JUST LIKE A HEARTBREAKING day years before, frigid wind howled, and icy snow stung. “’Tis close, aye?” Alpin said softly. They had just taken shelter in a narrow cave carved into the mountainside. “Aye.” Tavish tried to shake off bad memories, but it was no use. Cries of pain echoed in his mind. Screams of anguish. He eyed the worsening weather. “Though ‘tis tempting to push on, we best remain here.” “Are ye sure?” Alpin brushed snow from his dark red hair. “We could probably make it further down the mountain. Put a wee bit o’ distance betwixt ye and this place.” “’Tis but a place, friend.” He shook his head. “Nothing more.
” Yet it was so much more, and they both knew it. What had happened within sight of their location had changed his life forever. His traitorous gaze wandered to where kin once fled, and miscreants followed. For a moment, he swore he saw their dull, dirty plaids through the trees. Their shiny blades at the ready. Alpin went still on his horse. “Do ye see that?” Tavish narrowed his eyes, startled to realize it hadn’t been his imagination. Men did skulk through the woods with weapons drawn. “’Tis clear they mean to attack someone.” Alpin perked a brow at him.
“What do ye want to do?” “Leave them be.” Yet he felt unsettled. “’Tis probably just squabbling clans. Let them have at each other.” He waved it off. “’Tis none of our concern.” Alpin nodded, likely glad to hear it. The journey to MacLeod Castle had been fraught with enough skirmishes already. No doubt, he longed for a quieter return home. Something he might have enjoyed had a lass’s blood-curdling scream not rung out.
He sighed and looked at Tavish, knowing him well. “We arenae going to leave it be after all, are we?” “Nay.” Not now that he’d heard a lass in distress. It went against his grain. “Come. Let’s make haste.” Tavish spurred his horse and raced back into the storm, slowing when he drew closer to the fighting. After gesturing that they go on foot from there, he and Alpin tied off their horses and snuck closer. From what he could tell, four men had just attacked three other men. A lad on the ground struggled against someone on top of him.
Where was the woman? Moments later, the lad screamed, proving herself a lass. “Och.” Tavish flew into the fray, heading for her first. When one of the attackers turned his way, he went at him hard. His opponent never stood a chance. Tavish took advantage of the wind and driving snow to blind him and clashed blades. One, two, three slashes, then he ran him through. “Bloody hell, get off,” the lass screamed moments before Tavish yanked her attacker off her. Though tempted to make the lout suffer before ending him, he finished him off quickly. Meanwhile, the other two miscreants were downed by Alpin and one of the men with whom the woman traveled.
“Are ye all right, lass?” Tavish asked. Her hooded cloak made it impossible to tell. He held out his hand to her. “I am,” she sputtered, shaken. Understandably, she hesitated to take his hand, so he kept it held out. “I willnae hurt ye,” he assured. “Ye have my word.” Though she hesitated a moment longer, she finally let him help her up, and her long auburn curls blew free. Even with the weather whipping her locks about, there was no missing her stark beauty. Nor the feeling that overcame him when his gaze connected with her bright blue eyes.
Startling eyes with golden rings at their center. She cocked her head. “Who are ye?” Though the howling wind should have drowned out her whispered inquiry, he still heard her. Almost as if the storm had gone silent just for them. Just for this moment. “Tavish.” He had to know her better. It mattered naught that he’d sworn off lasses. Vowed he would not risk his heart again. She was different.
Captivating. Overly alluring. “And ye are?” “Nessa,” she replied. “Nessa MacLauchlin.” His heart sank. Any other name would have been better. Any name in the whole of Scotland. But no, she had said MacLauchlin. Which meant all hope was lost. How else could it be when she was his sworn enemy? Chapter One Scottish Highlands Late December 1346 “WE SHOULD HAVE STAYED at the castle and well ye know it,” Duncan grumbled, tossing aside his snowy, wet hat.
