About the book
She hated him for ruining her life, even if her heart yearned for his touch…
Elise Beck’s life is going according to plan: she is to be married soon and start a family. That has always been her fate, and she has always stuck to it. Until a beastly Highlander kidnaps her in what appears to be a confusing mistake…
Dunmore Woolridge, Laird of Finlaggan, has a small but strong clan. They might not gain much, but the treasure in his castle helps his people survive. However, when someone steals it, he has only one suspect in mind; Laird Walton, Elise’s uncle.
Despite being brought together by a mistake, Dunmore will not give her back, no matter the cost. Not when his feelings for her grow by the day...However, whoever stole his treasure wants nothing more than to see him ruined, even if it means three clans getting slaughtered…
Shadows flickered menacingly across slicked walls, where the steady drip-drip of an unseen leak pattered the stone, as if the torches and the trickling water were trying to urge the approaching figure to go back. No good could come of this.
Gripping the hilt of his claymore, the figure pressed on alone, for these underground tunnels bore even deeper secrets. Secrets that Dunmore, the Laird of Finlaggan, had confided to very few, and that did not include the hunting party he had left above, in the safety of the moonlight.
“Mowbray? Croft?” his whispering voice was swallowed up by the thick stone, adding an eerie layer to the already ominous silence. “Tilley? McBain?”
Nothing, and no one, responded.
They wouldn’ae abandon their posts. They ken to protect the treasure of Finlaggan with their lives.
A tremor of alarm slithered up his spine. What if his most trusted men had done what was expected of them? He had selected them for their loyalty, tenacity, discretion, and fierce fighting spirit. They would not leave this underworld vulnerable. What if he turned this corner and found them… dead?
Swallowing the sweep of impending doom that whistled through the tunnels, chilling the back of his neck, he edged on down the increasingly narrow passageway. Though Finlaggan Castle was infamous for its confusing hallways, he knew his home as intimately as he knew his blade. The secret cavern which kept this castle, and its people, afloat was not far now.
He stopped at the corner, where the tunnel branched off—a passage to the left, a passage to the right. The left would take him to a seemingly endless network of hallways which ended in a cellar that had not been used for decades. The right would take him on to the disused dungeons, and the cache that he had amassed for seven years, adding to the substantial pile that his father had gathered for years before.
“Who goes there?” Dunmore froze, raising up his sword, as a quiet noise reached his ears. It sounded like the furtive scuff of shoes on stone.
It stopped at the echo of his voice. Someone was down there, but Dunmore did not know if they were friend or foe.
“Mowbray? Croft? Tilley? McBain?” Dunmore tried again, willing one of his loyal guards to answer. They had to be down there. They just had to be.
Again, no one answered.
Steeling himself, Dunmore took a torch and entered the darkness, waving the flame from side to side to light up the gloomy passage. However, it only seemed to further darken the farthest reaches of the passageway. As such, he moved carefully, lest he trip on something… or someone along the way. All the while, he kept his senses pricked for anyone trying to ambush him.
“Mowbray?” he hissed, forgoing the other three. Mowbray was as much a friend as he was a guard, and Dunmore knew Mowbray was on duty tonight.
A soft groan whispered back.
“Mowbray, is that ye?” he repeated, and was met by the same ghostly groan, coming from somewhere up ahead.
Picking up his pace, Dunmore all but charged down the tunnel, sword and torch raised in unison. He was moving so quickly that he did not see the figures slumped on the flagstones until he was upon them. His foot caught the side of the first, sending him flying forward. Struggling to catch his balance, Dunmore twisted his body and hit the hard stone of the nearest wall with his back. A jarring pain pulsed through his chest, but it would pass.
The same might nae be said for me guards—
“Mowbray, is that ye?” Recovering, Dunmore shone his torch downward, illuminating all four faces of his “Treasurers.” A nickname they had created for themselves. All seemed dead and unmoving, bar one.
Dunmore skidded to his knees next to the guard who went by the name of Croft. A young man—barely a man, if Dunmore was being honest—who was skilled beyond his years with a broadsword. Indeed, there were only a handful of men within Finlaggan Castle who could triumph over him in a sparring match. Dunmore being one of them.
“Croft? Croft, what happened?” Dunmore urged, pulling the young man up onto his bent knees.
