Born illegitimate, these sons of medieval Scotland are bound for greatness—and made bolder by the power of love.
Brave Lachlan Blair stands ready to become his clan's chieftain—until a revelation shows he is not a Blair son, but the bastard offspring of a notorious criminal. Faced with banishment to the Highland wilderness, Lachlan agrees to wed the daughter of an enemy clan. But he soon finds himself facing a new battle: an unwelcome attraction to his beautiful wife . . .
Since she was a wee lass, Finley Carson has heard tales of legendary Lachlan Blair. But nothing prepares her for marriage to the rugged highlander. Fortunately, Lachlan shares her desire to leave the union unconsummated in hopes of escaping their dutiful marriage. Yet as they partner to pursue the truth of Lachlan's birthright, their deepening bond turns to passion. And once Lachlan's past catches up with them, their love is put to the ultimate test . . .
Contains mature themes.
Release date: March 3, 2020
Publisher: Lyrical Press
Print pages: 352
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The Highlander's Promise
He would go back for Harriet soon.
Thomas Annesley’s huffing breaths swirled around his head in a thick, humid cloud, picking up the white moonlight and crafting his exhalation into a foggy hood. He took great, lunging strides up the rocky path, careful to avoid the seams of slick, cold mud between the sharp, wet slabs of stone, and was thankful for the moonlight that lit his track. Thankful, too, that the rain had finally stopped, but the bright glow bore none of the sun’s heartening warmth, and he was soaked through his borrowed woolen shawl to his skin. It seemed so much colder here than at Tower Roscraig, just across the Forth from Edinburgh; as if the velvety Highland peat all around him hid a core of ice. He sought to distract himself from the deep ache in his bones by concentrating on the foreign terrain beneath his boots and by holding young Harriet Payne’s sweet, rounded face in his mind’s eye.
He would go back for Harriet soon; back to she who had saved his life by hiding him in her da’s barn. She who had nursed his arrow wounds and the terrible injury inflicted by Vaughn Hargrave’s arquebus. Harriet, who had only just crossed that budding threshold of womanhood and who had comforted Thomas in his anguish and his loss of Cordelia. Cordelia, and…
Thomas struggled along the slope of that frozen Highland mountain, imagining as he went the day he would return for Harriet on a horse not stolen, and take her and the child he suspected she carried away from that mean bit of farm to safety at Tower Roscraig on the Forth. He owed her his life, and his sanity, and he vowed to repay Harriet Payne’s kindness by ensuring she spent the rest of her days in that strong, stone fortress that had belonged to his Scots mother’s family.
Although elsewhere he might be called Baron Annesley, Lord of Darlyrede, Thomas wondered that he would ever return to England, let alone the great estate of his father. Darlyrede House had been soaked in so much blood, and not only Cordelia’s, Thomas had learned on the fateful night Hargrave had tried to kill him. Thomas had been made a fugitive by that grand hold, by that night; a man wanted for the murder of the very woman who was to have been his wife.
The rushing of blood in his ears grew louder as the memories of that dank cellar thundered over him, and Thomas staggered to a halt, bracing his hand against the ruffled bark of a young birch as he caught his breath. He realized then it wasn’t just his frenzied blood he heard; the sound of crashing water radiated through the trees.
The falls. They must be just over the shoulder of the mountain.
He straightened and turned on the path, pausing to peer across the long valley he’d just circled. Though earlier in the day the hills and vales had run with autumn’s saffron and rust, made more barren by the unusually dry summer, now the treetops standing sentry around the bowl of scrubby land wore moonlight caps, their dripping skirts hidden in darkest shadow. Iain Douglas had directed him well, warning him to give wide berth to the dangerous Town Blair on the edge of Loch Acras.
Thomas shivered in his heavy, sodden clothes.
He shook the eerie feeling from his shoulders with a frown. After a fortnight of foot travel, he would reach the clansmen of his mother before dawn. He would show the Carson elders his father’s dagger, kept safe at Tower Roscraig for so many years and ready now upon his calf, remind them of Iain Douglas’s place of honor at Tower Roscraig, and then plead his kinship as just cause for requesting the town’s fiercest warriors to help defend against the assault Thomas knew was coming. Vaughn Hargrave may have destroyed Thomas’s life at Darlyrede, shattered the future he’d had always taken for granted, but Thomas had the hope of a new life to fight for; Hargrave would never take the Tower.
The Tower belonged to Harriet, and Thomas would return for her.
He turned to the wood again and strode on, the sound of the water swelling larger through the trees as he continued down the western slope of the mountain. He weaved through the trunks, navigating by ear toward the cascading heart of the roaring river, all other typical night sounds made mute. He didn’t bother with stealth now, for even his crashing footfalls through the dense blanket of forest floor could not surpass the great wall of thundering water to reach even his own ears.
