Darkness fell heavy across the land, and she shivered. Blood drenched the fabric of her dress, or what was left of it, and the dried leaves beneath her provided no cushion to the hard ground beneath. Each breath she took rattled her lungs and sent even more pain searing through her body. Around her, the men chuckled and talked amongst themselves as they rested after breaking her—body and spirit. She’d failed. Tears dampened her cheeks. The sun had yet to rise, so she could not have been trapped for too long, but even if by some miracle they let her go after they were done with her or she managed to escape, she was too badly hurt to make it to the patrols of Loch Moran now to warn them of the mercenaries hiding in their woods, ready to attack. Smoke from the fires she’d sent to the mercenary camp curled through the air, and she hoped that maybe it would spread and take her before the men had their chance with her again. Maybe, just maybe, Gemma and Elizabeth would make it, and the village would be spared. But there was no hope for her. No one was coming. A wispy figure stood over, a ghost that haunted her still. Usually, he only haunted her dreams and thoughts. This was the first time he’d manifested while she was awake. Or perhaps she was already dead, and he was greeting her on the other side.
It would not be a pleasant meeting. Even now, Fulton MacSeaver’s ghost sneered at her. “What did I tell ye, lass, about smiling at the other men, taunting them with yer beauty and yer magic? We highlanders are made of sterner stuff than that, and now look at ye. Yer skirts above yer waist and yer bodice torn. Is this what ye wanted?” Even dead, her husband was a bastard. “No one is coming to save ye. No one cares about ye. They all know what ye did. How ye kilt me. ‘Tis all yer fault, and now ye will pay.
” He was right about one thing. No one was coming for her. Theo was gone, and Thomas was in charge of the loch, and since he was the leader of the mercenaries, that only left Graeme. Her dead husband’s cousin had no love for her and wouldn’t lift a finger to help her. No, this was it for her. At least her torment would soon come to an end. Fulton’s ghost faded away as one of the mercenaries leaned over her, his eyes bright with lust. “Did ye hope that we were going to leave ye, lass? With a life like ours, we dinnae get much time for women, especially beautiful ones like yerself. Ye were blessed by the fae, aye lass?” Men and their superstitions. Of course, a woman with a pretty face must come from supernatural origins.
Or, as many of her clan had whispered, she’d transformed herself by magic to seduce men and lead them to their deaths. A hand touched her. Jillian opened her mouth and screamed. At first, she didn’t think she had anything left in her, but the sound pierced the night and made the man hiss and pull back. A hand covered her mouth, and she bit it hard enough so that blood filled her mouth. She would die tonight, but she had no intention of making it easy for them. Just as someone grabbed her hair and slammed her head on the ground, a roar shook the trees, and a figure charged through the small clearing, his sword raised. Now what? Jillian tried to keep her eyes open to see what was happening, but there was so little left in her. Closing her eyes, she drowned the noise, the sound of men dying around her. “Will ye not just die already, ye unnatural creature!” Fulton hissed in her ear.
Not real. He wasn’t real. Her husband was dead, and she was about to join him. “Jillian.” Not Fulton’s voice, and certainly not the voice she was expecting. “Jillian, lass, I have ye. Can ye move?” Graeme. Why in the world would he be saving her? Every time he looked at her, it was as if he were trying to kill her from the force of will alone. He had hated her from the moment she married his cousin. Before she deserved to be hated.
His hand touched her hip, and she jerked, trying to crawl away. “Jillian, lass, I am just pulling yer dress down,” he murmured, and the fabric tugged along her thighs. “I am going to cover ye with my shirt, all right?” Turning her head, she stared at him as he unbuttoned his shirt and peeled it off. Gently, he covered her with it and scooped her up in his arms. The wound on her back stung, and she inhaled sharply. “I know, lass, and I am sorry, but I wilnae leave ye here for other men to find ye. We need to get ye to Agnes.” “Gemma. Elizabeth,” she said hoarsely. “They are safe.
Theo is here. He and his men are cutting through the mercenaries as we speak. They wilnae take the loch.” If they were fighting, then what was he doing in the woods? “Why are ye here?” A faint smile spread over his face, and he stopped and looked down at her. “I came looking for ye, Jillian. Ye wilnae get away from me so easily.” His words had the strangest effect on her body, sending a shiver up her spine and not from dread. It sounded like a threat and coming from Graeme, it probably was, but that didn’t seem to stop the flutter of her heart. Thankfully, before she could think too much about it, she passed out in his arms. F 1 Four months later letcher MacSeaver was dead.
