Rescued by the Highland Warrior

Glen Arrin, Scotland
1312

“She means to rid you of your child, my lady,” her maid Síla whispered in her ear, glancing down at the goblet on the table. “Do not drink any cup she gives to you.” Celeste de Laurent, Lady of Eiloch, kept her face expressionless, though the danger was real. Now that her husband was dead, his younger brother, Lionel, stood to inherit.
But only if she did not bear a child.
Hs wife, Lady Rowena, meant to ensure that nothing would threaten her husband’s inheritance. The goblet was likely laced with herbs that would force her to miscarry if she was pregnant.
“Leave us,” Rowena commanded. The maid obeyed, but cast another warning look toward Celeste.
The cup held a spiced wine, and Celeste toyed with the goblet, tracing her finger along the silver rim. But she heeded her maid’s warning and did not drink.
“You would do well to leave Eiloch,” Rowena said, her face placid with a soft smile. “Marry someone else and give my husband the lands that are rightfully his.”
“I have no wish to remarry.” Celeste straightened in her seat, staring down at the dark wine. “I will remain here, as is my right.”
“Why would you stay where you are not wanted?” Her gaze centered upon Celeste’s waist. “You may be entitled to one-third of Lord Eiloch’s property, by law. But that does not mean you must dwell here, within these walls.” Her smile turned menacing. “There are other places within our property where you could go.” Other, less desirable places, she didn’t say.
“I may be carrying Edmon’s heir,” Celeste said, refusing to back down. “Until I know for certain, you have no rights at all.”
Once word had come of Edmon’s death, Rowena and Lionel had descended upon Eiloch like a swarm of locusts. The threat of a pregnancy was all Celeste had left to defend her right to remain in her home. Her hands went to her womb, silently praying that she had quickened with her husband’s seed. A son might keep her safe from the circling vultures—but she worried about her own safety.
“Try to remain here, and I’ll see to it that your life is a misery,” Rowena warned. “You’ll get nothing from us, and you’ll live on the edges of our lands among the crofters.” She moved in closer, her eyes dark with intent. “It will be just like your life, before you wed Edmon. Or have you forgotten?”
Celeste pretended as if she had not heard Rowena’s threats. But even so, a chill ran through her blood, as she remembered the years of hunger and how she and her sister had huddled together for warmth on cold winter nights.
She gripped the goblet, as if she could absorb strength from the silver. “No, I haven’t forgotten.” She’d chosen this marriage to escape the memories.
“Edmon never should have married a woman like you,” Rowena said. “You know nothing of what it means to be Lady of a castle.”
Celeste didn’t deny it. During her brief marriage, she’d tried to learn, but the complexities of governing the people and managing the rents had overwhelmed her. Edmon had no choice but to shoulder the responsibilities on his own. He should have married a rich Norman heiress, one who would have brought land and gold to his coffers. Instead, he’d chosen her, the daughter of a lowborn Scot.
Edmon had desired her, and she’d shamelessly used her appearance to bind him into marriage. Their marriage had been her means of escaping the poverty of her childhood, a way of keeping her sister safe.
And now, she might have nothing.
“You carry no child within your womb,” Rowena predicted. “And within a fortnight, we’ll know the truth.”
“Within a fortnight, you and your husband will be gone from here,” Celeste countered. “For I do carry a child.”
“You could not possibly know that.” Rowena poured herself a goblet of wine. “And when it is proven that you are not breeding, your sister will leave with you.”
Celeste wasn’t at all certain Rowena was allowed to force her from the castle, by law. But she would not put it past the woman to try.
“You would not want Melisandre to suffer, would you?” the woman continued.
Celeste stiffened at the threat. Her little sister was hardly more than three-and-ten. “She’s just a girl.”
“She is. And if you insist upon staying here, she will endure the same fate as you.” Rowena’s calm expression revealed no remorse whatsoever.
Melisandre was the only family Celeste had left, and she could let no one threaten her. Iron resolution stiffened her backbone, and she understood now, that everything depended upon her bearing a child. A child meant sanctuary, a means of protecting those she loved. It meant keeping her home at Eiloch and being rid of Lionel and Rowena.
But almost as soon as she envisioned the faint hope, a cramping sensation began in her womb. It was a harbinger of her menses, and in her mind, she envisioned Rowena’s threats coming to pass.
God help her. If anyone learned of this, they would lose everything.
“Drink,” Rowena bade her, raising her own cup. But Celeste stood from her chair, rising to her full height. She had little time left, but she intended to use every moment of it.
“Leave my solar,” she demanded. “I wish to be alone.”
