Authors: Mary Wine
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #Scottish
Copyright © 2014 by Mary Wine
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Cover illustration by Jon Paul
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This one is for Deb Werksman, for believing in me and having the patience to guide
me. You’re a truly gifted editor with a vision that inspires me and motivates me to
reach higher. Thank you for everything.
Scottish Highlands, 1487
“Ye may be dismissed for the night.”
Abigail Ross, the Earl of Ross’s daughter, didn’t really look at her maid, Nareen
Grant. She was too busy breaking the wax seal on the letter she’d just received. Her
cheeks flushed and her eyes sparkled as she unfolded the parchment. Its crinkling
echoed loudly in the quiet chamber. She was well past the blush of youth, but it was
clear affection had no time limit. Even in her late twenties, Abigail was excited
by her love letter.
Although, perhaps “liaison letter” might be a more appropriate description. Abigail
enjoyed her lovers, and she enjoyed knowing she didn’t owe them the obedience a wife
“Go on, Nareen. I know ye like yer sleep.”
Abigail drew out the word
. She looked up for a brief moment, making it clear she knew what Nareen would be
doing under the veil of night.
Abigail knew Nareen’s weaknesses too. It was the only reason Nareen served her, so
she might enjoy freedom as well.
“The moon is full,” Abigail muttered before looking back at the letter. There was
a subtle warning in her tone, indicating she would turn a blind eye only if Nareen
returned the favor.
Nareen inclined her head before leaving the bedchamber. Once she passed through the
arched doorway that separated the bedchamber from the receiving chamber, she allowed
her pace to increase.
She wasn’t interested in sleeping, and luckily, her mistress didn’t have any issues
with her nighttime rides. Of course, in return, Nareen was expected to ignore the
unmarried lady’s lovers. So it wasn’t luck, it was an agreement. One Nareen enjoyed
benefits from as well.
She shuddered, a tingle of fear rising from the dark abyss where Nareen had banished
several memories she never wanted to think about again. Sometimes it was very hard
to forget her cousin Ruth and the horrors Nareen had suffered while with her kinswoman.
Yes, the arrangement made it possible for Nareen to escape being under the care of
her kin, and the unsavory plans Ruth had been making for her.
Nareen turned her attention to the moon. She could see it glowing through the seam
in the window shutters. Just a faint sliver of yellow light, it was like a beacon,
drawing her toward joyful abandon. The whisper of chilly night air coming through
didn’t bother her a bit. In fact, it was invigorating.
Outside, she didn’t have to worry about being trapped within stone walls.
Nareen steeled her expression as she went through the doors that led to the stairs.
Two Ross retainers stood there, making sure the earl’s daughter was well guarded throughout
the night. They each held a five-foot-tall wooden staff topped with a wicked and deadly
looking spear top. The metal gleamed in the moist Highland air. Their gazes followed
Nareen as she left, and they stiffly pulled on the corners of their knitted caps.
No one really spared her much attention as she made her way through the partially
lit passageways. Several of the torches had been blown out by the vigorous wind.
Nareen skipped down the stone steps, making the three stories to the ground floor
in a flash. Abigail would be traveling again soon, if the letter held an invitation.
That meant Nareen would be on a tighter leash once the highborn lady found a way to
wheedle her father into granting her permission to return to court. The earl had sworn
he wouldn’t allow it, but Nareen knew he’d soften. Once the wine began to flow, the
Earl of Ross lost his will. Abigail always exploited her father’s weakness to suit
So tonight, Nareen would ride.
Many would tell her it was the demons causing the gusts of wind. Nareen scoffed at
them. There were legends that went back farther than the Church. Tales of Celtic lore
that were still told around the winter fires. She preferred the stories that told
of strength and daring, to the Church’s teachings that tried to convince her to fear
the witching hours.
Nareen pulled her arisaid up from where the length of Grant tartan draped down her
back, and laid it over her head. During the day, the piece of wool was secured at
her waist, and of little use except to make it clear she was proud to be a Grant.
But at night, it would shield her from rain and keep her warm. She pulled it around
to cover her shoulders before venturing into the yard. Most of the Ross retainers
taking their ease in the yard looked her way, but they returned to whatever they were
doing once they recognized the Grant colors.