For decades, he’d been the leader of the MacSeaver clan, and for most of Graeme’s life, he’d been a respected and influential laird. Then his wife had died, and after a dark and painful mourning time, Fletcher had become the butt end of so many jokes for his lecherous ways. When Fulton died, he’d abruptly married to try and rid himself of the pain, and when her treachery left the most powerful highland clans in shock, he withdrew. And now it seemed he had passed in his sleep. As Graeme watched the coffin lowered to the ground, he wondered if the man he’d once admired was now at peace. Was there any peace for a man after he’d been ripped apart by the claws of love? As the priest droned on about Fletcher’s many accomplishments and feats, Graeme looked over the crowd that had assembled by his gravesite. Despite Fletcher’s sins, most of the MacSeaver clan still loved and respected him, and they had turned out for his funeral. Standing off to the side were the four other lairds in the alliance that Fletcher had signed. Connor Sinclair, laird of the largest highlander clan, had arrived with his wife, Moira. Next to him stood his brother, Alec MacKay, and his wife, Cora.
Fletcher had tried to seduce both of those lasses, Moira before her marriage and Cora after. Next to them, looking uncomfortable, was Creighton Armstrong. It was a wonder that he’d shown up at all, considering that Fletcher’s previous wife had seduced Creighton’s brother and turned him so that he slew the eldest Armstrong brother. Creighton had very little time to come to terms with the fact that both his brothers were dead before he’d been thrust into the position of power, but reports had claimed that he was faring well. Hamish Hamilton and his wife, Grace, were next to him, and finally, there was Theo MacDougal and his new wife, Gemma. Graeme gritted his teeth as he watched Theo. Ever since Theo had taken over Loch Moran, stolen it right under Fletcher as far as Graeme was concerned, the two men had an unusual relationship. When Fletcher had demanded that he travel to Sinclair lands and find himself a bride, he instead went to Loch Moran intending to find proof that Theo was squandering the loch so he could take it back. Instead, he’d ended up fighting side by side with Theo as the man risked his life to save it. They weren’t friends by any stretch of the imagination, but he didn’t feel threatened.
No, Creighton was the only one that Graeme needed to keep an eye on. He was the only unknown here. The priest finished, and Graeme nodded to the men by the grave. They started tossing the dirt over it, and slowly, the people headed back. All the lairds waited until after the people had filtered out before they started back together. “Armstrong,” Graeme greeted Creighton in a low voice. “I didnae have a chance to speak to ye before the procession. Welcome.” “Thank ye,” Creighton said shortly. Graeme decided to get right to the point.
“I am surprised to see that ye are here.” “I am a laird now, and I am bound by the treaty,” he said shortly before he sighed. “I had no issues with Fletcher, and I have no issues with ye. I come to pay my respects and nothing more. I plan to leave in the morning.” “Vera well, but ye are welcome to stay longer. My land is open to ye.” Creighton nodded, and Graeme dropped back. The rest of the group had sectioned themselves off. Theo and Hamish were speaking quietly, and Alec and Connor were chuckling at their wives.
Since Cora and Gemma were both English, the other ladies were peppering them with questions. None of them, it seemed, mourned Fletcher’s death. Just as Graeme wondered if he was intruding on the group, Connor and Alec noticed him. “Graeme,” Connor said, “I am sorry for yer loss. Fletcher and I werenae close, obviously, but he was yer family, and ‘tis not easy losing a mentor.” “He wasnae an easy man to love in his later years, but there was a time when he was an impressive laird. These people will miss him so.” “And they will accept ye as their laird?” Alec asked. “Aye. I have been the heir for several years now, and no one has challenged me for it.
” “I heard ye were to find a bride from among my people,” Connor said wryly. Instantly, the women behind him quieted, and he knew why. Gemma was probably straining to hear what he said next. She was also the one who no doubt ratted him out. “‘Twas my uncle’s wish that I marry to strengthen an alliance, but he is gone now, and a bride is not at the top of my list.” Connor nodded. “Ye have a good reputation, and I can respect the help that ye gave Theo when he needed it, despite yer feelings for Loch Moran, so I will support ye if ye wish to come to visit. I have many bonnie lasses in need of a husband.” Clearing her throat, Moira elbowed him in the stomach, and Connor grumbled. “Sorry.
What I meant to say is that ye are welcome to search for a lass to woo.” That seemed to mollify his wife, and the other men grinned. Marriage, it seemed, had changed them. Graeme hadn’t known Hamish for long, but he’d kept an eye on the others, as he suspected they did him. Connor had been laird the longest, forced to take over as a young man when his parents died. He had the most experience, but it was Hamish who had surprised everyone, coming up out of nowhere to take over a people who had previously been hostile to everyone. Then there was Alec and Creighton, both nudged or forced into leadership roles. And Theo, who’d created a coup right under his father’s nose. Before their wives, most of them had been very different. Graeme clenched his teeth.
They were all in love, and he feared that one day, the highlands would shudder when their current leaders were laid waste by the betrayals of their wives. He would not be such easy prey. Yes, he would need to marry, but it would not be for love. There were plenty of women who would help manage the keep, be kind to his people, and bear and help raise his children. Love need never be a part of it. As if she knew what he was thinking, Gemma joined him, her shorter legs struggling to keep up with his pace, but the English lass was a determined one. There was a time when Graeme had thought she might be for him. “She’s doing fine,” Gemma said.