Follow the river downstream to the falls; there you shall find a footbridge. Once across, you are safely on Carson land...
His right boot slipped into a badger hole covered over with wet leaves, and Thomas only just managed to free his foot before his slide down the steep bank. He caught himself against the peeling trunk of another birch with a soundless oof, and then the moonlight revealed his sanctuary in the loud silence of the water.
The bridge appeared shamefully old and disused for such an essential channel, planked with only whole, once-young tree trunks. There was no railing, but a thick rope woven from vines stretched alongside the jagged-edged downstream side, tethered on either bank around sturdy ashes. The bridge was lit as brightly as at midday, the moonlight reflecting off the churning white foam exploding from the vertical granite slabs of the riverbed above it. The cylindrical treads of the bridge glistened with water and moss, belying the signs of long drought in the high valleys he’d passed through. Thomas vowed he could detect the faint odor of fish and the sea, and remembered that it was the time of the salmon running in from the wide, wild ocean.
His mouth watered at the thought of such fresh bounty; he’d not had a proper meal in days, surviving on the last shriveled crumbs of the provisions packed for him at Roscraig.
Thomas half-slid, half-leaped down the remaining curve of bank toward the footbridge, his pack flopping limply against the small of his back. As he stepped onto the first softened trunks, he realized the bridge was far longer than it had first appeared, and not nearly wide enough to suit him, considering the chaos of the water and the sheer drop it spanned over the sudden ravine. Thirty feet down it must be at the midpoint, and at least that far across, although the bridge was perhaps only six feet wide.
Six very slick feet. And the trunks were not lashed tightly together, leaving gaps that appeared to be just as wide as the very thickness of a grown man in several spots.
Do you nae good to bring a mount to such a place. The bridge isna meant for the crossing of those astride, my lord.
“It would seem as if the bridge wasn’t meant for crossing at all, Iain,” Thomas muttered aloud, his words lost beneath the weight of sound of the roaring falls. Already, his eardrums felt sore from the pressure.
The reverberations of the water against the rock rumbled beneath the soles of his boots, but the bridge held steady. He stepped carefully, testing each tread for the crumbly feel of rot, and pressing down firmly into the slick slime until he felt the bite of the softened wood. Stepping over the first gap caused hot beads of sweat to spring forth in the stubble covering his face. Then the planks shuddered, bucked, and the entire bridge swayed over the river. Thomas’s stomach felt as if it fell into the pouch of his shawl as he froze in place, his gaze fixed on the sparkling fog of water misting over the trunks, his arms held to either side to steady himself, swiping blindly for the rope with his left hand.
He was halfway across; if the bridge failed, he was dead.
“Doona dare another step, lad,” a deep voice called.
Thomas flinched and raised his eyes to find that the rickety span wasn’t failing as he’d feared, but only occupied by other travelers. The north end of the bridge was now blocked by as many as eight rough-looking men, several of them bearing woven baskets on their shoulders. One switch-thin young man, gaunt and owl-eyed, juggled a bundle of long-handled, patched nets. The smell of fish now filled the ravine.
All of them save the owl-eyed man glared at Thomas, the distrust clear in their shadowed faces as the front man watched him expectantly, his posture tense.
Thomas willed himself to lower his hands slowly, then gripped them into sweaty fists as he stood over the highest point of the ravine. “We are well met,” he said, shouting to project his voice over the roar of the falls. “I mean to gain the Carson town before dawn. My kin reside there. Perhaps you are one of them.”
The leader of the group’s brows rose in the moonlight, hollowing his temples further. “A Carson ye be, eh? Yer face isna known to me.”
“My name’s Annesley,” Thomas called. “Thomas Annesley. My mother’s family are Carsons.” The wind changed then, blowing wet, flapping leaves and a wash of spray across the gulf, pressing against Thomas’s chest as if warning him back. The men glanced at one another, their expressions unfathomable. “I claim a holding in Edinburgh, and have come requesting help to defend it against an enemy. I can pay. In silver.”
When the gust had swept down the river valley toward the sea, the man replied, “Ye’d best back from the bridge, laird, whilst we cross; ’tis nae place to palaver.”
Thomas glanced past the men to the slope of the night-cloaked wood he had been told led eventually to the sea, a frown forming on his face even as he spoke. “I mean to gain the town proper; I—” Thomas broke off as he realized the woods weren’t nearly as black as they should have been on this western side of the highland hills, and not even as black as they had been when Thomas had started across the bridge. The far undersides of the firs and pines were now flickering with a faint yellow-orange glow…
Thomas brought his gaze back to the leader of the group as he spoke once more.
“Nay, ye doona wish to carry on that way,” the man advised with a slow shake of his head. “Back off the bridge now, lad.”