Croft’s eyes rolled back into his head but, a moment later, he seemed to come around again. “Ambush… M’Laird. Ambush. Ten… of ‘em. Maybe more.” He coughed and clasped a hand to his chest. “I did me best, M’Laird. I couldn’ae… take all of ‘em.”
“Who?” Dunmore narrowed his eyes.
Croft grimaced. “They were… cloaked, M’Laird. But… I saw a glimpse of… one of ‘em while we… were scrappin’. He belonged to… yer… faither’s… friend. The Laird of…” he trailed off, clutching his stomach.
Worried for the boy as he passed out in Dunmore’s arms, the Laird quickly checked him over for injuries. A ragged gash had formed a red smile across the boy’s pale stomach, but the bleeding seemed to have stopped and, on further inspection, the cut was not as deep as it had first looked. With any luck, Croft would survive and be able to tell Dunmore more of what had occurred.
Laying Croft gently on the floor, Dunmore checked the other three. All were breathing, but none were awake, and blood matted Mowbray’s hair where he must have been struck by something hard.
I’ll get them to the healer, just as soon as I’ve… he could not finish the thought, as his gaze lifted to the last cell on the right. The wooden door had been torn from its hinges and now leaned against the wall, like a drunkard after too many ales.
Standing up, Dunmore went to the open doorway and closed his eyes as he pushed his torch-wielding hand over the threshold. He almost did not dare to open his eyes again, fearing what he might see. In this room rested the treasure trove that his four most loyal men had striven so hard to protect, very nearly giving their lives to the cause.
Croft must’ve mistaken what he saw. The assailants couldn’ae be tied to a man who has been like an uncle to me. I willnae believe it.
Taking a deep breath, Dunmore forced his eyes open. Beneath the flickering orange of the torch in his hand, he witnessed utter devastation. Flagstones had been pulled up and thrown aside, some of them smashing into jagged chunks.
“Nay… nay, ye bastards!” Dunmore hissed, stepping closer to the gaping hole in the floor.
Three vast chests were tucked side-by-side within the hole. Their locked lids had been smashed to splinters, likely with the same tools that had injured his men. Dunmore did not even need to crouch down and peer into the broken chests; he could already see they were empty. Nevertheless, he did, and trailed his hand across the bottom of each one, hoping for a miracle.
There, he found a solitary gold coin—Roman in origin, and pilfered from a hidden cache, buried close to Hadrian’s paltry wall. The old Laird had sent his son to retrieve the cache some nine years prior, on the day the boy turned seven-and-ten, after coming into the possession of an ancient map. It was the first mission Dunmore had undertaken by himself. He would never forget it, for it was the first time he truly believed that his father had faith in him.
“Ye thievin’ wretches,” Dunmore clenched the coin in his palm, until the emperor’s face dug into his skin, leaving an imprint.
Evidently, Croft had not been mistaken, for the only four men Dunmore had entrusted with the treasure’s location were outside, unconscious. But the man Croft had accused had departed the castle early that morning after staying for a fortnight as Dunmore’s guest—a man who had known Dunmore would be away with the hunting party until late. True, the cretin might not have done this with his own hands, but he had certainly enlisted aid.
Ye must’ve left some people behind to carry this out… people we wouldn’ae have blinked an eye at, thinkin’ they belonged to a “trustworthy” friend of ours.
His expression darkened as he continued to stare into the empty chests. These thieves had stolen his clan’s only means of survival through harsh winters and sparse summers. Not only that, but they had taken his father’s lifetime of work. Dunmore would not accept such an insult upon himself, his father, and his clan.
Getting to his feet and gripping the last coin tighter, Dunmore whispered into the silence, “Ye take what’s precious to me, and I’ll take what’s precious to ye. And I ken just how to hit ye where it’ll hurt most.”
“He is handsome, is he nae?” Elise Beck, daughter to the Laird of Walton, whispered behind her hand, though even if she had shouted at the top of her lungs, no one would have heard her. The music, the raucous laughter, and the bubbling chatter of the Great Hall could have drowned out an army bellowing a war cry. It was always the way whenever there was a feast or gathering.
The young woman at Elise’s side nodded effusively. “Och, I’m the color of this cabbage, Cousin.” She picked a wilted leaf of cabbage off her plate, dripping gravy. “If he wasnae stamped as yer future husband, I’d have dragged him out to the stables by now.”
