I t was a fine day for a hunt. Or so Rory MacTavish tried to convince himself. For the truth was, he would much rather be in his favorite fishing spot, lying in the grass with the sun beating down on his face, warming him to his very soul. If he was to be out riding, he would far prefer it to be on his own terms, to go where he chose, when he desired, with no one demanding a thing of him. But alas, he was finally shouldering some of the responsibility of overseeing his own land. His sister was still doing much more of it than he was, as his father was always quick to remind him. Not that Niall MacTavish would ever tell his own daughter of the fact that he was not only aware of her activities and her successes, but was also proud of her. No, Niall would go to his deathbed with every kind word he could possibly say to his children still held within, never crossing his lips. “MacTavish!” Rory broke out of his reveries to answer the call from one of the Englishmen, who was actually somewhat of a decent hunter and had enough experience to be out in their woods, unlike many who journeyed here, to his Highlands, in order to take tours of their “savage land” and “rugged people” — or was it the other way around? He shrugged his shoulders and strode over to the man, affixing an affable grin to his face. “Can I help you?” “Are we going to get a move on? We’ve been standing around this yard for long enough now, and I’m eager to get to some game worth chasing today.” “Absolutely. Roderick!” he called to his friend, and the McDougall prodded his horse forward with his knees and cantered over to him. “What do ye say we split the group in two today? Take some of the more experienced with you, and I’ll take the beginners.” “I dinna know about that, Rory,” said the youngest of the McDougall brothers, a bit of a frown twisting his lips. “We’re best in pairs, you know that.
Kyla says—” “I know what my sister says, damn it,” Rory replied, digging the toe of his boot into the ground as an outlet for his frustration. Everyone listened to his sister, but no one ever seemed to give any of his own words even a shred of respect. “But these people should get what they paid for, and many of them are getting bored.” “Fine,” said Roderick with a shrug. “But when she comes after us, I’m standing behind you.” “Fair enough,” Rory replied, and resuming his typical affable nature, he began to explain the afternoon’s schedule to all of the tourists, who were staying at Darfield Keep, which, in addition to being Rory’s home and the MacTavish holding, was now basically kept as an inn for the tourists who came from all around England and the Scottish Lowlands to hunt and gawk at the lot them. Not that Rory should complain. It had been his own idea and one that had worked. It had saved their lands and those of the McDougalls, which were now shared thanks to the marriage of his sister to Finlay McDougall, who was chieftain of the adjoining clan. Though, if Rory was being honest with himself, he was perfectly fine with Kyla and Finlay overseeing everything, for it allowed him to spend much more time doing what he did best — having fun, particularly in the cities, with all of the gambling, women, and entertainment one could find.
“Are you not going to settle down?” his sister asked him nearly every time she saw him, but now he would just affix a wary expression on his face that warned her not to prod, and she would turn away with a sigh. “Mr. MacTavish?” He turned toward the feminine voice and grinned. This was why he didn’t settle down. There were too many women like this one. Not that he would ever do anything untoward with this lady, the wife of the hunter who had just left with Roderick. No, he never messed with married women. But that didn’t mean there was anything wrong with some harmless flirtation. For there was one thing that Rory MacTavish was more skilled at than any man he had ever met before — the art of women. “Aye, lass?” He put her at ten years his senior, but she held much appeal, her eyes knowing and suggestive, her blonde hair pulled back tightly behind her head in a braid.
“I heard you would be taking the beginner hunters today, and I was hoping to join you.” He didn’t love women on his hunts unless they were experienced riders like his sister, but he shrugged. “All are welcome,” he said with a smile. “Now saddle up, we should be off.” He caught her seductive stares throughout the hunt but did nothing to suggest to her that there would be anything further between the two of them. In fact, as alluring as she was, even had she been available, there was something about her that didn’t speak to him. Perhaps she was too willing, too eager for a short liaison with him. He saved most of that sort of fun for his time away — he didn’t like keeping it close to home, where it could cause far too many problems. Even afterward, as she watched him with open suggestiveness from across the dining hall, so much so that Roderick gave him a pointed look with a raised eyebrow, he simply shrugged and tipped his chair back, bringing his ale to his lips. He had built a good life here, and he wasn’t about to upset the balance.
