Scot on Her Trail – Caroline Lee

There was safety in numbers. At least, that’s what Duncan Oliphant told himself, as he wondered, yet again, why he’d chosen to ride alongside a mute monk. The monk—not much older than Duncan himself—had obviously taken a vow of silence, bless his good intentions. But it made him boring as hell for a companion though. Duncan was used to being the silent one in the group. His brothers—all five of them— were more loquacious than he, and most of them were better tempered as well. But for the first time in his life, he was finding it damned annoying to have to be the one to carry on a conversation. “Are ye headed to Fearn, then?” When the monk glanced at him, one brow raised in question, Duncan shrugged. “I ken ye left Eriboll the same time I did, and we’ve been riding together for almost two days. Since there’s nae other abbeys near, I assume ye’re traveling to Fearn?” After a moment’s hesitation, the monk—who’d kept his hood pulled up far enough to almost cover his bushy orange brows—nodded quickly, then turned back to the road. Duncan stifled his sigh. Safety in numbers. Hoarse Harold, the notorious—and sometimes deadly—highwayman, was rumored to be working in these parts lately. No’ that a mute monk will make much of a difference if we’re attacked by brigands. For that matter, Duncan might not either.

His sword hung at his hip, and though his shoulders were broad from swinging a smith’s hammers, he was no warrior. He’d trained with his brothers, well enough, and he knew which end of the blade to stick into the other guy…but he much preferred to create, than destroy. Which explained why his pouch was so full, and why he was so concerned about highwaymen on this particular journey. Unconsciously, his free hand dropped to the pouch, adjusting its heavy weight to lie more comfortably against his thigh. The gold in it made it heavy, but he refused to remove it from his belt. Who knew what might happen to a man’s purse at the inns he’d be staying in? Settling himself in the saddle once more, he caught the monk’s glance toward the purse. The other man quickly looked away, but not before Duncan saw the question in his eyes. Too bad, friend. Dunc might not be the most talkative of men, but by St. Simon’s kneecap, he wasn’t going to go around bragging about his burden.

Before he could think of something else to bring up—something to distract the toocurious monk, a wagon rumbled over the hill ahead of them. Both Duncan and the monk moved their mounts over to the side of the path to let the wagon pass. The wagon was driven by an older man, a crofter by the look of the wool pallets in the rear, and two lasses who must be his daughters sat behind him. Both of them giggled to one another and waved cheekily to the two men as they passed. The monk peered intently at the wagon, as if there were something fascinating about the wool, but Duncan decided he was likely looking at the lasses. When they continued on their journey after the wagon went by, Duncan hummed thoughtfully. “I am no’ married. But if I had to be, I always thought I’d choose a lass like that, ye ken? A woman of the earth and soil.” A woman like his mam. A woman naught like Skye MacIan.

The monk was watching him, and Duncan could sense the question in his gaze. “I’m one of six sons, aye? All of us bastards, and all of us the same age.” Three sets of twins, all born the same year to a Highland laird, who was sowing his wild oats a little too vigorously. “Da says we’re all to marry this year and start presenting him with grandbairns. The first one to give him a legitimate grandson will— Och, it doesnae matter.” The first one to present Da with a legitimate grandson would become the next Laird Oliphant, a duty Duncan wanted about as much as another hole in his head. Two ears, two nostrils, and a mouth were enough to keep up with, thankyeverramuch. Imagine having to handle the shite of an entire clan! Nay, let Alistair—who’d been handling most of the Oliphant’s shite now for years anyhow—or even Duncan’s twin, Finn, become the next laird. Finn was far more charming and had just married his ”true love,” Lady Fiona MacIan. He was far ahead of them all when it came to Da’s dictates.

I’ll likely be an uncle by spring. As long as the lad doesnae call me Uncle Dunc, we’ll be fine. Still musing the whole thing over, Duncan grunted. “ ’Tisnae as if I never intend to marry. I just dinnae want to do it on Da’s orders, ye ken? Oh, dinnae give me that look,” he snapped at the monk. “I ken plenty of men marry on their father’s orders. But…” He shrugged. “I am nae one special. Just a smith.” I dinnae want to be a laird.

Was it his imagination, or did the monk roll his eyes a bit before he turned his attention back to the road when he announced his profession? But Duncan was still thinking about Da’s directive. He’d thought of little else for the last fortnight, really. “T Shifting uneasily in the saddle, he cleared his throat. “The problem is, while I might’ve thought I had a wife picked out—or a type of wife at least—” Cutting himself off, he shook his head as he realized he had no idea how to finish his sentence. “The problem is, I met someone…else.” Skye MacIan, his twin brother’s new wife’s twin sister. A convoluted relationship for an incredibly simple attraction. Attraction? Nay. What he’d felt for Skye went far beyond mere attraction. As soon as he’d seen her—combing down her horse in the Oliphant stables as he prepared to leave for Lairg—he’d been enthralled by her.