“One fortnight,” Rowena said quietly. “That is all the time we will grant you.” She rose from her own seat, eyeing her. “And do not think to hide it when you bleed. My maids will know.”
Only when the woman was gone did Celeste breathe easier. Her insides were cramping again, and she slumped down in her chair, wondering what she would do when the truth came to pass. She felt certain that there was no child at all. Fear iced through her, while she wondered how she could protect her sister.
There was no time to find another husband or hire someone to give them shelter. Their home was located deep in the mountains of northern Scotland, and there were no abbeys or convents to grant them sanctuary. She tried to think of a thousand different solutions, but only one would solve their problem quickly.
A child.
The word was a fervent need, encircling her mind. There had to be a child somehow. Wildly, she seized upon the realization that it need not be Edmon’s. No one would know if it was given by another man.
You can’t, her conscience railed. How could she think to lie with a man, simply to conceive a bairn?
But then, how could she abandon Melisandre, bringing her sister back into poverty? Winter would be upon them within a few more months, and Celeste didn’t want to imagine being cold or hungry again. Then, too, her sister was sweet and softhearted, dreaming of the day when she would wed a nobleman. Edmon had promised he would arrange a betrothal when she came of age.
If it were left in Lionel’s hands, it would never happen. With no dowry or marriage settlement, her gentle sister would have no husband at all. At least, not one with property or wealth.
And if their fates rested with Rowena, they would starve.
Choose a man to be your lover, came the voice of desperation. Conceive a child and it will mend all your problems.
Celeste lowered her face in her hands, holding back the tears. How could she even consider it? Aye, she’d lain beneath her husband and allowed him to touch her freely, as was his right. But to lie with someone else, to tempt him as Eve had, that was far different.
She wasn’t sensual or sly enough to seduce a man. And if it were to happen here, everyone would know.
Leave, the insidious voice suggested. Take a lover of your choice and return.
Her cheeks burned at the thought. How could she even imagine it? She’d lain with no man except her husband.
But you wanted another, her heart reminded her.And he wanted you.
Once, that had been true, years ago. She’d been torn between two men…one who was the logical choice. And one who was her heart’s choice.
Even now, she wondered what had happened to Dougal MacKinloch. She’d never forgiven herself for leaving him. And although she’d buried the pain, she feared that seeing him again would only reawaken the loss.
You did what you had to, her conscience reminded her. For Melisandre.
The slight creak of the door caught her attention, and her sister entered the room. Melisandre was too thin, her face almost hollow. She’d grown so tall in the past year, she hadn’t had time to fill out. There were no curves on her body, and her fair hair was braided back so tightly, it made her blue eyes stand out.
“They took my gowns,” Melisandre murmured, her voice barely audible. “Lady Rowena said—sh-she said I would not need them.” Crossing her arms over the bronze silk she’d outgrown a year ago, her sister bit her lip. “Is it true, Celeste? Will they send us away?”
“I won’t let that happen.” She opened her arms, and Melisandre came into her embrace. Though her sister was nearly as tall as she was, she seemed far younger today, more vulnerable.
“She gave my gowns to her daughter,” her sister confessed. “I didn’t know what to do, and I could not stop them.”
“You were right to come to me,” she said, hugging Melisandre. The need to protect her sister was stronger than her humiliation. But she had precious little time left, and she would not allow Melisandre to become a victim. “Tell Síla that I have need of her.” Her maid would help her to make the necessary arrangements for traveling.
Celeste could save both of them, so long as she put aside her misgivings and took a lover. Preferably someone she would never see again.
But she could not relinquish the memory of Dougal or the way he’d stared at her, as if she were his reason for breathing. She wanted to look into his dark eyes again and see the love he’d once felt. To go back to the years lost between them and lose herself in his arms.
He was her best hope now. Her only hope. “Everything will be all right,” she promised her sister. “But I need to leave for a short while. We must seek help, and I intend to speak with some of the Scottish chiefs.”
“They aren’t our allies,” Melisandre warned.
“No, but I will ask. In the meantime, I want you to remain here, and stay close to Síla.” She trusted her maid to keep her sister safe.
“What about Lady Rowena? She might try to send me away.” Her sister’s face whitened at the thought. Though it was a real danger, Celeste strongly believed that if she left Eiloch, they would ignore Melisandre until she was found.
“Rowena is more worried about any son I might bear,“ she reassured her sister. “I won’t be gone longer than a fortnight. Just try to stay out of her way, as best you can.”
When the cramping shifted again, she felt the telltale presence of bleeding. She was not with child. But she would do anything in her power to get help, whether that meant taking a lover or finding someone to protect them.
