Temptation of a Highland Scoundrel – Sue-Ellen Welfonder

Many tales are told of a wild and untamed vale deep in the heart of the Scottish Highlands. Protected by high, rocky crags, blessed with rolling heather moors, and kissed by soft mist and the silver sheen of the sea, this fair place is known as the Glen of Many Legends. The name is well earned because the glen is steeped in myth and lore. Since days beyond counting, the glen has been prized as a place that stirs the spirit and wakens a sense of wonder in all who tread this sylvan landscape. Three clans – MacDonalds, Camerons, and Mackintoshes – call the glen home. These clans feuded in the past but now share the vale grudgingly, biding the strictures of a recent truce. Each clan believes that their corner of the glen is the finest. Clan Mackintosh boasts that their holding is more. They speak true for their rugged, upland territory is home to the dreagan stones. Strange outcroppings that litter the rough ground beneath Castle Nought, the forbidding Mackintosh stronghold that rises almost seamlessly from the bleak, rock-bound cliffs that edge the glen’s northernmost boundary. No one knows the true origins of the dreagan stones. Those of a fearful nature would rather not know. Clan Mackintosh, ever proud of their fierceness, accepts several possibilities…. As odd things do happen on Mackintosh land, especially on nights of dark, impenetrable mist, it is generally believed that the unusual rock formations are sleeping dreagans. Dragons turned to stone, but able to come to life and wreak terror if they wish to do so.

Others claim the stones aren’t just frozen dreagans, but also ancient warriors who were once the dreagans’ masters. These were fearless men who protected the glen in a time when the world was young, but who were betrayed when one in their number was turned by greed, thereby inviting annihilation by evil powers stronger than any mortal men. Some tales are even more chilling. Graybeards who have lived long enough to be wise in such matters, insist that the red-eyed glance of a stony-scaled dreagan marks a soul for death. The dreagan stones are also known to scream. The sound is more like a roar and on black, moonless nights, these chilling cries have been known to strike terror in the hearts of bold and courageous men. On such nights in this cold, inhospitable corner of the glen, even something as innocuous as a curl of mist holds menace. Kendrew Mackintosh, clan chief, is proud of this legacy. Dreagans do lie beneath the dreagan rocks. At least, clan legend claims it is so.

Those tales say that one blast of a dreagan’s fiery breath could melt Kendrew’s formidable war ax in his hand. Or that a single swipe from the creature’s stony, razor-sharp claws could cut down a score of mailed warriors. Kendrew’s loudest, most fierce battle cry would be like the chirp of a sparrow next to the hill-shaking roar of a dreagan. Now some whisper the beasts are stirring. These tale spinners suspect the dreagans resent the fragile peace that has descended on the glen. Clan Mackintosh, after all, has always been a warring tribe. Mercy and quiet living runs against their heated nature and unquenchable thirst for battle and bloodletting. If suchlike is true, Kendrew would welcome the dreagans’ unrest. He’s already noticed something afoot. Whatever the cause, the nightly rattle of shifting stones makes his pulse quicken.

And the eerie growls heard on the wind call to his wild nature. He, too, is restless. Like the dreagans, he’d rather stir trouble than pace his keep like a caged beast. A man was born to fight, not lay idle. He needn’t worry because tragedy is about to strike, giving him ample cause to swing Blood Drinker, his huge war ax. Only along with sword-wielding foemen and stony-backed, fire-breathing dreagans, he’ll be fighting a greater challenge than he would’ve believed. His opponent is a woman. And their battle begins in the shadow of the dreagan stones. Chapter 1 Castle Haven – The Glen of Many Legends – Midsummer Eve 1397 “Do you believe Kendrew Mackintosh dances naked on the dreagan stones?” Lady Isobel Cameron glanced across the well-appointed bedchamber at her good-sister and, much as she tried, couldn’t keep the excitement from her voice. Her heart knocked wildly at her daring.

Especially when Lady Catriona’s reaction was to sit up straighter in her massive, four-postered bed. She also pinned Isobel with a look that held more than a hint of disapproval. Worse, there was a flicker of sympathy in the depths of her dark blue eyes. Isobel lifted her chin, pretending not to see. Pity was the last thing she wanted. Her heart was set on the Mackintosh chieftain and had been for some while – as Catriona well knew. It’d been her plan and not Isobel’s, that the two of them and Kendrew’s sister, Lady Marjory, should each seduce and wed a man from one of the other glen clans. Only so could true peace be held. Or so they’d agreed the previous autumn, in the bloody aftermath of the trial by combat. A battle to the death, ordered by the King to decide which of the three clans should be granted overlordship.