“Why the stables?” Naïve to a fault, much of Erica’s bawdy humor went over Elise’s head. They were cousins, and dear friends, but they could not have been less alike in character. Elise liked to think that was why they got on so well, for Erica often stepped in when Elise could not find her voice or the strength to defend herself, and filled her in when she was oblivious to things going on around her.
Erica cackled. “Och, Cousin, I’m twice as envious of yer innocence. If I could discover the pleasures of the world afresh… what a wonder that would be. Instead, ye find me a jaded old hag whom nay lad wants to marry, but all want to bed.”
“Ye’re nae a hag, and ye couldn’ae be jaded if ye tried!” Elise protested, for Erica looked precisely the way Elise hoped she looked every time she caught her reflection in a looking glass. Alas, in reality, Elise knew she was a mere echo of Erica’s radiant beauty.
Both young women were two-and-twenty years of age, but where Elise was of average height and slight in figure, Erica was taller and shapelier, with the kind of bosom that men gawped at. Both had light brown eyes, but Erica’s were almost golden, and seemed to enchant anyone she looked upon. Both had long, red hair, but while Elise’s locks were blindingly bright, curly and wayward, Erica’s were smooth and silky, with darker tones of copper and auburn. Nor had Erica been damned with such an unruly spray of freckles across her pale skin.
Erica grinned. “There’s naught to be done, Cousin. Me reputation precedes me, and nae for the right reasons. That’s why ye’re gettin’ married before me, even though I’m six months older.” She gestured over to her father, Laird Cross, who stood talking to some men by the roaring fireplace at the far side of the room. “I reckon me faither is goin’ to have to offer half his fortune to get some poor lad to make an honest lass out of me.”
“Wisht, Cousin!” Elise clung to her cousin’s hand. “Most of the lads here tonight have been starin’ at ye. I’ve even seen Zachary lookin’ at ye, though I’m nae jealous. I can well understand why.”
Zachary Johnson was Elise’s betrothed: a handsome, pleasant, kind sort of fellow, with similarly bright red hair and a perpetually nervous look about him. He was not the man of Elise’s dreams, by any stretch, but he would be good to her, and that was enough. Indeed, that was more than many young ladies were granted.
“He cannae take his eyes off ye, Cousin!” Erica corrected. “He probably thinks he’s the luckiest lad in Christendom and I happen to agree. Ye’re the fattest salmon in the river, Cousin.”
Elise’s eyes widened in dismay. “Are me lips puffed like a fish? Have I eaten too much? Oh goodness, I kent I should’ve worn looser stays and a more forgivin’ bodice. Do I look awful, Cousin? Tell me truthfully.”
“I meant ye’re the grandest catch any lad could hope to reel in,” Erica explained, chuckling. “Ye’re too literal, Cousin. As if ye could be a fat anythin’. There’s naught on ye.” She gave Elise a gentle poke in the ribs, as if to prove the point.
Elise blushed. “I’m nae a catch, Cousin. If I was… someone would’ve asked to court me, or asked for me hand in marriage, instead of me faither and Zachary’s faither havin’ to arrange it.”
She had tried not to feel saddened by the way things had turned out and had put on an obedient smile when her father had informed her of the betrothal. Indeed, her father had told her that she could refuse if she did not like Zachary. Being a dutiful daughter, Elise had not wanted to disappoint her beloved father, even if an arrangement was not what her heart desired.
I wish I could choose, as Erica will. She could have any lad she wanted.
“Do ye think ye’ll be happy with Zachary when he’s yer husband, Cousin?” Erica said suddenly.
Elise smiled, feeling shy. “I will certainly try to be.”
“Aye, well if ye cannae manage it, just send me word and I’ll come and smuggle ye out.” Erica put an arm around her cousin’s shoulder and pulled her into a side-hug. “Wherever ye are, I’ll do it, and I daenae care what they do to me in retaliation.”
Elise leaned into the hug. “Thank ye, Cousin. I’ll cherish that thought… though I hope all will be well.” She peered up, somewhat embarrassed. “Before the weddin’, will ye tell me about…” she trailed off, but Erica caught the gist.