She was just the mistress’s attendant.
That position suited Nareen well. She didn’t regret leaving her cousin’s keeping,
not even when it reduced her to being a personal servant. At least she need not worry
about Ruth selling Nareen’s maidenhead.
Nareen shuddered. The woman held no power over her now. Nareen had seen to that.
The horses greeted her when she entered the stable. Her mood improved as she reminded
herself that she was free of Ruth and her unsavory plans.
Her mare tossed its mane in greeting. Nareen murmured softly to it in Gaelic as she
eased the bridle on. Her mare pawed at the ground, eager to stretch her legs.
“Me thoughts exactly,” Nareen said as she slid onto the back of the animal. The gate
watch raised the gate for her, but not without a stern look of disapproval.
Nareen didn’t bother to look back. She leaned low over the neck of her mare and let
the animal have its freedom. The horse picked up speed, chilling Nareen’s cheeks as
they raced across the open land that surrounded the Ross castle.
Saer MacLeod turned his head, listening to the night. He kicked dirt over the small
fire he’d built to cook his dinner, and it died, leaving him in darkness.
It wasn’t that dark. He’d endured nights that were as black as a demon’s eyes, and
this one wasn’t anywhere near that deep.
But there was something—someone—riding toward him. There was no way he was going to
greet that stranger anywhere but on the back of his horse.
There was a whistle from his man. Baruch held up one finger.
Saer didn’t reach for the pommel of the sword strapped to his back. A lone rider wasn’t
that much of a threat.
“I thinks it’s her…” Baruch rode up close to his laird’s side. “Just like the Ross
lad told me, she’s riding by moonlight…”
“Good,” Saer muttered. He felt a surge of impending victory and savored it.
Nareen Grant had turned him down and dismissed him the last time he’d seen her.
He intended to make sure she knew he was not so easily brushed aside.
Nareen was sure her heart was beating as fast as her mare’s. The animal slowed, having
spent its first burst of speed. Her arisaid had fallen back, baring her head, but
she enjoyed the bite of the night air. She laughed, at ease for the first time all
day. But her elation evaporated when her mare’s ears lifted. Nareen tightened her
grip on the reins as she searched the shadows. “Who is there?” she demanded.
“Ye take a risk by riding out at night, lass.”
Her company emerged from the shadows cast by the edge of a woodland patch, where the
forest trees thinned and gave way to the slope.
“But yer command of the mare is impressive, Nareen Grant.”
He was a large man. She could describe him as huge, but resisted the urge because
there was already a chill tingling on her nape. If he knew her name, it was possible
he was an enemy of the Grants. She tightened her knees, making ready to flee.
“Ye have naught to fear from me.” He nudged his horse farther away from the shadows.
Her heart froze as the moonlight illuminated his hard body. There was no mistaking
his prime condition, and his voice was deep and young enough to confirm she might
be in true peril if he turned hostile.
“Name yer clan,” she stated boldly. She lifted her chin and stared straight at him.
A weak plea would never do.
There was a husky chuckle from the stranger. “Are ye sure ye are in a position to
demand things of me, lass? Most Highlanders do nae care for a lass who spits fire.”
“I do nae care for anyone who will nae speak the name of their clan without hesitation.
Such actions mean ye have no honor.”
He rode a full stallion, the horse just as impressive as its master. The animal was
prime quality, telling her he had coin in his purse, but that fact didn’t reassure
her. Many times, noble lords were far more unscrupulous than a common villain. The
law favored them in every way, and they took advantage of it.
He nudged the beast with his knees until it turned and the moonlight washed over his
face. She gasped, recognizing him instantly. And a little too well for her liking.
A rush of heat flooded her cheeks, for she had just accused a laird of having no honor.
“What are ye doing riding on Ross land in the dark of night, Saer MacLeod?”
He moved his horse closer to her mare and leaned down to pat the neck of the sturdy
beast he rode. Her attention was drawn to his hand, fixating on the way he stroked
the animal. There was a confidence in his motions that sent a tingle across her skin.
