Tamed by a Highlander – Paula Quinn

Ye’re a lass; my daughter, and I’ll no’ have ye fightin’ in a battle.” Mairi MacGregor stood with her father in the Banqueting Hall at Whitehall Palace, staring up at him in mute fury and disbelief. She was a lass. What the hell kind of reason was that to refuse to let her return home in the morning with the rest of her kin? So what if the lass her brother Rob had rescued from the hands of the Dutch admiral Peter Gilles at St. Christopher’s Abbey was King James’s daughter, and was now on her way to Camlochlin? If the princess royal’s enemies did, in fact, follow them and attack Mairi’s home, she wanted to be there to help stop them. But there was a bigger reason she didn’t want to stay in England. It had little to do with it’s being hotter than hell on Judgment Day, or that the nobles sitting around her beneath grand murals painted by a Protestant king’s favored artist looked down their noses at her Highland dress and barbaric customs. “Faither, if this Dutch admiral attacks Camlochlin, I would like to fight.” He gave her a horrified look that changed with her next heartbeat to one rife with warning. “Never suggest such a thing to me again.” “But ye know I can wield a sword!” she argued, blocking his path when he moved to pass her. Aye, she knew how to wield a blade, and she was not afraid to face one. There were many times when she had, and they were not on her father’s practice field. But she could never tell him that she and her brother Colin were part of the Highland rebel militia who cut down Covenanters and Cameronians, those Scottish Presbyterians who had bound themselves to maintain their doctrine as the sole religion of Scotland. Protestants, many of whom sat in Parliament, believing the Highland ways, with a chief ruling over his clan, barbaric.

“Ye refuse me because I am a woman!” “Ye’re damned right!” he said louder than he intended. He cut his molten gaze to Lord Oddington passing them and looking over his shoulder. “Ye will remain here,” he told her, lowering his voice. “Colin will remain, as well. I dinna’ know where ye both sneak off to at home, but ye willna’ be doin’ it this time.” Her eyes opened wide with alarm at what he suspected, but she couldn’t give up her pleading. “But…” “I willna’ be persuaded, Mairi.” His gaze on her softened. “Ye are my daughter and ye will obey me in this. Ye will remain here until ’tis safe to come home.

I love ye and I will do whatever I need to do in order to keep ye safe.” He walked off to join her mother at the far end of the hall, leaving Mairi alone with a dozen curses spilling from her lips. Damn it all to hell, but she wasn’t about to sit on her arse while her life was taken away from her. She was Callum MacGregor’s only daughter and as such she had been denied the rigorous training her three brothers had enjoyed growing up. But that hadn’t stopped her from learning how to wield a blade or fire an arrow. She could fight. She wanted to fight. But it had not always been this way. Once, long ago, she had been content to think of a life like her mother’s, protected and adored in the arms of a warrior. She had wanted a quiet life, one with a man who vowed to tell her how bonnie she was to him every day, until the end of their lives.

One with bairns of her own, in a home he’d promised to build for her, where tenderness and love meant more to her than religious or political wars. Connor Grant had birthed those dreams, and then shattered them all when he left her to serve England’s Protestant King Charles. She hadn’t seen him in seven years. She had put him out of her thoughts, out of her life for good. But tonight, he returned. Mairi had not been in her father’s chambers when Captain Grant arrived at Whitehall and had given her kin the news that the Dutch were responsible for the attack on the abbey. She had stayed away, hoping to avoid him until she returned home. But she wasn’t going home. All the years she had spent learning to protect herself from every kind of weapon, even deceit, could not prepare her for this day. She wished she were blind so she could not see the love of her youth, deaf so she could not hear him.

But what would it matter if she was so afflicted? She knew his face better than she knew her own. She’d grown up looking at it, falling in love with it. She knew every one of the thousands of emotions that played so openly across his features. The way his eyes spoke for him, as clear as any words falling from his lips. She still heard his slow, thick drawl in her dreams, more like the purr of a lion than the voice of a lad. He had haunted her for the last seven years and she hated him for it. She hated him for making her lose her heart to him when she was too young to stop herself. For sweeping that heart away on dreams of their future, and then taking them from her without looking back. Connor Grant was a part of her life she preferred to forget. But she could never forget the way he looked the day he left Camlochlin—resolved, despite the tears she foolishly shed for him.

She did not want to see or speak to him now. She was not certain she could contain the bitter betrayal he had left her with when he abandoned her… when he abandoned Scotland, and, mayhap, even his faith. Her eyes shifted toward the entrance. He was coming. He’d gone to have a meeting with the king and was likely finished and on his way to the Banqueting Hall right now. Her fingers twisted a loose thread in her kirtle, over and over, until the coarse wool made her flesh raw. But that was the only outward sign of the turmoil within her. She breathed steadily, even offering a temperate smile to the woman approaching her. “If Lady Oddington continues to ogle my husband,” Connor’s mother, Lady Claire Stuart, said, coming to stand beside her, “I will have no choice but to relieve her of her eyes.” Casting Lady Oddington a pitiful look, Mairi sighed.