When the fighting ended, the three warriors chieftains were still on their feet, their weapons held fast in their hands. In his well-meant benevolence, King Robert III declared a truce. He’d presented each chieftain with a charter for land the clans’ already saw as their own. And he’d left them with a not too subtle warning that any further unrest would result in severest punishment. Banishment to a distant Hebridean isle was just one threat that – still – hung over the heads of every man, woman, and child of the glen. No living soul in the Glen of Many Legends would risk such a fate. Yet the men of the clans were quickly angered, their tempers easily roused. Keeping peace fell to the women. Catriona was now wed to Isobel’s brother, James, clan chief of the Camerons. It seemed a blessed union.

Isobel was meant to be the next bride. And on the day the three women made their pact, she’d chosen Kendrew. What she hadn’t done was tell her friends how much she secretly desired him. His wildness excited her, his adherence to ancient Norse ways calling to her own Viking blood. A legacy she was proud of and that her own clan largely ignored, much to her sorrow. Only Isobel’s heart quickened at the thought of distant northern lands full of cold wind, ice, and endless winters. She alone held a soft spot for the fearless, sea-faring people who, legend claimed, gave one of their most beautiful young noblewomen as a bride to a distant Cameron chieftain. A war prize and peace offering, she’d forever sealed the clan’s irrevocable bond with the pagan North. Isobel felt drawn to that legacy. So Kendrew, who often wore a bearskin thrown over his broad shoulders and favored a Viking war ax to a sword, fascinated her.

He flaunted his Nordic ancestry. Isobel admired him. Unfortunately, the attraction wasn’t mutual. Isobel brushed at her sleeve, willing her annoyance to fade. Unfortunately, she failed. Her wilder side, the part of her no one suspected existed, swirled and raged inside her, demanding attention. “Kendrew Mackintosh is a howling madman.” Catriona found her tongue at last, her tone proving she knew the source of Isobel’s agitation. Isobel flicked at her other sleeve, too irritated to care. “It is summer solstice.

” She went ahead and spoke her mind, images of Kendrew’s big, powerfully muscled body kissed by the glow of bonfires making her breath catch and her skin tingle. “The Mackintoshes celebrate Midsummer in the old way.” She glanced at the room’s tall window arches, her pulse quickening at the polished gleam of the twilight sky. “On such a night, I can’t help but wonder if he really does leap naked onto the cairns.” “He is surely bold enough.” Catriona smoothed the bed covers, resting her hands atop her slightly swollen belly. “Everyone knows he’s wholly untamed.” Isobel could’ve added more. She did imagine him standing proud in the heart of his rock-hewn land, cold mist blowing around him, the gold of his Thor’s hammer and arm rings glinting brightly. “He did fight ferociously at the trial by combat.

” She bit back how much his bravery impressed her. “The earth shook when he stamped the haft of his war ax on the ground after the battle.” “He is fearless, true enough.” Catriona shivered when a chill wind swept the room, stirring the floor rushes. “Word is he can trace his line back to the Berserkers, Odin’s bloodthirsty, half-mythic body guards. “So-o-o…” She laced her fingers. “He could well be doing anything this night, including leaping naked onto his dreagan stones.” Isobel agreed. But unlike her friend, she didn’t find the notion disturbing. The brisk air filling the chamber brought traces of damp earth and pine, just a hint of distant woodsmoke.

Soon the first stars would start to glimmer. Beyond the thick pine forest that separated their lands, Mackintosh bonfires would crackle and blaze. Those who prayed to Odin would gather. Men would touch hammer amulets and drink from mead horns. Blood would heat, passions rising as the revelry commenced… Isobel’s heart pounded. “I wouldn’t mind seeing Kendrew on those stones.” She glanced again at the windows, the night’s magic calling to her, making her restless. “The sight would ruin you for life.” Catriona sounded sure. Isobel lifted her chin.

“I think I’d be rather intrigued.” “Humph.” Catriona leaned forward a little. “You’d feel otherwise if one of his dreagans took a bite out of you.” “Pah.” Isobel dismissed the possibility. “They only live in legend.” “I’ve heard tales.” Catriona persisted. “Then you’d know they’re said to fire-blast, not bite.

