ABOUT THE BOOK:
He came to conquer…
A widower, Laird Torsten Mackenzie, has worked long and hard to regain the respect his clan deserved after his older brother turned traitorous. Even in death, Cathal’s crimes remain a mar on Torsten’s conscience. Setting aside his grief, Torsten devotes his life to his people, and to his young, motherless daughter. When a rival clan attacks his lands unprovoked, he’s determined to put them in their place once and for all. Marching on their gates, he’s taken by surprise when Lady MacDonell steps through the opening instead of her wayward husband. Reacting impulsively, Torsten exacts his revenge by whisking her away.
But she laid claim to his heart...
Headstrong and fierce, Éabha MacDonell’s true nature has been buried for six long years in a marriage that fills her with shame, and has kept her tucked in the shadows. But the death of her husband, and being forced from the only home she’s ever known, brings freedom in a way she’d never imagined. Free to rediscover parts of herself she’d thought never to behold again—her love of art, fencing, and her desire for children. But most of all, the tug at her heart, the warmth of a secret glance and the heat of a passionate embrace.
In the arms of her captor, Éabha’s more liberated than she’s ever been before and Torsten might just have found the one person who can make him whole again.
Why the hell did those bloody fools have to keep raiding? Had they not yet learned their lesson?
Laird Torsten Mackenzie crouched just out of arrow’s reach from the high, thick walls of the MacDonell’s castle. The fortress loomed up in the moonlight, but despite its fortifications, he planned to breach it this very night. A promise he’d made the last time the bastards had dared to cross onto his land.
Torsten was certain he’d been clear that any further raids on his lands would not be tolerated. Another raid from the MacDonells was a declaration of war, he’d even put it in writing so the imbeciles would not be confused. Yet, despite his warnings, the arseholes had done so again, trampling crops, burning crofter’s homes, beating tenants and violating women.
Rage lanced hot through Torsten’s veins. He gripped the reins tighter, his body stiffened, and his mount, Lucifer, tossed his head in irritation. When he got ahold of Donald MacDonell, that sorry excuse for a laird, he was going to beat him to a bloody pulp, until the last of his breath escaped and his face was unrecognizable.
His warhorse snorted and Torsten loosened his grip, concentrating his fury on the castle just beyond.
Torsten glanced at Little Rob, his second-in-command, a man not so little in personality or size. He, too, had steel-studded leather armor covering his leine shirt, his green and blue plaid muted in the darkness.
“Wait.” Torsten glowered at the wall and keep, imagining the men inside celebrating their latest raid, and reliving every horrifying moment. Well, Torsten, wasn’t celebrating, and his people surely weren’t. They were trying to pick up the pieces of their lives, while desperately trying not to relive it. Donald MacDonell had better start praying now, for Torsten would show no mercy.
Mackenzie lands were vast. Torsten’s castle, Eilean Donan, sat on an island perfectly situation between three lochs—Loch Alsh, Loch Duich and Loch Long—on the south-western end of his territory. The MacDonell’s had crossed through their own territory traveling north into Mackenzie lands, but been careful to stay as far away from the castle as possible, riding more than half a day, longer than needed, until they reached a small village built along a river. Torsten had a small garrison stationed there, but the MacDonells had more men and despite the Mackenzie superior strength and skill, the men were killed or left for dead. By the time a messenger had arrived, and Torsten had brought reinforcements, the MacDonells were long gone.
Torsten set out immediately, sending word to Eilean Donan for more of his men to meet him at Strome Castle. They all gathered now, nearly one hundred and fifty strong.
The idea of any warrior tormenting an innocent sent his guilt soaring fast. He’d dealt with enough of that with his own brother, God rest his soul. Whenever Cathal had gone raiding, Torsten stayed home, just waiting for someone to seek vengeance on his brother until the day it actually happened. Torsten thought himself a defender of the weak. A protector of those who needed it. He was laird and chief of a vast and powerful clan, it was his duty, and he was honor-bound, to keep every single one of them safe.
And yet, he was still dealing with the fallout of his brother’s choices. One day, one battle, one victory at a time.
“They’ll be expecting us,” Torsten growled.
Little Rob nodded, the leather of his armor making a stretching noise as he shifted on his mount. “Do ye want to meet them on the field, or breach their walls?”
Torsten surveyed his warriors, each had painted a black stripe in the shape of cross down the center of their forehead, himself included. His men had lost friends this night. Loved ones. And Torsten had once more failed to protect his people.
“I want to kill them all.” Torsten fingered the hilt of his sword. “But I won’t. Not the innocent. We’ll not stoop to MacDonell’s level.”
“Aye, my laird.”
“Give the order. No woman, child or person of aged years is to be harmed. If a man surrenders, tie him up, dinna dispatch him. And most of all, remember that MacDonell is mine.”
“And his wife?”
“His wife?” Torsten frowned, he’d not considered the lady.
Most likely she was a vile wench. Anyone married to MacDonell, their choice or not, had to be dreadful.
