Book 1 > Wicked Willful Highlanders
The Year of Our Lord 1257
The Highlands, Scotland
He’d been following her for weeks now.
It had started accidentally, innocently, chivalrously even, when he’d happened to spot her hunting near twilight. That a lass would be alone at such an hour in such a place had caught him off guard. He’d started to call out to her to offer her safe passage out of the treacherous woods, but before he could, she’d amazed him by felling a deer with one shot of her bow. In that moment, he’d judged her capable of taking care of herself, and he’d turned to make his own way home in the opposite direction.
Then some sort of fate had intervened. Or he supposed it was such a thing. His mother was always yammering about fate, so there was a part of him that entertained the fanciful female notion, though he’d never admit it aloud.
Whatever it was, the lass’s scream rent the air before he’d managed to take ten steps. He’d swiveled back around, and his jaw had fallen open. She’d been racing in circles, the green skirt of her fine gown swirling about her ankles in the wind, fiery hair swishing about her delicate shoulders. From a distance, she looked like a frightened fairy sprite flailing her slender arms and screeching. He’d started back toward her when she stopped and slung a black snake to the ground. Then she’d whipped out a dagger, flung it at the slithering creature, and lopped its head right off with the one throw.
Amazed, Alasdair had returned his gaze to the lass as a satisfied smile pulled up her full lips, and by the gods, what a bonny smile it had been. It had lit up her face, transforming it from beautiful to unforgettable. It had done something to him he still couldn’t truthfully explain. Her smile had warmed him through better than his plaid, or the quilt upon his bed, or even the fire that dulled the cold in his bedchamber. The heat her smile created went deep into his bones to thaw the chill of winter within him. But that magical smile alone had not been the thing to make him start following her. After all, he was supposed to be training with the men his da had assigned him, not idling his time following a lass. It was the talking she’d done to herself after the snake was dead that had set him on his course. Her husky voice had beckoned to him as if he were a starving man and she were a goose cooking over a fire or fresh bread baking in the pit. But as tempting as her tone had been, like a full pitcher of mead after a hard day training in the blistering sun, it was what she’d said that had lured him in.
Dunnae be a quitter.
And then she’d set her dainty hands on her nicely rounded hips as if she was lecturing herself. That had been the thing to make him notice just how touchable her hips were. At first glance in the woods, he’d noticed her hair. He’d had to have been a blind man not to, what with it being fire spun with gold. It blazed around her face in a halo.
“Kill the Black Boar,” she’d muttered. She’d bitten her plump lip, and that had been the thing to make him really take note of her lips and then her face. Wide eyes, dark-blue like the deepest part of the loch where he swam, and the gaze there looked to be as turbulent, too. Alasdair had stared at those well-framed eyes while calling up the legend of the Black Boar. It wasn’t a secret. She wasn’t the only one trying to find it and kill it. Most clansmen who lived in the Kintail lands wanted to claim the victory of slaying the boar that had ended the lives of many a Highlander. But she was a lass. She was meant to be by a fireside with a needle and thread, or in the kitchens ordering the staff, or with the bairns, whatever her lot was. At least all the lasses he knew did such things anyway, and at seventeen summers he knew plenty of lasses. None of them hunted, which made her instantly intriguing.
His forehead had crinkled in contemplation when she’d said, “Find the boar, kill the boar, prove yer worth.” He recalled nodding absent agreement. He’d understood desiring to prove yerself. He was the laird’s eldest son. He wanted to be worthy in his own right, not just because his father was laird.
“Ye’ll come back tomorrow, Maeve,” she’d said to herself. “Ye’ll come back tomorrow, even if ye’re scairt. Nay.” She’d given a shake of her head, and her hair had swayed around her shoulders a bit more. An errant question had run through his mind then, one that now repeated itself every time he saw her. Would those fiery strands singe his skin if he slid his fingers into her thick mane, or would her hair feel like the finest thing he’d ever touched?