” Isobel regarded her levelly. “You just don’t like Kendrew.” “That’s true.” Catriona held her gaze. Isobel struggled against the urge to squirm, wishing her friend didn’t have such a direct stare. “I’ve wondered…” she took a deep breath, then rushed on, “if the blue marks he carves on his chest and arms really are to celebrate each enemy he kills in battle or-” “They are.” Catriona tightened her lips. “I’m sure he also does it to look terrifying.” Isobel ignored her friend’s comment. “Do you think he has the marks anywhere else?” Catriona shuddered.

“I’m sure I don’t want to know.” “I do.” Isobel did want to know, badly. She was also sure the admission had turned her cheeks scarlet. She could feel the heat blooming there, branding her shameless. High-born, gently-raised females weren’t supposed to ponder the lure of bare-bottomed men. They especially weren’t wise to crave the attention of a man as wild as Kendrew Mackintosh. And they should never imagine him whirling about naked in an ancient, pagan ritual that most decent folk had abandoned years ago. Such thoughts were wicked. But they filled her with prickling excitement.

And once the images had taken root, she couldn’t banish them. Nor did she want to. The Mackintosh chieftain was a great giant of a man, burly, loud, and rough around the edges. An unapologetic scoundrel, he towered over most men and clearly enjoyed that dominance. Heavy, burnished copper hair swung about his shoulders, and when he flashed his fast, crooked smile, it was said that no female could resist his rascally charm. He defied every danger and laughed in the face of death. He lived by his own rules. His strange blue kill marks made him look like a fearsome Norse god. And his prowess in bed was said to be even greater than his formidable skill on the field of battle. Well-lusted, he was rumored to be insatiable.

Isobel shivered, delicately. She could so easily see him sweeping her into his arms and whisking her up the turret stairs, ravishment and more on his mind. No man had ever even kissed her. She knew with a desiring woman’s instinct that Kendrew’s kisses would be hot, furious, and deliciously savage. It was a notion that made her entire body flush. She just hoped Catriona would credit the warmth from the bedchamber’s crackling log fire as the reason for her heightened color. The earlier breath of cold had fled, the wind moving on to rustle through the pines. It was again stifling in the room. By all reckoning, Catriona’s travails weren’t expected until the passing of another six full moons. A winter birthing seemed probable, possibly at Yule.

Yet some of the older castle women predicted she’d need longer. A few argued less. Either way, no one was taking any chances. Catriona carried the clan heir. And there wasn’t a soul at Castle Haven not concerned with her comfort. A few, including her besotted husband, seemed worried that she’d freeze. Every few hours, or so it seemed, a kitchen lad came to toss a new fat log on the bedchamber’s hooded fireplace. Torches blazed in every wall sconce and a score of fine wax candles graced the room’s two small tables, each dancing flame adding to the stuffiness. There was even a small brazier placed near the bed, its coals glowing softly as pungent, herb-scented smoke rose to haze the air. Eye -burning, over-heated air that Catriona seemed weary of breathing, for instead of quipping that Isobel shouldn’t concern herself with Kendrew’s arm-and-chest markings, she tossed back the coverlets and slid down from her bed.

She crossed the room to the far windows where she breathed deep of the cool, evening air. Isobel gave her a moment, then hitched her skirts and joined her. “They say Kendrew leaps onto Slag’s Mound wearing only his Thor’s hammer.” She’d meant to say something else entirely, but she couldn’t get Kendrew from her mind. Speaking quickly, the words left her in a rush. “Slag was the worst of all dreagans, the most dangerous. “I’ve heard he could kill ten men with a single swipe of his long, stony-scaled tail.” The thought made Isobel’s nerves flutter. “Slag’s cairn is where the Mackintoshes celebrate their Midsummer Eve revels. Storytellers say that if Slag wished, even now he could send scalding, sulfuric breath right up through the cracks between the stones, blasting anyone who’d dare near his cairn.

