About the book
The only thoughts occupying his mind were of her in his bed…
Lady Olivia Turner’s life turned upside down after her father’s death. Having never fit in with the Ton, she finds her true calling when she attends her half-sister’s wedding in Scotland: healing. The wounds of one specific Highlander, in particular.
With his father on his deathbed, Jaxson MacKinnon, son of the Laird of McAllister, does not care for social niceties. Until he is forced to attend his cousin’s wedding, and he finds a reason to enjoy life again: an Englishwoman with sinful lips and a gentle touch…
Just as their passion rocks the foundations of everything they’ve ever known, Jaxson is called back to his castle. Despite death threats warning her to stay away, Olivia follows her heart straight into Jaxson’s arms. But those threats become all too real and her life is in danger...For as they say, poison is always a woman’s weapon.
Torridon, Scottish Highlands, 1760
Jaxson MacKinnon was being rude. He was fully aware of it, and he knew that it might embarrass his mother, but he didn’t care. A wedding was the last bloody place he wanted to be.
“Stop it now, lad,” he heard his mother, Caitlin, lean over and whisper to him as the pair of them sat in the full wooden benches of the church, watching his cousin, Laird O’Donnell, marry an English lass. “I can see what ye’re doin’, and I willnae stand for it.”
Jaxson tried his best not to raise his voice, even though inwardly, he was in agony.
“Faither needs us, Maither. We cannae leave him. I cannae. I have to find the problem and make it right.” Jaxson clenched his jaw, imagining his ailing father laying alone in his dim chambers, groaning and waiting for his son and wife to return to his bedside.
Caitlin’s whisper took on a stern edge, her eyes still watching the proceedings of the priest at the front of the church.
“Yer Faither wouldnae stand for this either. This mopin’ about. Do ye think that ye are God and can play his assistant? Yer Faither is ill, and yet we must still go and do as we are meant to do. This is yer cousin. We cannae damage the clan alliances by nae attendin’. Ye ken that as well as I.”
Jaxson wanted to reply that it was about more than that, that surely his father’s life mattered more than a simple wedding, yet the priest had finished, and his cousin and the young woman he was marrying, Mary-Anne Turner, were embracing each other in their first wedding kiss.
Quietly, Jaxson scoffed at the scene. Marriage. It didn’t exist the way he hoped for it. Not the way his parents had found love in each other. That could only happen once in a lifetime, and once his father’s illness began, he felt like his bad luck was only just beginning.
There was no chance he could find a woman he could spend the rest of his life with. Even though the families around him had tried many times to thrust their daughters upon him in recent months.
A happy cheer rose up from the crowd in the church, and the couple, blooming in their happiness, strode proudly out of the sanctuary and into the afternoon sun. Jaxson gloomily followed after, his mother hanging on his arm.
“Beautiful weddin’. Yer cousin Daniel looks about as happy as can be. I never thought I would see the day that he would wed,” she chuckled, and Jaxson said nothing, not sharing the same sentiment. “He was always one to run around, just like ye have been wont,” she said with a click of her tongue. “And now he has found his great love. In a Sassenach, nay less!”
She laughed again, and Jaxson wondered how on earth she could be so merry when her husband laid at home in such pain, which seemed only to be increasing in recent weeks.
“Aye. A Sassenach. I am surprised he did his clan the dishonor.”
“Och, hush, lad. Ye are as bad as ever, I see. Nae even the sight of a couple in love is enough to melt yer icy exterior.”
Jaxson smirked at his mother’s words, and amidst the crowd, they walked to O’Donnell Castle for the after celebration. The only good thing about it was that Jaxson could drink and forget his father’s pain or the fact that to find his own love would be an impossible task.
He was nervous as he stepped into the full hall of the castle, filled with merry faces and the sound of laughter.
He was a Laird’s son and was used to gatherings, and yet he had kept away from such things for so long, with the weight of his father’s illness on his shoulders, and so he felt out of practice. However, he had never felt that he played the role of host or festival attendant very well. At the doorway, Caitlin leaned up and kissed Jaxson on the cheek.