And when it was done, she and Melisandre would be safe.

***


Glen Arrin, three days later

Dougal MacKinloch walked alongside the mare, speaking softly to her. So gray she was almost white, the mare stood fifteen hands high. Over the past few weeks, her lash wounds had faded into pink scars. He’d purchased Ivory only this past spring, and she’d been beaten and half-starved at the time. Each day, he’d tended her, trying to gain her trust after she’d been abused by the traders.
But she was his now. He’d spent every last piece of silver to buy her, for it was rare to find an Arabian horse this far north. He suspected she’d come from a Crusader knight, and he believed she was a pureblood. One day, if all went to plan, she would bear foals that could be trained and sold as warhorses.
He had never attempted to ride Ivory until today. As a bribe, he gave her a small carrot and led the mare across the glen, one hand on the bridle, the other on her back.
“We’re going to take a short journey,” he told her as she nudged at his face with her nose. “I’ll be letting you run as fast as you like.”
He touched her head with his, running his hands over her sensitive skin and continuing to voice compliments. Thus far, he had not attempted a saddle, and it was likely she’d try to throw him off when he climbed onto her back.
It was more dangerous to ride her with nothing but a blanket, but he wanted the mare to feel his weight, to know that his voice was the familiar tone she’d come to trust. She grew skittish when he mounted, but Dougal soothed her with a hand. Winding the reins around his palms, he nudged her with his knees, letting her move into a slow walk.
“You’re going to break your neck,” called out the voice of his brother Alex. As the chief of the MacKinloch Clan, his older brother didn’t like anyone taking chances.
“I may.” Dougal glanced back as the mare continued on her walk. “You can send men after my broken body, a few hours from now.”
“She’s not ready to ride,” Alex argued. “You should wait until the end of the summer.”
“You’re wrong.” And with that, Dougal urged Ivory forward, letting her increase the pace until the light canter turned into a gallop. He knew this horse better than anyone, and she had a need to run.
He’d named her falsely, he soon realized. She wasn’t soft and pure, like ivory. This mare was more like a flash of lightning, for she tore through the meadow, running as if she’d craved this for months. Dougal held on with his knees and his arms, letting her take the lead. Never before had he gone this fast, and it was as exhilarating as he’d imagined. He let her go at full speed, never minding that they were miles past Glen Arrin and moving deeper into the mountains. The silvery loch gleamed behind him, and still the mare ran.
The familiar arms of solitude embraced him, and Dougal welcomed the isolation. He preferred being with his animals, for they had been his solace when his brothers, Bram and Callum, had been imprisoned. Although that had been many years ago, he’d grown accustomed to being on his own. His mother had been so lost in her anger, she’d forgotten she had a fourth son.
Because of it, he’d learned to rely only on himself. He could hunt when he needed to, fight anyone who dared to lift a blade, and he’d built a house with his own hands. He liked being alone, and it would remain that way.
The mare had begun to slow down, and he eased her into a canter and then a walk. Murmuring words of praise, he was about to dismount and lead her to water when he spied a small group of men in the distance.
The mare nickered, and his instincts went alert when he saw a woman on horseback. Her escorts moved forward, weapons drawn, and there was no question that a fight would break out. Dougal wasn’t foolish enough to go closer without knowing who the men were or what they wanted. Yet, he was intrigued by the sight of the woman.
He drew his mare up the embankment, hiding them both among the trees. Ivory was skittish, uneasy about obeying him, but he continued to soothe her with his words and hands. Slowly, he guided her to higher ground. When they were within a short distance of the men, he dismounted and drew the mare into a walk. A small waterfall trickled down to a pool, and he tethered her to a tree, letting her drink and graze.
He crept toward the men, wondering if they were English or Norman. Although his brothers had their own lands and had many allies, they were always vulnerable to attack.
A horrified scream split the air.
Anger flared through Dougal, and he unsheathed two dirks, hurrying past the trees until he reached the hill above them. Below, he spied the men attempting to drag the woman from her horse. It didn’t take long to realize that she and her escorts had been attacked, and the men intended to take her. Her back was to him as she fought, trying to remain mounted, while her horse reared up.
Two bodies lay upon the ground, the murdered escorts of the woman. Three other men remained, and when he caught sight of their faces, he recognized them as outlaws, fugitives from the MacPherson Clan.
Stealthily, Dougal eased his way toward them, both weapons raised in readiness. It had been several months since he’d fought, but his brothers had trained him well. He knew how to remain invisible and how to use the element of surprise to his advantage.
Strike swiftly before they know you’re there, his mentor, Ross, had advised.