Kendrew watches over the festivities from atop those stones. He-” “He is that crazed, I know.” Catriona braced her hands on the broad window ledge and turned her face to the freshening wind. “Be warned” – she shot a narrow-eyed glance at Isobel – “if you knew how I’ve felt these past months, you wouldn’t be thinking of men.” “Kendrew isn’t just any man.” Isobel stepped closer to the window, half certain she could feel the power of the fierce Mackintosh chieftain even here, coming to her on the night wind, beckoning. To her, he was everywhere. And ever since she and her two friends had carefully woven their plans, there wasn’t a corner of the Glen of Many Legends where she could escape his image. No place where she wouldn’t dream of his heated gaze devouring her, or how she’d love feeling his hands glide along her body. Or where she wouldn’t yearn for the hot, turbulent desire that she was sure would sweep her if, just once, he’d seize her and crush her to him, kissing her hungrily.

This was a night for kissing. Ignoring Catriona and her somewhat soured expression, Isobel straightened her shoulders, determining to keep her gaze on the well-loved landscape before her. Although already evening, the sky shone with pearly luminescence and the cool, pine-scented air felt rich with custom, legend, and magic. The hills rising beyond Castle Haven’s walls shimmered in the strange, soft light. And – if she looked closely, opening her heart – she could almost see water nymphs bathing in the tumbling cascades spilling down the sides of the highest peaks. Birdsong filtered through the trees, sweet and musical. Almost as if the tiny woodland creatures joined with the night’s wonder to tempt her away, out into the enchantment of Midsummer Eve. The world gleamed, expectant and waiting. Isobel’s pulse raced. Then she made the error of glancing at her friend.

Catriona was watching her as if she could peer into her soul and see the urgency beating there, making her burn to unleash her desires. “I wish you’d chosen someone else.” Catriona’s voice held a note that could’ve been regret or reproach. Turning back to the window, she fixed her gaze on a single star that sparkled like a jewel in the silvery sky. “When the three of us” – she meant herself, Isobel, and Kendrew’s sister, Marjory – “agreed to each wed a man from a feuding clan, the idea was to keep peace in the glen through our unions. “That will only happen if such marriages take place.” She shifted her glance to where a second star was just winking to life. “Kendrew isn’t a man to wed. Everyone knows it. He’s in love with his war ax and-” “It’s only been a few months since our pact-” “Nae, it’s been over half a year.

” Catriona touched a hand to Isobel’s arm. “Kendrew hasn’t even spoken to you in all that time. The one visit he made us was brief and he didn’t spare you a glance. He keeps himself locked away behind Castle Nought’s walls where he surely spends his days sharpening weapons and making pagan sacrifices to Thor. James has invited him here, often enough. “It would be a small thing to accept my husband’s goodwill. Yet” – Catriona paused to take a breath – “he chooses to shun us all. Some even say he’s planting poison-tipped stakes in the ground around his stronghold. He’s been heard to say he wants to deter visitors from breaking his peace.” Isobel frowned.

“He wouldn’t do that.” “Pah!” Catriona clearly believed he would. “He’d challenge the Devil and all his ring-tailed minions if it amused him to do so.” “He has Berserker blood.” Isobel secretly thrilled to his wildness. “All the more reason you should consider someone else.” Catriona clutched Isobel’s hands, squeezing tight. “We’ve grown close since I married your brother and came here. You’ve become the sister I never had, and” – she released Isobel and stepped back – “I couldn’t bear to see you unhappy. Kendrew will only hurt you.

” “Nae…” Isobel refused the possibility. She did shiver. The sensation that he was near her, all around her, strengthened. She touched the charmed amber necklace at her throat, wondering if Catriona’s gift, or the magic of summer solstice, was the reason she felt so powerfully drawn to him this night. “Kendrew would never cause me pain.” She stood straighter, flicked her braid over her shoulder. “He doesn’t frighten me and never will. Even Marjory has told us how fiercely he honors women and-” “He’ll be honoring plenty this night.” Catriona returned to her bed, lowering herself carefully onto its edge. “Or what do you think Mackintoshes do at their dreagan stones on Midsummer Eve? “They’ll be doing more than dancing in a circle and leaping over bonfires.

” Catriona clasped her hands over her belly. “Be glad you aren’t there.” Isobel wished she was. “Do not think to sneak there tonight.” Catriona’s glance was sharp. Isobel crimsoned. “I wouldn’t dare.” “Nae?” Catriona lifted a red-gold brow. Again, Isobel felt like squirming. But she forced herself to stand still.

She also held Catriona’s deep, all-seeing gaze. “I know better than to traipse off into the night, alone and unescorted.” “Indeed?” Catriona’s brow arched a fraction higher. “So I said.” Isobel didn’t turn a hair. “Then you are less like me than I’d believed.” