About the book
She had no masters, for he was the master of her heart...
As a warrior, Amber Fraser does not scare easily. But her prospect marriage to a Northman on her father’s orders, is enough to make her tremble. She sees it as a battle: fighting an enemy with beautiful eyes and a soft touch…
Born to a war-friendly tribe, Hunter McNeill vows to avoid fighting as much as possible. Starting with a peace treaty and a marriage proposal to one of his biggest enemies. But the lass he married is more hellion than lady...and he enjoys it. Hunter breaks down Amber’s walls one by one.
Despite their differences, they fall hard for each other. But no union is without its troubles: Cealan O’Brien, the most savage Northman of all, is sending a message: he is coming for his wife. But is it truly Amber he wants? Or is she just a pawn to his game?
“He’ll be there soon, Amber.”
“I ken,” Amber practically snapped the words. She didn’t need reminding.
“Come on, lass. What do ye say to one last race?” Jude’s words excited her more than she could say.
Amber smiled, the fire of anger that had built inside her dissipated with it as she looked at her adopted family around her. To her left, Jude was atop a grey steed, his long brown hair plaited behind his back. With a wide face and firm jaw, he had a face that suggested strength. She thought of Jude as a brother, even though they were not related by blood.
On her other side were the other two members of the makeshift family they had formed. There was Khloe, Jude’s blood sister, bearing similar long brown hair, only hers was held high on her head in a ponytail. It was her eyes that were particularly striking in her appearance, that sharp blue looking back at Amber with warmth, just as they always did. On Khloe’s other side was Ellis, the last member of their group, with short-cropped fair hair, stubble on his chin and eyes the color of storm clouds.
“One last race, eh?” Amber said, unable to hold back her smirk. “I am nae sure ye want to do that, Jude. Do ye want to lose again?”
“Ha! Fightin’ talk indeed,” he laughed, shaking his head.
“I’d like to place me money on Amber,” Khloe declared from atop her brown mare as the horse whinnied and shook out her mane. “And me horse agrees with me, see?”
“I’ll take that bet,” Ellie said at her side, offering her a smile that he only ever reserved for Khloe. “Me money’s on Jude.”
“Then the wager is set,” Amber smiled and turned her horse around. “First one to the castle wins, aye?”
“Och, first to the castle gate. I’m nae havin’ ye beat me on a technicality. Again,” Jude said with a shake of his head, forcing Amber to laugh. He knew her too well by now.
“On the count of three then…” Khloe said behind them. “One…two…three!”
Amber set off even before Khloe had finished saying ‘three’. She drove her black steed forward as fast as she could, urging him to gallop down the hill. From their lofted position, she could see deep into the valley, and across the homeland she knew so well.
Ahead of them there was a forest, set with pines and spruces. Beyond that were the town and the villages that made up the Fraser Clan's land. At the very edge of the town was Fraser Castle.
She bent down over the horse's head, pushing her steed ahead of Jude’s. Riding low with the wind in her hair, buffeting her and her feet firmly in the stirrups, she was in control and speeding ahead of him.
She and Jude were the finest horse riders in their group, meaning such races were not unusual. Amber won most, yet this race mattered to her more than any other, for she feared it was the last race they would have in this land.
When she reached the castle, everything would change.
As she landed on the moor, Jude appeared at her side. They were neck and neck now. Amber looked to Jude as he did to her, both of them smiling with the thrill of the moment, before they looked forward. Amber leaned all the more over the horse’s head and tugged on the reins, urging him on.
The castle was clear as day ahead of them now. It was built in the old medieval style, with a block keep in the middle and a large curtain wall with tiny turrets in each corner. The main gate was over a drawbridge that was usually populated by merchants, soldiers and traders wandering back and forth. Not today. Today, it was empty.
Amber’s horse began to pull ahead, just a little bit, with the steed’s nose in front.
When she reached the gate first, she pulled the horse over the line and to a sharp stop, whipping her head around so quick that her eyes went straight to Jude, who came to a stop with a shake of his head.
“Ye lost!” she cried with delight.
“Nay fair, ye took a shortcut.”
“So did ye,” she smiled. Behind Jude, Khloe and Ellis had now arrived, their cheeks pink from racing to follow them.