But, he had to admit, there was something missing. There always had been. He had once thought that perhaps it was a need to be free of the Highlands, but he had spent enough time in Glasgow and London to know that wasn’t it. Did he need to go across the ocean, following many others from these parts? After hearing stories from Roderick and his wife, Gwen, he didn’t think so. So what was it that remained so elusive? * * * Peggy dug her heels into her horse, Darroch, urging him forward. He was a wonderful horse, he truly was. It was his rider who was the trouble. Peggy sighed. It was disheartening, really, to grow up in a family of great horsemen, to have two of them marry women who could ride even better than they could, while she could hardly encourage a horse to begin to move from a standstill. It was not as though she had never learned to ride.
Many had tried to teach her, but she just lacked the way. Kyla had progressed her further than anyone, which was the reason Peggy was here in the middle of the afternoon, attempting to put her newly learned skills into practice. “Come on, Darroch, please?” she begged, but the horse was as spirited and stubborn as she herself was — or so she was continually told. She didn’t see it that way. She simply thought she was strong and sure of herself. There was nothing wrong with that, now was there? Finally, the horse began to move, and Peggy shouted with triumph, pumping her fist into the air, but that only sent the horse into more of a canter than a trot. Damn it. Right. Calm around the horses. “Ok, boy, that’s good, just like that,” she mumbled, patting his neck.
She tilted her head back, feeling the Scottish wind blowing through her long hair, the mass of it stretching behind her. She hated wearing her hair up. Her mother quietly suggested now and then she might prefer it pulled back away from her face, but Peggy disliked the feeling of it pinned tightly to the back of her head. She liked it wild and free. Rebecca, her brother Adam’s wife, told her that if she ever did visit the cities as she longed to do, she may need to follow some of the more accepted practices, but then Gwen — Roderick’s wife — would chime in with an impish grin that if she were to go even farther, to the new lands across the seas and to the more wild prairies, she wouldn’t have to worry at all about what she might look like. Peggy wasn’t sure what she wanted. All she knew was that she longed to see more of the world. It wasn’t that she wanted to leave her home, her Highlands, forever. She simply yearned to experience more of what life had to offer before returning back to the home and the people she loved so much. Was that too much to ask? Apparently, to her father, it was.
Duncan McDougall, at one time the feared chieftain of these lands, had a particular soft spot when it came to his only daughter, the baby of his family. He didn’t want to see her come to any harm, and he felt the only way to ensure her safety was to keep her close to home. This, despite the fact her brothers seemed to be able to do whatever they pleased, whenever they pleased. Peggy grumbled as she pushed Darroch to climb the hill between their land and that of the MacTavishes. It had been an interesting alliance, to be sure, but one that seemed to work well. For most of them, anyway. For it meant that Peggy had to see more of the blasted Rory MacTavish. When she was younger — a few years ago, but it had been long enough — Peggy’d had a bit of a penchant for Rory, who had the sandy blond hair of his sister, Kyla, but was the tallest, broadest man that Peggy had ever set eyes on. Well, men that mattered, anyway. Her brothers didn’t count.
Rory’s grin always made her want to smile herself, and his green eyes gleamed when he laughed, which was often. He was a man who loved life and wasn’t afraid to find fun wherever he went. Unfortunately, Peggy had soon come to realize that the man loved women perhaps a little too much, and the sister of some of his closest friends was not even considered as one who counted as a grown woman to him. Which made her angry. And anger was a much better emotion than jealousy or, heaven forbid, sadness due to unrequited love. Not that she loved him. No, it was simply that she hardly had the opportunity to meet any other men, as she was continually tied to these lands. Once she had the opportunity to live, to experience life away from the Highlands, she would find what she was looking for. She was sure of it. Darroch had begun to make his way down the hill, but suddenly she realized that they were no longer cantering.
No, Darroch’s gait had become a gallop and she pulled on his reins to slow him down. “Whoa, boy!” she called. “That’s enough, you can slow now!” She heard the panic in her voice and she tried to slow her rapidly beating heart. “The horse can sense your emotion,” she heard Kyla saying in her head. Well, if Darroch could sense what she was feeling, then why didn’t he slow the hell down? Darroch began to veer away from the MacTavish Keep, heading toward the loch that stretched out for miles amid the two lands. “No, Darroch, not that way!” she called out desperately, but it was no use. Darroch had his mind made up. And nothing she said was going to change it.