Ian Cameron knows he's cursed when it comes to women. His pregnant wife was murdered at the Glencoe massacre, and he barely survived the agony of her loss. Years later, he allowed himself a fondness for another. It wasn't love, but when she died, it pained him too. No way in hell is he about to set himself up for a third heartbreaking farewell. The only problem is convincing his kin. The meddlesome MacCoinnichs are trying their best to chain him to a lovely widow with three rowdy sons. Gretna is a fine lass, but he's not about to tie himself to her and her little hellions.
Independent Gretna Neal has already buried two husbands. She has no interest in burying a third. But if a handfasting for a year will silence the meddlesome matchmakers and shield her sons from more cruel rumors, she'll do it.
A mercenary cursed to spend his life alone. A skilled healer accused of witchery. Both at the mercy of friends and kin who decide what's best for the unlikely pair and turn out to be right.
The couple dares to embrace their connection; until a ghost from the past and a dangerous grudge threatens a chance at the happiness neither of them had ever hoped for again.
Contains mature themes.
Release date: August 25, 2020
Publisher: Dragonblade Publishing, Inc.
Print pages: 243
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Glen Nevis, Scotland
“If ye ride any slower, the horses will die of old age before we reach the keep.”
Ian Cameron ignored his cousin’s jests. In fact, the man could shove them up his arse. After all, Sutherland’s views would be a damn sight different if he was the one the MacCoinnich Clan was trying to chain to Gretna Neal.
“They didna say ye had to marry the lass,” Magnus de Gray, fellow mercenary and brother by battle, if not by blood, sagely reminded. “They only wish yer help for the poor woman. Those sons of hers need a man’s guidance. Yer Christian duty, aye? Helping widows and children.”
“Ye truly think me that daft?” Ian cast a dismal glance around as they entered the village at the base of Ben Nevis. The place had become too cluttered, even acquired the stench of a town. It was a great deal busier than its former state of scattered dwellings belonging to a few MacCoinnich crofters. Of course, it had been nigh on three years since he’d been here. He scowled at Sutherland. “Explain to me why Alexander didna choose ye rather than me for this task? Ye darken the halls of Tor Ruadh far more often than I, and ye’re a MacCoinnich to boot.”
Sutherland gave him a sly wink and an even more irritating grin. “Gretna said she wouldna have me nor wished her sons trained up to be womanizers.”
“At least it sounds as though the woman still possesses some good sense,” Ian grumbled. And it was further proof this had nothing to do with helping three boys become men. This was a blatant marriage trap for certain.
“She’s still a beauty, too,” Magnus reassured as their mounts wound through a jumble of carts lining both sides of the lane. “Hair shines like polished copper and curves a plenty. That bonnie lass would keep a man warm through the coldest of winters.”
“Then ye marry her,” Ian said. “I’ll dance at yer wedding, aye?”
Clanging metal and an angry stream of cursing grabbed their attention. A pair of horses, harnessed for pulling a cart, trotted across the intersection in front of them.
“Ye wee bastards! I’ll be a shootin’ ye, I will!” A short, disheveled man, hands shaking as he fumbled a rusty pistol free of his belt, jittered back and forth in front of a horseless cart. Pots, pans, and all manner of wares were scattered on the road, while some still swayed from the wagon’s racks.
A young lad, accompanied by two smaller scamps, stuck out his tongue, then added a series of rude hand gestures to his taunting dance. “Try an’ shoot us! I dare ye, ye scrummy ole baw bag! That pistol of yers is shoddy as the wares ye rob the folk of Ruadh with!”
A sense of doom tightened Ian’s gut. The trio harassing the traveling peddler looked vaguely familiar. He turned to Magnus and Sutherland. “Gretna’s cubs?”
“Aye, cousin,” Sutherland confirmed as all three men dismounted. “There be all three of yer charges. Congratulations.”
“Congratulations, my arse.” He strode between the jeering lads and the cursing man, just as the peddler aimed the weapon that looked too old to fire even if the man managed to pull the trigger. “Hold fast. Ye canna shoot these lads.”