With that, Dougal lunged from the trees toward the first man, burying his dirk within the man’s ribs, while dodging the swing of a sword. He took the reins of the woman’s horse and ordered, “Ride!” Slapping the horse’s flanks, he turned back to the other two. Armed with a blade in each hand, he watched their eyes, waiting for them to strike.
“There are better ways to find a woman,” he warned the first. “Leave this one and go on your way.”
“So you can have her, MacKinloch?” the other taunted. “Look at her clothes, fool. She’s got more wealth than you’d ever dream of.”
Their words meant nothing, for he’d hardly bothered to glance at the woman. “Then she doesn’t belong with the likes of you, does she?” Dougal moved his blades, preparing to strike whoever moved first. Though he wasn’t certain if they’d leave her, he was ready for a fight.
With a quick glance behind him, he was startled to see that the woman was huddled on horseback, hiding her face. Why hadn’t she fled? Didn’t she know that these men would ravage her, taking what they wanted, if she didn’t leave?
The brief flicker in his attention was all it took for one of the men to strike, and Dougal’s jaw snapped backward at the force of the punch. Rage coursed through him, and he unleashed his fury, glorying in the madness of battle rage. His dirks sliced through the air, seeking enemy flesh. He no longer thought about his actions but let himself fall into the familiar blur of fighting.
There was no MacKinloch better with a dirk than he. It was an extension of his hand, a lethal slash that allowed no man to threaten him. Not even this one.
For a moment, the outlaw stood motionless, his body in shock as a thin line of blood appeared across his throat. He stumbled forward before collapsing to his knees.
The other hesitated, and Dougal flipped the dirk in his palm, catching it again. “Are you wanting to join your friends in death?”
It was enough. The man backed away, mounting one of the horses, before he took off in terror. Dougal didn’t bother following him. The MacPherson Clan could easily find the outlaw within a day or two, if he alerted them.
He turned his attention back to the woman, cleaning his blades before sheathing them. She was holding her veil across her face, as if trying to hide from him. Dougal seized the reins of her horse and demanded, “Why in the name of God didn’t you run?”

***

Because you were the one I wanted to find.
Celeste wanted to bury her face in the veil, anything to keep Dougal from seeing her. Not like this. As soon as he recognized her, he would turn away. She needed more time.
Her heart was thundering in her chest, for she’d never expected to find him so quickly. Of all the men who could have rescued her, why did it have to be him? It was both a blessing and a curse.
The two years had changed him, and he was even more handsome than she remembered. Dark haired with brown eyes, he was a ruthless fighter, lean and powerful. His strong jaw held a hint of stubbornness, and his mouth was tight with anger. But he would be even more angry when he learned that it was her.
His arms were crossed as he regarded her, his brown eyes glaring. “Well?”
She kept her head down, still concealing her face. “I didn’t know where to go,” she admitted. “I—I was hoping to find the MacKinlochs. When I saw you, I thought you could escort me to your clan, since my men…”
Her words trailed off because she didn’t know what to do about the escorts who had died trying to protect her. Inside, she was numb, for none of this had gone the way she’d intended. She’d journeyed northwest with her two guards, believing she could visit the MacKinloch Clan and ask for help.
“Should we bury them?” she asked, glancing behind with her face still veiled.
“The ground is too rocky,” he said. “We’ll burn the bodies, and I’ll take you back home.” He didn’t even glance at her when he began walking up the hillside. Within moments, he returned with a gray mare, the most beautiful horse she’d ever seen.
He’d always been good with animals. If she didn’t know better, she’d swear they understood him. The urge to touch the mare was irresistible, and Celeste dismounted to move in closer.
“Show me your face,” he commanded.
Though she didn’t want to, there was no choice. He would learn the truth soon enough. Celeste allowed the veil to fall away, afraid of what he would say. Dougal stared at her as if she weren’t there. As if he were dreaming at the sight of her.
To distract herself, she ran her hand over the mare’s head. “She’s lovely.” She caressed the horse’s skin, smiling when the mare nudged her cheek.
“Aye, she is lovely.” Dougal held on to the mare’s reins, running his hand over her creamy mane. Celeste found her attention drawn to those hands, and a sudden ripple of uncertainty slid over her. Those hands had touched her, years ago. A bleakness centered in her heart, reawakening the wounds she’d thought had healed.
“Why did you leave Eiloch?” His voice had turned to ice, in silent rebuke.
“My husband is dead.” She took a step backward, faltering as she considered what she must do. “It’s not safe for Melisandre and me to stay there.” At least, not unless she were pregnant with an heir.
