Stealing the Highlander’s Heart (Preview)
Blair Castle, Scotland
Alana searched the faces of the crowd looking for Malcolm Murray. Her brother, Ross, had pointed the laird’s son out to her the week before when he had been out riding. It had felt dishonest to skulk in the bushes watching the man, but her father had deemed it necessary. “Would nae due tae have ye seduce the wrong man,” he had only half jested. She could see Malcolm in her mind’s eye, his dark hair and tartan streaming behind him as he galloped his brown highland pony across the glen, its black mane and tail flying. They had made a handsome pair muscled, wild, and free.
Alana shook the image from her mind and continued scanning the crowd. The muscular state of the man was to be ignored. She was here for one reason and one reason only ‒ to seek revenge on Andrew and Freya Murray on behalf of her father through their son Malcolm. She was to gain his trust and report back everything she learned to her father and brother. She was not at all certain she had what it took to do such a devious thing, but she would give it her best effort. As her father was prone to say, Family honor above all else. Her father had taught her that defending that honor meant hating one’s enemies and seeking out revenge whenever possible.
Her father was fond of quoting the Murray motto, ‘Furth, Fortune, and Fill the Fetters’, meaning to go forth against your enemies, have good fortune, and return with hostages and booty. From the tales her father had told her, the Murray men had done just that. They had stolen women from the lowland Erskine clan of which Malcolm’s mother had been the laird’s daughter. Alana could not imagine being kidnapped in such a fashion to be made the whore for another clan. The Murray’s were violent, ungodly people who had to be stopped. According to her father, he had tried to stop the murderer, Andrew Murray, but had failed, fleeing wounded into the mountains. Now it was her duty to uphold the family honor.
Seeing the dark head of her prey above the crowd, Alana moved forward signaling her father’s men waiting on the sidelines. When she was in full view of him, her father’s men moved forward to feign an attack upon her person. The men jeered and pulled at her arisaid, throwing rough and uncouth insults. Alana fought back, making enough of a fuss to catch Malcolm’s attention, her voice raised in protest. “Away and boil yer heads, ye stinkin’ dobbers!”
Malcolm made his way through the fair. He loved the clan gatherings. In years past, he had strolled with his four sisters through the vendors and competed with his fellow clansmen in sport. This year Mary’s husband, Bruce, had opted to watch over the lasses as they shopped, leaving Malcolm and Finlay free to do as they wished. After looking over the horses for sale, they headed toward the food stalls for a pint of ale and a mince pie.
The Blair Castle grounds were flooded with color and sound as tradesmen hocked their wares and spectator’s cheered on their favorite competitors in the sparring yard. The red, green, and blue tartans of the Murray and Erskine clans comingled to make a brilliant sight to cheer any spirit. Off to one side, a group of clansmen struck up an old drinking song. Malcolm grinned reveling in the sound of it. His grin faded, however, as though the den of noise he made out the sounds of a scuffle up ahead. The high, frightened voice of a lass could be distinctly heard above the crowd. Malcolm moved toward the fight, breaking through the gathering crowd of onlookers to find a bonnie red-haired lass cursing and fighting for all she was worth.
“Away and boil yer heads, ye stinkin’ dobbers!” she cried.
Three men were pawing at her as if she were a piece of roasted meat. Their dishonorable intentions were clear. “Unhand the lass,” he ordered, stepping forward.
“And what will ye be doin’ about it?” one of the men sneered.
“This,” Malcolm answered, pulling his sword.
“Hey!” the man shouted and skittered off, taking his friends with him.
“Are ye well, lass?” Malcolm knelt down to where she sat sprawled on the ground in disarray. Her red hair tumbled around her shoulders in massive curling waves as her bright blue eyes shined with tears akin to lipped pools. Malcolm offered a hand to assist her onto her feet.
“Aye, thanks be tae ye,” the lass answered, making an effort to straighten her garments.
Och, the lass is a bonnie one, Malcolm noted, unable to take his eyes from her face. He had just met the lass and yet he had the strongest urge to kiss the smattering of freckles that bedecked her nose and cheeks. He wondered if she had freckles anywhere else upon her person he could kiss. Get a hold o’ yerself man, he chastised. Yer nae better than the cuddies ye chased away with thoughts like that.
Aloud he said, “Nae thanks needed, lass. ‘Twas a pleasure tae be o’ service. Are ye new tae these parts? I have nae seen ye at the gatherin’ afore.”
“Nae, I live in a wee village on the edge of Murray lands,” she replied.
“And do ye have a name, lass?” Malcolm inquired.
“Alana,” she answered smiling.
“Malcolm Murray, at yer service.” He introduced himself with a slight bow.
“The laird’s son?” she asked.
“Aye, one and the same, but dinnae believe everythin’ ye hear,” he teased. “Unless ‘tis good o’ course.”
“O’ course,” she returned the jest. “Are ye as fierce and cunnin’ a fighter as they say?”