“The hell I can’t,” growled the old coot. He swaggered forward, greatly resembling a disgruntled badger. “Them brats been nothing but trouble to me all summer. Every trip I make through these parts, they pull some such devilry on me. Cause me nothing but grief. Now, they done gone and ran off me team and damaged me goods. Ignored it long as I can stomach.”
“Damaged yer goods?” laughed the oldest boy, still spoiling for a fight. “Yer goods already be shite! They barely last ’til yer next trip through, so ye can charge folk double to mend’m.”
“Ye see?” The peddler waved the pistol toward the lad. “No respect for their elders. None at all.” He thumped his chest, his faded tunic and jacket so grubby that dust puffed out in a small cloud. “And I’m not the only one that’ll tell ye them there three need to be horsewhipped and taught what for.” He swung the weapon up and down the street. “Ask any a these here folk. They’ll tell ye.” He jutted his scruffy chin upward. “And my wares be good as any, and cheaper than most. The poor here in Ruadh be lost and have to do without if it weren’t for old Duff Tamson. Heart a gold, I have. Ask any of’m.”
“He’s a cheat!” the young ringleader shouted, charging forward.
Ian grabbed hold of the lad’s collar and yanked him back. “Enough!” Still holding fast to the boy, he leaned forward and plucked the pistol out of the man’s hand. “And that goes for ye as well.”
“Take it to the meetin’ today!” shouted one of the villagers clustered in front of the shops. “Chief’ll sort it!” The suggestion brought a rumble of assent through the growing crowd of onlookers.
“A fine idea,” Ian said with a backward glance at Sutherland and Magnus. Both men agreed with a single nod. He motioned for the peddler to gather his team. The pair of horses had come to a halt farther up the way. “Fetch your team. To great hall we’ll go, and let the MacCoinnich do as he sees fit about this matter.”
Tamson darted a shifty-eyed glance in the keep’s direction. “Chief MacCoinnich doesna have time for such foolishness as this.” He jerked a thumb in the boy’s direction. “If’n ye swear ye’ll thrash these boys good and proper, I’m a big enough man to accept that as payment enough for all me damages today.” With a labored grunt, he scooped up one of his pots and brushed it off. “Just a bit a dirt it seems. No real harm after all.”
The peddler’s sudden change of heart told Ian all he needed to know. Perhaps the lad spoke the truth about the man’s business practices. With a firm shake, he stilled the boy’s struggling to escape his hold. “Which of Gretna Neal’s sons are ye?”
The child glared up at him and stood taller. “I be Evander. The eldest.”
“And I be Rory,” the next in height said with a cocky toss of his head. “Middle son.”
“And yerself?” Ian looked to the smallest of the three red-haired demons.
“I be Finn,” the boy said in a quivering voice barely above a whisper. He looked neither as brave nor as pleased to be there as his brothers. He twitched his freckled nose as though it itched. “I be the least of us, but I be nine, sir.”
“Well, then.” Ian rested his hands on the older brothers’ shoulders. “Evander. Rory. Finn. Do the three of ye feel this matter needs airing in the great hall?”
“Aye,” Evander belted out. “Let the chieftain rule it.”
Tamson snorted out a laugh, then sneered at the boy. “The MacCoinnich’ll have the three of ye stripped to the waist and whipped in front of all and sundry! Ye want the entire clan seeing ye cry for yer mam?”
“We’re not afeared!” Evander touted with a threatening step toward the peddler.
“Aye!” Rory chimed in, while meek Finn shuffled back a step.
“The boys shall ride with me and my kin,” Ian said. He took a step toward Tamson. “Gather yer team and meet us at the keep, or I’ll send the MacCoinnich guards to fetch ye.”
The scowling peddler swallowed hard, then rolled his shoulders. He dared to fist both hands as though readying for a fight. “Who be ye to claim such control of the MacCoinnich guards?”
