Book 2 > Wicked Willful Highlanders
The Year of Our Lord 1262
“Do ye willingly take Sinclair Ferguson to be yer husband?”
Brigid Campbell nearly snorted at Father Duncan’s ridiculous question. The sliver of hope she’d been clinging to that the priest would act morally disappeared. He was the worst sort of coward—a cunning one. He knew very well she wasn’t willingly taking Sinclair as anything, much less as her husband, but she knew better than to state that fact aloud with Ramsay standing where he could hear her. Her stepbrother had even less liking for her speaking her mind, or speaking at all for that matter, than her father had. Though it may have taken three painful backhanded smacks from Ramsay for that fact to sink in, it finally had. And she wasn’t the only one who would suffer if she dared state the truth.
Brigid’s heart pounded as she stole a glance to the left from under her lashes. Out the window, the iron cage that Martha had been put in swayed from the rampart over the inner courtyard of the castle under bright rays of sun. Her companion had no food or drink in that cage. How long could a body go without these things? She wasn’t certain, but she suspected someone who had forty summers behind her as Martha did couldn’t last long, and it had already been three days since Ramsay had placed Martha in the cage. Only someone with a black heart would use a soul as sweet as Martha to enforce his will.
The silence in the stuffy chapel was deafening. Everyone was waiting on her to answer the devil of a priest. Sweat trickled down her back in a slow, irritating slide. She bit her lip and wiped her damp palms against her skirt. ‘Willingly’ was such a laughable word for a woman. There wasn’t much choice usually for her fairer sex. Either she wed Sinclair as Ramsay demanded or he’d leave Martha in the cage to die. And if she wed Sinclair, she didn’t hold out much hope that she’d survive to see the end of the year given his first three wives had all met untimely demises before the dust had even settled on their wedding attire.
“Brigid,” Ramsay hissed under his breath behind her. Whispers immediately commenced amongst the Fergusons and Campbells crammed into the chapel to witness her impending doom. Ramsay clamped his hand on her elbow and squeezed until she wanted to cry out, but she didn’t. She refused to give him the satisfaction. Her nostrils flared searching for air to control the pain, and she forced herself to slowly turn to look at her intended.
She offered up a silent last plea to God, but for as long as she could remember He’d been deaf to her entreaties, and when her gaze met Sinclair’s dark, hard one, she was certain this time would be no different. If only God were a woman, Brigid would have a much better chance of gaining an opportunity to save Martha and the two of them fleeing.
She forced herself to swallow again as Sinclair’s grim stare held hers and she took a breath before speaking to link her fate with his, but a horn sounded out from the rampart, echoed by another and another and another.
“Someone has breached the castle!” Ramsay barked.
Almost as one, the men in the chapel surged out the door, leaving Brigid standing alone with a slack-jawed Father Duncan.
His bushy peppered brows dipped into a V as he frowned at her. “Why are ye grinning, lass?”
“Because it seems God may be a woman after all,” she replied.
Yanking up her skirts, she bunched the material close to her stomach and turned toward the door to rescue Martha and escape. She didn’t fear Father Duncan would try to stop her. He’d be too concerned about keeping himself safe. The parting glance over her shoulder when she stepped out of the chapel confirmed her belief. He’d wedged his bloated body under the sacrament table to hide.
Smoke and chaos reigned in the courtyard. Her eyes immediately began to water, and her throat became itchy, making her cough. Smoke billowed into the sky in all directions, surrounding her home. Fergusons and Campbells raced about, drawing weapons, manning horses, yelling orders. Servants darted out of the way of warriors thundering through gates, and no one took heed of her.
She winked up at the sky. God was most definitely a woman.
She bolted across the courtyard, reaching the stairs to the rampart just as a group of mounted warriors thundered past. She caught a glimpse of her stepbrother’s bright red hair, impossible to miss in the daylight. He rode beside Sinclair. When the party the two men rode with disappeared from the inner bailey, she breathed a sigh of relief.
She took four steps up the stairs when someone grabbed her arm from behind. She yelped in surprise. Panicked, she yanked her arm as hard as she could. Retaliation was swift and brutal. Her captor jerked her back, causing her to lose her footing. She knocked into him, sending them both tumbling down the stairs as one; her bouncing on top of him all the way to the last hard, cold stone step. Momentarily dazed, she sat, dumbly gasping for air. Not so for the man.
“I’m going to kill my brother,” he grumbled as he scrambled to his feet. He grabbed her, hauling her up as she fought to regain her senses. She struggled to suck in a gulp of air to scream, but hesitated. Calling attention to herself would not improve her overall predicament. The stranger took advantage of her uncertainty and shoved a piece of rough material between her lips, cutting off any chance of her bellowing. She flinched as the cloth scrubbed against the corners of her mouth. She could have sworn regret momentarily crossed his face, but it was gone in a flash, making her uncertain what she’d truly seen. A muscle jumped at his jaw line as if he worked to control his anger.
That hint of danger and the way his bright blue eyes darkened like a storm as he glared at her drove her into action once more. She swung to hit him, but he blocked her attempt with an easy flick of his hand. He spun her about and had the gag knotted behind her head and her turned back toward him to tie her wrists together before she even blinked twice. His adeptness stunned her, but before she could completely process that, he whistled, and a massive black war horse came galloping toward them at a startling pace. She would have hidden behind her would-be captor if he hadn’t lifted her off her feet and tossed her onto the horse as if she were light as a feather.