“Och, I’ll tell ye everythin’ there is to ken about a man and the pleasures a lass deserves in the bedchamber,” she enthused. “Once I’m done educatin’, ye’ll be starvin’ to tug Zachary into yer bed!”
The two young women descended into giddy laughter, though Elise kept hers behind a polite hand. She did not want her future husband to glance over and think her obscene or unseemly, for she could not risk this betrothal being broken. Her family and her clan were relying upon it being a success.
“Ye’re awful in the best possible way, Cousin,” Elise whispered, grinning. She had heard some lewd tales over the years, but she could never imagine the acts that Erica regaled her with. They seemed too bizarre and, on occasion, rather scary.
Erica nodded. “Aye, and proud to be so.”
Just then, the huge double doors that served as entrance to the Great Hall burst open with a violent fury. Through them, a veritable army of men marched in. Their broadswords were safely sheathed at their sides, but their strong hands were wrapped around the hilts, ready to draw at a moment’s notice. If that was not enough to strike fear into the hearts of the revelers, the dark expressions upon their faces served as a louder warning: these men were not here to celebrate.
“What the—?” Erica’s arm shot out in front of Elise in a protective gesture.
A few startled screams went up from inebriated women around the cavernous Great Hall, and there were a few yelps from the men, too. Everyone had imbibed and feasted a little too liberally, for that was the nature of such an evening. As such, an intrusion like this was not only rude, but it was also sobering, which was far worse in many people’s opinion.
“Laird Cross?” their leader barked, finding the man in the throng of revelers.
Elise’s eyes came to rest on the intruder who had spoken. Long, messy blond hair had been half-tamed by a tie of some kind, keeping the front of his locks out of his face while the back of his hair hung unrestrained. She could not tell the color of his eyes from this distance, but they looked cold and mean as they fixed on Laird Cross. He stood a good head, perhaps even two, taller than most of the men in the Hall, and was certainly twice as broad as Zachary.
“Goodness—” Elise whispered, wondering who this barbarian could be.
Erica smiled. “I was about to say the same thing. Have ye ever seen a lad so handsome? Rough, aye, but I daenae mind that.”
“I think they mean to hurt us!” Elise trembled, observing the intruder again.
Erica flashed a wink. “Nae if I can soften them up first. Anyway, their bark is likely worse than their bite.”
“Do ye truly think so?” Elise whispered, her gaze drawn back to the lead intruder.
He was handsome, if one could get past his frightening demeanor. Elise would not have been surprised if this man could rip another man in half with his bare hands. Through the thin shirt he wore, the laced-up collar open almost to his navel, she saw tanned, immense muscles; his chest puffing with every breath he took. His arms strained at the fabric, while the rolled-up sleeves revealed corded, capable forearms and strong, masculine hands. And below the hem of his belted tartan, his lower legs were as impressive as the rest of him, like he was trying to hide two pears in his calves.
“Goodness,” Elise repeated, scolding herself as her stomach fluttered slightly. She blamed the bare flesh on show, for in her world, men wore their collars laced or in a straight slash that avoided the need for laces altogether. Aside from herself or her cousin, when they bathed together, she had never seen so much exposed skin on anyone. Certainly not on a man.
Laird Cross spun around in alarm, as many of the men in the room scrambled to pluck up their weapons, though most were too drunk to be able to put up much of a fight. “Laird Finlaggan? To what do we owe this unexpected pleasure?”
“I heard there was a feast afoot and was mightily disappointed to discover that me and me clan were nae invited,” the intruder replied. “Ye dinnae speak of it when ye were a guest at Castle Finlaggan with yer brother. If I wasnae who I am, I might think ye were embarrassed to have me in attendance.”
Laird Finlaggan… recollection dawned on Elise within moments. The Finlaggan people were a clan of little means, though they were allies of her uncle. Her father, on the other hand, had little to do with them. He had only deigned to visit Castle Finlaggan recently because his brother had pleaded for the company.
“I have to accept his invitation, Cayden,” Laird Cross had urged. “They havenae much to offer, aye, but when there’s a conflict between clans, any man would want them on their side. They’re the finest fighters in all of Scotland. Bloodthirsty animals, the lot of ‘em, but useful when ye need to win on a battlefield. Spare me a fortnight to visit with Laird Finlaggan, and I’ll owe ye a huge favor.”