“Go on, then. Show yer icy mood to one of the bonnie lasses of the room. I am certain they will appreciate that. Even if they may be Sassenachs.” She patted him on the cheek and left him to greet the other guests.
“Damn it,” Jaxson muttered under his breath, looking sullenly around him.
As if out of nowhere, a young red-haired man stepped through the crowd and lifted an arm to Jaxson in greeting.
“Jaxson! Why are ye standin’ there like a dobber when there is ale and merriment to be had? Pretty lasses as well.”
Campbell Sinclair was Jaxson’s best friend, and often a savior in social settings. He was seemingly always cheery and always funny, making even the sourest of old women laugh if he was in their company. Jaxson took the cup that was thrust into his hand, and he drank it greedily, nearly finishing it. Campbell looked into the cup and grinned.
“I see ye are takin’ me advice quickly. That is good to hear. Come, we ought to give our greetin’s and congratulations to yer cousin. Besides, there’s a bonnie lass standin’ next to the bride with whom I wish to be acquainted.”
Jaxson laughed, finally loosening after a whole day of frustration at having been forced into attending. “Fine, then. But daenae go and embarrass yerself or me either, like the time when ye began to spout poetry to a poor lass as she stood next to her Faither.”
They pushed through the crowd, and Campbell shook his head. “Nay, I wouldnae think of it. Nae since the lass had looked at me then as though I had three heads, and the Faither looked ready for murder. I will try a more…delicate approach.”
Jaxson groaned. Delicate was not a word in Campbell’s vocabulary. He was certain there would be some sort of embarrassment, and Campbell would be the center of it with his undying flair for the dramatic.
Jaxson could hear the musicians start up in the corner, and it added to the festive atmosphere of the hall as well as the heat. Jaxson spied the roaring fire at the far end of the large room and squeezing in through the crush of people as he followed his friend, he could feel sweat coming out on the back of his neck and on his chest.
“Cousin,” Daniel said with a smile as Jaxson and Campbell stood before them.
“Daniel, a most hearty congratulations to ye,” Jaxson shook his cousin’s hand happily. He always liked Daniel, and they had been good friends, but now their lives as laird and future laird had kept them far too busy of late to stay in touch. “Ye ken Campbell already, of course.”
“Aye, of course.” Daniel shook Campbell’s hand and then moved his arm to reach around the waist of his new bride. Jaxson looked at her. She was young and pretty, her smile wide as she leaned into her new husband’s touch.
“This is Mary-Anne Turner, the new Lady O’Donnell.” Daniel was beaming as he spoke the words, and his new wife giggled with happiness. A jolt of envy shot through Jaxson like a flame.
“Lady O’Donnell,” Jaxson said with propriety, and Campbell bowed his head.
“A pleasure to meet ye, me Lady. What a lovely weddin’. So much to celebrate.” He motioned to the dancing crowd behind them, and Mary-Anne laughed.
“Yes, I am very happy that we could combine our families today. Although, I think that my English relatives are very shocked at sights and sounds of a Scottish gathering.”
Jaxson frowned, but Campbell was unphased by her slight insult. “Me Lady, might I ask, there was a woman standin’ next to ye before. She looked familiar to me, and I wished to introduce meself, if I could.”
Jaxson rolled his eyes and glanced at Daniel, who was smirking at Campbell’s feeble attempts at delicacy, but the new Lady O’Donnell seemed not to notice that he was up to anything unusual.
“Oh, you must have meant my sister. She is,” Mary-Anne turned her pretty blue eyes to the crowd and then waved, “just there. Lucretia! Come and greet our guests.”
Jaxson turned to see a near copy of Mary-Anne although a couple of years younger walk towards them. She was just as pretty, but there was a hardness to her where Mary-Anne was soft.
Mary-Anne pulled Lucretia to her as she made the introductions. Jaxson could see Campbell’s pleased face. His foolish scheme had worked.