Thomas felt as though his boots were mortared to the mossy treads. “Are you…Carsons?” he asked. “Are you my kin?”
The leader gestured toward Thomas. “Help him back, lads. The crossing seems to be giving him a wee spot o’ trouble.”
Two men from the group lifted their baskets to the shoulders of companions and then stepped around the leader with sure strides. Thomas lurched backward, the idea of escape coming to him too late as the smooth soles of his boots could find no purchase and he staggered to maintain his footing on the slick trunks. The orange glow beyond the woods grew, and the faintest smell of smoke wafted up the mountain to itch the back of his throat. A rumbling volley of what might have been thunder whispered through the trees.
The long, parched Acras valley above the falls; the laden baskets carried under the cover of darkness…
“You’re poaching the salmon,” he said as he realized the truth. “Did you set the town afire?” he croaked as the men wrapped hard hands around his biceps. They could swing him over the edge in a blink if they chose, but Thomas felt himself being dragged toward the bank.
“Nay, nae we, lad,” the man said, following him across the bridge and over the gulf, the others stepping quickly in his wake with their baskets of gleaming, twitching fish. The men released him when his boots met the firm forest floor, and Thomas stumbled to keep his feet as the leader loomed over him. “It takes more clever tools than what the Blairs can boast to ensure a town of sodden houses should burn. It seems as though the enemy ye spoke of isna behind ye, but afore ye. A mighty foe he must indeed be.”
The man paused and then gave Thomas a sly smile. “In fact, perhaps we’ve saved yer life. What will ye pay for that now, I wonder? In silver?” He looked to the men, waiting silently. “Run ahead up the valley, Geordie-boy, and wake the fine.”
“Even the chief, Harrell?” the owl-eyed man asked with a bewildered expression on his slack, hound’s face. His words were round and softened by a speech impediment, and at this close distance, Thomas guessed he couldn’t be older than a score.
“The chief, especial,” Harrell said. “This is a day the Blairs will speak of for generations, and I’ll warrant all in the town will wish to recount the moment they saw our arrival with their own eyes.” Harrell stepped forward and swiped Thomas’s dagger from his calf before raising up swiftly and bringing the point to dimple the skin beneath his chin.
His smile widened in the midst of his hollowed face, revealing gleaming teeth in the moonlight. “The fortune of Clan Blair, wrapped in a Carson shawl. ’Tis a hero I’ll be.” His chuckle sent a hot gust of breath, smelling of raw fish, into Thomas’s nostrils.
“What, now? Have ye never wanted to be a hero, Thomas Annesley?”
Loch Acras, Town Blair
Lachlan Blair lay his head back against the hard wood of the low chair and closed he eyes as he felt his time drawing near, the woman on her knees before him working her mouth so masterfully, so familiar with the territory she traveled, he knew he could last no more than a pair of moments before he—
His eyes snapped open again as he heard the door behind him scrape open across the dirt. “Lachlan, the chief is call—”
Lachlan reached down to the hatchet in his belt and flung it with a flick of his wrist, its resounding thud in the door frame assuring Lachlan he’d made his point, cutting off the man’s words and heralding his exit by another scraping of the door.
Next time, he would remember to drop the latch.
He looked back down at the woman seated between his legs, disengaged from him now but still gripping him tightly with one hand as her lips, glistening and reddened by the friction of him, curved in a small smile. Her large breasts dangled free and bare above the folds of her crushed bodice.
“Shall I stop? It must be important.”
Lachlan cursed aloud and then sighed and sat up in the chair, forcing Searrach to release him and move away with no more protest than a rueful pout. He stood, squatting to drop his manhood into his braies and lace up his codpiece while Searrach pushed her arms into her bodice and hid her breasts away from his admiring view. Now that his head was clearing of the impassioned fog conjured by the well-rounded brunette, Lachlan could better hear the sounds of commotion through the thick walls of the longhouse. He swiped his brush through his waving auburn locks, using his other hand to gather the length in a long tail at his nape.
“What could it be?” Searrach asked as she pulled the brush from his hand to tidy her own hair.
“I doona know,” Lachlan said, securing the tail with a piece of leather and then rocking his hatchet free from the doorframe and returning it to his belt. “But if it’s nae someone’s death, it soon will be.”
“Aye, and go see to it, Blair,” Searrach cooed, and his eyes shot to her, his frown quirking despite himself at the woman’s pandering allusion to the fact that Lachlan would soon be clan chief.
Lachlan wrenched open the door and stepped out into the bright light of midday. It seemed as though the whole of the town was gathered on the green before his grandfather’s longhouse, clustered in a wary circle around a mounted rider who seemed as out of place in the fresh green Highland spring as a dagger clutched in the hand of a newborn babe.
