I'm happy to announce that, THE HIGHLANDER'S TRIUMPH, the 5th book in the Stolen Bride series has released today on Kindle and Nook. Look for it soon in other ebook formats, print and audio!
He was a warrior fighting for Scottish freedom.
She was his enemy’s mistress.
Laird Brandon Sinclair has given his life to the Scottish cause. Swearing fealty to Robert the Bruce, he will stop at nothing to see oppression end.
Lady Mariana wants nothing more than to break free of the tyrannical hold the English king has on her. When he sends her to Scotland with a message for the rebels, instead of obeying his orders, she finds herself submitting to her desires. After one sizzling, life-altering night, Brandon and Mariana must part ways. But Mariana has no intention of betraying her heart again.
And Brandon is determined to get her back. Stealing Longshank’s secrets felt like victory, but taking his woman will be this Highlander’s ultimate triumph.
Nearing spring, 1298
Smoke filled Laird Brandon Sinclair’s lungs as he rode on horseback with his men toward the north of Kinterloch Village.
High above the wooden wall, flames burst in hungry orange licks. A vengeful fire that would turn everything in its path to ash. The late afternoon sky was already overcast, but the smoke of the blaze made it nearly black.
No villagers ran from the fire. No animals screamed. The chaos that should be erupting with the flames was non-existent—as if deserted. But he knew it couldn’t be. The people, the animals, were either trapped or had managed to get out from a different gate.
The Scottish troops’ fearless leader, William Wallace, had already charged through the front gates into the inferno as if he were a man with a death wish. He’d ordered Brandon and his men to check the north side for survivors. Brandon’s cousin, Ronan Sutherland, had taken his warriors to the west side near the loch.
Far from his castle and lands in the north of the Highlands, Brandon had traveled to Eilean Donan the month prior to help his cousins Daniel Murray and Ronan along with William Wallace and Robert the Bruce in the war against the English. But it seemed now it wasn’t only the English they were fighting—but traitor Scots too.
A loud crash reverberated through the air as another building collapsed behind the wall. A rush of heat surged his way, and a cloud of dark smoke billowed into the sky, in stark contrast to the world around them, a peaceful, beautiful place with lush pine trees and gorse bushes, even in winter. Hell set in the middle of heaven.
Doubt darkened his mood. There would be no survivors. Not in a raging inferno like this—one that rivaled Hades. He shook his head and spurred his horse forward. His chestnut colored warhorse, Checkmate, pounded the earth with his massive hooves.
If only they’d been able to get to the village before Laird Ross—traitor to all Scots and their ancestors. The damned bastard had defected to the English, and since doing so, had laid a path of destruction across the Highlands. There wasn’t a man Brandon knew that hadn’t been affected by Ross’ treachery. Hell, it seemed like the man was on a mission to make enemies with everyone of true Scottish heart.
Brandon’s thoughts were cut midway when they rounded the burning wall on the north side.
“Halt!” he shouted to his men, reining in Checkmate.
A woman burst through the wooden gate, exposing the interior angry flaming village. Hair black as a midnight sky, skin covered in soot. Her dark green gown was covered by a singed, once high-quality, wool cloak. She tripped, falling onto her hands and knees, coughing, yet she did not stop. The lass crawled forward, every move beleaguered in her attempt to escape the flaming village.
Without a thought, Brandon jumped from Checkmate, and ran toward her.
“Lass, are ye all right?”
He knelt before her and she practically fell into his arms, her breath coming out in a rush against his face. Her eyes closed, then fluttered open. She grasped onto him with weak, trembling fingers.
French. Brandon quirked a brow, trying not to be completely infatuated with the way her words rolled seductively off her tongue. What was a woman of French descent doing in Kinterloch? The lass clutched at the front of his cloak and glanced up, hair falling onto her soot covered face. He swiped the strands away and was startled by a pair of lovely, sparkling blue eyes. The color of the sky on a cloudless summer day. Like blue diamonds. But they were filled with fear, pain.
Brandon’s hands skimmed over hers—soft and small—then up her arms as he pulled her to standing. She wavered on her feet, and glanced around as if she expected the devil to burst from the earth and drag her down into the depths of his hellish domain.