“I be Ian Cameron, cousin to the MacCoinnich, and a man weary from a long journey and in no mood for liars or cheats, ye ken?”
Tamsin’s hands relaxed, and he made a nervous swiping of his palms against his coat. “Aye, then. I see. Reckon I’ll get my team now and follow soon as I can.” The man took off at a fast gait, arms pumping at his sides.
Ian herded the boys over to the horses, pointing Rory to ride behind Sutherland and Finn to ride with Magnus.
“Evander, ride with me. I wish to hear yer side of this day’s events.” He mounted, then reached down for the lad.
Evander took his hand without hesitation and scrambled up behind him. “That thieving man tricks the poor with smooth words and wares that he’s made sure will fall apart by the next time he passes through the glen. Then, when he returns, they have to buy more or pay him to mend them.” Evander thumped his small fist atop his knee. “Heard more than one folk say it’s so. And Mam Hattie swears to it, even.”
“Then why has no one brought it to the chief before now?” Ian halted his mount and checked the lane behind them. Duff Tamson was still in the process of hitching his team to the wagon. The man moved as slow as tree sap in the dead of winter.
“Mam Hattie says it’s ’cause the old bastard finds out things about folk and uses it to make them afeared of saying anything. Says he’s sly and mean as an egg-sucking stoat. Says she wouldna put any evil past him.”
“What things?” Ian found it a little hard to believe the man possessed the ability to blackmail every patron. A belated sense of his mother’s long-ago teachings nudged his conscience. “And dinna use the word bastard, ye ken? Especially not around women.”
“I dinna ken what things he finds out for certain, but Mam Hattie knows. Ask her. She’ll tell ye.” Evander fidgeted behind him. “Mam Hattie says those who know better and have enough coin get their goods from Master MacElroy’s shop. Those who dinna have the money are left to deal with Tamson and his thievery.”
“Ye’re telling me that no one, neither the poor he’s robbed or anyone else, thought to bring such a matter to the chieftain?”
“The poor are afeared. Not just ’cause he threatens them, but ’cause without him, they’d have to do without.”
Evander shifted again, seemingly unable to sit still while they waited for the peddler to join them. “The others dinna care. Mam Hattie says they gots their own fish to fry.”
For the life of him, Ian couldn’t remember this Mam Hattie, but from the sound of it, the woman was Evander’s main source of information. In other words, the village gossip. “Why did ye not tell yer mother? She wouldha told Lady Mercy or brought it to the chief. She has Alexander’s ear.” He knew Gretna. If folk were being mistreated, she’d never stay quiet or look the other way. She always helped those in need.
“My brothers and me hardly ever see Mama,” Evander’s bravado weakened considerably, and his voice grew quieter. “If she’s no’ helping Lady Mercy, she’s out with a healing or getting bairns into the world.” The lad shrugged.
“Everybody needs Mama, and they dinna be shy about asking. She says we must nay be selfish ’bout never seeing her ’cause we’re old enough to understand that it’s her duty to help folk.” He sniffed. “So, the boys and me dinna bother her about nothing. We handle what needs taking care of ourselves. But daren’t ye say any ill about her. She’s the best mam in all the Highlands and loves us fierce. Tells us all the time how she loves us. And she’s nay had an easy time of it either, ye ken?” He pointed down the street. “That old baw bag’s finally caught up with us.”
Ian urged his horse into motion. He should probably tell the boy to not call an elder an old baw bag but decided to let it pass. At least the boy hadn’t said bastard again. It sounded as though Gretna truly did need help with the lads, although Evander spoke with the conviction of a man grown. They definitely needed more guidance than their Mam Hattie. God’s beard, what a mess. He felt the MacCoinnich marriage snare cinch a notch tighter.
Shaking away the stifling thought, he focused on the task at hand. His cousin Alexander was a fair and patient chieftain, but patience was easily spent—especially if today’s gathering in great hall happened to involve an excess of petty grievances. As they passed beneath the portcullis, he tossed back a bit of advice to Evander, “When ye get in front of the chief, be respectful. Quiet. No outbursts. Answer what ye are asked. Nothing else, aye?” He thought back to the scene in the street. “And dinna be calling Tamson names. Understand? It shows yer arse.”
