Looking down at her hands, covered in her husband’s blood, Marian Fletcher Blackley, Duchess of Endsmere, felt surprisingly calm. She’d known for the last five years this was the way it would end. With blood on someone’s hands. She’d expected it to be the other way around. Many times during the duke’s rages she’d thought he would kill her. There were times, after being kicked repeatedly, she’d almost wished he had killed her so the pain would end. So her torment as his wife would be over, and she would no longer have to live in constant fear. But tonight, something deep inside her—an intense will to survive—had taken over. He was angrier with her than she’d ever seen, and she’d known it would happen tonight. He was going to kill her. She had seen it in his eyes. He wouldn’t have been able to control himself and she would have died. When he’d raised his fists, she’d reached out in defense. Her protection had come in the form of the fireplace poker. Her palm had grasped it unerringly and her first strike along his temple had downed him.
It would be unladylike to mention the second, third, and fifth strikes that had ended her fear and pain from this man indefinitely. Lucy, her lady’s maid, knocked frantically at the door, having heard Marian’s screams. “Your Grace, are you all right? Do you need me to call a doctor?” Lucy knew all, having had to dress Marian’s injuries in the past. It was no surprise that tonight Lucy expected to need to piece Marian together once again. Only it wasn’t Marian who was injured. In fact, for once, Marian didn’t have a mark on her. The duke, however, was clearly dead. Opening the door, Lucy gasped. “Oh, Your Grace! What has he done? I will fetch Dr. Simmons.
He cannot expect me to tend—” Lucy’s rambling stopped abruptly when Marian allowed the door to open wider so the maid could see the carnage spread out on the rug. “’Tis not my blood this time.” Even Marian’s voice was calm. Surely this wasn’t normal. She should have swooned or launched into hysterics by now. But all she felt was peace with what she’d done. What she’d been forced to do to save herself. Marian’s gown was covered in blood, as were the rug and a good part of her bedchamber. “I see.” Lucy swallowed, her voice just as calm as Marian’s.
“Well, he’s dead,” she announced after checking the body. “Now what?” The fear and panic that had previously been kept at bay swarmed in now, chilling her bones. Marian’s hands trembled as she tossed the poker to the side. “I— I don’t know. I guess we call for the magistrate.” Lucy shook her head. “You’ve not a mark on you, and with your Scottish accent they’ll see you’re hanged for killing a peer of the realm.” Marian tried to swallow and found it impossible. “What should I do?” “You must leave. We’ll get you changed out of that dress and I’ll burn it.
You must leave London immediately before word gets out. I can go with you.” “You can’t come with me. Your daughter is expecting any day. You’re needed here.” Plus, Marian would never implicate her maid in her crimes. At five and thirty Lucy was ten years older than Marian, and the only friend the duke had allowed. Mainly because he was unaware of their friendship. “Where will you go?” Lucy asked. “I won’t tell you.
That way you can answer honestly when you’re questioned.” Lucy grasped her arm to stop her as she moved toward her wardrobe. “You cannot go to your family home in Scotland. They will surely track you there and bring you back to hang. You need to stay clear of your clan lands. It’s certain death.” Marian nodded in agreement, though that had been her plan. Her father had passed a few years ago. Her older brother would take her in and keep her safe. But she would be bringing trouble to her brother’s home.
She could only imagine what he would do to keep her safe. She would be putting him in danger by going there. She needed to find another place of refuge. Somewhere she wouldn’t be expected to go. Thoughts of her younger sister came to mind, but she pushed them away. Her relationship with Kenna had always been strained. Her father and stepmother had been a constant wedge between them, saying things to make sure Kenna felt like she had less worth because, to their standards, she wasn’t as pretty as Marian. After their mother died, Marian had been raised for one purpose only, and that was to be wed to an English nobleman. Every moment of her youth had been spent primping and practicing for her debut at London court. Her Scottish tongue had been twisted until she was able to form her words with the correct English flair.
She’d done everything that was expected of her. Forgone the fun her younger sister and brother seemed to have running wild in the Highlands with nothing but mischief on their minds. Yet, despite being the well-trained, obedient daughter, she’d been tricked into this nightmare of a life with a man who’d despised her very existence. A man she’d killed. The thought fired her into action. If she wanted to live she needed to flee London, and the only place she knew was Scotland. She’d head for the border and figure out the rest if she made it that far. Now that she was free of the horror her marriage had been, she wanted to find a safe place to live where no man would ever have control over her again. … Cameron MacKinlay heaved another large rock into the cart, making the horse snort and shy. Letting out a breath, he frowned at the blisters across his palms and wiped the sweat from his brow.
“Damn, Lachlan.” Cam shook his head and picked up the shovel to loosen the next rock so it could be loaded. Despite the cursing, it was his own fault he was loading rocks. If he’d not refused to follow his laird’s orders, he would be back at Dunardry Castle sitting down at the midday meal. Instead, he had hard bannocks and ale to look forward to. Still, he’d rather face hard labor and poor fare than be forced into marriage merely to satisfy a clan alliance. Aye, it was done all the time in the Highlands. In fact, Lachlan himself had married his wife, Kenna, because of such a thing. But Cam didn’t want to marry. War chiefs did not always come home to their families after battle.