“It dunnae matter the danger. Ye’ll return, and then they will see.”
She’d marched off in the opposite direction, and he’d stood there only a breath or two before he’d followed. It was to ensure she made it out of the woods safe, he’d told himself. She’d made it out, and before he could decide if he also needed to ensure she got safely home, a rider had appeared before her. Alasdair had recognized the emblem emblazed on the cloak before he recognized Colin Fraser.
Alasdair’s muscles had twitched at the sight of a Fraser. No Fraser was a good one, but the Fraser laird’s son had been an especially unwelcome sight. Where a Fraser ventured, nothing good followed. Alasdair had moved his attention off the blond-haired, double-weapon-wielding man back to the lass. She hadn’t appeared tense, nor had she tried to run or scream, which meant she likely knew Colin Fraser. That should have lit an instant dislike for her in Alasdair, yet it hadn’t. Perhaps it had been because the boy looked to be lecturing the lass. Mayhap she disliked the Fraser, too. But then the lad had reached a hand down to her and she’d taken it quickly enough, then swung up into the saddle behind him. Alasdair had turned away before they were out of sight. He’d done his duty, and he’d intended to forget her.
Then he’d dreamed of her, or rather, her death. The Black Boar had killed her in his dream, so he’d gone back to the woods the next day. His intentions had been honorable. He’d simply wanted to ensure she was safe. Someone needed to. She was taking all sorts of unspeakable risks with her person. She hunted alone, searched for the Black Boar, and did both near dark. It made him taut as a bowstring whenever he watched her. And yet, he understood it, and he was even fascinated by it, by her. But he knew if she saw him, she’d quit, and he wanted her to get the boar and to change the minds of whomever she was attempting to impress.
So here he was several weeks later when he should be training. He’d been lying lately to come here, too. Saying he had to see to tenants. His mother would fall on her knees and offer a prayer for his soul if she knew he’d lied, and his da would be rightfully vexed that he was ignoring his duties. Even if she was uncommonly lovely.
She paused on the meandering trail through the thick woods, and Alasdair dropped to his haunches behind a tree. She took out her bow. He’d seen her do this enough times now that he started looking around for the deer she intended to shoot or, if luck had finally found her, the Black Boar. It was a deer.
She raised her bow. She was a good shot, felling more deer than she missed. This buck was no exception. It went down with one arrow, and she strode toward it with purpose, her head held high and her slender shoulders pressed back. She kneeled in front of the deer, and hair slipped across her forehead to veil her cheek and eyes. Sunlight glinted on her head, making his fingers curl with the desire to slide his hands into her tresses.
He knew she’d leave the deer. It would be too cumbersome and heavy for her to attempt to take back by herself to wherever she lived, but he also suspected she’d send someone after it, or come back herself with help, because he’d found nary a trace of the deer she’d shot previously. He wasn’t surprised when she rose because this was what she did every time. She’d kneel before whatever animal she had felled and stay motionless for a moment, staring down at it. He suspected she was offering some sort of respect to the fallen creature. Just as she started to turn toward the west, the direction she always took, she froze.
In that instant, Alasdair’s senses, which had been dazed by her, crackled back to awareness. The deep low growl of a wolf filled the silence before he located the gray and brown furry beast, but it was not so for the lass. She was already nocking an arrow, even as he was reaching for his own and running toward her to aid her. As she loosed her arrow, she looked in his direction. He must have made a noise in the brittle fallen leaves. Her arrow flew toward the large creature that was now charging her, but her aim wasn’t true. Fear slammed Alasdair. He’d distracted her in his attempt to aid her.
Her arrow skimmed past the wolf. It was almost upon her, and Alasdair’s heartbeat banged in his ears as he let loose his own arrow with a prayer that it reached the wolf before the beast reached the lass. The arrow whistled through the air as he ran and let out a war cry to try to distract the wolf, but the beast was on a mission, one that included ripping the lass to bits. Her mouth formed a shocked O as the creature advanced, her eyes widened, and she threw her arms up over her face as the wolf let out a ferocious growl and leaped at her.