Torsten was not married, though he had been once. His wife had died several years ago in childbirth. He’d not remarried, first, because of grief, and then, because of his brother’s traitorous actions. The imbecile had sought to marry in order to betray his king. A coup it had been, and he’d been killed for it. Torsten mourned the loss of his brother, but had spent the last two years trying to salvage the reputation of his clan, and himself as a leader and loyalist to King Robert the Bruce. There’d been no time for women, and he wasn’t certain any would have wanted him anyway.
“She’s to be left unharmed.” Torsten gritted his teeth and eyed Loch Carron, mesmerized by the way the moon glittered on its dark depths. Across the loch was his beloved Eilean Donan. How he wished he was there right now. Worry free and drinking a whisky behind the stone walls. Lord, how he could go for a drink presently—another thing he’d resisted since his brother’s death.
Instead, he was leading an attack because some arseholes were too stupid or greedy for their own good. Donald MacDonell was both. To gain some ground Torsten and his men had to ride around the loch, which had taken four hours, but they’d been hot on the heels of the bloody bastards the entire way. They were lucky for a clear sky and bright moon, else they’d have a harder time fighting, and he wasn’t willing to wait until morning.
His charger shifted beneath him, restless to engage, just like his master. Torsten’s gaze followed the line of the battlements. He was unsure of exactly what he was looking for, a sign perhaps, but what? Every time they went into battle, he felt it. That subtle hint that it was time to launch forward. Call him superstitious, mayhap, but he refused to begin a battle without it. And so, when dawn was on the brink of arrival and no sign had presented itself, he’d not yet advanced.
’Twas bad enough that he had to worry about the English and their constant attacks, but he shouldn’t have to worry over neighboring clans as well. He supposed this was just another mess his brother had left for him to clean up. Cathal hadn’t been good at making allies, only enemies it would seem.
A prickle rose along his spine, tingling the back of his neck. Finally. “’Tis time,” he said.
Little Rob nodded. “We are ready.”
Torsten slid his sword from its scabbard and raised it over his head. Then pointed it forward, remaining silent. The enemy might suspect that they would soon be upon them, but they wouldn’t announce their arrival with a resounding battle cry just yet. Besides, if the MacDonells were stupid enough to continue raiding Mackenzie lands, ’haps they were stupid enough to leave their gates wide open for invasion.
They advanced quietly over the mist covered heath, their horses’ steps silenced by the fresh spring growth of grass and wild flowers. The horizon winked purple and pink, but left shadows across the land. They kept a slow, steady pace, not wanting the pounding of galloping hooves to alert the guards.
But, even the most well intentioned plans sometimes had to be modified. Halfway across the heath, the sound of an alarm went up over the battlements. They’d been spotted.
Excellent. Torsten’s grin grew wide, excitement and anger boiling together into a potent fire that thrummed through his veins.
“Forward!” Torsten bellowed, leaning over Lucifer’s withers, urging him into a full gallop.
His men followed suit.
Torsten kept his gaze keen on the castle walls, seeing men line up one after another, their weapons and armor glinting. The gate master called for archers. ’Twas too late to turn around now.
“Shields!” Torsten shouted to his warriors, recognizing the whistle as the arrows flew through the air.
The Mackenzies wouldn’t let a few arrows stop them. They continued at a full gallop, shields raised. Nothing could stop them, they advanced toward the gates, not slowing down even as arrows rained down upon them. Only a few men fell, and Torsten prayed for them, his vow for revenge only growing as his losses increased. Four down. Five.
Donald MacDonell was a dead man.
Just as suddenly as the arrows had sang through the air, they ceased.
As odd as that was, Torsten forged ahead. This was all out war.
Then something even odder occurred. When they were only yards from the wall, his warriors ready to throw up their hastily made ladders, the portcullis slowly started to raise.
Warriors. The MacDonells were sending men out to battle. Torsten let his battle cry tear from his throat, ready to sink his blade into the first man who stepped through.
But then he was stunned, almost paralyzed, when a willowy figure walked through the gates carrying a torch. A woman.
What in bloody hell?
Her skirts blew against her ankles, and clung to her thighs. Her eyes searched his, challenging him to stop, mesmerizing him for a moment until he realized just what was happening.
“Halt!” Torsten roared, bringing Lucifer to a standstill. “What trickery is this?”
Was the MacDonell such a coward he would send a woman out as bait? A consolation prize?
Torsten glowered at her, his stomach twisting in burning knots of rage.
The woman was tall, thin. Her light hair billowed in the breeze and shimmered in the moonlight. Her features were obscured half in shadow and half in golden light from the torch. She was beautiful. Cheekbones high, jaw strong, nose regal and her mouth, well, he had to tear his gaze from the lush sight.
She held up her hand, a silent entreaty for him to stop. “My laird,” she called. “There is no need to attack.”
Her words, spoken with such calm strength only made him angry. His back stiffened, and Lucifer let out an annoyed snort when he tightened the reins. “No need? There is much need, my lady. Go back inside and send out your laird. He will pay for what he’s done.”
She looked at him with sadness in her gaze and shook her head. “He’ll not be coming out.”
Torsten resisted the urge to leap from his horse in order to throttle the woman for her insolence.
“Go back inside, woman. This is a man’s business, and I intend to speak with your laird.”
