a long and uninterrupted view. The ends of the maid’s dark, unbound hair slipped into the current as she leaned forward, clinging in wet pieces to the bountiful expanse of pale, creamy flesh. Her eyes closed as if in a seductive trance. Inky lashes fanned her flushed cheeks while a plump, rosebud mouth pursed in a soft bow of surprise.

For a man who had been roaming the countryside in search of a killer for weeks, nay moons, this picture of delectable sweetness was a momentary pleasure he could never have foreseen.

The dark-haired beauty was garbed, but with the way the water sealed her skirts to her legs, she might as well have been bare. The outline of shapely thighs and womanly hips was all too apparent. Her simple tunic was equally soaked, but she’d lowered the top half so much that Finn could spy the rosy tip of each breast, puckered and pink from the water’s chill. Perfectly shaped for a man’s mouth.

Swallowing hard, he reminded himself that he had no right to indulge in this view. How could he think of his own desires when his brother’s spirit roamed Neamh—heaven for the Gaels—thirsting for a vengeance that only a mortal sword could inflict?

As he saw the maiden straighten from her wanton bath, yanking her gown back into place, Finn made a sound of disgust. He watched as she peered about the clearing with the keen and narrowed gaze of a huntress, studying the trees, her gray eyes stopping when she spotted him.

What did the lass think in that silent moment of watchful regard? Did the nymph see in him a chance to slake her lust? Perhaps she considered the merits of a man’s hands to soothe her fiery flesh instead of the icy stream.

But any thought of being dragged behind the bushes to bed a woodland seductress was dashed when the lady began to scream.

“Stand back, devil’s spawn!” she shrieked, turning to run toward the horse tethered nearby.

Near him.

Her boots kicked up mud as she streaked toward the animal, spattering her soaked skirts even though she clutched them high. Pale fear washed the color from her cheeks, reminding him that he would appear as no friend to a simple maid. Even though he had not led men in battle for months, Finn was garbed in the long cloak of the Highland warlords. He had never bothered adopting the shorter hauberk of the natives, since his size and fierce aspect marked him as a Highlander at first glance.

Now, unwilling for this noisy little maid to set her village in an uproar when Finn had no dark intentions, he vaulted over a fallen log and splashed through a patch of the inlet to reach her.

She was fleet of foot, but her sodden skirts hampered her as she ran. Her hem caught on a branch, holding her fast until he reached her. She yanked at the fabric, cursing an unholy string of oaths no innocent should know, and managed to free herself for only a second before she stumbled neatly into his arms.

“Whoa, lass,” he cautioned, pinning her struggling arms from behind before she could scratch him.

She soaked his garments right through his lightweight mail. Her skirts streamed water into his boots and cooled his hose in an icy blanket. Her tunic did the same to his sleeves as he held her captive.

“Unhand me, vile beast!” she shouted, though her voice lacked the same fever pitch as before. “My maid is but recently departed. She will return with help.”

Chances were excellent that she lied, but he could not afford a skirmish with a throng of irate villagers when he needed to reach the seat of the local earldom ere nightfall.

He did not rove the eastern seacoast to ravish beguiling maids, but to stalk a vile knave unworthy of knighthood.

“I will not hurt you, wee one,” he assured her, towering more than a head above her.

She stood tall for a woman, actually, but even so he could have rested his chin upon her head. Her damp hair twisted in wild ropes around her as she swung from side to side in the circle of his arms. Like dark seaweed, it clung to him even after he held her tight enough to still her completely.

It was, he realized, quite tight indeed.

In a flash, all the misplaced lust he’d felt earlier came roaring back to life with the incentive of her sweetly rounded rump fitted to his thighs. With her arms successfully pinned to her sides, he had ended their skirmish with his hands planted just beneath her breasts, his knuckles nudging the plump flesh enough to lift the firm mounds high.

And not even one of the woman’s saints would have denied himself a glance down the front of that sodden tunic to her ample curves.

“Have you not already looked your fill, warrior?” The woman ground out the words between clenched teeth. “Not even your hulking size will protect you when my father the earl discovers you have touched me.”

Finn wrenched his gaze up from the full, high swell of her breasts that he had viewed more fully just a short while ago. He spun the woman in his grip to see her face. He feared no petty Border lordling. But he had journeyed many leagues in search of the Caladan noble who had put out a call for a champion. Could the comely lass be the same man’s kin? Finn had heard rumors about the dark curse on the lord’s lands, including one killing that bore some similarity to his own brother’s death. If this was the domain of the lord in question, Finn would serve the noble until the assassin was vanquished by his blade. He could not afford to let the faceless, cowardly dog escape him again.

“Does this earl seek a champion?” he asked, even knowing the lass might invent any manner of story to protect herself if she thought she was in danger.

Yet the girl’s demeanor suggested she could be highborn despite her lusty play in the river inlet. Nobility did not always breed the fire out of a woman.

He loosened his hold but did not release her.

“Why?” she asked, answering his question with a question.

Peculiar. And yet indicative of a highborn woman. Their pretty manners meant they spoke in circles more often than not.

“I will be that champion,” he assured her, thinking the lass could lead him to the keep even if she was naught but a village maid.

The expression that crossed her face was as inscrutable as her words, though it sounded as if she muttered something like “useless herbs.”

“I have heard of no such lord,” she informed him, wrenching out of his grip. The moment she did so, however, she seemed to realize the mistake of her action. With a horrified glance downward, she spied the full import of her now transparent tunic.

So clear was his view, he could easily imagine the feel of her bare breasts in his hands, the texture of a beaded crest against his tongue.

It was turning out to be a difficult day to ignore fleshly pleasures.

Scrambling to pluck the damp clothing off herself so it did not cling in such an intimate way, the woman stomped toward her tethered horse, her cheeks flaming with heated color.

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