Highlander’s Royal Blood – Ann Marie Scott

Cameron McAuley rubbed the week’s worth of growth on his face with his hand, frowning at the dark clouds in the distance. He had thought that perhaps they would beat the storm, but now he wasn’t so confident. “Tell me it isnae too much farther.” Cameron blew out a breath, looking back at his companion. “I’ve already told ye that ’tis another hour.” The redheaded lass glared at him, grasping her saddle pommel. “Then can we stop?” “We already stopped thirty minutes ago,” he growled, his head starting to hurt once more. After a week in her company, Cameron looked forward to a few pints of ale and a warm body that didn’t wish to carry on a conversation. Katherine McDougal was not that woman. He still didn’t understand why his laird, Arran Mcaiwn, had insisted that he fetch his wife’s cousin from her drafty castle on McDougal land, but yet here he was. Suffering. She stuck out her lower lip, a sullen look on her face. “I’m tired of riding.” “Then ye can walk.” She huffed, and he hid his grin, urging his horse a bit faster.

As much as she irked him, he had repaid her in kind. For the first few days, Cameron had respectfully held his tongue, but after the third day, he had found it difficult not to talk to her. Not because he enjoyed their conversation but because he had told her more than once to just quit talking. If nothing else, he had learned that Katherine McDougal was a spoiled lass with no sympathy for a Scot’s ear. Even the horses had flattened their ears whenever she opened her mouth. There had been one moment of sympathy, a weak moment that he would rather not think about, but since then, he had cursed his laird’s name with every bit of land they crossed together. And now they were on the path headed back to Mcaiwn land, and he could not get there fast enough. “Ye know ye havenae been good company.” He snorted. “I wasnae sent tae ye tae be good company.

I was sent tae make sure ye got tae yer cousin in one piece.” Even that Cameron did not understand, but he had been put second in command next to his laird, and he would do his bidding. Arran was going to owe him a very large tankard of ale for this. “Mah cousin would want for me tae be pleased with this journey.” Cameron slowed his horse until she caught up with him, reaching out and grabbing her reins tightly in his hands. “Are ye saying ye aren’t happy with mah company?” “’Tis not what I wanted it tae be.” Cameron stared at her, seeing nothing more than a girl attempting to be more. “What did ye want then?” He had ensured that she had been adequately taken care of, from the best comfort he could provide, given they were traveling across the moors in dreary weather. He had provided her food and water during this short trek, and she would be delivered unharmed to her cousin. What more could she want? Katherine turned her eyes toward him, and he was surprised by the glimmer of tears.

It wasn’t the first time he had seen her tears. “Nothing,” she said softly. “I dinnae want anything.” Cameron released the reins and urged his horse forward once more, pushing the image of her tear-filled eyes into the far recesses of his mind. He didn’t care this time. She had gotten him once. He was not going to allow her tears to get to him again. The hour passed with only the faint sound of thunder in the distance breaking through the silence. Cameron slid his gaze to his right side to make sure that Katherine was still on top of her horse, finding it difficult not to miss her endless chatter. He didn’t have to dwell on her silence for long before the castle came into view, and Cameron felt the swell of pride grow in his chest at the sight.

It was his home, the place he would defend with his life. They rode into the keep’s courtyard, and he dismounted before walking over to Katherine’s horse. “Come, let me help ye down, lass.” She did, and he set her on her feet, attempting to find the words that would bring back the infernal lass that had tortured him for the past few days. But she slipped past him and headed for the keep, causing Cameron to trail after her, a frown on his face. He entered the great hall and found his laird near the fire, walking past the two lasses that were greeting each other with tears streaming down their cheeks. “Mah lord,” he said, laying his fist on his chest as a sign of respect. “How was yer trip?” Cameron glanced at the woman. “It was a foolhardy journey that ye sent me on, Arran. I am a warrior, not a nursemaid.

” Arran chuckled. “It was important tae yer lady, Cameron. Look how happy she is.” Cameron didn’t respond, and it wasn’t long before his lady of the keep, Ainslee, finally pulled away from the slight lass and pulled her over to Arran. “’Tis mah husband, Arran,” she replied proudly, a broad smile on her face. “’Tis mah cousin, Katherine.” “Lass.” Arran nodded, clasping his hands behind his back. “’Tis good tae have ye here. Feel free tae make it yer home.