He was more than bold, he was supremely at ease in the night—so much so, she envied
More heat teased her face, this time flowing down her body.
“This is hardly dark,” he said at last.
She jerked her gaze up to his face to find him grinning at her. She tossed her long
braid over her shoulder, detesting the way he made her feel vulnerable. “Ye’re right,
it is hardly dark, which is why I am enjoying it. Good-bye, Laird MacLeod.”
She tightened her grip on the reins and sent her mare in motion again. She wasn’t
running away; it was simply a matter of doing what she pleased. Aye, indeed it was.
Abigail already told her what to do most of the day. Of course, it was far better
than answering to a husband or to her cousin Ruth.
Her dark memories stirred again, so she leaned low over the neck of the horse and
felt the wind pulling the shorter strands of her hair from her braid. The steady beat
of the mare’s hooves filled her head, but there was something else too, a deeper pounding.
She turned her head to find Saer MacLeod keeping pace with her, an amused grin on
She kneed her mare, urging the animal to go faster. It was an impulse that irritated
her because she was letting herself be goaded. There would be no responding to Saer
She pulled up, the mare settling into a slow walk, tossing her head as Nareen worried
her lower lip. “I’m sure ye have important things to do, Laird MacLeod.”
He guided his stallion in step beside her mare. “Ensuring ye do nae get set upon by
the MacKays is important. I hear they have no love for the Ross. They claim the earl
killed their laird and have vowed vengeance.”
“I am a Grant.”
“But ye serve the earl’s daughter,” Saer countered. “There would be more than one
man who would consider that enough to include ye in their feud.”
Her heart was beating faster. She drew in a deep, slow breath to calm herself. “I
do nae need yer protection.” Her tone was far from smooth, further irritating her.
She didn’t need the man hearing how he unsettled her.
He grinned more broadly in the face of her temper, a cocksure, arrogant, full curving
of his lips that sent a tingle through her belly. She was amusing him and nothing
“I do nae need yer permission to ensure ye come to no harm, Nareen. Just as I did
nae need yer brother’s consent to let me ride along with him to deal with yer cousin
She jerked, involuntarily pulling on the reins. The mare stopped, snorting with frustration.
Saer reached out and stroked the animal’s neck again. The horse quieted immediately
and made a soft sound of enjoyment.
Nareen’s mouth went dry at the way his touch pleased.
She wondered… “Let me mare be.”
Nareen tried to pull the horse away. Saer reached out and captured her hand to keep
her from commanding the mare.
The contact was jarring, his warm flesh shocking her. Her own fingers were chilled
from the pace of her ride, but his were warm and inviting. More than a warmth that
chased away the night temperature, this was a heat that touched something deep inside
her. She licked her lower lip because it was too dry, drawing his gaze to her mouth.
She jerked her hand away.
“I told ye at court, I want naught to do with ye.” At last, she’d grasped enough of
her composure to say what she truly needed to.
“Aye, ye did.” He patted her mare’s neck, stroking the velvet surface of her skin
with a long motion before answering. “Look at me, Nareen Grant, and tell me if ye
see a man who is easily told what to do.”
His tone was soft and menacing, carrying a warning that even the mare sensed. A chill
shot down Nareen’s back, her gaze locking with his. She was keenly aware of him, her
lips tingling with anticipation. She felt like there was something inside him that
was drawing her closer, some force that reached out to stroke her, entice her to do
He jerked the reins right out of her slackened grip.
“What are ye doing?”
Saer didn’t answer her. He held the reins, and her mare began following his stallion
as he sent the beast forward. Her only option was to drop down the side of the animal
while it was in motion. One look at the ground warned her against such a rash action.
Moonlight illuminated the rocky ground they rode across, promising her a rough landing.
But she was still tempted, because Saer’s back promised her something else. His shirtsleeves
were rolled up and tied at his shoulder. She was as fascinated by his back as by his
keen gaze. A long sword was strapped across his back at an angle so the pommel was
behind his left shoulder and easy to reach with his right hand. There was nothing
ornate about the weapon, just solid purpose. He was bastard-born and raised among
the isles. The Highlanders called him a savage, and his actions proved he was exactly