Kinsey Fletcher never cared much for market days. They were loud, crowded and filled with Englishmen trying to stir up trouble. Like the two bleary-eyed sods pointing at them as Kinsey and her older sister, Clara, walked by. “Ignore them,” Clara said gently. “They mean us no harm.” “They would if given a chance.” Kinsey narrowed her eyes at the men, who grinned salaciously in return. The arrogant fools. “Ye can’t go around picking a fight with every man who looks at ye.” Clara led them away from the carpenter’s stall they’d been perusing, and through the crowded streets. “Ye’d never get any rest.” Kinsey scoffed. “I’m not the only one they’re looking at.” Though sisters, their vastly different appearances went beyond their personalities to their hair, with Clara’s being dark and silky straight while Kinsey’s curls were bright red. Regardless, they both seemed to draw a significant amount of notice.
Not that it was anything Kinsey couldn’t handle. Indeed, it was the exact reason she insisted on bringing her bow and a quiver of arrows to the market. “Come, we’re nearly done.” Clara lifted the basket from Kinsey and examined the contents. They needed only a few nails and a bit of wool, and then they could finally return to their stone manor on the outskirts of the village. It wasn’t only Scots who lived in the village, but English as well, given that they were so close to the border between the countries, where the two nationalities tended to blend. How could they not when the lands were stolen by either country, then taken back, only to be stolen again? But reivers often spilled over from England in greater numbers on market days. Some seeking items from the traveling merchants; others in retaliation for some raid against them, which had been a retaliation for another prior raid. On and on it went. One day, someone would need to put a stop to it.
And Kinsey wouldn’t mind being that someone. Regardless, the men all somehow wound up at the tavern with too much ale sloshing about in their heads and a keen determination to woo whatever lass they came upon. Kinsey and her sister stopped at the blacksmith’s booth, where Clara bent to inspect a bin of nails. It was a rare sunny day, one she would prefer to spend at home rather than at the market. The sun beat down overhead, and the dry, dusty air rose around them, mingling the fetid scent of too many people with the various sweet and savory scents of cooking food. “They’re all straight, miss.” The blacksmith folded his arms over his broad chest. His gaze wandered appreciatively over Clara’s slender pale hand, then up her arm and to her face. “Ye always do quality workmanship, I know,” Clara rushed to reassure him. She lifted her focus to him, and her cheeks colored with a blush as she took note of his attention.
Kinsey shifted from one foot to the other in agitation. This was why they were always getting into trouble during market days. Clara was the type who wouldn’t ignore anyone speaking to her. Not the vendors, who she politely declined when she passed, nor the men who approached her to compliment her. Clara would flush prettily, a genuine response she could never stifle, while offering a “Nay, thank ye,” which was far too sweet to be taken as an actual rejection. It only made the men press harder, and then Kinsey would have to step in to demonstrate the power of true discouragement. Usually with her bow and arrow. It wasn’t Clara’s fault, of course. She was a beauty, though she never believed it regardless of how many men tripped over their hanging tongues as she passed. It was more than her wide, pale blue eyes and the full mouth they’d all inherited from their mum.
There was an innocence to Clara, a demeanor of genuine kindness. Mayhap that was why her good sister attracted the worst men. Kinsey wasn’t as oblivious when it came to men’s notice. She knew they watched her as much as they did her sister. But she didn’t blush at their flattery. She sliced them with the blade of her tongue and set them back a few paces. The two Englishmen were still there, pointing at her now. One caught her notice and gave a cheeky wave with the tips of his plump fingers. Kinsey practically growled her irritation. “Do ye think these will be enough?” Clara asked.
Kinsey distractedly examined the twenty or so pointed nails in her sister’s cupped hand. Kinsey nodded, though she had no idea how many were needed. Their eldest sister, Faye, had always been the one to attend the village on market days. Not only did she enjoy the task of shopping, but she also managed to procure the best deals. Except now, Faye was married, living in the Highlands with a bairn on the way. And there was nothing for it but to attend the market in her stead. Clara paid for the nails and thanked the blacksmith, who gave a slow, besotted smile as he accepted the coins. They had only a length of wool to purchase, and then they could leave. Kinsey’s shoulders didn’t relax though, not with those men nearby. She glanced about and realized she’d lost them.
Mayhap that meant they’d given up and— “You’re a pretty one.” One of the two Englishmen stepped from the surrounding crowd and approached Clara. A delicate shade of pink blossomed over her cheeks, damn her. “Thank ye.” Clara shyly ducked her head. Kinsey didn’t bother to hide her huff of aggravation. Clara would eventually get them both killed. “I bet you’re far sweeter than any honey I could buy here.” The man stepped closer, swaying a bit. His friend stood behind him, saying nothing as he offered them a smile that looked ready to slide off his homely face.
Clara shook her head, her smile wavering with uncertainty. “Nay, I—” Kinsey moved to stand before her. “She’s not interested.” The man didn’t bother to hide his lust as his gaze slithered down Kinsey’s body. “And I bet you’ve got the right amount of spice to offset that sweet, eh, Red?” She resisted the urge to cross her arms over her chest to shield herself from his foul stare. Not only would she not give him the satisfaction of knowing he’d unsettled her, but she also wanted to ensure she could draw her bow quickly. “I’m also not interested.” She notched her chin a little higher. “We’d like ye to leave.” “What if I want to stay?” He licked his lips.