Not necessarily by her beauty, although she was bonny enough. But it was her certainty, her confidence, her complete confidence, which had reached under his kilt and tugged hard at his cock. And he hadn’t been the same since, especially since the moment he’d kissed her. Of course, the second time he’d kissed her, she’d punched him. They’d worked that out—a case of mistaken identity, which was likely Finn’s fault, the horse’s arse—and now were technically related by marriage. But that hadn’t wiped the slate clean as far as Duncan and Skye were concerned. He’d humiliated her, and she’d punched him. And had she threatened to kill him at their sibling’s wedding celebration? He was still unclear on that. His thoughts were miles away, on a certain Scottish spitfire, so the fork in the road ahead of him caught him by surprise. When the monk dragged his horse’s head—and ‘twas quite a fine mount, for a simple monk!—to the south, Duncan realized this must be the turn-off for the monastery.

Knowing the man wouldn’t answer him, nonetheless, Duncan lifted his hand in farewell. “Safe travels, friend. My thanks for listening to my problems.” The monk’s response was a surprised scowl, then a quick nod, before kicking his horse into a trot. Duncan shrugged and turned his attention to the easterly route. The Oliphant lands —home—lay in that direction. And now he was alone. Alone with his thoughts. And his gold. His fingers curled unwillingly around his sword hilt.

The monk had been poor company, but at least there had been safety in numbers. hink ye we should recruit another man?” “Nay, the split is poor enough between the five of us.” “ ’Twould be better, if we didnae send so much to the laird—” “Quiet, lad. A honied cake like ye dinnae ken what ‘tis like to lead a clan.” Skye MacIan—daughter of a laird, sister of another one—pretended great interest in the knobby stick she was whittling while her men argued. It wasn’t so much an argument, as a discussion they tended to have whenever there wasn’t enough prey to keep them occupied. “What say ye, Bean? Do ye like sending half of what we take to the castle, while we content ourselves with a pittance?” Young Rabbie always voiced these complaints. Skye wasn’t sure taking him on had been the best idea, but his uncle had vouched for him, and she trusted Fergus’s judgement. Still, the greedy whining could get a mite annoying. A mite? She snorted softly.

More like Rabbie is a heap of annoyances. Bean, their giant, stood with his arms crossed and legs planted. The dear, dense man was a champion when it came to standing still. No one could do nothing quite as well as he. Now, he frowned, and opened his mouth in that way he had, which indicated he’d be uttering something deep and profound any day now. “Aye.” Ah, there ‘tis. Skye tucked her chin against her chest and hid her smile as she worked her bollock dagger around a particularly gnarled knot in the stick. “Aye, what?” Rabbie whined. “Aye, I like sending half of what we take to the castle.

Laird MacIan needs it.” “See?” Fergus jumped on Bean’s words, scowling at his nephew. “We all understand, ‘tis our tarting duty to the whole fruitcaking clan. The MacIan relies on us, even if he dinnae ken it.” “Well, ‘tis why I think we dinnae need another member of our band,” Rabbie grumbled, lounging against a boulder near the stream. “The pickings are poor enough. And me mam can only—” “Yer mam?” Fergus pushed himself to his feet and began to pace, likely to keep from smacking the lad on the back of his head. “Yer puir, custardy mam never sees a piece of our prizes, I’ll wager. The way ye spend it all at the tavern when ye think we cannae see — Och, honey!” Well, if the real cursing was starting, that was Skye’s cue to interrupt. “Enough,” she said quietly, certain in the knowledge her men would listen and respect her words.

She pointed the phallic stick at Rabbie’s nose. “Ye are riling yer uncle up, which will do none of us any good.” The lad had the grace to appear abashed, but Skye was never sure if it was because he respected her…or her position as Lady. So her frown was a little fiercer when she continued, “This is the way things have to be. I trust nae one else when it comes to keeping our clan afloat, and sometimes I wonder about my choices as is.” From Bean came a low rumble she recognized as his chuckle, but she held Rabbie’s gaze until the boy nodded and dropped his chin in acknowledgement. “Aye, milady. Sorry, Uncle.” “Fig tart,” Fergus mumbled, and Skye sighed. The older man really was wonderfully supportive.