His gray-streaked chestnut-colored hair stood up at odd angles as he hunched over the fire. Though a bear of a man who could still wield a blade with the best of them, he had grown ornery with age. Trying to get warm, he rubbed his hands together and glowered. “’Tis here I wish to be, old friend.” Nessa handed him a cup of whisky and smiled, trying not to get her hopes up. The time for hope was long gone. Shame on her for living in the past, even for a moment. For wishing she might see Tavish one last time. “Ye dinnae need to stay,” she reminded Duncan. “I can manage just fine on my own.
” “’Tis better I’m here,” he grunted before muttering under his breath about unchaperoned lasses. Then something about lies, lies, and more lies. “Me being here is not a lie,” she defended. “Not anymore.” Naturally, he referred to the days when she supposedly met her friend Laird Marek MacLeod here. Everyone thought they were carrying on a passionate tryst, but they did no such thing. Rather, they were each other’s excuse to meet with someone else. While she never knew who Marek met, she’d spent her time with Tavish here in this cottage not all that far from MacLeod Castle. “Mayhap ye being here isnae a lie anymore,” Duncan conceded, his grumpiness already softening after a few sips, “but that doesnae change the fact it once was.” Instead of responding to what would soon turn into endless grumblings about Tavish and his poor behavior, she continued decorating.
A bit of holly here, some spruce there. Duncan frowned and shook his head. “I dinnae ken why ye’re bothering with that when we might be leaving.” Though he sounded baffled, she saw the worry in his eyes. He knew why she decorated. What this place meant to her. Especially at this time of year. “Whether we stay or not, ‘tis the holiday.” She remembered Tavish standing beside her, smiling as she placed things just so. The way he’d tucked a sprig of holly in her hair and his smile gentled.
How their gazes had held, and his fingers lingered. Before memories got the better of her, she forced a grin and glanced at Duncan. “We both know the real reason ye want to be at MacLeod Castle.” She winked. “Ye’d rather be enjoying the lasses.” Though he tried to fight it, Duncan offered a reluctant grin, as always, easily cheered by her when she set her mind to it. She was about the only one who could accomplish such. But then she’d had plenty of practice. Her da had appointed him her guard when she was a wee one. Since then, he’d more or less been her constant companion.
His younger sister, Gillian, had joined him as her protector several years back. As if she sensed Nessa thinking about her, Gillian strode in with an armful of wood and a skinned hare draped over her shoulder. A self-declared unconventional woman, she had raven-colored hair, a tall, lithe frame, and preferred to dress, hunt, and battle like a man. She usually talked and acted like one too, wholly in charge of those she considered lucky enough to bed her. Never shy, overly blunt, Gillian was no-nonsense to the bone. Nessa had taken to her the moment she met her. She admired her strength and free spirit. Like her, Gillian had a penchant for adventure, so she was a perfect fit for Nessa’s tromps betwixt MacLauchlin and MacLeod Castle. “’Tis safe to say I beat yer time, brother.” Gillian handed the hare to Duncan, chuckling.
“Best ye just admit who’s the better hunter and be done with it.” “I will do no such thing.” He put the hare on a spit over the fire. “Not until ye’ve downed a buck faster than me.” Nessa tuned out their competitive banter and stared out the window at the falling snow. It seemed strange waiting for someone other than Tavish. How eagerly she had once awaited him, too. Not anymore, though. Not after the damning things they had said to each other. Words that ended their relationship and broke her heart.
Now, scant months later, she was finally doing what she should have done years ago. Marrying an ally rather than pining over the enemy. Yet, despite how wrong it was, a small part of her longed to see Tavish. This had been their special place. Their time of year. They had never missed it. Not once since he’d come to her rescue that fateful day four winters ago. She still recalled with vivid clarity the moment they met. The catch of her breath and leap of her heart when their gazes first locked. Then the look on his face when she told him her name.
She closed her eyes, back there for a moment. “Nessa MacLauchlin?” he’d murmured, frowning. “Aye, ye know of me then?” she’d replied, taken by him the moment he helped her up. Mayhap even before that. Tall and broad-shouldered with ebony hair and handsome features, his thickly lashed dark green eyes captured her attention before all else. The sadness in them she suspected few others saw. “I know of the MacLauchlins,” he had replied gruf ly. “What are ye doing out here, lass?” He’d frowned at the few people with whom she traveled. At that time, Duncan and one other man. “’Tis far too dangerous.