He knew it well enough. When he was nine, his own father—the war chief of Clan MacKinlay at the time—had not come home. His father had been a good man, but duty called for him to take risks. He’d been a war chief first and foremost, a husband and father second. As his position demanded. Now Cam was in that same position, and he didn’t want to see the worry in a woman’s eyes, as he had his mother’s. He didn’t want to abandon a family if death claimed him. When he became the war chief of Clan MacKinlay at the age of nineteen, he’d made that solemn vow. Having a family would make him weak, causing him to delay when forced to take risks, and the entire clan could be put in danger because of it. Lachlan knew how Cam felt, yet he had still ordered Cam to marry the McCurdy lass.
It was true, such an alliance with the McCurdy clan would mean access to the sea and what lay beyond for his clan. But he just couldn’t do it. He’d rather face his punishment in the fields collecting rocks. Besides, even if he were of a mind to marry, he’d not risk such an alliance unless he was very certain it would result in his clan having access to the sea. Marrying into the McCurdy clan was no guarantee of that. The word of a McCurdy was not something Cam would ever put his life on. He’d much rather take what they wanted from the other clan by force. Dougal McCurdy couldn’t be trusted. Cam felt the relationship between the clans was far too strained to build a reliable alliance. Lach didn’t agree.
Thus the impasse. So, instead of being at the castle training his warriors for a takeover that would grant the MacKinlays access to the port and all trading that came with it, Cam was out here in this desolate field gathering rocks. As he bent to lift the next stone he caught movement in the trees. A woman bolted out of the forest and ran straight for him, as if he’d wished for a lass and the fairies had delivered her right out of the glen. “Help me, please,” she rasped, her breathing labored from running. He could barely hear her over the sound of loud barking. Three hounds sprinted from the woods with two horsemen directly behind. Taking in the woman’s tattered gown and shoeless feet, he would expect her to be a wench from a nearby village, but her speech sounded rich and cultured. English. When she reached Cam she didn’t stop.
She grabbed hold of him and shimmied up his body as if he were a tree. Her bosom heaved right in his face. A better man might not have noticed, but Cam was not a better man. “Help,” she repeated. “Sister. Kenna,” she managed to get out between gasps of air. Cam hadn’t gotten a good look at her, but she surely didn’t look like Lady Kenna. Kenna’s hair was fiery red and curly, where this lass was golden-haired…under the dirt. “Hey there,” one of the men on horseback called as they drew up in front of Cam where he held the trembling girl. The hounds continued to bay as they circled him.
“Turn the girl over to us and we’ll leave you to your work.” The man was also English. Some kind of guard, Cam guessed by his dress. “I’ll do no such thing,” Cam said stiffly. He didn’t like being ordered about by a scrawny Englishman on his own clan’s lands. “She is a criminal, a fugitive from the Crown’s justice, and I have orders to bring her back to England where she will be hanged for the murder of her husband, the Duke of Endsmere.” If this was indeed Kenna’s sister—and he believed the lass—Kenna would not appreciate him handing her over to certain death. “Call off the dogs,” he said when the woman had made it to his shoulders in her effort to get away from the snapping jaws. A Scot wearing MacDonald colors moved his horse closer and called the hounds back. “I am afraid ye have the wrong woman,” Cam said with a look of disgust.
“This canna be the wife of the late Duke of Endsmere, because she’s my own wife, Mary.” He wrapped an arm around the woman and set her on the ground next to him. She gripped his hand and hid behind him. “Isn’t that right, love?” He squeezed her hand, silently telling her to comply. The woman nodded emphatically. “Aye. This be my husband,” she said in a Scottish brogue that would do her clan proud. The English twit snorted and shook his head. “Trust me, friend, you do not wish to be caught up with the likes of her.” “I’m afraid I’m already caught up, friend.
You’ll not be taking my wife from me.” The Englishman let out a huff and turned to the Scot for help. “You say this is your wife?” the Scot asked. “Aye. She’s my wife. And I am the war chief of Clan MacKinlay. You have no right to take her off clan lands without an order from King Charles and permission from our laird.” The Scot nodded once and turned to the other man. “Whether or not she was his wife a moment ago, I assure ye they are now wed. They stood before witnesses with hands bound and declared themselves married.
Under Scottish law they are handfasted, and it is a binding marriage.” Cam glanced down at the woman’s hand in his, her fingers clenched as tight as her small hand could grasp his larger one. A tattered piece of her dress had been tangled around their wrists as she’d scrambled up his body. She was holding on to him now as if preparing to be bodily pulled away. He played through the past moments and realized what the MacDonald arse had said was entirely true. “This MacKinlay has the right of it,” the MacDonald man continued. “You may not take her without retaliation from the clan. You will need an order from the crown to get the laird to give up one of his clan without a battle. A battle I’m not willing to walk into, especially with just you at my back.” “This is ridiculous.
What kind of barbaric land allows people to wed in such casual fashion?” Cam assumed the man didn’t need an answer to his question. Besides, he was too stunned to speak at the moment. He and this woman, whose name he didn’t even know, had declared they were wed while holding hands in front of witnesses. She was, indeed, his wife. Bloody hell. Cam swallowed and picked up his sword from the cart behind him with the hand that was not being clutched by his new bride. Whether he’d planned or wanted this didn’t matter. She belonged to him and his clan now, and he protected what was his. “If you wish to try to take her, let’s get on with it. If not, be off with you.
” The Englishman puffed and slapped his leg, scowling down at them. “I will be back with an order from the king himself if I have to, and she will be returned to England to stand trial for her actions. No Scottish witch kills a peer of the realm and gets away with it.” With that, he spun around and took off. The Scot held for a moment with a smug grin on his face. “Congratulations on your wedding. I hope she doesna kill you as she killed her last husband.” He laughed and followed after the other man, the dogs trailing behind. Cam turned to face his wife.