“Greetings, gentlemen,” Lucretia said politely.
“Greetin’s, Miss Turner. I wonder if ye might dance with me. The musicians are just about to play a new song.”
Lucretia hesitated for a moment, but at a discreet nudge from her sister, she took Campbell’s hand with a smile.
“Of course, Mr. Sinclair. I should be delighted. Although I am not sure I will know the Scottish steps.”
“Nay matter,” Campbell said proudly, now completely ignoring his friend. “I shall be yer teacher.”
Jaxson bit his tongue to keep from laughing as he watched his skilled friend pull the young Miss Lucretia into a dance. When he turned back around, he felt slightly uncomfortable at the shift in the situation. He was now depended upon to continue the conversation.
“Lady O’Donnell,” he said, glad he had thought of something to say, “how many family members have traveled with ye?”
Mary-Anne smiled, and she looked about the room as if counting. “Well, there is my Mother, of course, my Uncle and Aunt, a few cousins, and my half-sister, Olivia.”
A peal of light, pleasant laughter cut the air, and came from the side of the three of them. Jaxson turned, amazed at the way the laughter made him feel. Happy and light, as if there wasn’t a darkness and fear that continuously clung to him. He spotted his smiling mother, but he knew that wasn’t who had laughed.
Then the laughter came again from the young woman who was speaking to his mother. Jaxson froze when his eyes lit upon her. The young woman was the most beautiful creature he had ever beheld.
Olivia was happy for Mary-Anne. She really was, even if she felt a little prick of jealousy at the new adventure her half-sister was about to embark upon. A marriage to a Highland laird? Away from the gossiping tongues of London society and out in the beautiful countryside?
It seemed like a dream come true. As if all the sorrows of the world could be forgotten there. It was so beautiful and green and peaceful, and the blues of the sea and the lochs were like the blue from mystical lands of the past.
I would gladly trade my fate with Mary-Anne’s any day, she thought mournfully.
For now, it would only be she and Lucretia at home with her stepmother, Louisa, who paled in comparison to what Olivia could remember about her own dear mother. Even though her mother died when she was only three, she missed her dearly. Louisa had raised her and had been polite, but there was not that same warmth and connection that she had with her own daughters.
Olivia was happy that she’d been given a chance to travel and get her mind away from her own grief at the loss of her recently departed father. Lucretia followed in her mother’s footsteps, polite but a little cold. Mary-Anne was the kinder one, but she was now married and would be gone forever. Olivia doubted she would ever see her half-sister again, or even have any reason to visit this paradise of the Highlands another time.
On their journey there, her mind had been full of all the good work she could do as a healer in the Highlands. In London, when they would stay there instead of at Kingham Manor, Olivia was able to find as many books on the subject of healing and medicine as she could, but there was not a woman healer or doctor in sight. At least in the countryside, she had been able to help those on her Father’s, the Baron of Kingham’s, estate and the practice had helped her knowledge to grow.
Her fingers constantly itched to do real, honest work instead of the mindless tasks and little activities Louisa had given her and her daughters over the last few years. Needlework, Bible readings, and the like.
After her Father’s death a few months before, Olivia felt abandoned and alone, left to drown in the tasks her stepmother set her to do. Her stepmother was consumed with the thoughts of ladies learning to become elegant and refined, while Olivia merely hungered for knowledge. Yet a wedding was amusement enough, and she could be happy for her half-sister, for the O’Donnell laird seemed a good man. Very benevolent and polite. Handsome too.
“Have ye seen Scotland before, young woman?”
Olivia turned to see a kind, older woman looking up at her with a smile.
“I have not been fortunate enough, no. I am unsure that I will be able to leave, seeing just how beautiful it is. We hear stories about it in England, but I had never dreamed it would be so green and lush.”
“Aye,” the woman said. “We are proud of that. A deep breath of Highland air in the mornin’ is enough to cure any ailment.”
