The Highlander’s Prize
The Sutherlands, Book 1
Sourcebooks Casablanca (April 3, 2012)
ISBN-13: 9781402264719 ♦ ISBN-10: 1402264712
BASTARD ROYAL DAUGHTER, PAWN IN A DEADLY GAME
Sent to Scotland to be the king’s mistress and produce an heir, Clarrisa of York has never needed a miracle more. But the brusque Highland laird who kidnaps her is a bit too rough to be considered divine intervention.
HE’LL DO ANYTHING TO THWART HIS KING
With rival lairds determined to steal Clarrisa from him and royal henchmen searching for her all over the Highlands, Laird Broen MacNicols has a mess on his hands. Worse yet, there’s a magnetic attraction between them, although he’s betrothed to another. But even an independent–minded lady like Clarrisa knows that a Highlander always claims his prize…
Connected Books: The Sutherlands
Read an Excerpt
Scottish Lowlands, 1487
“Keep yer face hidden.”
Clarrisa jerked back as one of the men escorting her hit the fabric covering the top of the wagon she rode inside of. An imprint of his fist was clearly visible for a moment.
“Best keep back, my dove. These Scots are foul-tempered creatures, to be sure. We’ve left civilization behind us in England.” There was a note of longing in Maud’s voice Clarrisa tried to ignore. She couldn’t afford to be melancholy. Her uncle’s word had been given, so she would be staying in Scotland, no matter her feelings on the matter.
Better to avoid thinking about how she felt; better to try to believe her future would be bright.
“The world is in a dark humor,” Clarrisa muttered. Her companion lifted the gold cross hanging from her girdle chain and kissed it. “I fear we need a better plan than waiting for divine help, Maud.”
Maud’s eyes widened. Faster than a flash, she reached over and tugged one of Clarrisa’s long braids. Pain shot across her scalp before the older woman sent to chaperone her released her hair. “You’ll mind your tongue, girl. Just because you’re royal-blooded doesn’t give you cause to be doubting that the good Lord has a hand in where you’re heading. You’re still bastard-born, so you’ll keep to your place.”
Clarrisa moved to the other side of the wagon and peeked out again. She knew well who she was. No one ever let her forget, not for as long as she could recall. Still, even legitimate daughters were expected to be obedient, so she truly had no right to be discontented.
So she would hope the future the horses were pulling her toward was a good one.
The night was dark, thick clouds covering the moon’s light. The trees looked sinister, and the wind sounded mournful as it rustled the branches. But Clarrisa didn’t reach for the cross hanging from her own waist. No, she’d place her faith in her wits and refuse to be frightened. That much was within her power. It gave her a sense of balance and allowed her to smile. Yes, her future would hold good things, because she would be wise enough to keep her demeanor kind. A shrew never prospered.
“Far past time for you to accept your lot with more humbleness,” Maud mumbled, sounding almost as uninterested as Clarrisa felt. “You should be grateful for this opportunity to better your lot. Not many bastards are given such opportunities.”
Clarrisa didn’t respond to Maud’s reminder that she was illegitimate. There wasn’t any point. Depending on who wore the crown of England, her lineage was a blessing or a curse.
“If you give the Scottish king a son—”
“It will be bastard-born, since I have heard no offer of marriage,” Clarrisa insisted.
Maud made a low sound of disapproval and pointed an aged finger at her. “Royal-blooded babes do not have to suffer the same burdens the rest of us do. In spite of the lack of blessing from the church your mother suffered, you are on your way to a bright future. Besides, this is Scotland. He’ll wed you quickly if you produce a male child. He simply doesn’t have to marry you first, because you are illegitimate. Set your mind to giving him a son, and your future will be bright.”
Clarrisa doubted Maud’s words. She lifted the edge of the wagon cover again and stared at the man nearest her. His plaid was belted around his waist, with a length of it pulled up and over his right shoulder. The fabric made a good cushion for the sword strapped to his wide back.
Maybe he was a Scotsman, but the sword made him look like any other man she had ever known. They lived for fighting. Power was the only thing they craved. Her blood was nothing more than another way to secure what the king of Scotland hungered for.
Blessing? Not for her, it wouldn’t be.
* * *
Lytge Sutherland was an earl, but he ruled like a prince on his land at the top of Scotland. Plenty of men envied him, but the wiser ones gave him deference gladly, because they knew his life was far from simple. At the moment he was feeling the weight of ten lairds, only half of whom he called friends.
“If the rumor is true, we must act,” Laird Matheson insisted. “With a York-blooded son, that bastard James will pass the crown on to an English puppet.”
“Or a king who the English will nae war with because they share common blood,” Laird Morris argued.
The room filled with angry shouts as men leaned over the tables in front of them to give their words more strength.
“Enough!” Lytge snapped. There were several cutting glares, but Matheson and Morris both sat back in their chairs. The tension in the room was so tight the earl knew he had to find a solution before the men assembled before him began fighting one another. “Let us not forget how important it is for us to stand together, or James will get his wish to disinherit his first son, a young man worthy of our loyalty. If we squabble among one another, we will have to be content with James remaining king.”
Laird Matheson snarled, “That bastard has no’ done what a king should. He gives riches to his favorites and refuses to punish thieving clans like the MacLeods! It’s his fault we’re fighting Highlander against Highlander.”
“Which is why we’re all here, united against him despite half our own kin calling it treason.” It was a younger man who spoke this time, and the earl grinned in spite of his desire to appear detached.