“Lass, ye’re safe now. Tell me, are ye hurt?”
She shook her head, licked at her cracked, red lips. “No. I’m not hurt, other than my lungs—they burn with each breath.” Her voice was hoarse, as though just a tiny hint of air passed through her delicate throat.
“Dinna speak then, if it pains ye.” Brandon’s hands slipped to her shoulders, automatically massaging the tense muscles there.
The woman sagged against him, a few tears spilling from her eyes. “Thank ye.”
Brandon wiped at her tears with the pads of his thumbs. “Shh… I will ask ye a few questions, simply nod or shake your head. But first, tell me your name.”
A name as pretty as a ballad. And she was a lady. He’d known that, and he suspected, though covered in soot, she was well off. Her cloak spoke of a high-quality fabric. He expected when she washed the grime from her hair it would shine, proof that it had been well kept. As it was the silken locks teased his skin and he longed to entwine his fingers within it. Where that desire came from, he didn’t bloody well know.
“Lady Mariana, are ye alone?”
She nodded, her eyes locking on his with what looked to be a suspicious glance, and a peek behind him at his men had her paling.
“We’ll nay harm ye, lass. We’ve come to help.”
She shuddered in his arms.
“I promise no harm will come to ye.” Brandon made his assurance loud enough for all his men to hear. “Ye are under my protection. I’ll see ye to safety.”
Mariana chewed her lower lip.
Turning to a few of his men, he ordered, “Check to see if there are others.”
The men nodded and urged their horses forward, checking the north gate, then moving beyond it and out of sight.
“Were ye a guest?”
Her eyes crinkled up as she studied his face. Having plenty of experience judging people’s expressions, he guessed she was trying to figure out how to answer.
“I know ye’ve no cause to trust me, but I assure ye, I’d never see ye harmed. I am Laird Brandon Sinclair and I am one of Robert the Bruce’s men.”
Her eyes lit up at that. “I trust ye.”
Brandon didn’t expect the sudden constriction in his chest upon hearing those words. He was a little taken aback by it. In fact, he was a little taken aback by this entire encounter. Lady Mariana was eliciting a reaction that no other woman ever had. Unable to quite describe it, Brandon could only call it awe. He was attracted to her; she was beautiful, delicate, exotic. But beyond that, he had a fierce need to protect her. And he didn’t know why. He’d wanted to protect his cousins’ wives, women in his village, his mother, but never had he felt the fierce need to pull a woman close so that no other could get near her.
It was almost possessive. And he needed to dismiss it with haste. His men made themselves still as statues behind him. Mayhap he should pass her on to one of the remaining retainers, just so he could get a breath of air without her scent—for indeed he could smell the sweet aroma of flowers beneath the smell of smoke. It was embedded in her hair, on her skin.
He cleared his throat. “Well, good. I shall take ye to safety.”
Brandon took a step, intent on leading her toward his horse, however, Lady Mariana’s legs were so shaky the simple task became labored. He swiftly pulled her into his arms, his muscles tightening at the feel of her supple curves.
“Will ye allow me to take ye to Eilean Donan?”
Mariana lowered her lashes, long black curly lashes that showed off the curve of her cheekbones. She nodded.
“Verra well.” Brandon wanted to say something more charming, more comforting to a lass in such distress, but he could think of neither. Only that he never wanted to put her down—and how that made him want to toss her and run.
A woman would only slow him down. He’d seen that very thing happen to his cousins—Magnus, Blane, Daniel, Ronan—all tied to a woman. Brandon didn’t ever want to deal with the fears that came with loving someone. He’d seen enough strife where love was concerned. His mother had not been a happy woman—save for when his own father passed.
Brandon grunted, pushing those unhappy thoughts aside. He lifted Mariana onto the horse and then climbed up behind her, putting his arm around her waist and pulling her securely against him. Her body melded to his, warm and lithe. Her head fell back and she breathed out a ragged sigh. Brandon ground his teeth, willing his body not to react to the soft curves pressed to his—the full derriere that if he allowed himself, he could fully imagine sliding his hands over as passion gripped him.