Olivia smiled, her brown eyes twinkling. “I shall keep that in mind, Mrs…”
“Lady McAllister. None of that though, ye must call me Caitlin. Yer Maither tells me ye are her stepdaughter, Olivia, and thus half-sister to the bride.”
“Yes. Quite correct.” Olivia was surprised her stepmother had even acknowledged her to a stranger. “And how do you know the bride and groom?”
“The Laird O’Donnell is me nephew, me brother’s child. I am here with me son to celebrate their nuptials. We hail from a bit further north, near Poolewe and Loch Maree.”
“Ah, well, I am very pleased to meet you.”
“And ye. Why are ye nae dancin’? A lovely lady like ye should be dancin’ and enjoyin’ the festivities, nae standin’ and talkin’ to an old woman.”
Olivia laughed, her slight tension at being left alone at the gathering slowly dissipating. “I think I much prefer yer company, Lady McAllister.” She glanced at the dance floor full of couples listening to songs she did not recognize and moving in steps she didn’t know. “I do not think I would be very much good at dancing here. Even in England, I do not enjoy balls as much as some young women.”
“Well, then, I shall find ye a good partner!” Lady McAllister’s eyes shone brightly with amusement, and Olivia’s mouth dropped open in surprise.
“No, thank you. Surely you must have your own acquaintances to spend your time with. You may leave me here.”
“Nonsense! Ye are a Sassenach and a guest here in Scotland. I shall find ye a good dancin’ partner who can guide ye through the steps.”
Olivia laughed nervously, unsure what to say. The woman was so determined, yet entertaining. Lady McAllister turned around and pursed her lips in thought as she scanned the crowd. Olivia willed her cheeks not to go red at the thought of who she might pick and what she might say to the man.
How can I explain to him that my dancing is poor?
For a split-second, she wished that she could just run away, but even if that was not something shockingly rude, she wouldn’t have been able to make it far, for the crowd of people that surrounded them was dense and thick.
“Och!” Lady McAllister said, snapping her fingers with a wicked gleam in her eye. “Me son!” She waved to the side of her. “Jaxson! Come, there is someone I wish ye to meet.”
Olivia’s heart raced uncontrollably. She’d hoped that there would be no one suitable in Lady McAllister’s view, and now her dance partner was to be the Lady’s son. Oh, even more embarrassing!
Slowly, she turned her head to look at the man, praying she didn’t look as fearful as she felt, and her lips parted in surprise when she saw the tall Highlander who was coming their way. He had broad shoulders and thick arms, and he moved with the strength of a lion. His bearing was noble yet rough, for that seemed the Highland way. His brown curly hair was unruly, yet it only added to his handsome charms.
Olivia’s breath caught in her chest. She felt like she was looking at a sculpture. The man was mesmerizing, a piece of artwork, and when he got close enough to see him, she melted a little at the sight of his pure green eyes, the same green as that of the Scottish hills.
“Jaxson,” Lady McAllister’s kind voice cut through Olivia’s thoughts. “This is Lady O’Donnell’s half-sister, Miss Olivia Turner.”
Olivia realized her mouth was still open and she shut it quickly, wishing she could shut her eyes as well to escape the awkwardness. Jaxson was looking at her as if studying her intently, and she just knew that he would find fault with her in some way. Everyone usually did.
He bowed his head. “Miss Turner. Yer half-sister and I were just discussin’ ye.”
Olivia chuckled nervously again, but stopped abruptly, wishing she could let go of that tiresome habit. “Oh, is that so?” Her mind was a complete blank in the face of such male beauty, and no matter how hard she tried, in that moment, she could think of nothing else to say.
Lady McAllister filled up the gaps between them. “Jaxson, I have found ye a dance partner.”
Olivia’s eyes flicked to Jaxson’s mother who was nudging him lovingly, and she wanted to die of embarrassment when she saw slight hesitation move quickly across Jaxson’s face.
“Please, you must not inconvenience yourself.” She looked down in surprise to see Jaxson’s hand held outstretched to her.
He said, “I should be happy to, lass. If ye will have me.”