“Young Laird MacNicols says it clearly. We’re here because we’re united—a bond that needs to remain strong. The York lass must be eliminated before she can perform the function James desires of her. We do nae need England’s war on our soil.”
“We’ll have to find her first,” Faolan Chisholms said. “Such will nae be a simple task.”
The old earl looked around the room. There was plenty of spirit in the lairds’ eyes, but thinking the deed done would not gain them success. It would take cunning and strength, along with a healthy amount of arrogance for the man willing to try and steal from the king. Such a man would have to believe himself above failure. The earl was sitting in the right place to find him, for they were all Highlanders.
“I’ll find her and steal her.” Broen MacNicols spoke quietly—too quietly for the earl’s comfort.
“Ye’ve got vengeance in yer eyes, young MacNicols. Understandable, since James has slighted yer patience by refusing ye justice concerning the death of yer father.”
The earl’s son, Norris, slammed a fist into the table, sending several of the goblets wobbling. “James neglects us and leaves good men no choice but to feud when their neighbors commit crimes, since he will not dispense judgment upon the guilty.”
“I tried to respect the king instead of falling back on old ways,” Broen snarled. “I took the matter of me father’s murder at the hands of the Grants to the king. The man would nae even see me, much less send an envoy to Donnach Grant to demand me betrothed be returned.” He flattened his hands on the tabletop, leaning over it. “I made a choice, sure enough, for I’m here, and I tell ye I will make sure the king does nae get the lass he wants while he refuses me justice for the murder of the woman I was contracted to. She died on Grant land, and I deserved more than a letter telling me she’s dead.”
Lytge Sutherland nodded and heard several of the other lairds slap the tabletop in agreement. “We place our faith in ye, Laird MacNicols. Find the York bastard, and ye’ll have me at yer back when ye demand that explanation from Donnach Grant.”
There was a solid ring of endorsement in the earl’s tone. Broen didn’t enjoy it. His father had been dead for four months, but he still felt the sting of the loss like a fresh wound. He reached up and tugged on the corner of his bonnet before quitting the chamber.
“Ye’re in a hurry.” Broen didn’t lessen his pace as Faolan Chisholms caught up with him. They’d been young boys together, and now fate had made them lairds in nearly the same season.
“There is no reason to sit at a table drinking and talking like old men. I’ve an Englishwoman to find, since that is the only way I’ll possibly see an explanation to me father’s death that will nae require spilling blood when the snow melts.”
“Aye, Sutherland will nae be giving ye his assistance otherwise, but ye need to know where to look for her before ye ride out,” Faolan insisted.
Broen stopped and faced Faolan. “If ye want to come along, ye should have stood up when the earl was looking for men to take on the burden.”
Faolan grunted. “Ye did nae give me a chance.”
Broen shrugged, gaining a narrow look from Faolan. His friend muttered, “The betrothal was nae complete, and ye know it, Broen. Me own father was set on gaining Daphne for me. The match with her was a fine one, and we all knew it. Her dowry was nae yers just yet, nor was the alliance with her clan. I wanted her too.”
“It was me father who died on Grant land after that bastard Donnach Grant wrote and told us Daphne was dead. He will nae answer me letters or allow me onto his land to gain more details. Me men are demanding justice, which means a bloody summer when we begin feuding with them,” Broen snarled. “So, as it stands, I have more to lose than ye.”
“I know it well. We should combine our clans and wipe Donnach Grant off the face of the Highlands, since the king will nae do his duty and give us justice.”
Broen laughed, low and unpleasant. “I’ll be paying James back for that slight. Ye noticed I was in a hurry, and it’s the truth I am. A king who will nae keep us united is one I refuse to be loyal to, so I’m off to ensure his son inherits as he should. Besides, if stealing one woman can possibly ensure I can gain an explanation from Donnach Grant that will keep me men from spilling blood, I’ll steal her.”
The words came easier than Broen had thought they would. Surprise appeared on Faolan’s face. Broen turned and continued on toward the doors of the tower before he thought too deeply about why he’d chosen service to the earl over securing vengeance for Daphne himself. He shouldn’t need any further details to honor his men’s wishes for retribution.
But that was the old way of thinking. Unity had its merits, and a good future would only come if the clans stood together. He needed to think beyond his own lust for vengeance and consider the innocents who would die if he was feuding with his neighbors. A mature man recognized that he risked more than his own blood; only lads rushed off with their own glory on their minds.
The afternoon shadows were growing longer, but that didn’t stop him from gesturing for his horse. James III was a disaster of a king. Half the Highland clans were feuding because he’d failed to find time to settle disputes, which left the Highlanders to take up ancient ways. The Lowlands were faring little better. The country was splitting in half. James had gone too far in his quest to gain a York-blooded son, though. That rumor was the foulest of all, because it would bring the English war into Scotland.
Not while he drew breath.
The royalists would brand him a traitor, but he’d wear the title proudly. James had a son, one who’d been raised by his mother and would rule well. The lad was grown now, but the queen had died, which cleared the way for James to wed again. The greedy man wanted to annul his marriage to a dead woman and gain himself a York-blooded wife, which would bind Scotland to the bloody English.
It was too much. Too much for Broen to accept from a sovereign he was supposed to kneel in front of and offer his loyalty to. Maybe in France a weakling could wear the crown, but Broen was a Highlander and he’d never kneel in front of a king who wouldn’t keep his country united. Or any Scot who would buy himself a bastard daughter of the late king of England. The rumors claimed James had paid dearly for one of the few bastards acknowledged by Edward IV, who had enjoyed having mistresses in spite of claiming to love Elizabeth Woodville. Broen grinned. There was justice for a man—Edward had married a woman famed to be the most beautiful girl in England, but she hadn’t been royal-blooded and half his nobles had turned on him.