“This isna our first time before the chief,” Evander bragged as though such a thing were a badge of honor. “Happens a lot ’cause of our sacred oath.”
The boy’s words gave Ian pause, while at the same time, triggering a deeper level of uneasiness. Upon reaching the bailey, he helped the lad down but stopped him from proceeding a step farther. “Sacred oath?”
“Ye’re no’ supposed to tell,” Rory warned as he and Finn joined them. “’Tis a secret oath, too, Evander. Ye know that!”
“A secret, sacred oath?” Magnus repeated as he herded the two younger boys to stand beside their brother.
“Swear us in,” Sutherland said with a conspiratorial wink. He squatted down in front of Finn. “We three be verra trustworthy.” He thumped his chest. “I swear it.”
“Dinna mock us,” Evander said with the surliness of a snarling dog. He shrugged out from under Ian’s grasp and pulled his little brother away from Sutherland. With an angry side-eyed glance at Ian, he made it clear that any modicum of trust between them had just been lost. “Just because we be lads, doesna mean we dinna ken what goes on and what shouldna be ignored.”
“Why, we’d never mock such brave lads,” Sutherland said in the placating tone often used with children.
Magnus groaned and rolled his eyes. “Shut your maw, Sutherland.”
Ian stepped between the boys and Sutherland before the man opened his mouth again and worsened the situation. “If I didna believe the three of ye had valid reasons for what ye did, I wouldha left ye back in the street to sort this out yerselves.” He held out a hand to Evander as though the boy were a man. “But I can best help if I know all the reasons for yer actions, aye? I havena been here for nigh on three years. I’ve a bit a catching up to do about the goings-on.”
All three of them looked like cornered strays ready to fight for their lives.
Hand still extended, Ian widened his stance. “What say ye, Evander? Tell me of this secret oath. I’ll do my best to keep it secret unless the chieftain needs to hear of it, aye? I willna lie to ye. If this oath is dangerous, both yer mother and the chief must be told. Ye have my word on it, and the sacred bond of my handshake.”
Evander shared a look with his brothers. Rory gave an almost imperceptible nod, and Finn trembled with a shrug. With a step forward, Evander cleared his throat. “We be the guardians of Ruadh. We tend to the wrongs that go ignored and help folk who go unheard.” He lifted his chin. “We know well enough what it’s like when no one listens, and people look through ye as though ye’re nay even standing in front of them.”
“Evander Shaw Neal!”
“Dinna tell her of the oath, aye? We do it for her sake, too.”
Desperation and something akin to a plea for understanding flickered in the boy’s eyes. A certainty filled Ian. The certainty that he’d not betray the lads’ trust if at all possible. He shot a stern look over at Magnus, then Sutherland.
“Not a word—aye?”
Both men gave silent assent, then ducked back a step as Gretna Neal raced down the keep’s front steps and flew across the cobblestone courtyard faster than a storm overtaking the land.
“How did she find out so fast?” Ian asked under his breath.
“She always knows,” Evander answered with a heavy sigh.
“What in heaven’s name have the three of ye done this time?” Gretna came to a halt in front of her eldest son.
Before Evander could begin his defense, Ian stepped next to him and rested a hand on his shoulder. He had to give the boy credit. The child didn’t cower nor shake as he stood prepared to endure his mother’s wrath.
Ian smiled his most charming smile, made all the easier by the high coloring across Gretna’s lovely features. Magnus had spoken true. The lass was still a fiery beauty. Twice widowed, three children, and the passage of time hadn’t touched her. If anything, she’d blossomed even more with the full curviness of womanhood and held herself with strength and grace. Damn, she was bonnie. “’Tis good to see ye again, Gretna.”