He’d been the MacIan farrier when Skye was a girl, but now his son had that role. She’d more or less adopted Fergus, and when she’d turned highwayman—highwaywoman?—Fergus had been the first she’d approached with her scheme. He’d always stood beside her, even when he shouldn’t. One of those times had been when he’d caught her repeating a curse word he’d said was strong enough to make a lassie’s hair curl. Skye, at age ten, had pointed out her brown hair did curl, so he shouldn’t worry. Still, the dear man hadn’t wanted to offend her, and had refused to add to her corruption. So he’d learned to yell other things. Sweeter things, or so he claimed. Like honey and fig tart. And he did it for her.

If that wasn’t love, Skye wasn’t sure what was. Smiling now, she pushed herself to her feet, brushing the shavings from her fine crimson gown as she did so. She slid her dagger into the sheath at her waist, making sure it hung against the back of her thigh, and thus, was less obvious. After all, she might look like a lady in this gown, but there was no reason to let their prey know she was aught else…until it was too late. She swept the stick around the clearing. “Do ye ken what this is?” Fergus actually flushed, which caused Skye to frown. Rabbie snickered, and Bean shrugged. “I dunno, but is it ribbed for yer pleasure?” Sucking in a startled gasp, Skye glanced down at the stick she’d been absent-mindedly whittling. Oh. Oh, it did look a bit like a— With a frustrated grunt, she tossed the thing into the woods and resisted the urge to wipe her palm on her gown.

“I meant this…this bickering,” she snapped, with a roll of her eyes. “ ‘Tis naught more than boredom.” Taking a deep breath, she crossed her arms in front of her chest and glared at Rabbie, who was still snickering. “If ye dinnae like this arrangement, ye are welcome to find other gainful employment. I’ve made things simple for us, I think. Away from our homes only once a month or so, and enough prizes to line yer purses in between. Do ye no’ agree?” With a sigh and a great roll of his eyes, Rabbie finally agreed. “Aye, milady. ‘Tis a fine arrangement. I just wish—” “That my sister-in-law had no’ drained our coffers dry? That she dinnae care so much for frivolity and finery and stupidity, that she thinks naught of spending my brother’s—and my clan’s—gold?” Mayhap there was a bit of bitterness seeping into Skye’s voice.

“Aye, I wish those things too.” “Lassie,” Fergus murmured quietly, “ ’tis no’ yer fault the Lady Allison does those things.” “Nay, ‘tis no’,” she agreed, then dropped her head back to stare up at the sky through the reaching branches of the oak they stood under. “But ‘tis up to me to do something about it.” “Why?” Bean’s question was unexpected. The big man tended to only do what he was told to do, and not worry about the rest. “Because,” she said gently, “I am the last MacIan left at home besides Stewart. My brother is the laird, and he loves that shrew of a wife for some reason.” Likely because she was about to present him with the long-awaited MacIan heir. “My sisters have all married, and my brothers are gone as well.

” Two had joined the church, and one had died in a stupid border skirmish. “ ’Tis up to me to ensure the MacIans have enough gold to last through next winter.” Especially now since Fiona had married and moved to Oliphant land. It had only been a sennight since Skye had returned from Oliphant Castle, her sister’s new home, and Blessed Virgin, but she missed Fiona! Her twin was so in love, it was sickening, but Skye had to smile at the thought of Fee’s stomach swelling with child. Any day now, judging how often I had to find someplace else to sleep while Finn snuck into our room. Her relationship with her brother-in-law might’ve started out rocky, but it had improved slightly when she’d learned Finn Oliphant wasn’t the philandering rake she’d assumed. Nay, that hadn’t been Finn she’d kissed in the stable; hadn’t been Finn who’d woken her from a sound sleep with his lips and hands—his rough, glorious hands!—on her body. And it hadn’t been Finn she’d punched. It hadn’t been Finn who’d woken such a yearning need inside her. Nay, it had been his identical twin brother, Duncan, each time.

Duncan Oliphant. One of the laird’s six bastard sons. The one who wanted so little to do with her, he’d left his own home right after his twin’s wedding, rather than risk having to be polite to her. At the celebration, she’d brought him ale because he’d looked lonely…and he’d asked her if it was poisoned. With a slight snort, she remembered her response. If I wanted to kill ye, Dunc, I’d do it with a blade. She remembered the surprise—and dare she hope, respect, which had flashed in his eyes then. And she’d spent a fortnight trying to forget it. “Lassie…?” Fergus’s quiet prompt pulled her from her memories. She raised a brow in his direction, and he flushed again, but didn’t back down.