” Katherine glanced at Cameron, who ignored her presence before smiling at Arran. “Thank ye. I hope tae be happy here as mah cousin is.” They talked for a few more minutes before Ainslee moved to show Katherine her chamber, leaving Arran and Cameron alone. “Well now,” Cameron sighed, wiping a hand over his face. “I will be in mah hut if ye need me.” He longed for a comfortable bed and a few tankards of ale to forget this journey had ever happened. “A moment.” Cameron turned to his laird. “Aye?” “I believe I am going tae appoint Katherine as lady of the McDougal clan.

” Cameron burst into laughter, his shoulders shaking. “Ye’re jesting.” The lass would talk her council to death. Likely they would lock her up in the dungeon to keep her from talking. Arran turned to him, arching a brow. “Do ye not think that she can do it?” If the plan was for her to talk her clan to death, then Cameron was certain she could do it. The look on Arran’s face, however, seemed serious enough, so he held his tongue. “I dinnae know. I didnae get tae know the lass, just, well, I got her here didnae I?” “Aye, ye did,” Arran said slowly. “Are ye certain that yer journey was uneventful?” Cameron frowned.

“I already told ye it was.” “Ainslee doesnae wish tae be the laird, and for that, I am grateful. Katherine is the next of kin. ’Tis her right if she wishes it tae be.” Cameron doubted that the lass would be one to turn down such a lofty right. “Well,” he said, eyeing his laird, “then she will need someone tae show her how tae be a laird.” “Aye,” Arran said, clapping him on the shoulder. “She will, and we both will help her.” Cameron groaned inwardly. It seemed that he would not rid himself of the infernal lass for quite some time.

K 1 Three Years Later atherine opened her eyes slowly, stretching her limbs under the fur blankets. She lay there, staring up at the ceiling before she realized what day it was. It was the day she had been waiting three years for, the day she thought would never happen. Her coronation day. Katherine rubbed a hand over her face, surprised that she had slept so well. Last evening, she had stayed up late, watching the fire in the fireplace in her chamber and wondering what her parents would think about their daughter on the cusp of becoming a lady. Not just a lady, but the leader of their clan. Katherine threw aside her covers and shivered as she stepped onto the stone floor, walking over to stoke the embers in the fireplace. It would not be long before her servants would come in bearing her morning fare and starting her day, but Katherine reveled in the moments of silence that would likely be the last moment she would have for much of the day. For three years, she had stood aside, learning all she could from her cousin, Arran Mcaiwn, laird of the Mcaiwn clan, about what it took to be a fair and kind laird.

When he had told her that he wished for her to take up the seat that her cousin had once held, Katherine had laughed in his face. She was not a leader. She could not lead a clan against battles or make decisions that could cause their crops to fail. But he had encouraged her, and now all the training he had provided her would become her way of life after today. Katherine wasn’t so sure she was ready. She had spent three long years joining him on the journeys here, to McDougal land, so she could watch him in the proceedings with the council, to learn how a laird would handle both trivial and serious issues of the clan. She had listened to their plights and Arran’s responses, and then at night, they would gather in the same room and he would go over the day’s events, giving Katherine a chance to discuss what she would have done in the same instance. Most of the time, they agreed on the decisions made, but there were times they did not, and Arran would listen to her reasoning. They did not always agree, but he was still willing to listen, and Katherine knew that would go far in her future with a council and the elders of the clan. Only in the last month had she started staying in the keep, choosing to remain in the chamber she had grown up in, a reminder of who she had been and what she had been through.

Just as her clan had suffered, so had she, and Katherine was ready for a change. After the fire was stoked, Katherine rubbed her hands over her arms and glanced at the gown she would don in an hour or so, along with the tartan of the McDougal clan. Once before, years ago, that tartan was one to be feared. Her cousin Liam had given their clan a long, bloody reign, raiding villages and killing innocent Scots. He had caused their clan to nearly starve to death after his own death. Katherine had been dismayed to find their stores nearly depleted, the winter bearing down on them with no way to ensure they would survive. If it hadn’t been for Arran, they would have. And now this clan would be hers. She had lived through her cousin’s reign, watching as he tried to destroy generations of the McDougals. While he had attempted to rule with bloodshed, Katherine was determined to run with fairness.