The memory of that conversation, held at Castle Walton while Elise was not supposed to be eavesdropping, struck her like a kick to the chest. She did not want bloodthirsty beasts at her betrothal feast, for those with a lust for blood often had a lust for something else, as well. She had heard the awful stories. What if they demanded some twisted version of prima nocta—a barbaric act that had long been buried, and rightfully so?
More memories came back to Elise, increasing her fear as she sat there, staring at the immense broadswords these brutes carried. They were far larger and more menacing than any she had witnessed upon the walls of her father’s castle or her uncle’s.
“Leeches,” Laird Walton had called the clan, rather unkindly, one stark winter. “If they cannae survive off their own lands, they ought to hand the clan to someone who can help them prosper. Failin’ that, they should join with another clan.”
He had been even less kind after visiting the castle itself, which was uncharacteristic of Elise’s father. “The grimmest fortnight I have ever spent. I daenae think I’ve been gladder to set foot in me own home. Never will I take a stone of this place for granted after freezin’ me backside off in that dire hovel, and watchin’ those heathens behave nay better than dogs.”
Elise remembered feeling rather sorry for Clan Finlaggan. Upon seeing their Laird like this, however, that empathy took a different turn. Indeed, Laird Finlaggan looked like the sort of Laird who could lay siege to any castle, single-handedly, and launch conflicts wherever he liked, to claim land and coin and supplies for his people. It made her wonder what it had cost her uncle and her father to keep Laird Finlaggan from doing exactly that.
Laird Cross seemed to visibly relax. “Of course ye’re welcome, Friend! I dinnae want to bother ye with the distance. Yer lands are nae exactly near.” He opened his arms wide. “Come, enjoy the revels! Celebrate with us, for tonight is a merry occasion! Me niece is to be wed.”
“Is that so?” Laird Finlaggan turned his gaze toward the long feasting table.
Daenae tell him that! Elise’s heart clenched in her chest as Laird Cross gestured in her general direction.
“Aye, there she is, and it willnae be long before me own daughter is to be married.”
“To him, I wouldn’ae say nay,” Erica whispered, leaning close to Elise’s ear. Meanwhile, Elise could not tear her fearful eyes away from Laird Finlaggan’s and, as their gazes met, she felt her heart leap into her throat.
Green… His eyes are green. Even at this distance, she could see the emerald shine of them. It was best to know everything about one’s enemy, and he was certainly looking at her as though she was his foe.
“Where might Laird Walton be? I daenae see him.” Laird Finlaggan broke the intense look.
Laird Cross gestured upward. “He has retired early, Laird Finlaggan. Ye ken he’s nae one for celebratin’ too wildly, unlike ye and me.”
Laird Finlaggan smiled, but it did not reach those eyes. “Speakin’ of wild celebratin’, we brought some barrels of our own.” He beckoned some of his men to come forward, each one wielding a wooden barrel of something intoxicating. “Wouldn’ae be right to arrive without a gift, now, would it? Besides, we’re celebratin’ too.”
“Ye are?” Laird Cross looked puzzled.
Laird Finlaggan gestured for his men to begin setting up the barrels, as the eager merrymakers rushed to have the first pour. “Aye, Laird Cross. Ye see, me and the lads have had ourselves a bit of good fortune. Some ingrates tried stealin’ from me, but we apprehended them as they were escapin’. In doin’ so, we got word of who’d ordered them to do it.”
“Oh?” Laird Cross’ voice had become oddly tight and high, prompting Elise to frown. Clearly, something amiss was going on between these two supposed allies, but she did not involve herself in the disputes of men. Usually, they were over something foolish.
Laird Finlaggan poured himself a cup of what appeared to be wine, from a barrel to his left, and downed it in one. “I’ve got the wretch hangin’ upside down in me dungeons. One of them southerly Lairds—McCraven or McBain or somethin’. I cannae remember. Anyway, he’ll pay for what he’s done, and I get to drink to a near miss and a happy marriage for yer… niece, did ye say?”
“Aye, me niece.” Laird Cross once again seemed to relax, and the revels were soon in full swing again.