Alasdair’s arrow pierced the creature in the side mid-leap. The growling beast fell upon the lass, and she flew backward with a thud to land flat on her back with the beast on top of her.
Five more steps to reach her.
The beast had been slowed but not killed. It reared its head, sharp teeth bared, and she screamed. Alasdair grabbed handfuls of fur as the wolf snapped his jaws toward the lass. Alasdair jerked the animal back with one hand and plunged his dagger into the animal’s neck. The wolf went limp in his hands while blood seeped from the dagger wound. He dropped the wolf to the ground and turned his attention to the lass, not sure whether he’d get hysterics, fainting, or anger that she’d been followed.
But to his amazed disbelief, she wasn’t even looking at him. “Watch out!” she screamed right before a loud piercing keen burst from behind him. He turned, and there was the Black Boar some ten paces away. It grunted and growled and showed its pointy teeth. The animal’s short ears went back, and its coarse black hair raised upon its back.
Alasdair pulled out his other dagger to throw it and kill the beast when the lass said, “Wait! Please let me fell it.”
“What do I get if I let ye fell the Black Boar?” He was only teasing, but she answered before he could let her know.
“Anything ye want,” she said.
A grin split his lips. That was too tempting of an offer for him not to take her up on it. “Go ahead, then.” He kept a firm grip on his dagger just in case the boar was persistent. It was far enough away that Alasdair would have time to throw it.
Her answer was a grunt, followed by the distinct click of her bow being pulled taut, an arrow being nocked, then whistling by his ear. It plunged into the boar’s head right between its eyes. The beast let out another shrill squeal before it fell sideways with a thunk to lie motionless. He swiveled around to face the lass once more and found her focus on him. Her russet eyebrows rose high over those deep-blue eyes, and she swept her gaze over him from head to foot. Her full lips pressed together, and he almost laughed. He knew what he currently looked like.
He still wore the old, tattered braies he’d had on since that morning when he’d trained alone at the edge of the loch. His hair was pulled back at the nape of his neck, and he’d allowed his little sister to paint his face with red berries as a trade to keep the secret that he was venturing into the woods when she’d seen him headed that way.
“Take this coin,” she said, holding her hand out to him. “I imagine yer family needs it.”
She thought him a poor servant, did she? Well, coin had been harder to come by lately what with the Frasers and the MacKenzies raiding his family’s lands, but it wasn’t so hard to come by that he’d accept coin over what he truly wanted from her. “I dunnae want yer coin.”
She frowned, and the action caused a pretty little pucker between her brows. “What then?” she demanded.
~ ~ ~
Maeve’s jaw slid open at the lad’s request. But, no, he wasn’t a lad. Was he Colin’s age? Her dearest friend wasn’t yet a full man, but he was near to being one. She squinted at the stranger, trying to decide his age, but with the berry stain all over his face it was hard to tell. “How old are ye?”
“Old enough to kiss ye.”
Her cheeks heated at his bold words. She’d never been kissed, but lately she’d imagined her first kiss would come from Colin. She expected to wed him. Their fathers were both lairds and friends, and she’d known Colin all fifteen summers of her life.
“That’s nae what I asked,” she said, attempting to give him the cross look Beitris always gave her when she stole a sweetmeat from the head cook’s kitchen. She pursed her lips, turned her head to the side, and gave him her practiced side eye glance. “How old are ye?”
“Hold old are ye?”
“Fifteen summers,” she said, throwing a look over her shoulder. She could not get caught in these woods by Colin again. He’d threatened to tell her da when he’d discovered her hunting in the woods several sennights ago. She’d had to plead with him not to and vow not to hunt anymore—a harmless white lie. In truth it had irked her that she’d had to bargain with Colin at all, though she understood that he thought he was looking out for her.