Well, James III of Scotland may have paid for a York lass, but Broen planned to steal her. He was a Highlander, after all. James would be a fool not to expect it. If the king had taken precautions, the effort might cost Broen his life. He’d take the chance. Life wasn’t worth living as a coward too busy sniveling about the wrongs done to his clan to take action. Besides, it was his opportunity to gain Sutherland’s backing to put an end to the vengeance being demanded by his clan. There were some who would call him a coward for trying to avoid a feud, but he rather liked knowing he wasn’t such a savage as to overlook a possible solution that didn’t involve bloodshed. It didn’t make him less of a Highlander, only more of a laird, because he had to think of his entire clan before allowing his personal feelings to be satisfied.
Yes, he’d do what he’d promised—or die trying.
* * *
“Where is she?”
Clarrisa faced the door as Maud began muttering prayers. The tower was rough, and the rushes on the floor smelled foul. She stared at the rushes. They confirmed she had left civilization behind her in England, where most homes no longer used such, because by winter’s end, they were filthy. But the walls were made of stone, and the men who had met her at the border were set to watch the doorway, leaving her nothing to do but face whoever came for her.
She had no reason to be surprised to discover she’d been shipped to Scotland in the middle of the night. Her entire life had been one of being told that her duty was to her family. The war between the York and Lancaster nobles had claimed so many lives among the blue-blooded. No child—even one bastard-born such as herself—was overlooked. Blue blood was noble, and controlling it the key to which family would claim the crown.
So Clarrisa stared at the door, waiting to see whom her uncle had sent her to. The sound of heavy footfalls came from outside the door, along with soft whines. The wooden door burst inward, its hinges squealing.
“Hiding, are ye? I expected as much from an English bitch.” James III stopped just inside the doorway, a couple of hunting hounds at his heels. One lifted its leg and wet the door frame, telling her exactly where the stench in the room had come from. Man and beasts lived together in the keep, and the idea made her skin crawl.
“I was told to wait for you here.” She didn’t add any title, for the moment felt informal. It bothered her to know she was being sent to him so secretly, so he might do as he pleased without any protest from the church. “Which is what I am doing. It is not hiding.”
She tried to temper her tone, but his eyes narrowed before he stepped closer with one fist raised. “Ye’ll mind yer tongue with me, woman, else I’ll teach ye the manners yer York kin failed to. No woman argues with me. I answer only to God. Why do ye think yer country’s nobles are at one another’s throats? They crave the same privilege.”
Clarrisa lowered herself, remaining down while he grunted with approval. Oh yes, the king of Scotland was everything she expected of a man. The desire to prick his ego gained the better of her. “Forgive me. I simply believed the stories I’ve heard of Scotsmen—that you were quite different from Englishmen… Obviously only stories.” She succeeded in making her tone everything her uncle had always demanded of her, meek and soft. Only she knew she wasn’t submissive. She clung to that knowledge and gained strength from it.
“What stories?” He lowered his fist, a spark of interest lighting his eyes. He wasn’t a bad-looking man, but he had servants aplenty to see to his grooming. Clarrisa wasn’t impressed with his fine clothing. She’d suffered men like him her entire life, arrogant males who believed it their right to have fine things and full bellies while their servants shivered for want of a cloak. A maid watched from the door frame, easing back until the darkness swallowed her. She clearly didn’t want any of the king’s attention, which told Clarrisa exactly what sort of man he was, one to be avoided, because he’d take what pleased him and never have a care for the suffering his desires inflicted on others. And her family had sent her to him.
“Do nae go silent now, lass. Ye have stoked me curiosity.”
“Oh… well… I should have kept my lips sealed. The church has warned me time and time again not to listen to what brazen women say men enjoy. Pious behavior is the path to salvation,” she offered in an innocent tone.
“It’s also damned boring. It’s colder in Scotland, lass. A man needs fire in his bed sport.”
“So I have heard…” Clarrisa allowed her words to trail off to a whisper. For certain, she had heard stories, but what had drawn her to the whispers to listen intently were the hints of how to control a man when the world was run by them. The man eyeing her was a king, and his men guarded the tower, but he watched her like a boy anticipating a sweet. “I am sure women’s conversation would be of little interest to you.”
James grinned, lust brightening his expression. He walked around her, inspecting her from head to toe.
“She’d better be a virgin.” He directed his words toward Maud. The older woman drew up proudly.
“She’s been guarded well, as befits the daughter of a king. The girl is simply nervous and saying things she’s no true understanding of.”
“Bastard daughter, but Edward’s blood in a son is what I need. Royal blood is valuable, even when it’s illegitimate.” He reached out, and Clarrisa lost her grip on her composure. She slapped his hand away before he touched her. James snickered at her.
“Ye’ve been given to me, and ye’ll be grateful, for I hear young Henry Tudor is set to kill off anyone with any claim to the English throne, now that he’s wed himself to Elizabeth of York.”
“He hasn’t crowned her as his queen,” Clarrisa muttered, unable to suppress the distaste in her tone. Henry VII was using his new wife to further his ambition. Elizabeth of York had no more say in her fate than Clarrisa did. They were both daughters of the late Edward IV.