It appeared the newcomers’ wild ways were not an exaggeration. They definitely knew how to celebrate, and were generous with the barrels they had brought, filling everyone’s cup to the brim. Meanwhile, they seemed to keep to a couple of barrels that they had retained at the rear of the hall, and they were not shy about drinking deep.
Daenae let them drink too much… they might start fightin’ and I willnae have bloodshed at me betrothal feast. Elise would have made the demand aloud, but she did not dare speak against these beastly men, who were all monstrously sized in comparison to her uncle and her father’s people.
Soon enough, however, Elise’s nerves loosened as all returned to the way it had been before the intrusion. Not that she was given much chance to enjoy the restored merriment of people dancing and singing with twice the vigor of before, all spurred on by the potent drinks Clan Finlaggan had brought. Zachary and Laird Cross came over to Elise and Erica a mere fifteen minutes after the feast started where it had left off.
“I think you ought to take to yer chambers,” Laird Cross insisted, leaning forward to speak specifically to Elise. “Yer faither and maither already retired, so ye should do the same. It isnae proper for ye to remain without them. Take Erica with ye. She’ll go if ye go.”
Not wanting to cause a fuss, Elise bowed her head. “Of course, Uncle.” She grabbed Erica’s hand and urged her to her feet, before casting a shy glance at Zachary. “Please, enjoy the rest of the feast. I look forward to seein’ ye again in a few days, upon our weddin’ day.”
“Aye, and ye,” Zachary replied flatly, shooting a challenging look back at Laird Finlaggan, who was mingling with the people of Clan Cross. Instead of taking Elise’s hand, he took Erica’s free hand and pulled the young woman out from behind the long table, which dragged Elise along with the force of the tug.
That done, Zachary kept hold of Erica’s hand, creating a chain of sorts, until they were at the side entrance to the Great Hall. There, Zachary practically shoved the two women out into the hallway beyond. He slammed the door behind them, blocking them from regaining entry to the feast.
“That wasnae how I thought me betrothal celebration would end,” Elise mumbled, pausing in the hallway to listen to the music a while longer. Even with the arrival of those brutes, she would have preferred to stay for a few more hours, especially as she had not even danced with Zachary yet.
Erica chuckled. “It isnae over, Cousin. Come on.”
Leading her down the hall, and somewhat astray, Erica urged Elise around the corner and into the annex hall that preceded the Great Hall. The doors were closed, but the music was louder here, and there were a few jars of spiced and honeyed wine that had been abandoned on the end-tables by those who had staggered off to their beds. Erica seized one and passed Elise another.
“Drink deep, Cousin!” Erica cheered. “In a few days’ time, ye’ll have to bid farewell to yer freedom, so enjoy it while ye can. Though if Zachary tries to keep ye from spendin’ time with me, he’ll get a whippin’ and nay mistake.”
Elise smiled and held the ceramic jar tight in her hands. She rarely imbibed and, when she did, it was never more than a few tentative sips. Yet, if she could not celebrate now, when could she? As Erica had said, this might well be her last chance to have fun before the duties of being a Lady, a wife, and, with any luck, a mother would get in the way.
So, steeling herself, she lifted the jar to her lips and gulped down a mouthful of the sweet, spiced, aromatic wine. It hit her throat by surprise, making her choke and splutter for a moment. Taking another sip to wash it down, the coughing subsided, giving way to a warming sensation that slipped down into her stomach, loosening aches and knots she had not even known she had.
“To me marriage,” she said quietly, offering out the jar.
Erica clinked hers against it. “To yer happiness. To passionate couplin’. To stayin’ in yer marital bed for at least a fortnight. May ye have pleasure in abundance!”
“Erica.” Elise blushed furiously, but drank regardless, so as not to curse herself with a passionless existence.
For the next half an hour, they had their own gathering of two. Drinking the wine and dancing to the cheerful songs that filtered through, they whirled around and around the smaller hall, in a world of their own. So much so that they did not hear the faint thuds coming from within the Great Hall, nor did they notice the jarring last note of the fiddle player as the music came to an abrupt and unnatural halt.
Indeed, they were so giddy in their private festivities that they did not even notice the doors to the Great Hall opening, or the shadow that bore down on Elise. Only when a hand seized her roughly by the arm, spinning her violently around until she was staring into the face of that unkempt, roguishly handsome Finlaggan fellow, did she realize she was in danger… and it was much too late to run.
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