The stranger grinned, and two dimples appeared in his cheeks. Those dimples made her stomach go tight in a way she’d never experienced before, and that strange feeling is what made up her mind to let him kiss her. She’d been having needling in her heart that she didn’t feel for Colin like a lass should for the man she meant to wed.
“Step closer,” she said, boldness coming over her.
“Why?” he asked, crossing his arms over his chest. Those were no lad’s arms. They had a bulge of muscle at his bicep that made her want to run her fingers over the swell. And his forearms were thick as well. Her gaze fell downward, taking him in. His chest and stomach were bare except for two leather straps that crossed in an X over his torso. The straps held his weapons, of which he’d already used two daggers, but he still had two swords sheathed.
“Do ye always have so many weapons attached to yer person?” she asked, wondering if it was cumbersome to carry so many weapons at once.
He laughed. “Ye dunnae stay on one topic verra long, do ye?”
The blush that had been just in her cheeks flushed down her neck and heated her chest. Her da teased her that she was just like her mother, who had been unable to stick to one subject for more than a breath. Colin called her “squirrel brain,” which she detested. “If ye’re going to make a jest of me, then I hardly think ye’d want to kiss me.”
“I’m nae making a jest of ye,” he said, his tone so serious that she believed him. “I find it endearing.”
She snorted at that. “Are ye one of those lads who uses honeyed words to try to tumble the lasses?”
He frowned. “Nay. I dunnae have to use honeyed words to get lasses.”
“Oh.” She rolled her eyes. “My, my, ye do fancy yerself handsome, then?”
“Well, nay. Or maybe, aye?” He shrugged, and she laughed.
“Which is it?”
“Well, if I say nay, I sound like I’m lying, and if I say aye, I sound like I’m full of myself, but it’s nae either.”
Colin’s call made her jump nearly out of her skin. She bit her lip and glanced around the woods, not seeing him yet.
“He’s coming from the west,” the stranger said, tilting his head in the direction of her home. “Who is he?”
She stared for a moment, transfixed by the way his dark locks glistened with the rays of sun filtering through them.
He hefted up one eyebrow in question, making her realize she’d been staring. She cleared her throat, but her cheeks burned with embarrassment. “My dearest friend. Mayhap my future husband.”
The stranger frowned at that. “Betrothed, are ye?”
Here was her chance to retrieve the senses she’d lost and get out of kissing him, and she really did need to disappear before Colin saw her, but she found herself shaking her head truthfully for some reason. “Nae yet.”
He grinned, opening up a flood of heat within her. “In that case,” he said, “close yer eyes.”
“Why do I need to close my eyes?”
“Because when ye dream of me at night in the years to come, I dunnae want ye recalling me with all this berry stain on my face.”
“Ye’re all sorts of prideful,” she said, her foolish lips pulling into what felt like a ridiculously large smile.
“Aye, I am at that. Now close yer eyes. We’ve about thirty paces afore yer almost betrothed is upon us.”
She glanced over her shoulder and frowned. Colin stood off in the distance at the top of the hill that led down the path toward them. She faced the stranger once more, her heart now racing. Whether it was from the kiss to come or the fear of Colin discovering her, she was unsure. “Get on with it.”
“Are these the honeyed words ye use with all the lads?”
“I dunnae use honeyed words with lads.”
“How do ye expect to catch a husband, then?”
“I dunnae need to catch a husband,” she said, smirking at him. “A man should be so lucky as to catch me.”
His gaze swept her from head to foot and back, and heat unfurled in her belly. “Likely ye’re right, lass, but I’ll nae be certain until after the kiss.”