“Why should he? The man had himself crowned Conqueror King, something nae done since William the Bastard. The York family has been defeated, which is yer family. In spite of the fact that he’s English, I like young Henry,” he insisted. “I believe it’s the Scots blood in him. There is no mercy in him, no’ even for a fair lass such as yerself.”
Clarrisa lifted her chin. “I agree, and he’ll take Scotland if given the chance because of it.”
James contemplated her for a long moment, his expression hard. “Which is why I want a son who will be kin to Henry Tudor’s son. Such a son could be very useful.” He lowered his attention to her breasts and sat in a chair. “I liked our topic better before we began talking of England and its cursed nobles.” He licked his lower lip. “What sorts of tales did ye hear from women of experience?”
Clarrisa fought to conceal the nausea twisting her insides. She lowered her eyelashes, and he took it as shyness, chuckling with male smugness. He rubbed his groin, enjoying being vulgar. “Come now, girl… What tales? They don’t mean shit if you cannae impress a man with them. Where’s that spirit gone to now, I wonder? Ye’re the one who claimed she was nae hiding from me.”
He was toying with her, and it sickened her more, but she didn’t let fear take hold of her. Instead she felt superior to him, because lust didn’t rule her.
“Oh… well… let me see.” Clarrisa tapped one fingertip against her lower lip, mimicking the gesture she’d seen other girls use on the knights when they wanted their attention. It worked perfectly, snaring James’s gaze instantly. “There was one I recall rather well about how a man enjoys having his… weapon polished.” She trailed her fingers over her chin and down across her breasts. Maud made a choking sound.
Being a virgin didn’t mean she was blind, after all. Her father’s kin had kept her skirts from being lifted, but they hadn’t stopped her from witnessing the vulgarity around her. Men seemed forever caught between their lust for power and their craving for female flesh.
“Get out, old woman. Ye’ve delivered her, and she will nae be leaving this chamber a maiden. Yer task is completed.”
“I almost forgot the most important part of the tale…”
The king swallowed roughly, his attention intent on Clarrisa. “What might that be, lass?”
Clarrisa offered him what she hoped was a flirtatious look. “I have to bathe you first.”
James frowned. “Why?”
“Because that’s what the harem women do in the Far East.” She rubbed her hands together suggestively. “To show their masters just how much they adore them. Some of the girls said the knights of the crusade brought back tales of how those men were pampered by several women all at the same time… I always wondered…”
“What?” he demanded. James was on his feet in a moment, his eyes bright with anticipation.
“I am simply curious to see if a man can truly hold back his nature long enough for me to bathe him.”
“Ye doubt it?”
Clarrisa nodded and watched him lick his lips. “I do. None of the other girls had ever met a man who could last. Yet the Moors are fabled to be able to linger while their slave women rub them—and the Moors last all night long.”
James caught her close, pulling her against his body. “That’s on account of the fact that they never tried with a Scotsman, lass. I’ve got what it takes to let ye use yer spirit on me. I’ll stand fast while ye polish me weapon from tip to base.”
He pressed a foul kiss against her lips, grabbing her bottom with one hand before he spun her loose.
“Go on with ye, lass. Fill a tub and make it ready for yer master.”
His men guarding the door grinned at her as she hurried past them. Their lurid looks didn’t bother her—she was far more interested in the relief flooding her. Maybe it was a small freedom, but she wasn’t stopped on her way away from the man who believed he owned her. As far as her kin were concerned, he did. The men winking at one another as she passed them believed the same thing.
Well, she was out of the chamber, and she’d find another way to escape the fate she’d been sent north to endure. She just wished she knew how she was going to do it.
* * *
“You’ve gone mad.”
Maud was shaking with wrath, but Clarrisa didn’t give her much of her attention. She had other matters on her mind, such as how to keep the king of Scotland from breeding her like a prized mare.
“The way you were talking, it’s a wonder he hasn’t sent you out into the darkness like a cheap whore, for that is what you sounded like.”
“I’ve no liking to be viewed as a cowardly sacrifice. If it means you are displeased with my words, so be it.” The words slipped past years of instruction to hold her tongue. She dumped the bucket of water she’d hauled from the kitchen into the tub that sat in front of the fire Maud was building up to warm the room.
Maud turned, pointing a poker with a glowing red tip at her. “What would ye rather have? Henry the Seventh of England is hunting down every last drop of York blood. Where can you make your future but here in Scotland?” The old woman spit out the words with clear distaste. “At least you are bound for the bed of a king.”
“He has three sons born in a legitimate union. I will be naught but his whore; my children, illegitimate.” She offered Maud a sincere look. “It is not so kind a fate to be born without the blessing of the church. I would not wish it upon anyone or willingly thrust it upon a babe. I’d be a selfish creature to think only of my gain.”
Maud stabbed the poker back into the fire. A shower of crimson sparks flew up before dying in the cold night air.
“True, but the king wants to be rid of Margaret of Denmark’s sons. He is trying to annul the marriage. I hear his sons are plotting his murder, so it’s fitting he should be looking to take you as his leman so he can have more sons.”
“She’s dead and buried,” Clarrisa insisted.
“Aye.” Maud crossed herself. “But kings do not obey the same rules as other men. James wants the marriage annulled, and he’s sent gold to the pope to see the matter resolved.” Maud turned and considered her. “You might do very well for yourself if you please him. Perhaps I am wrong to judge you. Scots do like fire in their women. Your brazenness might be just the way to keep his attention.”