The stranger was clad all in black, from his long, queued hair to his fine boots, nearly invisible against the flank of his equally black mount. He made no outward effort to control the beast crowded so by the obviously curious villagers, as there was no need; the man’s horse stood as still as any mountain boulder, but its head was up, alert, and Lachlan had the impression that should any from the town attempt to lay a hand upon either the horse or its master, they would be stomped into the green in a blink.
The rider carried a long sword strapped across his back for transport, but the man was certainly armed well enough without it, as even from across the green Lachlan could spy no fewer than four blades of varying lengths, as well as a bow fixed in a tidy bundle across the back of the man’s saddle. The rider’s profile looked more out of place than even his fine mount, his long, pale face with its bony prominences seeming cold and detached here in the lush, humid green.
The townsfolk turned wary, frowning faces toward Lachlan as he neared, revealing the stooped and robed figure of Archibald Blair, Lachlan’s grandfather, in their midst. Lachlan felt rather than saw the stranger’s gaze fall upon him, but he would not dignify the man’s presence with his attention as of yet.
“Is aught amiss?” Lachlan called out in an easy tone.
The old man was clearly distressed, the long, dirty-gray hair he was so proud of quivering and swaying like fluffy fleece over the shoulder of his long tunic, cut in the old fashion, his ancient shawl fastened over his concave chest.
“A stranger,” he lisped, and jerked his head toward the black-clad man. “Englishman with wont to speak before the fine.”
Lachlan stopped on the fringe of the group and at last turned up his face toward the man on the dark horse. He met the stranger’s gaze, icy-blue and without the least hint of concern for his own safety in the midst of so many wary Highlanders.
He was either an idiot or the devil himself.
“We doona gather council upon the command of foreigners,” Lachlan said.
The man raised a thin, black eyebrow in his pale face, as if amused, then dismissed Lachlan without a word, turning to look at his grandfather once more instead. “I bring news from the south that may be of great import to your clan. The fine will no doubt wish to—”
“I said,” Lachlan interrupted, his ire rising at the blatant disregard of the cool man, “we doona gather council at the command of a foreigner.”
The rider didn’t so much as glance at Lachlan as he continued. “Very well. If you give me leave to dismount, Blair, I will convey the word to you privately, and then you shall do with the information what you will. My only duty is to impart the facts as I have been given them.”
“You doona have my leave,” Archibald hissed. “Ennathin’ you have to say to me, you can do it from your sack-of-bones horse and then take yer leave from this vale, lest ’tis yer hope never to see England again. That is my grandson ye offend.”
At this, the man turned his head to Lachlan once more, his expression changed, his gaze now bright and earnest.
“You are Archibald Blair’s grandson?” he asked, looking Lachlan up and down as if he were some animal at market. “Aged approximately one score, eight? Your mother was called Edna?”
“Aye,” Lachlan said, feeling his head draw back slightly at both the accuracy of the information and the sound of his mother’s name issuing from the man’s lips; it had been so long since Lachlan had heard it spoken aloud. “I should think I know my own mother’s name. Who are you to know of her?”
But before the stranger could reply, Archibald Blair seemed to erupt with anger, raising his arm to point a crooked finger at the man. “Ye get out of here! We doona wish to hear ennathin’ from yer lyin’ English lips! Go on, then!”
This time it was Archibald Blair the rider in black dismissed as he answered Lachlan’s question. “I am Sir Lucan Montague, knight of the Most Noble Order of the Garter of His Majesty King Henry of England. Your name, sir?”
“Doona say ennathin’!” Archibald shouted, holding both hands skyward now as Lachlan glanced over at him. His grandfather’s face had reddened, his yellowed eyes bulging. “You canna trust a bloody Englishman! Hah, geddout!” Archibald stepped toward Lucan Montague’s mount, as if to shy the horse from the green, but the animal stood as if made from stone.
“I am Lachlan Blair, and aye, I am the only child of my mother Edna,” Lachlan supplied calmly, his curiosity piqued despite his grandfather’s distress.
“Is your mother present in the town, Master Blair?” the knight inquired in his crisp, southern accent.
“Master Blair now, is it?” Lachlan laughed. “My mother’s been dead for a score and five. And as you’re too young to have known her, I’d be answered as to your purpose at Town Blair.”
“My condolences on your loss,” Lucan Montague said with a slight bow in his saddle. “It is true that I claim no acquaintance with your mother; it is on your father’s behalf that I travel.”
“Tommy?” a townsman hidden within the crowd called out hesitantly, a faint reverence in the word that straightened Lachlan’s spine. And yet he still found himself scanning the sea of faces for sight of Marcas or Dand as the gathered folk leaned their heads together, their murmurs rippling around the green.
“Ye get out of here now, I said!” Archibald shouted hoarsely, whipping his dagger from his belt and staggering forward so quickly that he tripped and would have fallen onto the horse had it n. . .
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