“Pleased to see I win me money,” Khloe said, holding out her hand to Ellis.
“Jude, ye’re makin’ me pockets empty,” Ellis groaned, shaking his head as he passed the money over to Khloe. As the money exchanged hands, Amber could see Ellis’ hand lingered in Khloe’s for just a second longer than it should have done. Amber watched closely, surprised to see Khloe blushing a little. This seemed to be their secret at the moment. Something was burgeoning between them, something beyond friendship.
“Amber,” another voice made her turn round.
Ahead of her, just beyond the portcullis in the gate was Laird Fraser. His smile was great as he held out her arms to her. She jumped down quickly, handing the horse to a stable boy, then rushed forward into her father’s arms. He embraced her tightly and she held him back just as closely. When she had been on the run, she had missed these moments.
“Ye’re late.” His words made her pull back.
“I wasnae aware there was a time we needed to be back by,” she said as she stepped away.
“Yer brothers and I have been lookin’ out the windows for ye every five minutes since breakfast,” he said, shaking his head. As though summoned by his words, Darragh and Lauchlan appeared from a door in the keep and hurried forward. On cue, Lauchlan sent dark glares at her friends.
When Amber had returned, she had brought her adopted family with her. Though her father and eldest brother were happy to welcome these new faces, knowing they were the ones who had kept her alive all these years, Lauchlan did not like them so much. Even after four years, he didn’t trust them. It meant that every time she returned from an excursion with them, Lauchlan was there to greet them with a scowl on his face.
“Why did ye stay out so long?” her father asked, his shoulder-length red hair shone in the autumn sunlight, looking even more scarlet in color than normal.
Because I dinnae want to come back.
She couldn’t say that out loud, though it was what she felt in her gut.
“I was enjoyin’ me freedom, father,” she said boldly, lifting her chin.
“Marriage is nae the end of yer freedom, Amber,” Darragh said kindly as he reached her father’s side.
“Easy for ye to say. Ye havenae married yet!” She pointed out, to which he acknowledged with a nod.
“Ye said aye to the marriage, did ye nae?” he asked, folding his arms. “Ye cannae back out now.”
“I ken, I am nae tryin’ to,” she acknowledged and looked back at her friends who had now all dismounted their horses and come to stand behind her. In truth, if she could have avoided the marriage, she would have. The idea of signing herself over to a man repulsed her. The very idea tempted her to take her horse and gallop as far away as she could.
I will be the governor of me own soul. Nay man shall ever take that position.
Yet…marriage threatened that.
“Ye cannae even if ye wished to,” Lauchlan’s sharp tongue made Amber jerk her head toward him, her long braid flicking around her shoulder with the movement.
“What did ye say?” she asked, just as harshly.
“Lauchlan,” Darragh was shaking his head. “Are ye incapable of havin’ a soft touch?”
“She doesnae respond to a soft touch. Never has. From the day she went wadin’ in the moat when she was just five years old, pleadin’ with her to get out dinnae do any good,” Lauchlan stated with a raised chin. Amber raised her own chin just as high. She remembered the day all too well. In the end, Darragh had followed her into the moat and dragged her out.
“Marriage isnae the same, Lauchlan,” Laird Fraser’s booming voice made her brother hang his head a little, giving up his thread of the conversation. Yet Amber’s ears were still piqued by what had been said.
“Faither,” she turned her eyes back to Laird Fraser. “What did Lauchlan mean? That I cannae get out of this marriage now, even if I wanted to?”
“Amber, please daenae fly off the handle when I tell ye this,” he reached out and placed his hands on her shoulders. She knew he was attempting to comfort her, but she hated the position. It made her feel like she was under a man’s thumb, even her father’s, so she shrugged it off. He must have realized how she felt, for her took her hand instead. “We signed the treaty this mornin’.”
“Ye…” she trailed off and stumbled back, releasing his hand entirely. “Ye did what?” The mere idea made her hands tremble. She latched them behind her body, masking any chance of anyone seeing them. As though sensing her discomfort, Khloe moved behind her and placed a hand on her back. This move was more comforting than anything else.
“Ye were late, Amber,” Laird Fraser explained. “We held by yer wish nae to have a ceremony –”
“Because it wouldnae have been appropriate!” she said with strength, to which her father nodded slowly.
“Aye, I agree with ye,” he said solemnly. “Too many people have died between our clans for the marriage to be celebrated in the traditional fashion, but that all ends now. The treaty and the marriage will bring peace.”
Amber turned her eyes to Darragh at her father’s side. He was the one in the end who had persuaded her of the importance of this marriage, which was why she was going through with it. Her clan and her betrothed’s tribe had been at war for years. The only way to end the marriage and stop the deaths of innocents was the marriage.
What choice did I have?
“Ye’ve signed already?” she looked back to her father. “So…I am already married? But I dinnae sign anythin’.”
“As yer faither, I signed on yer behalf,” Laird Fraser’s words made her stiffen. She stood as tall as she could and planted her feet firmly into the ground. She couldn’t even sign her own body over. That had all been handled between men. The idea made her sick. “Ah, here comes yer husband now.”
Amber’s head darted from side to side, searching for just who Laird Fraser meant. She knew he was coming that day, yet she had no idea he would be here already; she had assumed it would be late in the evening. She went still when she caught sight of him, walking out of the keep.
He was not what she had expected. He was tall, ridiculously so, and broad too, muscular beneath the plaid and the shirt he wore. What stole her breath was the darkness in his appearance. Hair blacker than night, cropped short, and a beard of the same color trimmed tightly to his jaw. Even at this distance, she could see his eyes were black too. There was a scar in his dark eyebrow too, delivered by some kind of blade.
As he neared them, Amber was tempted to back up, but she wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of seeing her retreat. He was a man that had practically been carved out of darkness itself. She would have placed him on the enemy line any day.
The Northman is here.
“Ah, Chief McNeill,” Laird Fraser said, opening an arm to Hunter and beckoning him to step forward and join their group. “This is me daughter, Amber.”
Hunter said nothing as he stopped walking and his eyes turned on the young woman Laird Fraser was gesturing too.
She is nae what I was expectin’.
The marriage had been agreed based on an alliance only, something Hunter was keen for in order to stop the war and further futile deaths. When they had signed the treaty that morning and he had referred to Amber Fraser as a lady, Lauchlan had laughed. At the time, Hunter hadn’t realized why, and had just assumed Laird Fraser’s youngest son was odd in conversation. Now, he understood the laugh.
The woman before him was hardly a traditional lady.
For a woman of average height, she had a stunning presence. He assumed it had to be the slender and athletic build, framed by the unusual clothes she wore. She wore a cream shift with long sleeves reaching her wrists that was flattened to her lithe body with black stays over the top. The skirt of the dress was plaid, with red and black squares, covered in dirt.
She didn’t lower her chin for one second, as any demure woman might have done. No, if anything, she lifted her head higher to meet his gaze and stared back, just as strongly. Her features were bold, with wide eyes the color of leaves in the summertime, a gently sloping nose and full large lips that were naturally very dark pink, almost red. Her hair in particular Hunter found difficult to take his eyes away from. It was long and braided, reaching down to her waist and was a very dark red indeed, the color of dying embers on a fire.
“Ah-em,” Laird Fraser cleared his throat. Hunter looked his way, realizing he hadn’t yet said anything. He didn’t know what to say. She was not the demure plain lady he had been expecting to marry out of duty.
“Ye are nae very talkative, are ye?” Her sudden wit pulled smiles from the three people standing behind her. Hunter looked between them all, startled by her statement and the three people who were dressed similarly to her.
“When I speak, it’s with purpose,” he said firmly, noting the way her eyes narrowed on him. “Who are ye three?” he asked, gesturing to them.
“I see ye arenae very polite either,” she said tartly, pulling another laugh from the woman behind her. Hunter stood straighter. No one ever insulted him, least of all in front of strangers. This he could not allow to carry on.
“These are me friends. This is Jude, Khloe and Ellis,” she gestured to each of them in turn. “They will be comin’ with me, to me new home.”
“Nay, they willnae,” he said with feeling, watching as she flicked her head back toward him, the long red braid swung round her shoulder with the movement. Hunter had a flash of an image in his mind. He was imagining what it would be like to hold onto that braid, running the tendrils through his hair as he rolled in bed with the woman.
Hmm…perhaps there are some advantages to marriage.
“I am learnin’ a lot about ye very quickly,” she said, folding her arms.
“I doubt that.” He mirrored her stance, stunned by the audacity of this woman.
“Well, ye arenae talkative, ye arenae polite and now I see ye are controllin’ too.”
“It’s called bein’ a chieftain,” he smirked and leaned toward her, just a little, enough to make her raise her eyebrows, “I am always in control.”
“Nae anymore,” she smirked too, just a little. Beside him, Hunter heard Laird Fraser’s eldest son, Darragh stifling a laugh.
“Somethin’ tickled ye, Darragh?” Hunter turned to him, with darkness in his gaze.
“Nay, Chief McNeill,” he brushed off the idea, clearly trying to stop himself from smiling. “But I’ll warn ye now, if ye daenae take her friends with ye, there is nay way she will leave with ye.” Hunter didn’t like hearing this. He held Darragh’s gaze, trying to see how much meaning there was in this statement.
Out of all the people there, Hunter was surprised how much he trusted Darragh, though he was still wary of him. Darragh was the one who had opened peace negotiations on his father’s behalf and even suggested the marriage. If Darragh said Amber wouldn’t go without her friends, then Hunter knew he had no choice. He sighed and looked back to her.
“If ye want me to bring yer friends, then I hope they can make themselves useful.” If he was going to let her have this initial victory, then he would make it clear it was on his terms. There would be no habit in letting her win.
“They can,” she nodded and looked to her friends. “Greater fighters ye willnae find. Hunters too.”
He said nothing for a minute; he just flicked his gaze between them, marveling at the scars on all their bodies and the weapons in their belts. They definitely dressed more like outlaws rather than friends of a Laird’s daughter. Then again, she didn’t dress like a Laird’s daughter either. She bore scratches on her arms and had her own scar around her neck.
What caused that?
“Do we have a deal?” she asked, folding her arms once again.
“Aye,” he sighed. “We leave now.” He turned and walked back to the keep, ready to gather his things and prepare to leave.
“What? Nay!” she called to him, clearly hurrying after him from the sounds of her boot steps on the earth behind him.
“Aye, now,” he said again. She’d won once; he wouldn’t let her win again. He always won. It was what his father had taught him.
‘Ye want to be Chieftain in this life, laddie, then ye have to take what ye want. Always win. Losin’ is weakness.’
“I said nay,” she declared and cut in front of him, bringing him to a stop. He was aware of the others having followed them, gathering around the two of them.
“Ye’re defyin’ me already?” he asked, raising his eyebrows.
“I have been away from me family for the last three days on a huntin’ trip,” she said, holding her ground and refusing to move out of his way. “We will stay here tonight, dine with them, and then I will leave with ye on the morrow.”
Hunter had to work hard not to let his jaw go slack in surprise. For starters, he was stunned at the beauty of his new wife. His mind was now having a particularly thrilling time imagining all sorts they could do together, but those thoughts were souring with her words.
I willnae be disrespected in front of others. Me wife will obey me and nae embarrass me.
He would make it clear that this behavior could not continue.
He took two steps toward her. They were insistent, bold, and with his gaze narrowed on her, there could be no mistaking the menace in the movement. Even before he had finished taking the second step, everyone around the two of them moved.
Laird Fraser and Darragh on one side had pulled their weapons, and on the other, Ellis, Jude and Khloe had done so too. Hunter was so busy looking between them in surprise, amazed at the effort they would all go to in order to protect Amber, just because he walked a little too quickly toward her.
He had had no intention of harming her, only talking to her.
That’s when he felt it.
He looked down. Amber had also pulled her weapon and had the tip pointed at his chest. Had he taken another step forward, he would have walked onto the weapon.
He had never been so angry in his life. Not only had she disrespected him, but she had pulled a weapon on him. He could hear blood pumping in his ears.
“I have come here to make peace and ye would all draw weapons on me,” he said boldly, watching as all of their weapons cowered, all except Amber’s. He held open his arms, gesturing to her to take advantage of the moment. “If ye wish to kill yer new husband over an argument about headin’ home, then do yer worst. Peace will be over.”
“It was nae me intention to jeopardize peace. Just to get me way,” she said, smiling devilishly at him.
These words blindsided him. He had to clamp his lips together to stop himself from smiling. There was something to admire in that. She had more courage than he had seen in many others, man or woman.
“Lower the sword,” he ordered. “Ye get yer way. We’ll leave tomorrow.” As she lowered the sword and placed it back in her belt, he took the opportunity to walk past her and whisper to her so no one else could hear him speak. “For now.”
He only got a few steps away when he felt Darragh catch up with him. As the man who had brokered their treaty and helped to arrange the marriage, Hunter knew him best of all men in this clan.
“Well, that was an interestin’ meetin’,” Darragh said, chuckling as the two of them walked into the castle. “I told ye she wouldnae be an easy lass to tame.”
“Want a wager on that?” Hunter had a tempting idea.
Amber was eager for food to be served. She couldn’t sit still in her seat as she took her usual place beside Darragh in the great hall and waited for the servers to bring out the food. Though there was no grand celebration of the wedding, her father had ordered a feast to be shared for the occasion.
She was so busy watching as the trenchers of roasted guinea fowl and capons with eggs were served up that she didn’t first notice someone was taking their seat on the other side of her. That was until they sat down heavily into the chair. The sound itself disturbed her and made her look round.
It was her new husband. She stared at him for a moment, shocked he would take the chair beside her and not opt for a chair beside Laird Fraser or even Darragh. They were the better position politically.
“Ye daenae have to sit with me,” she said, holding onto a little hope. She was still delighted to have had her way twice already that afternoon, even though she had had to pull her sword on her new husband in order to get it. She rather hoped that she could continue the streak, and that began with putting distance between them.
“Ye are me wife. Our places are by each other’s side,” he said. Though his voice was strong, insistence almost, so authoritative that she felt she should have cowered, she didn’t. She held his gaze, aware of a kind of thrill in his words.
She didn’t want to admit he was handsome, yet she had no choice. The darkness in his features and hair was enveloping, reminding her of the very depths of the darkest nights in winter.
I willnae be pulled in by the handsome face of a Northman.
“That is nae necessary,” she said and turned away from him, looking toward the plates. She was impatient to start eating; they were waiting for her father to arrive before they could begin. “We’re doin’ this for peace, that doesnae mean ye have to spend any time with me.”
“Ye misunderstand me intention.” His words were simple, though powerful, urging her to look back to him. “Me intention is to speak with ye, to make this…” he gestured between them, making her flinch in her seat, “this alliance work, there will be rules.”
“Are we both allowed to make rules or do ye think ye are the only one who can make them?” she said with a smirk, but her wit only made him frown more.
“Listen to me,” he leaned toward her, dropping his voice to a whisper to speak directly in her ear. Amber tried not to respond to his closeness, but it was out of her control. She could feel all the hairs on the back of her neck standing on end as he whispered in her ear. It made a kind of warmth spread through her body. “Ye disrespected me today. Nae only in front of strangers, but in front of a Laird, and yer entire family. I willnae be disrespected again.”
As he leaned back, her eyes followed him.
“I daenae have to do what ye tell me,” she said, making her words clear though they were spoken quietly.
“Nay? Ye think nae?” he was smirking now, as if he found humor in the situation.
“I willnae be governed by any man.”
“I’m nae askin’ for governance. I am askin’ for respect,” he matched her tone. “Ye will respect me. Or there will be comeuppance for it.”
“What kind of comeuppance?” She wanted to know the answer.-He leaned toward her again, closing the distance between them even more than before. This time he was so near she could practically feel his lips moving against her ear. It made a spark of excitement flicker in her stomach and then it coiled somewhere much lower in her body.
Horrified she was attracted to the figure of darkness beside her, she thought about leaning away from him, yet her body wouldn’t do it.
“The comeuppance will be discussed between ye and I in private.”
Laird Fraser entered the room, putting a stop to the conversation. Amber felt breathless as Chief McNeill sat straight in his chair and looked away from her.
She couldn’t explain why she wanted to know what could happen between them in private.
“Is that understood?” he asked, not even looking at her as he spoke.
“It’s understood, but ye are a fool if ye think I will abide by it.”
“Listen up, all,” Laird Fraser tapped a spoon against his goblet, calling the room’s attention. “I have somethin’ I wish to say.”
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