She slung her bow off her back, drew an arrow and sent one into the dirt just before his feet where he stood several paces away. He stepped back, and a second arrow landed where his other foot had been. “The next one goes a little higher.” She nocked another arrow, aimed it at his groin and smiled. “Is that enough spice for ye?” “Kinsey.” Clara’s voice held a note of warning. Kinsey could already hear the admonishment. Though, with Clara, it was more a careful reminder than a chastisement. “Remember what the constable said—the next time ye bring out yer bow, ye’ll be fined.” But Kinsey wouldn’t be fined.
The constable made the threat often enough for her to know it held no weight. Then again, she’d only ever shot the ground. Would the constable continue to be as forgiving if she actually put her arrow into someone? Eventually, she just might find out. Today would not be that day, for the Englishman and his friend scowled and staggered away, grumbling their curses. The cloth merchant was at the end of a line of booths, beside a cart offering jars of honey. “Do ye need any assistance?” A voice asked from behind Kinsey. From an Englishman to a Scotsman. God, how she hated market days. “Commendable timing.” She glanced over her shoulder.
The man was lean and tall, his brown hair neatly combed to the side, his high cheekbones evident with the hint of a smile on his lips. He was the most handsome man Kinsey had ever laid eyes on. And he knew it. What was worse, he was undoubtedly a nobleman. His clothes were too costly to be a reiver. Or even a merchant from the border for that matter. Before she could open her mouth to offer a smart retort to send him off, Clara spoke up. “Nay but thank ye for offering to help.” Kinsey gave her sister a long-suffering look, which Clara met with a patient tilt of her head. How was it she never got riled? “Then mayhap ye can help me,” the man said.
But Kinsey was already turning away, pulling Clara toward the cloth merchant who would undoubtedly take far too much of their time. “Can we get the wool next week?” Kinsey asked under her breath. “I’m almost finished with the new dress I’m making for Mum.” Clara navigated the crowd of people as they walked. “I need only this last bit for it to be complete.” Her older sister slowed just before they reached the cart laden with bolts of colorful fabrics, the scent of dye sharp from the fabric, which had been warming in the sun. “I know ye don’t like market days, and aye, the people can be…coarse, but Kinsey, I worry about ye. The constable said—” “Excuse me, miss.” The handsome stranger appeared at Kinsey’s side once more. He smiled at her in a way she was sure other women found charming.
To her, it made him look like a false apothecary, selling off a bottle of common loch water as a cure-all potion. Still, whatever he had to say would at least be more interesting than yet another discussion about the constable and his flimsy threats. She nodded to Clara to go on without her. After all, the vendor was only a few paces away. She would be able to keep watch on her sister from where she stood. Clara hesitated, but Kinsey waved her on, and she finally made her way to the cart. The man was still smiling when Kinsey returned her gaze to him. “I’m Sir William MacLeod,” he said as if he thought the familiarity of his name would warm her to him. It didn’t. “Ye caught my eye,” he continued.
“I had to come talk to ye.” And here it went… Kinsey sighed. “Ye’re an exceptional archer.” His compliment took her aback. “I beg yer pardon?” A glance confirmed Clara was at the cloth merchant and being left alone. “I saw how confidently ye fired those shots.” He nodded the way men do when they’re impressed. “Ye’re damn good.” Heat touched her face. “Thank ye,” she replied.
Was she really blushing and thanking him? She was getting as bad as Clara. But then, no man had complimented Kinsey’s skills with a bow before. “I have need of a good archer,” he replied. “How would ye like to join my men and me in the fight against England?” He looked over his shoulder to indicate a group of men outside the inn before returning his attention to her. “To rise with the return of King David and reclaim the land that the English have stolen?” Her blood charged in her veins at his words. She’d heard of King David’s return to Scotland after his exile in France. He’d been there so long that she couldn’t remember a time when he had been on Scottish soil. She’d also heard of his determination to take back what belonged to them. And she could be part of that army. How long had she wished to exact vengeance on the English for their betrayal of her and her family after their English father was slain in combat? How often had she lain awake in the manor, craving something more out of their quiet life? This would be the ideal opportunity.
The decision ought to be easy. She glanced to where Clara sifted through several bolts of fabric with a careful hand. Could Kinsey leave her family? Especially with their brother, Drake, already working for an earl on the wrong side of the border, and Faye being so far away? Indecision raged within her. For how could she not fight for Scotland after so many injustices? * * * William MacLeod had spied the fiery lass from across the market. What man had not? Hair like fire, ice-blue eyes that sparkled with a challenge, high firm breasts…aye, he’d have noticed her anywhere. But then she’d brought out that bow, quick as a snake’s strike, and expertly pinned the arrows into the ground right before the Englishman’s feet. That was the kind of archer William needed under his command. A bonny lass to warm his bed would be an added benefit. And yet she appeared hesitant. “If ye join my men and me in our efforts to regain Scottish land from England, I’ll, of course, pay ye.