With a wimple wrapped around her head and under her chin, Maud looked like a bride of Christ, or a bitter abandoned mistress. Clarrisa picked up the empty bucket and hid her smile of amusement. It wasn’t wise to make an enemy of the woman, even if she was no more than another person trying to see Clarrisa’s worth.
It seemed to be the way of life among the nobles. Clarrisa turned to the door and went down the narrow stone steps. There was only a single candle flickering near the base of the stairs. Considering that the king was in residence, the tower was strangely quiet. The single servant she’d spied in the hallway had not returned.
But James III was a king with many unhappy subjects. Margaret of Denmark had been a popular queen. James was quite the opposite, earning the anger of many of his clans because of his lack of justice. Not that his people’s discontent would save Clarrisa from what her kin had sent her to do. She hooked the bucket onto a rope and sent it down the well opening. Her fingers ached from the frigid water, but she preferred it to what the rest of the night would offer.
She had been brazen, but she refused to repent. If her words delayed the distasteful event planned for her, she’d happily be thought as any number of sinful creatures. Everyone she had ever met thought something of her, and most of the time their ideas weren’t kind. They judged her, when it was her father’s sin that had brought her into the world bastard-born. But kings and nobles often believed they had rights beyond what the church said they did. Her mother had been a knight’s daughter, and when the king took her to his bed, she had had no right to refuse.
Clarrisa stopped while pulling the bucket back up and listened. Something filtered through the stone walls, some sound she couldn’t quite identify. She held still, waiting for another hint, but all she heard was the wind. The bucket was almost to the top, and she gave the rope another tug to complete its journey. She unhooked it and turned away from the well.
The bucket’s contents went spilling onto the floor. Where before there had been nothing but empty space, men now stood in the darkness, cast half in shadow; huge figures that sent a shiver down her spine.
“Christ Almighty! That’s cold.”
A portion of the floor was missing and the rushes gone as a trapdoor showed how the men had got into the tower. One huge form climbed out, shaking his head and sending water flying.
“Why are ye the one screaming, Shaw? I expected the lass to do the yelling.” In spite of his teasing words, there was a solid core of strength in his tone that sent her back a step. He was clearly accustomed to being obeyed, and the men coming up through the trapdoor all looked to him.
Shaw growled and wiped more water off his face. “She’s holding her tongue so as to no’ warn her lover, that bastard James, that we’re here, Laird.”
There was only a single lantern lit to help her see to her chore, but the light flickered off Shaw, illuminating the determination on his face. His hand rested on the hilt of a dagger tucked into his worn belt.
“He is not my lover, nor do I want him for such.” Her voice quivered just a tiny amount. Clarrisa forced herself to face them. She’d not die a sniveling coward.
The laird chuckled, but it was not a pleasant sound. “There’s a fact I plan to ensure does nae change by stealing ye away before His Royal Highness notices ye are taking too long with his bathwater. But if ye’re speaking the truth, ye can prove it by coming along with us without a fuss.”
His hair was longer than the English wore theirs, some of it resting on his broad shoulders. It was light colored, but the candlelight illuminated copper in it. For a moment she was tempted, relief filling her, but the way Shaw still gripped his dagger made her hesitate. Her thoughts raced, and her heart did too.
“Steal me… To what end? You can murder me here as easily as on the banks of a river.”
He shook his head, drawing a short grunt from Shaw. The laird snapped his head around to stare at his man. “MacNicols do nae settle their disputes by spilling the blood of women. We’re set to prevent her from becoming the king’s leman. Stealing her will satisfy that need.”
“She’s Edward the fourth’s bastard. His blood is a threat to us all,” Shaw countered. “One best dealt with permanently, I’m thinking.”
“We’ll be ending the matter once we’ve taken her to the Highlands.”
Highlands… The Scottish laird might as well have said Hades, for the Highlands were a place where only uncivilized clans lived. The people were barbaric; they stole women from one another like Moors.
But it would be preferable to becoming the king’s broodmare.
She was tempted but also torn, because she could see the argument shimmering in Shaw’s eyes. Escaping into the hands of men intent on murdering her wasn’t a kinder fate. Clarrisa turned to run, but it was too late. A hard hand clamped around her arm, dragging her to a stop before her skirts stopped swirling.
“Here now. Ye’ll have to be missing out on treating James like a Moor, for we do nae need England’s feud spilling into our royal line,” her captor informed her.
“I want none of it either—”
Shaw looped a length of fabric around her head. It was thin enough to slide right through her open teeth and gag her. Clarrisa reached for it, frantically trying to keep it from biting into her skin, but she was too late. A few twists and it was knotted firmly in place. “Get her down the passageway before anyone guesses what we’re about, lads.”
Whoever the men were, they plucked her off her feet like she was a child. She struggled, unable to master her fear as they handed her to the men still below the surface of the kitchen floor. There was nothing but darkness, which sent a bolt of terror through her.
“Ye might have tied her up, Laird. She’s got claws as sharp as a hawk.”
Her grasping hands sank into sleeves and plaids, but she was yanked away. Shaw followed her, and she heard the trapdoor being slid back into position. The light from the kitchen went with it, leaving her encased in blackness.
“That maid had best keep her end of the bargain and right the rushes, or our game will be ended quickly,” Shaw muttered.
“She’ll do it,” the laird muttered while carrying Clarrisa through the narrow passageway. “She has as much to gain as we do by making sure the king does nae get a York-blooded son.”
