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Her Highland Sinner (Preview)

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Prologue

Spring 1698

The sun was setting over the firth, and the alcohol was creating a pleasant haze, dulling the pain that filled his mind and his heart. Marcus MacLean let his gaze drift over the landscape, looking for the lone figure he was sure would be there. Somewhere.

In the back of his mind, he knew the strong whiskey he’d taken from his father’s former office wasn’t a good solution. Cathal MacLean had at least taught him that much.

Marcus lifted his glass again and swallowed a large mouthful, trying to concentrate on the burn of the drink and nothing else. He didn’t want to think of the things that had happened over the past months.

Cathal was dead, and his elder brother Darren had been forced to do the deed, only to collapse from his wounds less than a candle-mark later. His older brother would carry several new scars to remind them both of what had happened. As if either of them needed the reminder.

Marcus thought he could live with the death of his father. Cathal MacLean had been a distant and stern father for most of his life, but heavy drinking and bitter anger had turned him into a monster and even Darren had feared his father’s temper when the elder MacLean drank.

What hurt was the scorn his brother faced from other lairds for his actions to defend their mother and younger brother Keegan. And what made the wound even worse was that it had all been for naught. Darren might have kept his father from killing their mother and their youngest brother in a drunken rage, but not before Cathal managed to inflict terrible wounds on his wife.

Wounds that Lady MacLean had died of not long after her eldest son had collapsed after fighting bravely to try and save her life. And their youngest brother Keegan… he had never known how hard Darren fought to protect him, and Darren had refused to allow anyone to tell him. Now the youngest MacLean son was gone, and there was no indication that he’d ever return. All his possessions had been taken from his rooms, save for anything with the MacLean tartan, and the steward had reported that a boy fitting Keegan’s description had worked for passage across the Firth of Lorne.

In the span of less than a seven-night, Marcus and Darren had lost brother, mother, and father. Darren carried the guilt of kin-killing and Marcus the guilt and grief of being unable to help his brother shoulder the consequences or prevent Keegan from fleeing the clan.

Marcus finally spotted the familiar, slender figure he’d been looking for, and a small smile crossed his face. It was bitter and tight, but it was still the first smile he’d managed to produce in over a month.

Erin MacDougall. She’d been one of his first playmates, outside of his siblings and the servants’ children, and they’d been close as kin until he was in his teens. But then Cathal had started drinking, and after that, their clans, and their lives, had grown apart.

He’d only seen her a few times over the past few years, mostly in passing, or in short meetings between their clans. Her father Kaelin was a good man, good enough to take his family and his clan out of harm’s way when he’d seen the man Cathal was becoming.

He was also too cautious a laird and a father to trust Darren to honor the old alliance between their clans. His unhinged violence had damaged the clan’s standing with the neighboring clans, and for all that Kaelin MacDougall had known Darren since the young Laird MacLean was in nappies, he’d been slow to trust the man who’d slain his own father, no matter how justified the action was.

Tonight marked the second time the two clans had gathered since Darren had taken over Clan MacLean, and things were still strained between them. That was one reason Marcus had left the Great Hall, and sought his drink and his entertainment elsewhere.

The other reason stood before him on the shore of the firth, staring out over the water.

Erin MacDougall.

They’d grown up together, and he could still remember the first day he’d looked at her and seen a girl with the potential to be a beautiful woman, rather than just another playmate. Then she’d been a reed-slender lass with raven-colored hair, pale, almost luminous skin, and eyes the color of sea and sky on a summer day. She still had all those traits, but now she’d grown till her height nearly matched his, which was quite out of the ordinary. The natural beauty of the child had been enhanced by the gentle curves of womanhood.

She might still dress more like a lad than a lass, but there was no question that Erin MacDougall was every inch a beautiful woman. The sight of her, illuminated by moonlight, still made his loins and his heart ache as fiercely as it had all those years ago.

Marcus finished his drink and set the cup to one side. The last time he’d seen Erin, before his father’s death, she’d still been far too young for him to even look at her for too long. But now, neither of them were children, and he could look as much as he liked.

If he was lucky, he might be able to do more than look. He had no interest in anything more than a drink, some flirting, and a bit of bedsport, but there was no harm in that. They were both adults, and it wasn’t as if a bit of fun under the moonlight or his sheets would do them any harm. He didn’t have to ruin her for them to enjoy some pleasure.

His parents had taught him that marriage was a trap – one he was determined to avoid for the rest of his life – but that didn’t mean he had to be celibate. And why not enjoy some time with Erin?

He strode up to her, coughing to alert her to his presence. “Hello Erin. ‘Tis a lovely night.”

“I imagine yer thinking so, with all whiskey ye’ve apparently downed taenight. Ye’d probably think the bottom o’ a midden heap is fine tae look at.” There was a definite bite in her voice.

Marcus smirked. “Mayhap, if I had the right company there. Though if I did, I’d be more likely tae be seeking me bed, nae a midden heap.”

“Yer breath stinks o’ drink, Marcus, and yer manners are nae better.”

He was tempted to try to kiss her, but it was clear from the look on her face that she’d not welcome the attempt. He cast about for something else to say. Then he recalled one of the reasons marriage was on his mind. “I heard yer sister Rowan’s getting married tae Daemon MacMillan.”

“Aye. She is. They’re fair fond of each other, and ‘tis a good match. Doesnae help tae have the clan as allies either.”

Marcus nodded. Daemon was a good friend of Darren’s and had been one of the first to extend a hand to Clan MacLean in friendship after Darren had taken over the lairdship. “I suppose ye’ll be the next tae be getting married then? Dae ye or yer father have an eye on a lucky suitor?”

“I’m nae fer getting married.” Erin’s answer was curt, surprising him with the vehemence in her tone. “I’ve been training tae be a warrior, and it doesnae leave any time fer courting. And I’m nae interested in that sort o’ thing in any case. I’d rather have a sword in me hand than a bouquet o’ flowers.”

“There’s other things tae be holding, like a sewing needle or a book or even a game piece o’ some sort. ‘Tis what yer sisters dae in the parlor.” He studied her for a moment. “And I’m fair surprised yer nae with them, especially if yer sister’s soon tae be living in MacMillan lands.”

“I needed a moment o’ fresh air. ‘Tis too closed inside, and I’m nae used tae such company.” He was about to make a comment, when he saw a faint blush rise in her cheeks and the slightly flustered expression that replaced the stern look she’d been wearing. He followed her gaze.

There were two men walking along the paths between the Keep and the shoreline. The light from the moon and the faint torchlight from the keep walls made it easy to see their faces. Darren, and his current advisor. They were talking, intent expressions on their faces. Neither man gave any sign that they’d seen Marcus and Erin.

Marcus glanced between Erin and Darren as his drink-muddled mind connected her expression with the sight of his brother. “Yer interested in me brother!” He chuckled. “All yer talk o’ nae wanting tae take time tae court or a man, but ye’ve yer eye set on one!”

“I dinnae!” She glared at him. “’Tis naething o’ the sort.”

“Is it nae? Tell me, is it his sword yer thinking o’ crossing, or his rod?” He smirked at her.

He wasn’t prepared for Erin to lunge at him. Before he could get his wits about him, she had his sword hand pinned, and her foot hammered into his ankle. Marcus fell, and Erin dropped to a knee with him. The next second, he was flat on his back, pinned in place, with the dull back of a blade pressed against his neck.

Erin bent close; her voice harsh in his ear. “Dinnae press me, Marcus MacLean. I dinnae care if ye’re a stone or more heavier than me, or better trained. Right now, I can have yer head with a flick o’ me wrist, and ye best be believing that’s nae going tae change any time soon, especially given how ye’re acting.”

She lifted the blade and he coughed. “It wasnae as if I was expecting ye tae attack me.”

“Doesnae matter. A warrior shouldnae ever be so drunk that someone can get the drop on him. Or so witless that ye’re defenseless as well.”

She released him, and stepped back. Marcus sat up, glowering at her. She watched him and scoffed. “I ken ye were trying tae entice me tae a bit o’ bedsport, but ye need nae bother, now or ever again. I’ll nae ever be with a man who cannae fight me on equal footing, and best me fairly.”

Marcus snorted and rubbed his aching wrist. “Nae need tae worry about that. I’ve nae interest in an uptight, straight-lace wench who cannae handle a bit o’ light teasing.”

“As if ye could handle a wench o’ any kind, as ye are right now.” She stepped back, a sneer on her face. “A word tae ye, Marcus MacLean. Keep going as ye are taenight, and ye’ll wind up like yer father, a vicious drunk who hurts everyone around him until he meets his fate at the end o’ someone’s sword.”

She turned and strode away before he could find a suitable response. Marcus watched her disappear through the gates of the keep, then flopped back to lie on the ground and look at the stars.

Erin was wrong. He was never going to end up like his father. He was never going to let himself become an uncontrolled drunk, or violent. He’d have Darren clap him in irons in the dungeon or send him over the firth before he did that.