Before she knew what was happening, she found herself gathered in his embrace and being tugged toward him, toward warmth and the earthy smell of burned wood, soil, and fresh grass. Her chest brushed his—soft to hard—and caused her to gasp with the shock of the contrast of their bodies. He hooked a finger under her chin and brought his face toward hers, and she did close her eyes then because, though she didn’t really think she’d recall this stranger two breaths after he left her, just in case she did, she’d rather the memory not be with berries smeared on his face.
His fingers slid into her hair, surprising her, and when he cupped the back of her head, his touch was so gentle, the pressure and heat of his hands so reassuring, that a little sigh escaped her. And then his lips brushed hers like a whisper of a breeze with the power of a storm wind. That touch jolted through her and caused her to rock backward on her heels, but since the stranger was still cupping her head, she stayed firmly in place.
His other hand came to the back of her neck, and his fingers met the tender flesh there, causing her to inhale sharply just as his lips came to hers once more. But this time his touch was firmer, and the strong hardness of his lips sent the pit of her stomach into a wild swirl. She’d never been kissed before, but this, this heady sensation was all she had hoped it would be. She wanted more, and she rose on her tiptoes to get what she wanted. Her hands found his shoulders, and she grasped him, trying to tug him toward her as he had done to her.
A satisfied grunt came from him as his kiss grew stronger, sending shivers of something wonderful and new racing through her. Her entire body pulsed to life with an intensity that scared her. She broke the kiss and stepped back from him, relieved that he let her, yet also oddly disappointed that the kiss had to come to an end. But it had to, and quickly.
“Maeve!” Colin called, and she’d never been so grateful for the thick brush in this forest as she was at that moment.
“Ye best be going,” she said, shocked at how husky her voice sounded. When had that happened?
He nodded, looking slightly bemused, which pleased her greatly because it wouldn’t quite be fair if she was the only one affected by their kiss. When he reached for her, she thought for a moment he was going to draw her to him once more, and she wasn’t at all displeased at the notion. Her brain had been turned to mush by one kiss! But he didn’t slide his strong fingers into her hair as he had done moments ago. Instead, he gave a gentle tug to the ribbon at the end of the braid that hung down the right side of her head, and it released easily for him.
She opened her mouth to protest because the ribbon had been her mother’s before she passed away, but then he spoke. “To remember ye by, if ye’ll allow me?”
“Well, since ye asked so nicely,” she said, the heat that swept over her surprising her as much as her agreement.
His grin caused her heart to thump uncomfortably. Mayhap she wouldn’t wed Colin after all. “What’s yer name?” she asked.
“Liked the kiss, did ye?” he said, smirking.
She knew he was simply teasing her, but her pride was a great big beast of a thing. It would likely be her downfall one day. “Forget I asked,” she said, her tone sharp as her prickly pride. “Go on with ye.”
He grasped her hand and placed it against his heart. The thundering in his chest made her eyes go wide. His gaze was riveted on her face which made excitement dance through her. He smiled slowly, and it widened in approval as he stared at her. “My name is Alasdair. Alasdair MacRae.”
Her mouth slipped open at the news, and her heart took a plunge toward the ground. Well, this was ill luck indeed, and probably what she deserved for being so eager to throw Colin over.
Alasdair’s dark perfect brows knitted together. She wanted to groan. Of course he had to be so temptingly handsome. “What is it?” he asked reaching for her elbow, but she jerked backward out of his grasp.
“Ye’re a MacRae?” The question came out as a suffocated whisper, and no wonder! She was having trouble believing what she’d just heard.
“Aye.” The word was cautious, as if Alasdair instinctually knew he’d entered dangerous territory, and indeed, he had. “I’m the eldest son of Torac MacRae.”
The ground shifted under her feet, tilting her world for a moment.
He glanced over her shoulder, a scowl settling on his face. She knew without looking that Colin was approaching. “What is it?” he asked again, but now urgency laced his words.
Before she could answer Colin’s voice rang out behind her. “Maeve MacKenzie. What the devil are ye doing cavorting with the son of yer father’s greatest enemy?”