As if I could want anything else.
Olivia colored at the direction of her thoughts, but she had the wherewithal to at least take his hand with a smile.
“Thank you, Mr. McAllister.”
“MacKinnon,” he corrected. “The clan name is McAllister, but me surname is MacKinnon.”
“I see,” Olivia said, but she hadn’t really seen anything at all.
Jaxson chuckled, and she froze again when she spied a pair of dimples in his cheeks, his smile changing his face entirely. Before, he was all ice and scrutiny, but now, he seemed merry and obliging. His hand was warm and strong, and he pulled her towards the dancers.
“Come, Miss Turner.”
“Oh, well, if you insist, but I must warn you that –”
Before she could finish her explanation, Jaxson’s strong arm slid around her waist, and he pulled her toward him into the swirl of dancing couples.
After a few harried movements, she let herself sink into Jaxson’s capable arms. He led the dance, and she found her way eventually, laughing when she couldn’t quite get the steps just right.
At the end of the song, the couples cheered and clapped for the musicians. Olivia’s face was red with energy, and a few stray blonde curls had come out of her coiffure to hang by her ears. If her stepmother was watching her right then, Olivia knew that she would cluck with disapproval, arching one of her dark brows as she usually did.
If Olivia was being honest, this was the most fun she’d had in a long time. Jaxson smiled down at her and offered her his arm to lead her away from the dancers.
“Will ye walk with me, lass? Outside a bit? I feel as if the heat is goin’ to be the death of me.”
Olivia blushed. Back home, this was an invitation of a sordid sort, but here, in the wild Highlands of Scotland, she wasn’t sure that there were any rules really. Not like the rigid ones of London, surely.
“I agree with you,” she said breathlessly, trying to push a strand behind her ear.
He smiled, and after a few loud moments of pushing through the crowd, they made it outside into the cooling evening air. Jaxson took a deep breath.
“By God, I needed that.”
Olivia felt safe in his presence, even if her nerves were going wild. Never before had she been alone with such a handsome man and a man who was not of the English aristocracy.
At her age, she was turning into an old spinster. There had been a few suitors, but none of them made her feel the way that this strange Scottish man made her feel, and her stepmother had made no effort to put her out into society and only aided her own daughters in their pursuit of matrimony.
“Me as well.” She turned to Jaxson. “I do apologize if my steps were less than satisfactory. I am not a good dancer at the best of times, and with these different songs, I could not exactly get them right.”
Jaxson chuckled, his lovely dimples showing again. “Think nothin’ of it, lass. Ye were perfect.”
The word tolled in her brain like a bell; she couldn’t stop thinking it. No one had ever called her perfect before. In fact, since her father’s death, no one had thought her anything special at all. No one had said anything to such an effect, so she had the odd feeling that she was a hindrance, a burden, something to be left behind. She often felt left out in the close-knit circle of her stepmother and half-sisters.
“Thank you,” was all she could think to say, and they stood silently a little while, listening to the night time sounds of the hills and trees. It was a calming place.
For the first time since her father’s death, she finally felt at peace.
When she turned back to Jaxson, she noticed he was watching her. This time it was without scrutiny, and the heat of his gaze made her cheeks flush. She was grateful that the darkness covered her this time. Olivia felt like her breathing was so loud that it interrupted the sounds of the night. A man had never looked at her that way before, as if there was nowhere else he would rather look.
A little shakily, she said, “I must confess that I do not really care for such festivities. I like the music and the jolliness of it, but I cannot say that I have ever been very good at talking to lots of people.”
Jaxson laughed. “Then we are kindred souls, Miss Turner, for I am the very same. Me Maither has to pull me to events, and she often says it’s like pullin’ a stubborn mule by the reins.”
“Well, your mother certainly did not choose the most elegant of animals to compare you to.”
Grinning, Jaxson turned to her, his whole body facing hers. “Nay, she dinnae, but I think she rather enjoys bein’ a little insultin’ to her son. Me parents have always been very cheery and good jokers.”