The beast came to a shuddering halt, making her pitch forward since she lacked use of her hands to stop herself. Just as her nose grazed the scratchy mane, she was pulled backward against her captor’s unyielding chest. He felt as if he were made of stone. Fear shot through her as his heavily muscled thighs settled on either side of hers, and his thick forearm slid across her belly to pull her even tighter against him. She screamed, a muffled, high-pitched sound that made the horse toss its head back and flail its front legs.
She almost jumped off, but with her hands tied she feared falling and being trampled by the horse. Her captor took the horse’s reins and leaned forward so that his dark hair brushed her cheek, and his chest pushed her forward a bit.
“Contain yerself, Ailbert,” the man’s deep voice rumbled forward. “’Tis nae a way for a noble horse to behave.”
The man was daft if the thought the beast was going to listen, but then, to her utter amazement, the beast did stop tossing his head.
“Ye,” the man said, his tone no longer a gentle chide. She turned her head toward him just as he turned his to her. A piece of foolscap could not have been put between their noses.
Blue eyes were narrowed upon her. “Ye’ve caused me enough trouble this day, so do nae cause more.”
There was no ‘or’ to his sentence, but there didn’t need to be. The finality in his tone indicated he was a man used to giving orders that others knew better than to disobey. Her father had been such a man. Punishment for noncompliance had always been swift and harsh. She shivered as the stranger gave another whistle and flicked the horse’s reins to send it galloping through the thick smoke of the inner courtyard.
Her eyes burned and watered, causing her to squeeze them shut in search of relief. She tried to open them when she felt like they had cleared the inner courtyard, but it was no use to do so. The smoke was so thick she could not see, so she closed them once more and struggled to find breath as her mind scrambled to come up with how she was going to escape her captor and return to save Martha without being caught. The horse galloped at a jarring pace. All around her, people called out to each other, and other horses’ hooves thundered against the ground. Why was no one stopping this man from taking her? Of course, in a sense, he had saved her from a terrible fate, but what was in store for her if she didn’t gain her freedom?
She opened her eyes once again and blinked in shock. They were riding away from her home, away from her father’s men and Sinclair’s men, and toward the woods that stood opposite all the burning fires. The air was finally clearing so she could see much better, and the first thing she noticed was that the man was wearing her family’s plaid. No wonder no one had tried to stop him. They’d thought him one of them, but he wasn’t, and likely in the heavy smoke they’d not even seen the gag in her mouth.
He sent the horse into the thick woods, and not more than twenty paces in, he pulled the beast to a halt. For a moment, she thought he’d changed his mind about taking her, but then another rider emerged from shadows beneath the thick canopy. This man was younger than the one who had taken her. He had an insolent look about him, but his blue eyes matched her captors in color and shape. Brothers? Cousins? They were somehow related. Of that, she was certain.
“Ye’re a bloody fool,” her captor growled, his tone harsh. His body behind her tightened with his words.
“Why did ye take her if ye think I’m a bloody fool?” the younger man demanded, his face turning red.
“I already told ye, Camden, that I did nae necessarily disagree with ye, but we needed to think things through!” The man’s tone became more forceful, more congested with anger, with each word he spoke. “Ye do nae ever think. Ye rush in without a plan.”
“I had a plan,” Camden protested.
The giant behind her made a derisive noise that rumbled from deep within his chest. “Did ye now? If I’d nae discovered ye had disobeyed me and come here, ye would have gotten yerself killed.”
“I’d nae have. I—”
“Ye what?” the man bit out. “Ye started the fires to draw them out, but then what? Ye thought ye’d ride in pretty as ye please and pluck the lass right from the chapel without anyone taking notice of yer MacLean plaid?”
MacLean plaid? Why on earth would the MacLeans want her?
The younger man shoved a hand through his hair. “I admit I’d nae thought of that, but ye’re here, and we have her, so let’s take her. An eye for an eye, brother.”
“’Tis nae her eyes I wish to remove from their skull,” the man behind her grumbled. Brigid didn’t know whether to be relieved or terrified. “Hear this, Camden, I only snatched her because I ken just what a mule-headed fool ye are, and I ken well ye would have refused to leave without her. Once ye are safely home, the lass will be sent back.”
“We’ll see,” Camden replied, and he looked like he would indeed argue.
Listening to the exchange it occurred her she could possibly use these men to free Martha, and then she and Martha could escape them, and the grumpy one would not have to worry about sending her back. She wiggled and grunted. As she’d hoped, her captor raised his hands to unknot her gag.
Suddenly, her brother’s right-hand man appeared on the forest trail. Momentarily shocked, she gaped as Oliver released an arrow toward her captor. Without thinking, she twisted toward her kidnapper, knocking his arm down with her own. A horrible pain shot through her as the arrow struck her upper arm. She cried out as the force of the hit toppled her to the left, but her captor caught her around the waist and pulled them both off the horse, shielding her, she realized in disbelief, with his own body.
Camden nocked his own bow and loosed two arrows toward Oliver.
“Stay put,” her captor ordered. His sword slid from its sheath as he stood. He stalked toward Oliver and another warrior who had joined him. She tried to focus on the fight between the men, but it was a blur of swords arcing through the air, and the pain in her arm had intensified tenfold. She glanced at her arm to judge how bad it was. Blood flowed from the arrow sticking out of the wound and nausea overcame her at the same time darkness