Blue eyes clearer than any Highland sky cut over to him. “’Twould be a fair sight better under different circumstances.” Her focus immediately shifted back to her son. “Well?”
“We’re in the right this time, Mama,” Evander said with the barest lift of his chin. “I swear it.”
Her mouth tightened, then she shifted the interrogation to her youngest. “Finn?”
“’Member what we said,” Rory whispered entirely too loud.
Snatching hold of Rory’s chin, she bent until the tip of her nose nearly touched his. “Dinna threaten yer brother, or I’ll take a switch to yer backside, ye ken?”
“Gretna…” Words fled Ian as her angry glare shot back to him. A distant memory of her temper returned with sudden clarity. He cleared his throat. “I dinna ken about the other times the lads have been participants in great hall, but I believe them to be in the right this time. Somewhat,” he added as an afterthought. The boys had vandalized the man’s cart when they should’ve taken the matter to an adult—if they could’ve gotten an adult to listen.
“Somewhat?” she repeated as a clanging bell signaled the beginning of the chieftain’s hearing of his peoples’ grievances.
Never fight a battle ye’re no’ armed to win. Mercenary wisdom also applied to arguing with women. He’d learned that early on. He motioned to Magnus and Sutherland. “Find the smithy quick as ye can. Have him look over that cart and tell ye what he finds.” Movement near the gate behind them caught his eye. “And keep close watch of Duff Tamson, aye?” He pointed to the peddler angling his team back toward the bailey’s exit. “The bastard’s looking to make a run for it once we all get inside. He has no intention of joining us in the hall if he can keep from it.”
“Ye told me I couldna call him a bastard,” Evander said.
“Dinna sass yer elders, and dinna ye dare use that word again. Ye know better.” Gretna yanked her eldest from Ian’s side and gave him a shake. “Now, tell me why Master Cameron is bringing ye to the chieftain. What did ye do? Have ye been nettling the peddler again?”
“I brought him here to keep him from getting shot,” Ian interrupted while watching Magnus and Sutherland take their posts on either side of Tamson and escort the man into the keep. As soon as he heard Gretna’s gasp, he cringed. Perhaps, he could’ve worded that better.
“Shot?” She snatched the rest of her brood closer, herding them up the steps while alternately swatting each of their backsides hard enough to make them yelp and step livelier. “The death of me! The lot of ye shall be the death of me. D’ye hear? Are ye set on sending me to an early grave? Are ye?”
Ian’s heart went out to the lads, but now was neither the time nor the place to assert his opinion or assistance on the matter. He didn’t fear Gretna, but she’d instilled within him a healthy dose of respect long ago. The woman was as fierce as any warrior. He prayed she’d calm enough to reason with once she heard all the details of the day. The boys had meant well. Surely, she’d find comfort and pride in that and grant them a bit of forgiveness.
As soon as they’d pushed their way to the front of those gathered on the fringes of the long meeting hall, he lifted a hand to catch both the chieftain and his wife’s attention. Catriona would choose this day of all days to join Alexander in the settling of grievances. Their heads turned at the same time, and their gazes settled on him. A chill raced across him as their smiles flashed brighter.
Graham, Alexander’s brother and Clan MacCoinnich’s war chief, stood beside the laird’s chair, grinning like a fool, too. He winked at Ian. Was everyone privy to this plot to marry him off to Gretna?
“Ah, well. In for a penny, in for a pound,” he muttered under his breath as he strode into the area in front of the chieftain and motioned for the boys to join him. Jaw set, Gretna herded her sons forward, then took her place behind them. Evander to the right, Rory to the left, and poor trembling Finn in the middle, backed up into the folds of his mother’s skirts.
Ian moved to stand beside her, directly behind Evander. Even though he knew nothing about the raising of bairns, he wouldn’t let them fight this battle alone. They needed someone other than their mother on their side.
Magnus and Sutherland nudged Duff Tamson into the space, then stepped back and took a stance that left no question they stood guard to ensure no one exited without permission.