“When will ye be finished?” “With thieving?” He nodded, then stopped his pacing to stand beside Bean. “When will enough be enough? I ken ye are careful to pick only those who can afford our taxes. And by yer orders, we dinnae prey on women or bairns. Yer honor is all that’s standing between us and an eternity in custarding Hell.” “Her rules are all that’s standing between us and riches,” Rabbie muttered. “Sweet berries!” Stifling her sigh, Skye planted her fists on her hips. “If ye provoke yer uncle again, laddie, ye’ll feel the back of my hand.” Although she was only two years Rabbie’s senior, she lifted her chin and held his gaze until he looked away. “I’m just short because Hoarse Harold has taken our best pickings,” he muttered. She narrowed her eyes at the lad’s weak apology.

Unfortunately, it was true. They’d all been on edge since the beginning of the summer, when another band of footpads had moved into the area. Excuse me? We’re no’ footpads. We’re highwaymen. Women. Whatever. Skye might’ve had too much honor for a highwaywoman, but Hoarse Harold made up for that. He robbed from rich and poor alike, and she’d even heard rumors of murders. With him in the area—and far too close to MacIan land—Skye was becoming nervous about taking her men out at all. ‘Twas only a matter of time before the outrage at Hoarse Harold’s actions became so loud, the Crown was called in to help, and where would Skye and her band—and the MacIan clan—be then? Mayhap Fergus’s plan to quit is a smart one.

Still, she couldn’t allow her men to see her hesitation. So, frowning, she turned back to Fergus. “And what does my honor have to do with quitting?” Fergus exchanged glances with Bean, and the bigger man dropped his hand to the hilt of his sword. Everyone there knew he would never draw it, but it made him happy to have the scabbard at his side. When Bean just shrugged, Fergus swallowed, then turned back to her. “Ye’re a lady, Skye.” Before she could scoff, he hurried on. “Dinnae deny it, lass. Ye’re a lady, with expectations.” “Stitching and tapestries—” “Marriage and alliances,” the older man gently corrected.

Desperate to hide the way her mind had immediately jumped back to the memory of Duncan Oliphant’s lips on hers, Skye’s scowl darkened. That didn’t deter her old friend though. “Even if ye never marry, Skye, the fate of the MacIan clan is no’ on yer shoulders. If that berries-and-cream brother of yers would just stand up to his wife, and tell the woman to quit bleeding us dry, mayhap—” With a sigh, she interrupted him. “Stewart doesnae ken—or doesnae want to see— what Allison is doing to us.” “Then make him.” Fergus stepped forward, his hands stretched out toward her. “Make him understand, so he can put a stop to this, and so ye can quit putting yer life in danger just for some coin.” “She could always marry some rich laird,” Rabbie pointed out unhelpfully, “and get the coin that way.” Fergus reacted before she could, stepping toward his disrespectful nephew with a raised hand.

She might’ve stopped him, although the Blessed Virgin knew the lad needed a good slap, had the sound of hooves not interrupted them before she could. “Pierre!” Rabbie cried, sounding relieved. The Frenchman was the last member of their band, and it had been his turn on watch duty. The boring job consisted of hiding in the cover of the woods along the road, about a mile north. When a likely mark passed, he would run for his horse and take a short-cut back to where the rest of them waited. Skye’s attention immediately went to their fifth member as he galloped into their little clearing. Pierre had been a good judge of prey since he’d come into their band, and although the communication was difficult, she trusted him. And she trusted that pleased grin on his face. A new mark. She sent an excited smile to Fergus.

“Looks like today willnae be the day to quit, auld man.” And he was grinning too. “What did ye see, Pierre?” Hurriedly, the Frenchman—who was a few years older than Skye, with a thick mustache—slid from his horse and gestured excitedly toward the main road. “J’adore le pamplemousse!” Fergus, Skye, and Rabbie all turned to Bean. He might be a slow thinker, but he was the only one of them who spoke French. “What’d he say?” Rabbie asked, already fingering his sword hilt. “Pierre says there’s a man coming, wearing a sword.” “Sword means he kens how to use it,” Fergus muttered. “Sword means he has something to protect,” Rabbie countered. Skye had to admit the lad was right.

“He’s all alone, Pierre? Ye think he’s carrying something worthwhile?” “Où est la bibliothèque?” Without being asked, Bean translated. “He looks worthy.” Looking from Pierre to Rabbie’s excited expressions, Skye made up her mind. Fergus might be ready for her to quit, but she had a duty to her clan. This traveler was an easy mark and might have enough coin to enable them all to head home. Her mind made up, Skye reached for her braid and began untying it. “We’ll use the usual distraction, lads.” Fingers flying, she met each of her men’s eyes, certain they knew their roles. “Let us make some coin!” “Mon aéroglisseur est plein d’anguilles!” “Aye!” Rabbie cried, as Bean grunted. But Fergus just shook his head.

“Fig tart!”

.

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