“Sounds lovely,” Olivia said with sincerity, smiling up at Jaxson’s happy face.
“Now, if I am to be compared with a mule at me lack of interest in balls and the like, I wonder what ye would be compared with Miss Turner?”
She chuckled. “I should think my half-sisters who dearly love all social events might compare me to a tired dog, who could not be persuaded to walk no matter how hard they try.”
Jaxson shook his head. His eyes grew warm again as he watched her. He lifted a hand to his face as if he was thinking. “Nay, lass. Nae a dog nor a mule. I think I would compare ye with a fairy.”
“A fairy?” Olivia asked, a little breathlessly. “I did not think that fairies were stubborn creatures who did not like to be social.”
“Of course they are! They always seem to disappear whenever one sets foot in the woods, and they fight back, never wanting to do as they’re told.” He smiled again, and the sight gave Olivia a warm feeling in her stomach. “They are also incredibly bonny.”
Olivia looked down, embarrassed.
“Ye will stay long with yer half-sister?” Jaxson finally spoke, breaking the heated silence, and changing the subject to her great relief.
“No,” she shook her head. “We will leave in a couple of days, if not tomorrow. Back to England.”
Jaxson frowned. “That is too bad, lass. I had rather hoped I would get the chance to see ye again. After tonight.”
“Oh,” she said, and swallowed as Jaxson stepped a little closer.
His handsome face was covered in both light and shadows, the torches dancing across his jaw. This was the moment. It would be her first time, and she was happy that it would be with this strange, beautiful man who made her insides warm and tingling. She knew she was about to be kissed.
Jaxson was trying to control himself.
He didn’t want to scare Olivia Turner away with his boldness or his flirtations, but he was mesmerized by the sight of her beauty in the light of the castle torches. Her blonde hair looked golden in the light, and after they’d danced, her lithe body moving effortlessly in his arms, she looked even more beautiful. Almost as if she’d just been bedded, her hair mussed and her cheeks red.
She was not like any of the lasses he’d met before, or whose names his mother had whispered into his ear. Olivia Turner was self-effacing, funny, gentle, and elegant, even if she was English with a strange-sounding accent. Not only that, but she was also absolutely beautiful, and he felt tongue-tied in her presence.
He wanted nothing more than to take her in his arms and kiss her until the pair of them were breathless with need. He could tell that she was an innocent, seemingly unused to the attentions of men. Yet, he couldn’t believe it.
He stepped closer to her, his body doing what his brain told him he shouldn’t, and he heated at the sight of her pink lips parting and her eyes growing hazy.
“Olivia,” he said, for the moment unashamed that he used her Christian name, so great was his desire to touch her and taste her.
“Yes?” she said softly as she moved ever so slightly closer to him.
Their eyes locked, and he felt like he was drowning slowly, warmly, and pleasantly, if that was even possible, then, a twig snapped, and the two of them jumped apart as if they’d been burned. His eyes moved to the dark woods not far from the castle, the trees like shapeless shadows in the night. He could see nothing, nor did he hear another sound.
“What was that?” Olivia asked, a little tinge of fear in her voice.
Jaxson frowned. “I daenae ken, it was most likely an animal out on the hunt.” Olivia shivered. “Och, are ye cold, lass? Forgive me, perhaps we have stayed outside too long?”
“Oh no, not at all,” Olivia said, speaking quickly, attempting again to push that same strand of hair behind her ear. “I think I was only a little frightened of the sound, wondering what kinds of animals might be out at night that are big enough to make a twig crack.”
Jaxson chuckled, even though her statement made him think that it might not have been an animal at all.
But I cannae frighten the lass any further.
Tamping down his disappointment that the animal or whatever it was had ruined his chances of kissing Miss Turner that evening, Jaxson offered Olivia his arm.
“Let us return to the feast. Ye must be hungry. It has been a long day since the start of the celebration.”
“Oh, you have read my mind once again, sir. I am starved.”