I’ll nae be a bastard like me father and I’ll nae marry. And I’ll nae have aught more tae dae with Erin MacDougall, nae if I can help it.

 

Chapter One

Seven years later, Spring 1705

The halls of MacLean Keep looked the same as they’d ever looked. Erin studied the time-worn walls as she and her father moved toward the great hall.

Aside from the wedding of Keegan MacLean a few weeks ago, she hadn’t been inside MacLean Keep since seven years before, when she and her father had been reestablishing the alliance between the MacLean and MacDougall clans.

Her expression was calm and composed, as befit a warrior of the clan, but her stomach was tight with nerves. For the first time in years, she’d be in the same room as Marcus MacLean for an extended period of time. Aside from the wedding, she hadn’t spent any time in his presence since the same night she’d last entered MacLean Keep.

The memory of that night was seared into her mind, along with a sense of shame. She’d been angry, and embarrassed that he’d caught her staring at Darren MacLean like a lovesick lass with her first crush. That didn’t make the things she’d said to him any less hateful, or hurtful.

He’d been drunk and behaving in an inappropriate manner, but she could scarcely say that she’d behaved any better. It was even worse because she’d never managed to gather the courage to apologize to him.

She’d thought he might bear her a grudge, but he’d been nothing but civil when they met at his younger brother’s wedding. Now they were meeting to talk about the alliance, and she feared that the wounds she’d inflicted to his pride might make the discussion even more difficult than the subject matter they had come to speak of.

However, there was no sign of the brothers as she and her father made their way to the hall, and for a moment she feared they were about to be publicly scorned. Then the servant leading them opened the doors to the great hall, and they entered to see the MacLean Laird and his brother sitting at the head table, across from seats meant for them.

Marcus’s face was composed in an expression of polite neutrality. Darren’s was more welcoming, and made her stomach flutter as it always did.

Time had only enhanced the good looks all the MacLean men possessed. Darren’s face was marked with tattoos, but to her it only brought out the color of his dark eyes and the chiseled lines of his face.

He rose as they approached and smiled. “Welcome tae MacLean Keep, Laird Kaelin. Erin. Please, have a seat, and we’ll get ye some refreshment afore we begin.”

Once they were all seated and the drinks poured, Kaelin MacDougall spoke. “There’s nae easy way tae say this, Laird MacLean…”

“Darren. We’re old friends, ye and I.” Darren waved away the formality. “I near grew up under yer roof, when yer lasses werenae here under ours.”

“Darren then.” Kaelin sighed. “Ye heard, I’m thinking, o’ the passing o’ me wife.”

“Some years ago. We didnae come tae the funeral and tae pay our respects, because o’ the rift our faither had caused between us.” Darren’s voice was soft, respectful.

“Aye. Well, what ye cannae ken is that nae that long ago, about a year, in point o’ fact, me eldest daughter Rowan passed away from an illness.”

“Me condolences tae ye, yer kin and yer clan.” Darren’s voice was sincere, and Erin fought back tears at the sound of his gentle sympathy.

She’d sworn years ago never to let any man see her cry. Not the warriors who’d trained her to fight by giving her bruises and shedding her blood, and not her father when he scolded her for unladylike behavior. She’d held her head high and kept her eyes dry. She’d not break that promise in front of Marcus and Darren MacLean.

Her father continued speaking, his tone heavy. “Her husband, Daemon, has sworn tae uphold the alliance between our clans, but there’s nae denying the bonds between us have weakened. And worse, Laird Coire McCorcouodale has decided tae make trouble.”

“I ken ye’ve been at odds fer years, but I thought ye had reached a truce. An armed truce, but still a truce.” Darren frowned.

“Aye. I thought so as well, but I’d scarcely removed the mourning colors fer me daughter when we were attacked by soldiers under his tartan.” Kaelin scowled. “We forced them back, but ‘tis nae a good position for us tae be in, and we’re in need o’ more allies.”

“What o’ yer youngest daughter?”

“Lyla is visiting me sister, Skye, and she’ll be coming tae MacLean Keep from there in a day or so. She’s safe, so far as I ken.” Kaelin heaved a sigh. “I dinnae think she kens about the attack, but ‘tis possible Skye may have told her.”

“And what o’ Laird MacMillan?”

“He’s guarding the borders while we’re here. He’s a good man.” Kaelin shook his head. “But Clan McCorcouodale is a strong clan, for all that they’re a smaller one. And we cannae stand as we are.”

“Ye ken Clan MacLean will stand behind ye if ye need us.” Darren refilled their mead cups. “But ye also ken we’re nae in the best of states ourselves. We’ve only just come out o’ a feud with Clan Ranald, and ‘tis only good fortune that we survived it.”