” He winked at her. She frowned slightly, almost appearing as though she found his charm off-putting. Strange. Her pretty lips pursed with shrewdness. “If ye pay me to do the job of a man, I’ll take the wage of one.” There was something in the way she spoke that made her sound English. The Scottish burr was there, aye, but her words were less lyrical, crisper. He’d bet his life that she had mixed blood running through her veins, which meant neither country had likely been kind to her. He could use that to his advantage. He considered what she’d said.
While most men might balk at such a brazen demand, William found the logic of her request sound. “Consider it done. The pay of a man for the work of a man.” “And I want armor.” She glanced behind him, where his men stood in their chainmail. “Of course.” Her eyes narrowed with a look of cautious intensity. “How do I know I can trust ye?” He studied her, taking in the blue linen kirtle hugging her well-curved frame. The garment was quality enough, but not grand. Certainly, it was absent fraying hems or worn spots.
Which meant she was not poor, but nor was she rich. Her bow and arrow were of better quality, mayhap the best he’d seen on the borderlands. She wasn’t unfounded in her lack of trust, especially on the border between England and Scotland, where treachery was prevalent, and reivers left everyone on edge. She flicked her attention to where her attractive dark-haired companion pulled a bolt of fabric from a stack and handed it to the merchant with a generous smile. William was running out of time. “My father is Laird of Dunscaith Castle on the Isle of Skye.” He indicated his family crest on the hilt of his blade, the bull’s head expertly carved into the gold. “And ye’re his heir?” The weight of her assessment settled over him. William squared his shoulders. “Why would I no’ be?” In his father’s eyes, there was one primary reason—disappointment.
It had started early on when William was a lad. The knowledge that nothing he ever did was good enough to satisfy his father. After a time, William gave up trying. He’d also stopped caring. Or so he told himself. But with his father now threatening to name someone else as his heir for the lairdship, William had no choice. He had to fight for his birthright. This was his one opportunity to prove his worth by assisting King David in reclaiming Scottish land. And William would stop at nothing to ensure he succeeded. “I must go.
” The lass said abruptly. “Can I no’ get an answer from ye?” he pressed. “What’s yer name?” She smirked. “If I decide to join ye, I’ll give it then.” “We leave at the first light of dawn tomorrow.” A sense of urgency always helped spur prompt decisions. “Meet us by the inn.” Except she didn’t take the bait. She lifted a shoulder with a maddening air of indifference. “I may be there.
I may not.” She began to turn away, and he knew she would be lost if he didn’t press his cause. “Have ye or yer loved ones no’ ever suffered at the hands of the English?” he asked. She slowly looked back at him, and he knew his gut had been right. “Ye’ve no idea,” she ground out. “Then why let them win?” He stepped toward her. Her eyes sparked in a way that told him he’d struck a chord, one he could readily play. There was a sweet, powdery scent about her. Markedly feminine. He could envision himself gliding his lips over the hollow of her naked collarbone, breathing her in.
“The English have had their way with Scotland for too long,” he said. “Starvation. Raids. Homes burned. Lives stolen.” He shook his head. “No more.” His hand balled into a fist. “King David will reclaim Scotland, and I’ll be there. My men will be there.
Will ye?” Her breath quickened, evident by the swell of those alluring breasts against the neckline of her simple gown. “Dawn?” He nodded, and she said nothing more, leaving to rejoin the dark-haired woman. Though she hadn’t committed to accompanying them, she would be there. Or at least he hoped. Hiding a smile, he put his back to her despite the temptation to watch her depart and returned to the inn. All his men had gone inside the sagging structure, except the largest warrior who merely lifted his brows at William’s arrival. “Will she join us?” Reid asked. William shrugged and tried to pass it off as though she were of little concern. “She says she’ll think about it.” “That’s as close to a nay as ye’ve ever had from a lass.
” Reid pulled his auburn hair back into a thong, away from his sharp-featured face. “What do ye think?” “She’ll show.” Reid smirked. “An early dawn departure, then?” It was a tactic William had employed before. A highly effective one. William simply winked. “Did ye secure the rooms for us?” “Do ye even have to ask?” William threw his arm around his second-in-command. There was a reason he’d asked his boyhood friend to be his right-hand man in going up against the English. Reid was resourceful, with a knack of accomplishing any task. They entered the inn together for a bit of hot food and a few ales before settling in for an early night.
As William ate and drank with his men, however, he couldn’t stop his mind from wandering back to the bonny redhead who spoke with a blended accent. She was lovely to look at, aye, but many lasses were. If her archery skills were as good as she’d exhibited, she would be invaluable as a warrior. They were in an age where a capable bow could give them an advantage, plucking off enough of the enemy to change the tide of battle. She could be the pivotable point that helped him impress his father. William hated the twinge in his chest at the thought of his da. He shouldn’t crave the man’s approval the way he did, not when it had not been given in so long. But mayhap now… He knew the night would be a fitful one as dawn slowly approached, with him wondering if the lass would join them or not. And he hoped to God that she would.