Clarrisa twisted and turned, but she was held firmly by her captors. Her dress was a tangled mess, and she felt the night air brushing her knees above her stockings. Her braids hung like ropes—her hat lying wherever it had fallen—but the gag kept her braids from being stepped on. Helplessness almost strangled her, but there was nothing to do but suffer it.
They set her feet down in a thicket, where the trees were dark shapes in the night. There was the musty scent of fallen leaves being disturbed by their passing, but the branches only allowed some of the moonlight to illuminate the ground. She shoved frantically away from the laird, only to hear the man chuckle at her efforts. He caught one of her braids and pulled her back toward him. Tears stung her eyes as pain bit into her scalp, a soft moan the only sound that made it past the gag.
“Best for ye to stay close to me, lass. Me men do nae care to keep ye alive.” He leaned close so she could hear his soft words. “I’ve no liking for harming a female, but I’ll be taking ye. How much discomfort ye want to suffer is up to ye.”
The solid authority was back in his tone, but his tone lacked the suspicion she’d heard from Shaw. Part of her wanted to grasp that idea close, but she needed to be practical. She could not trust him, yet she longed to, because he promised her life.
There were more of them now. She could see the white puffs of their breath with the help of moonlight. She hadn’t heard them, not even with the leaves on the ground.
Highlander. It was a word she’d been raised to fear. The clans inhabiting the upper portions of Scotland were the most fierce. No sane person ventured among them. She retreated without thinking, simply because the idea of going to the Highlands was so horrifying.
There was a short grunt from the laird. “Wrap her up, Shaw. Her claws do draw blood.”
The hand holding her braid released. “Hold her steady for me.”
The group suddenly faced her. Her arms were pressed against her body as a length of fabric was wound around her. Around and around it went, until she was swaddled like a babe.
“Now, let’s be done with this bit of work, lads,” the laird muttered before her feet left the ground again.
It was all so simple, so quietly done. The Highlander hefted her over his shoulder with an ease she might have admired if the man weren’t abducting her. Clarrisa found herself straining to hear the sounds of pursuit, but there was nothing but the wind. It blew through the trees, rustling the leaves enough to cover the escape of her captors. The only sound that came at last were the soft footfalls of a horse. Her captor tossed her up and over the back of the beast without so much as a grunt.
He swung up behind her, and she watched him dig his heels into the underbelly of the horse to send it forward. It was as though the men blended together with the darkness, for there wasn’t a hint of hesitation from any one of them. Even the horses surged forward as though they were accustomed to nighttime rides.
Fate had a misplaced sense of humor for granting her the escape she’d longed for in the form of such men. She should have been afraid, but the truth was that she was too relieved to be free of James’s lust to feel anything else. Even the idea of going to the Highlands was losing its sting as she watched the tower grow smaller and smaller behind them.
But once it was gone, she shivered and dreaded just what fate awaited her at the hands of the MacNicols laird.
* * *
Her jaw ached.
Clarrisa worked her mouth open and closed a few times before she opened her eyes. The sun wasn’t truly risen yet anyway; darkness still surrounded her. Pain shot through her head, and she lifted her hand to rub at her forehead with a frown—she couldn’t recall what she’d done to injure herself. Her mouth felt drier than during a sweltering August day, and her memory returned with a clear recollection of how being gagged had felt. The thing was missing now, but it seemed the fabric had dried out her mouth.
“Ye sleep like a babe. Unconcerned, as though the world is a peaceful place. Maturity should have taught ye differently, but I suppose I cannae be expecting any royal offspring to know much about life’s harsher edges.”
Laird MacNicols was a giant. He squatted, the edges of his plaid just brushing the ground. She gained a glimpse of his well-made boots with antler-horn buttons running up their sides before he muttered something to Shaw in Gaelic.
Fear twisted through her, because Shaw’s eyes were icy and she recalled clearly what he wanted to do with her.
Shaw was leaning against a rock, his long sword cradled across his lap. “She’s the one, sure enough. The only other was wearing a wimple and well past her prime. Saw them both get out of that wagon meself.”
The laird had blue eyes—startling with how intense they were. His hair was fair but streaked with hints of red. It hung down to his shoulders, with a section of it braided to keep it out of his eyes. There was an uncivilized way about him that had nothing to do with the common clothing he wore. It was in his eyes and the corded muscles so clearly visible in his arms and legs. He was not a man who had others do his bidding.
But his sword was fine. The pommel was clearly visible beyond his left shoulder, and the rising sun illuminated the gold hilt. A blue sapphire winked at her from where it was set into a crest that included a rampant lion—a noble creature. Only men with noble blood could use such an animal on their belongings. It meant he was more than just a clan laird. He had blue blood flowing through his veins.
The sight sent her struggling away from him, but the fabric still bound her. His lips twitched up, amusement sparkling in his eyes.
“Now, why the hurry to place distance between us, Clarrisa of York? Did I nae see to yer comfort quite nicely?”
“Your man wants to slit my throat. Why wouldn’t I want to be away from you?”
He shrugged. “Shaw believes it a necessary thing, since yer kin seem to think we need their troubles spreading here to Scotland.” His grin faded. “Something I am nae in favor of either.”
“Neither am I.”
Surprise flickered in his blue eyes. “The way I heard it, ye were fixing to wait on our king like some fat pasha from the Far East.”
There was thick disapproval in his tone, and he stood. He was dismissing her—condemning her, actually. She struggled and sat up, in spite of the fabric binding her.
“You understand naught,” she sputtered. “It was a ruse, to delay him.”