Ye’ve not nearly enough guardsmen.” “I am more than enough,” Duncan had assured. He’d dusted snow of his trousers and kicked one of the fallen for good measure. Tavish had shaken his head. “So ye say.” “They just snuck up on me is all,” Duncan muttered, but Tavish had already turned his attention back to her. “What are ye doing out here?” he asked again, his voice sterner this time. Was he upset with her? It certainly sounded it. Which was something she need not tolerate no matter how appealing she found him. “Whilst I appreciate yer coming to my rescue, my reasons for being here arenae yer concern.
” She’d stood up straighter, not intimidated by his height or girth. She had three brothers just as large. “I will be on my way now.” His uncertain gaze had lingered on her face, his internal struggle apparent. Some might say he worried over her welfare, but she got the feeling it was more. “Aye, then, go,” he finally said, stepping aside. “But travel safe.” His troubled regard went to Duncan. “Mayhap keep a better eye on yer surroundings, aye?” Though Duncan muttered something under his breath, he remained civil because, all aside, he was grateful they had come to their rescue. So said the apologetic look he gave her when Tavish and his fellow warrior headed for their horses.
She would never forget how she felt when Tavish walked away. Her desperate hope that he would turn back. That goodbye would not come so soon after they said hello. “Staring out the window isnae going to make him appear,” Gillian said, pulling Nessa from the memory. Her friend stared out the window as well. “Ye need to stop this.” Her matter-of-fact gaze turned Nessa’s way. “Ye’ve said yer final goodbyes. ‘Tis over now.” She shook her head.
“Even if it wasnae, nor was he the enemy, his heart would still remain closed.” “I know,” she whispered, long past wishing it were different. Or so she kept telling herself. She’d been certain Tavish had finally pushed past his demons. That he had loved her as deeply as she loved him. Yet, in the end, it was too high a hurdle. Too risky. “Ye’ve made a good decision marrying the MacLean,” Gillian went on. “’Twill be a welcome alliance for yer clan.” “Aye.
” She trailed a finger along the windowpane, wondering what life would be like with Alistair MacLean. He was an amiable man. A gentle, agreeable sort who would make a good enough husband. It was not a love match, but neither of them needed it to be. “I dinnae doubt yer brother will agree to the marriage,” Gillian went on. “By my estimation, if MacLauchlin men sent to escort ye to the MacLean dinnae arrive today, then ‘twill be verra soon.” Having sent a message to her brother awhile back and familiar with the route between home and here, she nodded in agreement. Now, all she needed was Keenan’s written permission that she could marry Alistair, and they would be off. The sooner, the better as far as she was concerned. She needed to put Tavish behind her once and for all.
“’Tis foolish traveling at this time of year,” Duncan muttered. He rotated the spit. “With the way storms come upon these mountains.” “Och, we’ll be fine.” Gillian rolled her eyes and winked at Nessa, understanding why she was in a rush to finalize this marriage. “The three of us have traveled enough to know our way around a wee bit o’ gusty wind and snow.” “Dinnae forget the sheer ice and deadly avalanches.” Sarcastic, Duncan raised his cup in a mock toast. “All but a bit o’ tolerable traveling weather, aye?” Gillian snorted and made to remark but narrowed her eyes out the window instead. “I see something.
” All three drew their blades and watched. Waited. One never knew who approached in these trying times. From what they could tell from this distance, it appeared a sizeable enough retinue. “I would say fifteen or so men,” Gillian whispered. “Aye.” Duncan visibly relaxed. “MacLauchlin colors to be sure.” Positive she saw wrong, Nessa looked more closely. “Not just MacLauchlin colors, though, aye?” “Nay.
” Gillian’s eyebrows drew together in confusion. “Bloody hell, those are Taylor colors amongst them!” Which made no sense. But implied one thing for certain. Nessa’s heart leapt into her throat. “He’s here.” “Aye.” Duncan sighed and shook his head. A frown settled on his face as Tavish appeared through the woodland. “It seems the bloody bastard couldnae stay away after all.”