Arran had taught her that if she were fair, then everything else would fall into place. Tomorrow, she would stand before her own council and attempt to change the clan for the better of each man, woman, and child. It was frightening. She did not know how lairds felt the hours before they became a leader, but she did feel slightly sick to her stomach at the thought. There was a knock at the door. Katherine cleared her throat, reaching for her robe and shrugging it on over her gown. “Enter.” The door opened, and her cousin Ainslee stepped in, with her daughter on her hip. “Katherine! Ye’re already up.” “Aye,” she said, giving her a smile that she didn’t feel on the inside.

“And ye are up early as well.” Ainslee snorted, setting her daughter on the bed. “This wee one doesnae allow for much sleeping in.” Katherine smiled at her niece, a spitting image of her mother. “Now Myra, ye need tae let yer ma sleep.” “Nay!” Myra shouted, crawling on Katherine’s bed and snuggling into the furs. Both women laughed, and Ainslee joined Katherine by the fire. “Are ye nervous?” “A little,” Katherine admitted, the lump in her throat growing steadily by the moment. “After today, I will be responsible for this clan.” Ainslee reached out, touching her shoulder, a sympathetic look on her face.

“Lass, ye have always been responsible for this clan. It will just be official now.” Katherine supposed her cousin was telling the truth. While Arran had conducted the business, Katherine had been by his side the entire time. She knew everything she needed to; every clan member’s need. These were her people, and she had already vowed to be a better leader than Liam had been. She would ensure their future, where he had tried to destroy them all. “We wilnae abandon ye,” Ainslee was saying, moving toward the dress. “Arran and I will be here for as long as ye wish us tae.” Katherine knew they would, though she also knew they would rather be at their home than in this keep that held so many horrible memories for Ainslee.

Even though Liam had been gone three years past, his ghost still lingered no matter what she did, and she knew Ainslee felt it too. She would need to usher in a new reign quickly, to break out from under Arran’s tutelage and show that she was not Liam, that she had the clan’s best interests at heart. Her cousin had not had the clan’s wishes when he had pillaged villages, killing innocent Scots and inflicting pain and anguish on so many people. That was not going to be her. She would attempt to lessen the pain for her clan and mend the bridges her cousin had torn down. That was all she wished for and today was the start of that change for their clan. Katherine walked over to where Ainslee was standing and started working on her nightgown, letting it fall to the floor. “’Tis time,” she announced, her voice surprisingly steady. “’Tis time,” Ainslee echoed as she removed the dress from its hook and draped it over Katherine’s head, the fabric falling down her body like a whisper. After cinching the laces tight across her bodice, Katherine allowed Ainslee to drape the tartan around her shoulder, pinning it with the brooch that had been her mother’s.

Her mother and father had both died when she was young, causing her to grow up under Liam’s watchful eye and horrid demeanor. Katherine had always dreamed that she would one day make her parents proud, but never in the ways she was about to do so. They would never imagine their daughter would become laird over her own clan, yet here she was, about to do what Katherine still felt was going to be the impossible. No matter how much Arran had prepared her for this, she still didn’t feel ready. Would she ever feel ready? “There,” Ainslee announced, handing Katherine the brush for her hair. “Ye look ready to face the dragon.” Katherine didn’t feel as if she wished to face any dragon or the great hall full of clansmen that would watch her take control of their clan. There were words she would have to say, and then she would have to address them. What if someone decided that they wanted to negate her ruling? What if her own council decided they had made a mistake in choosing her? Ainslee took the brush from her hand and ran it through Katherine’s hair. “I can see yer panic already, Cousin.

Ye were born tae be a leader. Dinnae let this change yer mind.” Ainslee was right. She had suffered through Liam’s reign, escaped the bloody terror he had inflicted, and helped Ainslee find her happily ever after with Arran. Now it was time for her to build her own future, and it started with this day. She just wished her stomach did not feel as if it would tie itself in knots at what she was going to do today.

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