Risking a glance at Dougal, she saw that he’d completely shielded any expression. There was no emotion there, no hint of what he was thinking. Did he despise her so much, even after all this time?
“I need help for both of us,” she admitted. “And… it seems I need an escort, now that my men are dead. I could pay you—” The moment she spoke the words, she realized her mistake.
“I want nothing from you, Celeste. Except, perhaps, to watch you ride away.”
“I can’t return to Eiloch. Not yet,” she argued. Not until she had a means of protecting her sister.
“Then why should I help you?” After you betrayed me, he didn’t say. But she sensed the accusation, nonetheless.
“We were friends, once.” She mounted her horse again, hoping he would accompany her. Instead, he held his ground, watching.
“Were we?” He took the mare and led her up the hillside. Celeste didn’t know if he was guiding her or walking away. She nudged her horse forward, following him. Dougal said nothing, nor did he turn to acknowledge her. There was a faint path etched in the grass that led through the woods. Sunlight slipped through the edges of the leaves, casting shadows over him as he walked. She didn’t know whether he was deliberately taking her into the woods to remind her of the place where they used to meet…or whether it was safer. Celeste gripped the reins hard, trying to blot out the visions of the past.
She wouldn’t let herself think of it.
When they reached a small clearing, he finally spoke. “I’ll take you to my brother’s fortress.”
“Thank you,” she whispered, dismounting from her horse. Though she had never been to Glen Arrin, she’d heard stories of how Alex MacKinloch had rebuilt it into a castle. “Do you live there now?”
“I returned, after you left.”
Words sprang to her lips, apologies for the choices she’d made. But then, she wasn’t sorry about her marriage. Edmon had been a good man, one who had given her the sanctuary she’d craved. Even if she hadn’t loved him, he’d made her feel safe.
“Did you ever marry?” The question blurted out before she could stop it. As soon as she spoke, she wished she hadn’t asked. Upon Dougal’s face, she saw the flare of resentment, and it only heightened her guilt.
“No.” The words were clipped. “Take the mare for a drink of water while I tend to the bodies.”
Celeste took the reins from him and guided both the mare and her own horse toward a small pool of water. She was grateful for the task, because it gave her a reason not to speak. But the longer the silence stretched, the more she realized that Dougal would never be the man to give her a child. Not after everything that had happened between them.
“Let me reward you for your help,” she repeated. “I have silver, or possibly—”
“You could not afford my price,” he retorted. “I’ll bring you home with me, and my brother Alex can decide what’s to be done with you.”
She was left standing there as he returned to the bodies of the men. What did he mean, ‘What’s to be done with you’? Was she naught but a sack of grain to be delivered?
There was no trace of the friendship that had once been between them or the man who had made her smile. Though she knew she deserved his anger, she wished there was a way to put it behind them. She wanted to begin again and forget the past hurts.
The mist surrounded her, and Celeste took a moment to calm her beating heart. For these next few days, she could pretend that there was no fighting over her husband’s lands, that her sister would be safe from harm. And perhaps, she could conceive a child that would save them all.
The idea made her want to weep, for it seemed so impossible. If there was any other way, she had to find it. Somehow.
In the distance, she scented smoke from Dougal’s fire. It occurred to her that they could not stay here long. The smoke would only draw attention to their location. When he returned to her side, she told him so. “It won’t matter, once we’re at Glen Arrin,” he said. “If there are men following you, they won’t intrude on my brother’s lands.”
“I don’t want to bring fighting to your family.” She lifted her gaze to his, taking a deep breath. “If you will keep Lord Eiloch away from me, I will stay only a few days. No longer.”
“And then what?” His knuckles grazed the mare’s face, rubbing her gently with affection.
“I don’t know. I’ll think of something. My sister needs me.” She couldn’t face that unknown future yet; not when she might lose everything.
Dougal’s expression said he didn’t believe her at all. “Running away won’t solve your problems. It will only draw your enemies to you.” His hands stilled upon the horse. “And this isn’t our fight, Lady Eiloch.”
Her mood saddened at his use of her title. “You called me Celeste, once.”
There was the faintest flash in his eyes, so fast she barely saw it. But it was a hint of interest, one that gave her hope.
“That was before you became someone else.”
Celeste studied his dark brown eyes for a long moment, wondering if there was any friendship left between them. It didn’t seem that he would forgive her for the choices she’d made.
At last she turned back to the stream, cupping her hands for a drink. The summer air was warm, and some of the water spilled from her lips, down her throat. His gaze followed the water droplets, though he spoke not a word.
Abruptly, he turned and mounted the mare. There was no saddle, but he guided the animal back toward the east. “Come with me, then. If that’s what you’re wanting.”