Grinning, Malcolm spotted Finlay off to the side shaking his head in disapproval. “I’ll let ye be the judge o’ that,” he responded. Taking her hand, he led her over to the sparring yard. Turning to Finlay, he said, “Are ye up for it, brother?”
“Do ye wish tae be trounced then, laddie?” Finlay grinned.
“”Twill be ye who is trounced,” Malcolm promised, leveling his sword in threat.
“We shall see about that,” Finlay laughed and the two of them squared off to face one another.
The sound of swords clashing filled the air as the brothers circled and attacked again and again. “There is nae river for ye tae fall in here, brother,” Malcolm taunted, “So there will be nae excuse when I beat ye.”
“Ye talk tae much, wee man,” Finlay replied, lunging forward in attack.
Malcolm just barely managed to twist away before the weapon made contact with his abdomen. “Are ye tryin’ tae kill me?” Malcolm asked in jest as he woefully eyed the tear in his shirt.
“Ye would ken it if I were,” Finlay replied, admiring his handy work. “Yer maither will be less than pleased tae see what ye have made o’ her handywork,” he gestured, referencing the torn shirt. It had been a gift from Malcolm’s mother the week before.
“Aye, and I will be tellin’ her about the bampot responsible,” Malcolm retorted.
The crowd laughed and cheered as the men continued to circle each other, parrying and thrusting at intervals with swords and words. The brothers jesting provided great entertainment for the onlookers. In an effort to bring their faux battle to an end and impress Alana, Malcolm dropped to his knees, rolling right up under Finlay and placed a blade to his nether regions. “I have bested ye again, brother,” Malcolm stated with a grin.
“Aye, ye dirty cheat,” Finlay laughed, flicking away Malcolm’s blade.
“Och, who are ye callin’ dirty?” Malcolm grinned as he rolled to his feet.
“Ye, ye wee dolton. Look at yerself covered in dust,” Finlay answered, gesturing to the state of Malcolm’s kilt.
Looking down, Malcolm found the statement to be true. In rolling upon the ground he had sufficiently covered himself in dirt and grass stains. “A wee spot o’ dirt ne’er hurt anyone,” Malcolm brushed it off.
“Tell that tae yer maither,” Finlay retorted.
“Och, Maither will have my hide,” Malcolm remarked.
“That she will, laddie,” Finlay nodded in smug satisfaction. “Perhaps a wee dram o’ whiskey tae bolster yer courage afore ye face the wrath o’ Freya’s fury?” Finlay offered, gesturing towards the vendor’s stalls.
“Aye, a grand idea if ere I heard one,” Malcolm agreed. Turning to Alana on the sidelines, he asked, “What do ye say? Will ye join me for a wee drink and a stroll through the faire?”
“I will,” she replied and the three of them made their way to the whiskey vendor’s stall.
“I dinnae recognize ye from either the Murray or Erskine clans,” Finlay questioned Alana. “How came ye tae be on Murray lands?”
“I was born here in a village on the edge o’ the clan lands,” she claimed.
“And yer parents?” Finlay questioned further.
“Dead,” she answered sobering.
“I’m sorry for yer loss, lass,” Malcolm offered his sympathies. Chastising Finlay, he said, “There is nae need tae interrogate the poor lass.” Malcolm watched as Finlay narrowed his eyes in suspicion, but remained quiet, adhering to his brother’s request.
“I thank ye for yer kindness,” Alana responded. “In truth, I came to the gatherin’ lookin’ for a trade. I have nae kin left tae me and I must make my own way in the world.”
“Did ye inquire at the castle?” Malcolm asked.
“Nae, I have nae,” she answered.
“Let me see what I can do. Surely we can find ye a place here with my family,” Malcolm encouraged her. “Are ye skilled in anythin’ particular?”
“I can cook, clean, sew, and I turn a fair hand at medicinals,” she admitted.
“Medicinals, ye say?” Malcolm’s ears perked up at that.
“Aye,” she affirmed.
Malcolm thought about his father lying in his bedchamber at the castle, his health having never returned after his collapse. Mayhap she could be of service tae him? Offer him some relief? Aloud he said, “How would ye feel about bein’ a caregiver for the laird?”
“I would be honored,” she replied. “Is he sick?”
“Verra,” Malcolm confirmed.
“I am sorry,” she commiserated. “I can see that ye are worried for him.”
“Aye, he collapsed nigh on a year ago and has ne’er been the same since,” Malcolm affirmed.
“That must be difficult for yer family,” Alana sympathized, placing a comforting hand on his arm.
“Aye, ‘tis, but we do the best we can,” Malcolm replied. With Andrew’s poor health, life had changed drastically for Malcolm. Overnight he had become the de facto guardian and caretaker of his family and the clan at large. In just one short year he had gone from an irresponsible youth to a leader of men. He knew he still had much to learn, but his father had continuously trained him since the day of his collapse. Malcolm had argued that Finlay, as the eldest, would have made the better choice, but Andrew had pointed out that Finlay was not his son by blood and, therefore, the role of leader fell to Malcolm whether he wanted it or not.