God’s teeth, it was going to be a long ride back to the castle. Even still, he pulled her closer, feeling the brush of her breasts on his arm. Blood rushed through his veins, ignoring his warnings, and centered in his groin. A long ride indeed.
The heat of the flames washed over them in blistering waves. Sweat beaded on his brow and trickled down the sides of his face. How on earth was Wallace faring inside the blaze? Brandon blew out a breath and scanned the surrounding area. Beside the firs and pines, the trees were still winter bare, moss covering some of their trunks. He didn’t see a glint of metal or out of place movement. Part of him suspected that Ross sat in the shadows watching, waiting, probably even stroking himself with glee at the destruction he’d caused, but Brandon knew better. The bastard wouldn’t stick around. He’d hightail it to the next place he could barrel into and force a bed from.
But beyond Ross and his minions having disappeared, the lack of villagers was beyond disturbing. He hoped that did not mean they’d all perished, yet another crime against his own countrymen Ross could add to his long offensive list. Brandon wasn’t the first in line to land a blow if the man were ever to be captured, but damn if he didn’t want to be.
Despite the heat, Lady Mariana shivered. Brandon tightened his hold, wishing he could take away the fear that filled her. What a horror it must have been for her to be surrounded by fire within the village, to see one’s life threatened. A near daily occurrence for him, but he was a warrior, trained for such, she was a lady, used to soft, fine, nice things.
Brandon tugged an extra plaid rolled behind his saddle and wrapped it around her shoulders, making sure to cover her legs.
“I thank you, my laird.” Her voice was shaky, and he suspected she was on the verge of hysterics.
“Who were ye staying with? Have they…” He trailed off not wanting to ask if they’d indeed succumbed to the flames.
“I was staying with Sir Teirnan Barclay.”
“Ross’ cousin,” Brandon growled. What the devil was she doing with him? Suspicion grew ripe in his mind.
Mariana nodded, her head bumping his chin. She turned up to him, her eyes red-rimmed, but fierce. “Is he your enemy?”
“Aye, Ross is my enemy.” A sudden thought occurred to him—was Mariana going to pull a hidden dagger from beneath her skirts and attempt to strike him? “I’ve no quarrel with Barclay, yet.”
After having witnessed Lady Julianna’s fighting skills, he wouldn’t put it past a woman again to be fully equipped with a blade. Julianna was the Bruce’s half-sister and guardian—and his cousin Ronan’s love.
Mariana nodded. “Ross is a bad man.”
He didn’t know whether or not to be surprised by her words. “Why do ye say that, lass?”
She gestured toward the fire. “All this.”
She shook her head, folded her hands in her lap. Long slim fingers, pale skin. She wore a beautiful ruby and gold ring on her right finger, but none on the left. Brandon hoped that meant she didn’t have a husband waiting for her back in France—and he wasn’t sure what difference it would make. He had no intentions of…
Dammit, he was supposed to be worried over the blaze, over the safety of the townspeople, the Scots. Not whether the woman in his arms was spoken for.
“Tell me, lass. Does Barclay still live? I’ve need to hear who we’re fighting.”
“Barclay is alive. He’s not a bad man in his own way. He’s a follower. Caved when Ross first raised his fist.”
Just as the Bruce suspected. Barclay was afraid of Ross. Not many weren’t. Brandon and his cousins weren’t. The Bruce wasn’t. But that was because they’d already seen through the man. Knew they could beat him. Had been fighting against him for months. Others weren’t as willing to put their necks out when a man, half-crazed, showed up on their doorsteps and demanded cooperation or death. Brandon was fairly certain that was the stipulation. While Ross was gaining much from his alliance with Longshanks, the English king, he wasn’t one to pass it on to anyone else. Nay, Ross would hand out punishments if his wishes weren’t followed.
“How long were ye here?”
Mariana shook her head. “Not long.” Her voice was soft, but scratchy, a reminder of what she’d been through and Brandon’s previous promise that she didn’t have to talk.
His own throat was starting to feel scratchy from the smoke blowing on the wind. The fire had already conquered at least half the village, and the spots where it still blazed showed no sign of relenting.