“Ye would think she would exercise more caution around him after ye accidentally stepped on Lady Channing’s gown and nearly tore it from her body.” “Sweeting, that was Lady Somerset. Lady Channing lost her wig when my ring caught into it as I was passing her.” Mairi laughed for the first time that evening, but her mirth faded when her gaze drifted back to the entrance. “You mustn’t be angry with him,” Claire said softly. Of course, she was speaking of Mairi’s father. She had quit trying to help Mairi see her son’s side of things long ago. “Ye know I can fight, Claire.” “Still, you must obey him. He loves you.

” Och, how many times had she heard those words throughout her life? She knew her father loved her, but he loved his sons as well, and he had no trouble letting them fight. “I will be here with you if it is any comfort.” “ ’Tis,” Mairi told her honestly. If she had to remain here, she was happy that her friend was staying behind, as well. After losing four daughters at birth, Claire had taken her under her wing as if Mairi were one of her own. ’Twas Claire’s life Mairi wanted to emulate after Connor left. Before ever gracing Whitehall Palace’s grand halls, or being titled Lady Huntley of Aberdeen, Claire had been a rebel outlaw, fighting against the usurpers of her cousin Charles’s crown. She taught Mairi everything she knew about combat. As she looked now though, adorned in a gown of dark claret, her flaxen tresses swept unfashionably away from her face into a crown of curls above her head, it was difficult to imagine her wielding a spoon, let alone a sword. “I know you don’t like to speak of him…” Mairi wound her thread tighter.

Hell, mayhap ’twas not a good thing that his mother was staying. “… but I was hoping the two of you might—” She heard nothing after that but the hum of viols coming from the balcony above and the peal of thunder that shook the walls. She saw no one but the man framing the entrance. Dear God, how was it possible that he had grown even more handsome? Unlike most of the lesser mortals at court, dressed up like colorful peacocks in their elaborate silk costumes and high heels adorned with wide-ribbon bows, Connor wore high, military-style boots over buff-colored breeches that clung to his long, muscular legs. A sheathed claymore hung from one hip and a holstered pistol from the other, lending to the air of danger and authority that surrounded him. He stood apart from the rest like a leopard, lithe and confident. A blend of his two heritages, he stood tall and elegant like his royal English side, but thicker boned and more imposing than any Englishman, thanks to the Highland blood that coursed through his veins. He wore his ostrichfeathered military hat under his arm, leaving his hair to fall to his chiseled jaw in streaks of warm amber and pale flaxen. His red-and-white short coat boasted shoulders broadened by strength and brawn rather than yards of ruffle. Helpless to do anything else, Mairi watched him stop to share a greeting with Lord Hollingsworth and his wife.

He looked older, more experienced in things she might never understand. But his smile hadn’t changed. It was charming, sensual, and playful all at once. To make it even more heartrending to any lass with a set of working eyes in her head, it was adorned by a dimple on either side; the right, deeper than the left and needing only the slightest encouragement to appear. That is, until his eyes, eclipsed behind silken strands of gilded gold, found her and cut through her flesh like hot iron. The thread in her fingers popped. “Will you try, Mairi?” She blinked and looked at Claire. Try what? Rather than admit that she hadn’t heard a word Claire said because Connor had stepped into the hall, Mairi nodded. “Aye, of course.” “Thank you, sweeting.

That means much to me.” Claire leaned in to kiss her cheek, then took her by the hand and pulled her forward. Hell. Mairi tried to dig her heels into the floor when she saw where her friend was leading her, but Claire tugged her onward. The hall grew smaller. Her feet felt like they were carrying her through cooled molasses. Each step that brought her closer to Connor twisted her stomach tighter and made her want to run the other way. Ridiculous! She feared nothing. Had she not, on three separate occasions, charged headlong into the fray when the militia kicked down the doors of her enemies? Why did she allow Connor Grant to make her palms moist, her breath shallow, her heart pound madly in her chest? Because once, he had been the reason she smiled, the reason she dreamed and hoped. She had breathed him for so long that when he left, she could not breathe anymore.