She straightened her shoulders, lifting her chin. “I am speaking in his place.”
“I’ll not speak with MacDonell’s bait. One last warning—send out the laird.”
Or else what?
Her raised brow seemed to dare him to answer that question as well. And how could he? He’d not hurt her. Torsten had never harmed a woman, he’d never ill-used one, and he wasn’t about to start now.
“Do it,” he demanded, inching his horse just a step forward, hoping to intimidate her.
“I canna. Please, let us settle this between the two of us,” she pleaded, her free hand beseeching. “There is no need for a battle, or for more to get hurt.”
“So ’tis all right to kill and torture my people, but we must stop at your doors? Ye beg for the lives of your people, your laird, and yet what mercy was given to my people today? The past month? The past year? None. MacDonell has killed my people, ruined our crops, stolen our cows. I warned him that the next time he came raiding, he was inviting war to his door. And here I am, lassie. I am war. I am revenge.”
Why was he explaining all this to a wisp of a woman? To any woman for that matter.
His tirade only seemed to make her stand taller. If her chin grew any more obstinate she’d be staring at the sky. “If ye are war, then I am peace.”
“Peace? Who are ye?” Torsten asked. “What gives ye the authority to negotiate? Send out a man.”
Her hand fisted at her side, and the torch flickered against her tight hold. She glowered up at him with such ferocity, Torsten was certain to remember the look for years to come. No woman that he’d ever known had exhibited such strength. For a moment, he was actually impressed.
“I am Éabha MacDonell.”
The name should have rung familiar to him, but it did not. The laird’s sister? Daughter? Wife? He had no idea.
“I am the Mistress of Strome.”
Ah, MacDonell’s wife. “Send your husband then, my lady, for I will not negotiate with ye.”
She stood her ground. “Ye will have to.”
“And if I refuse?”
Now he was challenging her to come up with a different answer.
“Then it is a battle ye shall receive.” Disappointment flashed in her eyes.
Torsten grunted. “Then ye shall watch your people die as I have had to watch mine.”
Sadness filled her flame-lit features. “I am sorry for the loss of your people.”
Torsten grimaced. “I do not care if ye are sorry. Sorry will not bring them back. Sorry will not stop me from seeking vengeance.”
“Neither will battle.”
“But ye see, my lady, this is not why we do battle. We battle for revenge. For payment. We battle to teach your husband and his men a lesson.”
“What lesson will they learn?”
Torsten growled. He’d had enough. If MacDonell wanted to send his wife to do a man’s job, then fine. He’d teach the bastard a lesson in diplomacy.
Leaping from his mount, Torsten sheathed his claymore, held up his hands, and slowly approached Lady Éabha. She watched him warily, taking a few steps back. On the battlements, her guards scrambled, shouted and wrenched back their bows. She held up her hand, and called for them to stand down.
“What are ye about?” she said, her voice strong, though her eyes seemed to fill with fear the closer he came.
“Ye want to negotiate.” Torsten kept his voice low, smooth, the way he talked to a colt he was trying to break. He held his arms out to the side, disarming her.
“Aye.” She stopped moving backward, her shoulders relaxing slightly.
“I dinna negotiate from atop a horse.” He continued slowly moving forward.
She cocked her head as if trying to decipher just what that meant. Her guard was down for less than a moment. But it was enough. And Torsten took full advantage. Moving with lightning speed, he grabbed her by the arm and whipped her round. Her back slammed against his chest, and he pulled a sgian dubh from inside his sleeve, holding it at her throat.
“Dinna shoot, unless ye want your mistress to die,” Torsten hollered to the men on the walls, pressing the tip of his blade against her flesh.
“Do as he says,” Lady Éabha called, using much of her strength to try and launch herself away from him. Failing miserably, she gripped onto his forearms and held on for dear life. “I will be all right.”
“If your laird wants her back, he knows where to find me.” Torsten backed toward Lucifer, the woman incredibly calm in his grasp, though her nails dug into his flesh.
He breathed in her sweet scent, annoyed that he’d even noticed at all. She smelled of sugar and spice, like decadent baked treats that had him salivating.
As they reached Lucifer’s side, he said, “Get on the horse.”
Torsten didn’t wait to hear her protests, he simply shoved her up where she belonged and climbed behind her. Lord, her body felt nice settled between his thighs. Disgusted with himself, with her, for certainly she was a wench, he held his blade at her throat.
“Dinna speak,” he ordered.
Slowly he backed his horse away, his men eyeing him as though he’d just told them to find a dragon in the field.
“Ride,” he shouted, irritated at their censure. Perhaps mostly because he was irritated at himself. What in bloody hell was he thinking?
They raced over the moors. No battle waged.
He’d abducted the wife of his enemy. Only a man truly mad would do such a thing. This was something Cathal would do. Not Torsten. But it was too late to turn back now. He couldn’t very well return her to Strome with his apologies, nor could he just toss her to the ground and ride away.
What had he done?
He’d invited the enemy to his own doorstep, and there was a woman on his lap that made him want to lick every inch of her to see if she was as sweet as she smelled.
A double blow.
Revenge could not have gone any more wrong.