Olivia said the sentence with such earnestness and feeling, Jaxson laughed, amazed that he could feel so comfortable with someone so soon after meeting. The thought of her leaving in a few days made him ache with a sudden sadness that she would so soon be gone out of his life. Returned to England forever which now felt like another world entirely.
Inside the hall, everything was as they’d left it. The room was warm with fire and merriment, and Jaxson noticed a smile on Olivia’s face as she watched everything.
“Shall I return ye to yer family?” he asked politely, not wanting her to let go of his arm, but knowing that he could not be keep her hostage as his companion all evening, or it might look unseemly.
She was a Sassenach after all, and from what Mary-Anne had told him, she was a Baron’s daughter, and her father had died a few months before.
“No, thank you. I would rather you did not.”
Jaxson was about to laugh when he saw the seriousness in her eyes. He opened her mouth to question her as to why when he heard a few men begin to yell and the sound of metal clashing just outside the castle gates. He glanced down at Olivia’s frightened and confused face.
“Daenae worry, Sassenach,” he said and was glad that his mother suddenly appeared at their side. “Stay here,” he said to both of them, and Lady McAllister took Olivia’s arm with a nod of understanding.
Jaxson pushed through the crowd, feeling for the sword at his belt. He had not brought his musket, but he knew the O’Donnells were well-stocked.
“Daniel!” he called out when he spotted a furious Daniel moving toward the castle doors, waving to his guards and barking orders.
“Move the guests elsewhere!” he shouted at a few of the servants, who were trembling with surprise and fear.
Jaxson finally reached his cousin’s side. “Bloody blaigeards, spoilin’ a weddin’.”
He was angry for so many things at that moment, but he had to focus and channel it. At the sound of pained groans on the other side of the doors, his heart began to race with fear.
The O’Donnell Clan and Castle was a strong one, but what if it was a very strong clan come to ambush the O’Donnell laird when it was known his guard would be down as he celebrated his wedding?
Daniel shook his head. “I daenae care who it is at the moment. I just want it to end, so that I can return to me wife. The guns are bein’ brought. The guards are on the towers and will handle those men. We will have to handle those at the door with the guards that are left with us.”
Jaxson nodded. He pulled out his sword and stood ready, listening to the sounds of fighting from beyond the doors and the scuffle of feet as the guests made their way out of the hall to safety in other rooms. He thought of Olivia, and how he wanted her to keep safe. If not for himself then for her own sake. So lovely, so pure; he didn’t want her to be hurt.
Guns made their way into the men’s hands around them, and Daniel yelled, “Now!”
The guards opened the wide oak doors, and outside, it was a shocking frenzy. Three bloodied guards lay at the base of the doorway, while the rest were still locked in battle with a group of about ten men. They wore no tartan, only leather and wool, caps on their heads and fabric around their faces. There was no way to know who it was they were fighting.
Jaxson thrust himself into the battle with Daniel at his side. Their swords swung and clashed against the ambushers. Jaxson was able to fell one with a few strokes. He pushed the man to the ground and moved to the next. At the flow of more guards along with Daniel and Jaxson, the attacking men fought for a few moments but then turned to flee.
At the sight of their fleeing backs, the guards lifted their guns and sent bullets whizzing into the night, catching a few of the fleeing attackers and sending them to the ground.
Jaxson and Daniel ran after them, and Daniel called out to his men, “Enough now! We need some alive.”
Jaxson was breathing hard in the chase, the feel of the cool air reminding him how only a little bit before, in the same air, he was in the midst of an amorous embrace with the beautiful Olivia before his eyes. He knew now that it was men and not animals who had made the sound of the twig snapping.
Damn them all!
The O’Donnell men caught up with a few of the ambushers, and Jaxson swung a fist at one, sending him to the ground after one hit. He lifted the man up by the collar and removed his mask while Daniel and his men worked on a few others.
“Why have ye come, lad?” he said angrily into the young man’s face.
He didn’t recognize him, and he looked very young and afraid. The man, still trembling shook his head, and Daniel said, “To the dungeon! We will question them later. I have a weddin’ to return to. Nay time to deal with their shite.”