But finally, she had. And she would continue. She despised the royal uniform that stretched across his wide shoulders like a clingy mistress, but she could not deny that he looked even more imposing in it than in the Highland plaid he used to wear. The ladies of the court certainly seemed to like how he looked if the number of them hovering around him was any indication. Glaring at them, Mairi wondered how many of these seemingly proper English trollops Connor had bedded since he had left Camlochlin. Quite a few if the gossip that traveled from England to Scotland counted for anything. How could he have traded her heart in for theirs? Was it their closefitting gowns or their ghostly, painted faces with heart-shaped patches on their cheeks that he preferred? Bastard. “There you are!” Claire exchanged Mairi’s hand for her son’s when he bent to kiss her. Mairi’s cursed knees went a wee bit weak at the sight of him so close now she could smell the wind on his clothes. “Miss MacGregor,” he offered briefly, straightening from his greeting and offering her neither smile nor scowl.

“Captain.” His jaw, shadowed with several days’ worth of golden whiskers, had grown harder with the years. Or had it only gone harder on her? “Be wary of Lady Hollingsworth.” Claire leaned in closer to her son. Her eyes, following the harlot as she traipsed across the hall to her husband, were the same stormy blue as Connor’s when they flicked back to Mairi. “She has claws, that one.” “Rest assured.” Connor’s voice stole across Mairi’s cheek like a balmy breeze on the moors. “I am indifferent to claws.” Mairi crooked her mouth at him and stifled a snort an instant before it left her lips.

His words proved him the rogue he was rumored to be. Just as she had meant nothing to him, neither did the other women who shared his bed and his laughter. She was proud of herself for not flinching when his cool gaze settled upon her, this time, for longer than a moment. “Do ye wish to say something, Miss MacGregor?” “Nae, Captain, not to ye.” Amusement sparked his gaze, but there was no warmth in it. “Ah, Mairi, ye remain consistent, at least.” “At least one of us does,” she parried, her composure as coolly detached as his. His grin went hard in an instant. “I see ye have kept yer tongue as sharp as yer blades.” His leisurely perusal of her skirts, or more likely the split in them, made her belly flip.

Damnation, she did not want to be here, conversing with him. She had finally put him out of her mind. Finally moved on with her life without him in it. Seeing him again tempted her to remember. Once, she had wanted nothing more than to be his wife, but she fought those memories as passionately as she fought against the extinction of the Highland way of life. Because of him, she had become a warrior. When he met her gaze again, accompanied by a crack of thunder that shook the palace walls, she expelled a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding and did the only thing she knew to protect herself. She attacked. “Tell me, Captain Grant, do ye always precede the gloom of a storm?” He gave her a very English bow, adding to her insult. “Only when ye are waiting at my destination.

” Mairi thought of the dagger tied to her thigh, but realized regrettably that she could not kill him right here in front of his mother. She turned her most practiced smile on Claire instead. “I should go find Colin—” “Pardon me, Miss MacGregor.” The proper English voice coming up beside her drew a silent sigh from Mairi. The night just kept getting worse. She offered her smile to Henry de Vere, the Earl of Oxford’s son, as he spared a brief greeting to Lady Huntley. Mairi had met him the day after her kin had arrived at Whitehall. His profuse knowledge about everything and everyone at the palace had enticed her into spending time with him. If there were any Presbyterians roaming Whitehall, he would know of them. Unfortunately, she was beginning to fear she’d spent too much time with him.

For he followed her about like an eager pup and made it quite difficult to steal into any of the guest’s rooms for any valuable information she could bring home to the militia. “I was hoping to have a word with you before the tables were cleared and to ask you for the first dance this evening.” “Why, of course, Lord Oxford.” Seeing a way to use him to her advantage by getting her away from present company, she looped her arm through his and gave him a slight tug. “But remember, I only know the one courtly dance ye were kind enough to teach me.” “Then allow me to teach you a dozen more.” Lord Oxford looked up at Connor as his hand stole over Mairi’s knuckles. “Unless, of course, you made a prior promise to someone else?” Connor offered him a stiff smile and stepped out of their path. “She is yers fer the evening.” Mairi wanted to slap him good and hard, and then do the same to herself.

Why did his casual dismissal feel like a blow to her chest? She knew he no longer loved her—no man could be apart from the lass he loved for seven damn years! But had he truly grown so callous? “If I had made such a promise”—despite her roiling insides, she spoke with all the sickeningly sweet civility she could muster—“Captain Grant of all people would understand if I broke it.” She wanted evidence that her barb had pricked him. She wanted to hurt him, to repay him for every moment she had spent weeping over him in her bed. But his smile returned, as if he knew the secrets of mere mortals and found them amusing. “Aye, not only would I understand,” he said, “but I would expect it, as well.” A dozen curses battered against her teeth, but she contained them all and let Lord Oxford lead her away. She would show Connor no interest. Pretend he was not even here. An easy endeavor she mastered against those she hated. And she certainly hated him.

.

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