Ian resettled his stance and glanced around. The cavernous hall at the heart of the keep was packed. Folk clustered at least three-deep around the sides of the room and in the archways. Some even gathered above in the gallery, leaning over the banister to better view the proceedings.
Alexander lifted a hand and silence washed across the room. “’Tis good to see ye, cousin. How long has it been since ye graced these halls?”
Not long enough. Ian stifled the selfish thought and forced a polite smile. “Nigh on three years, I think. With Alasdair last time.”
With a thoughtful nod, Alexander agreed. “Aye. Three years.” His pleasant countenance faded, settling into a dark look Ian knew all too well from their days of fighting together as mercenaries. Alexander was about to launch a battle plan. He pointed at the boys. “’Tis my understanding ye happened upon an incident ye feel needs my attention.”
“Aye.” Ian settled a hand on Evander’s shoulder and squeezed, hoping both the boy and Gretna would understand what he was about to do. He’d been known to plot a battle plan or two himself. He turned and made a half bow to Duff Tamson. “To belay any accusations of prejudice due to my ties to yerself, I believe Master Tamson should speak first and present his side of what happened.”
Eyes narrowing, the chieftain looked at the peddler. “Master Tamson.”
The fidgeting man stole one last hopeful glance toward the exit, then scrubbed his palms on his coat. With a respectful bob of his head, he cleared his throat and shifted back and forth. “Chieftain.” He made a sideways jerk of his head toward the boys. “These scamps meddled with me wagon. Made it so my team broke loose, and half me wares ended up in the street.”
“Did ye recover yer horses?” Alexander asked.
“Aye, aye.” Tamson clasped his hands together. “Only went up the road a short way, they did. Weren’t no trouble at all to fetch them.”
“Any damages?” Alexander shifted in the ornately carved chieftain’s seat, then set his fingers to drumming atop the curved arm of the chair.
Tamson shook his head. “Nay, my chieftain.”
Alexander shifted his attention to Ian, seeming not to understand. “No damages and the horses recovered. Why are the lot of ye here? This isna the place to address the pranks of children.”
“Aye, that’s true,” Ian agreed, pleased he’d read Tamson correctly. He’d wagered the man would try to get through this with as little trouble as possible to keep from drawing too much attention to his business. “But shooting the lads seemed a rather severe punishment for their crime. D’ye no’ agree?”
“Shooting the lads?” Alexander sat straighter, even leaned forward as though relieved to finally hear something of interest.
Tamson eked out a nervous laugh and gave a sharp shake of his head. “I was nay really going to shoot them, my chieftain. Just wanted to put a little fear into the boys, ye ken?”
“Ye had your pistol aimed right at this boy when I stepped in front of it.” Ian made a dramatic sweeping look around the room. His brother Alasdair, Edinburgh’s finest solicitor, was not the only member of the family who knew how to play a crowd. A collective gasp from several of the women goaded him on. “Ye didna call them scamps then either. I believe yer exact words were, ‘Ye wee bastards. Shoot ye, I will!’.”
“I didna mean it,” Tamson sputtered, waving both hands as though wishing to wipe away Ian’s words. “I was angry. Spoke ill because of me temper. Surely, ye’ve done that at times? Said things ye didna mean?” He swiped his fingers across his forehead, then pulled a dingy square of linen out of his pocket and mopped his face with it. He shook his head again. “Meant no harm at all. I wouldna have really shot them.”
“Ye would, too, ye old baw bag!” Evander jeered. “Ye tried last month but misfired. Then ye threw it at us. That’s why ye’ve nay got but one pistol left!”
“Evander!” Gretna scolded in a shushing whisper.
“Hush, boy. Let me handle this.” Ian squeezed Evander’s shoulder again and gave Rory a stern look to keep his wee mouth shut as well. “These boys dinna deny what they did, Alexander. They told me their reasons.” He paused for effect. “And after witnessing Master Tamson’s behavior, I felt ye should hear their reasons, too.”
Alexander nodded. “So be it.”
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