Mariana coughed delicately, her shoulders quivering against Brandon’s chest. He resisted the urge to stroke his hands over the gentle curve of her shoulders. Instead, he managed to do the gentlemanly thing and pulled his waterskin from its place attached to his saddle.
“Take a sip, lass.”
Mariana turned her glorious blue eyes up to him, and gave a grateful smile. “My thanks, my laird.”
Brandon gave a stiff nod. Wanted to tell her to call him by his name, but knew that would only seem odd to a lady he’d just met. She took hold of the waterskin, her cold fingers brushing his.
“Ye’re cold,” he muttered.
Mariana shook her head. “Just thirsty.” She drew the waterskin to her lips, wrapping their pink, plushness around the rim and taking a deep pull.
Brandon’s mouth fell open and his eyes were riveted to the sight—a number of sinful thoughts running wickedly through his mind.
“Thank you.” She handed him back the skin, her eyes starting to droop.
“Are ye tired?” he asked, feeling as though he stated the obvious. Her lids were heavy, her face pale. The lass was completely worn out.
Mariana nodded. “I feel so weak.”
“’Tis from the smoke. Rest, lass. I will wake ye when we make camp.”
Mariana wiggled in his lap—driving him crazy with the way her bottom hit his thighs and groin—until she found a comfortable position. She laid her head against his chest and closed her eyes. How easily she found her ease in his arms. Brandon was stunned.
Before he could think more on it, his men returned from their search, no villagers with them. Brandon frowned, his anger growing.
“We saw no survivors, my laird.”
Brandon gave a jerky nod, then turned his horse back in the direction they’d come. “Let us find the others.” If Wallace wasn’t back with Ronan and Julianna, then they might very well need to ride through the blazing village.
Ronan and Julianna met them halfway. No signs of their enemy and no signs of survivors either.
“Who is this?” Julianna asked Brandon.
Brandon opened his mouth to speak, but Mariana roused and lifted her head. She stiffened, her back becoming straighter.
“I am Lady Mariana,” she said with her silky accent.
Odd how the sound of her tongue made Brandon want to pull her closer, touch her sensitive spots and hear her speak his name.
Julianna frowned. “What are ye doing here?”
“I was sent by His Majesty, King Edward.”
Fire flashed in his cousins’ woman’s eyes, just as shock at her statement made his blood run cold. Longshanks had sent her? What in blazing ballocks was she talking about?
“Put her down. ’Tis a trick! We just left several others. The fire was a trap to lure us in. There are archers and warriors hidden in the woods to the west—most likely all around us.” Julianna pulled her sword from her saddle.
Brandon pressed his lips firmly down in a frown and glanced at Ronan with question. Julianna acted as though Mariana might attack them. The lass stiffened further in his lap and again he wondered if she had a hidden dagger. Despite her omission, his gut told him she was not his enemy and he tended to trust his instincts. They weren’t going to leave her out in the cold, or lynch her.
If Ronan didn’t rein Julianna in, Brandon wasn’t sure he’d be able to hold his tongue. Normally, Julianna was more cautious, gave no signs of her true feelings, but now she was acting completely different.
“Laird Sinclair, on behalf of my brother, your leader and future King of Scotland, I order ye to put the woman down. She is our enemy.”
Mariana clutched her hands to Brandon’s chest, her cupid lips forming a bow full of fear. “My laird, please dinna let her hurt me,” she whispered.
Ronan reached out a hand and laid it lightly on Julianna’s arm. The man certainly had patience when it came to his woman—and some sort of magical power. Julianna seemed to stand down.
“What is your purpose, Lady Mariana?” Ronan asked, the voice of calm and reason.
Brandon couldn’t help feeling like they were interrogating the poor lass. Couldn’t they see that she was struggling to breathe, to stay awake? Whatever her purpose, she wasn’t a danger to them now.
Mariana shuddered. “I…I…” And the woman lost consciousness. Anger surged within Brandon. They’d scared her half to death.
“We’ll take her with us. She can give us the information we seek,” Ronan said sternly. “Any sign of Wallace?”
Brandon shook his head, his grip tight on Mariana. He’d vowed to keep her safe, and damn if he wasn’t going to see that vow through—even if he had to fight every man or woman to see it done.
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