“I ken.” Kaelin grimaced. “And I understand why ye dinnae want tae face more trouble so soon. But I fear we’ll be needing help, and we’ve few enough places tae turn, with Clan McCorcouodale standing on the eastern border o’ our lands.”

The men continued to speak, but Erin let the words wash over her. Her mind was racing.

Clan MacLean was a strong one, with ties to even stronger clans, like the Stewart Clan. They were the best hope Clan MacDougall had for weathering the storm and the attacks of Clan McCorcouodale.

But if the ties of friendship weren’t enough to bring Clan MacLean to their side, perhaps stronger ones might be. Like the ties that came with kin-by-marriage.

Lyla deserved to have her own life and her own choice of husbands. But MacLean had a laird who needed a wife, and Erin was confident she could make Darren a good partner. She could stand, rule, and fight by his side. Better still, if she was his spouse, he would bring the might of his clan, and his own kin-by-marriage alliances, to their aid.

With MacLean by their side, Clan MacDougall would be strong and safe. If they brought Clan Stewart into the alliance, Clan MacDougall would be safe from any threat they might ever face.

Marcus was unlikely to ever give her a chance, and she’d not want a man of his reputation as a husband either. She might be able to overlook the fact that he wasn’t her match on the field of combat, but not his tendency to try and sleep with anyone who wore a skirt and a chest wrapping .

Besides, it was Darren she’d always had an interest in. He was a formidable warrior, and a good man. He might be a little frightening with the tattoos that covered his face and arms, but he was no worse than Daemon, with his white hair and fierce demeanor.

She bit her lip, smiling tightly as the talks concluded and servants began to lay out the plates and platters for dinner. Her only concern was that she wasn’t sure if she’d be able to seduce him properly.

A moment later, she scoffed at herself. She was a warrior of Clan MacDougall. She was also a strong, beautiful woman, according to many men she’d spoken to. Surely, she could catch the attention of a man like Darren MacLean.

She smiled and took a platter of meat from a servant. She held it out to Darren, trying to smile and tilt her head coyly, the way she’d seen Lyla do when she was flirting with one of the warriors from their clan. “Would ye like some meat, me laird?”

She tried to make her voice sultry, coaxing, and felt her cheeks burning at the harsh, no-nonsense way it came out.

Darren simply nodded politely and took the platter from her. “Thank ye, Lady Erin.” His voice was as calm and even as it had been when he was speaking with her father.

“Och, ‘tisnae Lady Erin. Just Erin. Ye ken I’ve never been enamored o’ the title.” She meant to sound inviting, but Darren’s expression didn’t change.

“Me apologies. I hadnae considered the matter. But o’ course, ye’re a warrior maid, and ye’d prefer tae be addressed as such.” He dipped his head in acknowledgement. Then, without another word, he served himself, and turned to offer the platter to his brother.

Erin followed the motion with her gaze, and found herself staring into Marcus’s eyes as he watched her. His raised eyebrow said he knew what she was about, and was not at all impressed.

She flushed and looked away, then made another attempt. “’Tis true, I’m a warrior o’ me clan. Would ye like tae spar with me, while we’re here?”

“I’ve duties tae attend tae. But I’d welcome a new partner fer training in the mornings.”

“O’ course.” What else could she say? How could she imply that she wanted something a little more private – like evening one-on-one sparring of a different sort? She couldn’t say something like that in front of her father.

She was too used to speaking her mind to manage a subtle approach. And she’d no practice in seducing a man, warrior or otherwise. She was far more practiced in scorning those who tried to seduce her.

Erin settled back into her seat, her face hot and her stomach churning with embarrassment.

She might be one of the best warriors in the MacDougall clan, but it wasn’t a warrior her clan needed now, at least not from her. They needed someone who could secure them an alliance marriage that would bring them closer to other clans, and protect them.

Layla would be able to forge such a relationship. But she couldn’t. She could disarm any man on the field of combat, but she was powerless to find her way to a man’s heart. And for the first time in many years, she felt like a failure.

 

Not at all Likely Extremely Likely


If you liked the preview, you can get the whole book here


  • Wow! Such an intriguing intro, and I cant wait to see how the development between Marcus and Erin unfolds. Two head-strong individuals are sure to colide hard!

    • I am so glad you liked the preview of my book my dear! Marcus and Erin are head-strong individuals indeed!

  • Ohhh… I can’t wait to read the rest!! I’m buying it on kindle right now! ????????. I’m liking Marcus already!

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