“But Laird, what of the men who have run off?” one of the guards asked.
“Leave them. I think we have taught them enough for one evenin’. Still, double the guard’s watch.” A little more solemnly, Daniel added, “and remove the fallen bodies to the cold cellar.”
Jaxson lifted his young fighter and along with the rest of the O’Donnell men, they dragged them inside, slipping down a side passage to the dungeon. He avoided the fearful gazes of those who remained in the hall, not wanting Olivia to see him worn and bloodied, even though none of his cuts were deep.
After all the prisoners were safely ensconced in their cells, Daniel set the guards back up at their stations and lifted a handkerchief to wipe the dirt and blood from his face.
“Damn,” he said to Jaxson as they ascended from the moist walls of the dungeon and lower parts of the castle. “I had hoped to present a fine Laird for me new wife this evenin’.”
Jaxson chuckled and patted him on the back. “Surely a Laird who has just defeated an enemy and so quickly will be more allurin’ than one who has nae.”
“Let us bloody hope,” Daniel said as they returned to the hall, and called for the musicians to begin again.
Jaxson’s eyes searched the crowd as Daniel spoke to the guests in the room who were slowly returning, pulling his slightly frightened wife toward him.
“Forgive us friends and family, return to ye’re merrymakin’. All is well for the evenin’.”
After a few minutes, it was as if there had been no disturbance. That was the way of things in the Highlands. Jaxson was certain that the English guests would be scared out of their minds. He was not disappointed. As he made his way through the swelling crowd, the sound of fresh music in his ears, a gray-haired woman with iron-like eyes stomped past him, Lucretia Turner in tow.
“Savage place, this. Imagine it. A battle in the middle of a wedding!”
“Hush, Mother, or you shall cause offense.”
“I most certainly do not care about that. Mary-Anne is well and married now. A Scottish Lady, but I am affronted that we should be at risk of such dangers while we are visitors here! You must go upstairs and stay away from this den of danger!”
This was Olivia’s stepmother. He knew it now. If for no one else but for Olivia’s sake, Jaxson stopped the pair of women.
“Daenae worry yerselves. It is all taken care of. It is the way of the Highlands, ye see. Disagreements aplenty over land and such. But ye will be quite safe. Enjoy yerselves.”
Lucretia gave him a sly smile of gratitude, while the mother looked him up and down with suspicion and opened her fan to cool her face.
“I see. And ye are?”
“Laird O’Donnell’s cousin, Jaxson MacKinnon.”
“Ah,” she said knowingly as if she hadn’t even needed to ask it. “I am the Baroness of Kingham, the bride’s mother.” She lifted a hand outstretched for him and bemused, he took it, bowing his head over her palm.
“Good to meet ye, Baroness.” His eyes kept wandering around the room, but he still couldn’t find Olivia. He did, however, spy his mother. “Excuse me, Baroness, but I must go see to me Maither, to make sure she is well.”
“Of course, of course,” the Baroness said with a flick of her fan. She was no longer cold and angry but there was still something strange in her voice. He couldn’t quite identify it, but it made him think of a snake.
He was relieved to escape the Baroness’ clutches but sad that Olivia had to put up with her all of the time.
He touched Caitlin’s elbow as he finally made it to her side. “Maither,” he said, “are ye well? Unharmed?”
“Aye, aye, I am always well. I kenned that ye and Daniel would handle things. Where are the men now?”
“In the dungeon. We will question them tomorrow. Although I think that we should stay for a few days. I fear that any travelers may be taken hostage in order to accomplish whatever those men attempted to do tonight.”
When he turned back to his mother after scanning the crowd once more, her eyes were gleaming with mischief.
She smirked. “A few days, Jaxson?”
“Aye,” he nodded but then realized why his mother was so happy. He began to shake his head, and his mother laughed loudly.
“So someone has melted yer icy exterior then, me son?”
Jaxson groaned aloud.
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