He returned his dark blue gaze to her, but there was a slightly mocking arch to one eyebrow now. “Well then, lass, I’m listening sure enough. Why do nae ye explain to me what ye’re doing in me country and with me king?”
Why was she begging?
Because she wanted to live.
Heat stung her cheeks because she was ashamed at just how easily she had been reduced to whimpering. It wasn’t the first time she’d had no one to depend on except herself. She drew in a deep breath and tried to collect her courage.
“I was sent here by my family. The ruse gained me freedom from the tower room your king intended to use to breed me like a mare.” The sting in her cheeks doubled as she spoke. “So… you see… we desire the same thing.”
He bent his knees so he was able to scrutinize her once more on the same level. He had his share of arrogance, but what surprised her was the enjoyment lurking in his eyes.
“Do we now?” he muttered softly. “I have to doubt ye on that, since ye turned to flee from me.”
“I couldn’t willingly go with you when one of your men wants to kill me.”
He shrugged again. His lips parted and his teeth flashed at her when he grinned. “I told ye it would nae be happening, and I am laird.” His expression hardened. “But ye are still the natural daughter of Edward the Fourth of England and might be well accomplished in the art of twisting words.”
“I am hardly the only child he is rumored to have fathered outside his marriage.” She struggled again against the fabric binding her, feeling too helpless by far, being caught in its folds.
“I hear Edward acknowledged ye, which means a great deal considering how rare noble blood is becoming due to yer War of the Roses.”
He reached out and grabbed the fabric beneath her chin. A moment later she was standing. Her feet shifted, her balance unsteady because her toes had gone numb sometime during the night.
“Henry Tudor has wed Elizabeth of York. The War of the Roses is finished now, because York and Lancaster are united,” she explained.
“But Henry has nae had her crowned queen, and ye are here, brought under cover of darkness to a lone tower where James of Scotland sneaks away to meet with ye. Now, that is suspicious, lass, and no mistake. But it is also dangerous for me and me clan, for we have enough troubles without ye giving James a son with York blood. Ye tried to flee when I offered ye freedom, which means ye might well be intent on becoming a powerful queen through yer son.”
“I told you why I tried to run.”
He chuckled, but it wasn’t a pleasant sound. “Am I to trust ye, then?” He stepped closer, maintaining a firm grip on the fabric to keep her in place. “Will ye offer to bathe me with yer delicate hands, Clarrisa? To show me how adept ye are at common chores? From what the young maid told me, ye claim to have more practice at polishing men’s weapons. Mind ye, I am no’ saying I would nae enjoy ye proving yer gratefulness in such a fashion.”
Her jaw dropped open, but the sound that emerged was a snarl. Full of rage and frustration, she actually lowered her chin and tried to bite the hand securing her in front of him.
“I shall not! You’re a fiend to suggest such a thing.”
He laughed at her, jerking his hand away before she sank her teeth into his flesh. She stumbled and would have landed on her backside, but someone caught her floundering body from behind, and her face burned bright red as she listened to his men enjoy her shame. Someone yanked the length of wool off her, and she spun around like a child playing in a spring meadow. When the last of the wool plaid fell away, she was dizzy. Her captor gripped her wrists while she struggled to maintain her balance, and wrapped a length of leather around them. He knotted the ends firmly before giving a satisfied grunt.
“I am Broen MacNicols, and ye will be leaving, lass, but ye will be traveling with me to the Highlands where I can be sure ye are nae adding to the troubles in me country. Give me men any frustration, and I’ll let them keep ye bundled like a babe.”
“Brute,” she accused. “Uncivilized… Highlander.”
He offered her a wink and a grin, which sent her temper up another few degrees.
“Mount up, lads. We’re too close to England for me taste. The stench sours me stomach.”
* * *
Broen MacNicols was uncivilized.
Clarrisa felt her cheeks stinging with another blush, only this time it was born of shame. Her behavior had matched his. She had no idea where such an urge had come from—biting a man was the reaction of a street strumpet. For heaven’s sake, she could read and write!
But she’d wanted to bite him; the urge had swept through her faster than any reason might intercede. Perhaps her mind had broken under the stress of the last few days.
She scoffed at her thoughts. There was nothing unhinged about her reasoning. It had been her temper, flashing brighter than a fire catching summer straw. Besides, she was too young to be insane. That idea made her smile. Madness hadn’t taken hold of her—for that would have been a blessing. At least insanity would have kept her from worrying about the right and wrong of what her blood kin wanted her to do. Well, their ambition had landed her in Scotland and on her way into the Highlands, it seemed.
Clarrisa twisted her hands again, in spite of knowing that the leather binding her wrists would hold steady. Pain sliced through her skin, reminding her that she would be the only one suffering for her struggles—but she seemed unable to master the urge to chafe against her bonds periodically.
The day grew warm. Her escort unbuttoned their doublets and oversleeves, grinning as the wind flapped their shirtsleeves.
Broen MacNicols wasn’t like any of her noble kin. He didn’t ride in the center of his men but took the high ground and then pushed his stallion to move faster than the rest of them so he might appear on the opposite side of a gorge. He was always in motion, even when he pulled his mount up to give the huge beast a moment of rest. In those brief times, his eyes moved constantly. His profile was harsh, his jaw square, and his cheekbones high. Every winter tale she’d ever heard of wild Scotsmen rose from her memory to go along with the sight of him sitting so confidently with his knees peeking from beneath the edge of his kilt.
Highlanders, actually. The Lowland Scots were more like the English. Highlanders were different. When they came down to fight, history changed.