“I would be glad tae offer him what ere comfort I can if ye would allow it,” Alana offered.
“We would be most grateful, lass,” Malcolm replied with sincerity.
“Ye hardly ken the lass,” Finlay murmured from beside him. “Is it wise tae invite a stranger in tae yer home and tae care for the laird nae less?”
“I see nae harm in it,” Malcolm answered.
“I dinnae trust her. She is lyin’ about her origins. I can feel it,” Finlay warned.
“Cease yer bletherin’,” Malcolm hissed. “Yer insultin’ the lass.”
“Mark my words, brother. I ken I am right,” Finlay argued.
“Maither could use the help in carin’ for faither and ye ken it well,” Malcolm retorted. Turning to Alana, he said, “Can ye start right away?”
“Aye, I can begin today if the need be,” she confirmed.
“Ye can stay at the castle tonight then and we can get ye sorted on the morrow,” Malcolm invited.
Finlay frowned. “’Tis a mistake, mark my words. Ye will regret the day ye met her, I fear, brother.”
“Maybe I will, but until then…” Malcolm shrugged his shoulders and escorted his father’s new caregiver to the castle.
The Cairngorm Mountains, Scotland
Rory Murray sat and stared at the men before him in pleasure. “She has made her way into the laird’s household,” his spies informed him.
“Good,” he replied smiling. “I knew young Malcolm would nae be able tae resist her beauty.”
“It appears ye were right, Faither,” his son Ross commented from beside him.
“O’ course I was right,” he retorted confidently. “I have nae come this far tae make a misstep in such a simple judgment. Ye still have much tae learn from yer auld man, my son.”
“Aye, Faither,” Ross loyally agreed.
“Return tae Blair Castle and keep me abreast o’ my daughter’s every action,” Rory ordered his spy.
“Aye, my laird,” the spy replied, then departed to do as bid.
Rory sat in silence for a moment, examining his son. Both of his children were red-haired and fair in skin like their mother had been. Ross was tall, a strong lad any father could be proud of. He fought like a man possessed and burned with the same fiery vengeance that consumed Rory’s own soul. He had instilled his rage for Andrew Murray into his children from birth. They had been twins, born just moments from one another with Ross first followed by Alana. It had been Alana’s birth that had taken his dear wife from him. He blamed the lass for his loss and had never been able to feel the same sense of pride or caring towards her that he felt for his son.
“Are ye nae the least bit concerned for Alana’s virtue, Faither?” Ross inquired concerned.
“Nae, I am nae,” Rory retorted. “Her job is tae restore our family’s honor nae matter the cost. ’Tis the least she can do after takin’ yer dear sweet sainted maither from us. She will do her duty or she will nae be allowed tae return.”
“Aye, Faither,” Ross answered. Rory could tell his son did not agree with his words, but knew better than to argue. He knew the consequences if he did.
“Now go and train with the men. We have much tae prepare for,” Rory ordered and Ross obeyed.
As he sat watching his men train for battle, he thought back to what had led him to where he now resided, hiding in his stronghold in the Cairngorm Mountains. I am the rightful laird o’ the Murray clan, nae that weakling Andrew. Were it nae for me he would ne’er have gotten the men tae overthrow Donald Murray. He should be lyin’ dead upon the field o’ battle with that fair-haired besom of his warmin’ my bed. Rory had very nearly made it so, but instead had run from the battlefield seriously wounded.
He had told his children that it had been Andrew who had committed the unspeakable atrocities of Donald Murray, then murdered him to take the lairdship. It was only a partial untruth as every man in the clan had participated in the destruction of the Erskine lands initially, including himself. When he had ordered Alana to seduce Andrew’s son and report back to him everything she discovered, she had obeyed his every word without complaint for fear of disappointing him. She would never have disobeyed her father, the man she believed to be the true hero and laird of the Clan Murray.
Rory had spent the last twenty years plotting his revenge and now it was so close he could very nearly taste it. He would take Blair Castle, kill Andrew Murray, and claim Freya as his woman whether she liked it or not. He would be laird of Blair Castle if it was the last thing he ever did. He was no stranger to death. The idea of dying in battle did not bother him overly much, but it was the stench of failure that he could not tolerate and felt as if he had been drowning in it since he fled all those years before. He had not countenanced failure in anyone since, believing himself to only be as strong as his weakest warrior. With that philosophy in mind, he ruled his men with an iron hand. Weakness was culled from the herd and disposed of. Anyone who challenged his word died by the edge of his blade. As a result, he had accrued a fierce body of warriors ready to do his every bidding.
Verra soon we will take Blair Castle and I will reign o’er the Clan Murray. He clenched his fist, tightening his grip as he pictured Andrew’s neck between his fingers. Verra soon, indeed.
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