Maybe she was exactly where she needed to be. It was a dangerous idea, but one that tantalized her too. She had no way of knowing if her situation was improving or not. The only thing that was clear was that Broen pushed them north the entire day; even sunset didn’t stop him. When he did call a halt to their journey, the moon was fully risen, and Clarrisa slid from the back of her mare gratefully. Her legs trembled, and every joint ached, but she stomped at the ground to restore her circulation.
Her mare eagerly left her to go and drink from the nearby river. All the horses surged toward the water, many of them flicking their tails.
Clarrisa turned in the opposite direction.
“Now where do ye think ye’re heading?”
She jumped and stumbled back a pace. “You needn’t appear in my path so suddenly.”
Broen tilted his head to one side. “So are ye saying I should make sure ye see me on me way to head ye off?” He propped his hands on his hips. “That’s something ye English have been wishing for a long time, but we Highlanders will never bow to yer desire to know exactly what we’re about.”
The suspicion in his tone threatened to send her temper flaring again, but the absurdity of having to explain her needs to him made her shake her head instead. “If you cannot understand why I might be set on seeking out some privacy after all day on the back of that mare, you must be as dull-witted as I’ve heard Highlanders are. Or do your women hike their skirts and relieve themselves among you?”
His amusement evaporated, but she caught the hint of regret in his blue eyes, because many of his men were relieving themselves. He reached out and caught her upper arm to turn her away from the sight. “I am nae used to having women along, and for that, I owe ye an apology. Go on, but understand that keeping sight of ye is important. I suggest ye become accustomed to me company.”
“When it snows during summer,” she muttered, too relieved to make her tone mild.
He chuckled. “Ye might decide ye like me. Many a lass has done so…”
There was a slim hint of heat in his voice now. She found the idea of his liking anything about her unsettling; a tingle raced down her spine at the thought, one she needed to kill quickly. “Well, I doubt I shall become one of them.”
She hoped so, anyway, but the man walked in front of her once again. He was attractive in a way she’d never encountered before. The night seemed to fit him, the moonlight enhancing his rugged features.
“You are simply not to my taste.”
One golden eyebrow rose mockingly. “Now why would ye go and say something like that and dash me hopes that ye might lavish me with personal attention like some eastern harem laird?” His lips curved in a sensuous manner, sending a second jolt of sensation down her back. “Ye’re truly testing me, lass, for a Highlander enjoys a challenge more than just about anything.”
He was grinning at her. She should have considered the expression arrogant, for it was, but instead of becoming annoyed, a warm tingle rippled across her skin. He was too intent, too keen, and she feared he could read her feelings right off her face.
“I am not challenging you, sir. All I crave is to be out of your sight.” She sounded breathless and grabbed the front of her skirts to go around him. The man let her move until she was even with him before reaching out and securing a hard grip on her forearm. Once more he loomed over her, his greater height making it necessary for her to tip her head up so she might maintain eye contact with him. Another tiny shiver went down her spine.
“Now, lass, do nae be unkind. Cannae I enjoy the idea of a fine-looking woman such as yerself attending me while I’m saddled with the chore of keeping ye from starting trouble in me country?”
“No, you cannot,” she insisted before pushing at him. He was as immovable as a mountain, and she gained not even an inch for her effort.
“Well now, Clarrisa, ye do nae control me thinking, and that’s a fact.” His voice had turned deep and husky.
“I have no say over what you do at all.” Nor over how he affected her. “There is something you have in common with my English kin.”
He frowned, his eyes darkening, but for some reason the look on his face didn’t remind her of her uncle’s displeasure. When she looked into Broen’s eyes, she didn’t find the same arrogance, only solid disapproval.
“I do nae care to be compared to the English, Clarrisa.”
There was a warning in his voice that pleased her. It should have frightened her, but instead she discovered she enjoyed knowing he wasn’t happy with her. At least the knowledge killed whatever strange emotional response she’d been struggling against. Yes, it was much better to be at odds with him. “I seek privacy; if you allow me that, we need not converse.”
“Something ye shall nae have until I can be sure ye are secured inside a solid tower.”
Horror arrived at last, stealing her thoughts and leaving her gasping. Thoughts of the boy princes and the fate of those with royal blood who were locked away for safekeeping rose up to torment her. Those young princes had died because others coveted their power. No one ever saw them again, except as ghosts. “Now, do nae be looking at me like that. I am nae a monster.” He released her, a sound of disgust reaching her ears. “But I cannae have ye giving James a York-blooded son.”
“So you will lock me up…” Her voice was a mere whisper, her throat feeling like it was swelling up.
“A few of me countrymen believe slitting yer throat is a better solution, as ye have already noticed. Kindly recall I am nae one of them.”
“There is little kindness in this entire affair.”
She stumbled away from him, forcing herself to stop when he began to follow her. Horror was making her shiver, and she detested its powerful hold. She raised her chin and clenched her jaw. “Well then,” she ground out, “if you lack the courage to spill my blood, step aside and allow one of your men to do the deed. I have no taste for living in fear.”
She might be foolish to say so, but it was what she truly felt in that moment. Her words were bold and brash, but they filled her with a steady confidence that cut through the terror. “I’m going up behind those rocks if you need to point the way to Shaw. If my throat is going to be slit, at least I shall not die with my robes soiled like a babe.”
She turned her back on him. It took every bit of courage she had to not look over her shoulder, but she pulled up her skirts and climbed to the outcropping of rocks, making it behind them before her nerve deserted her.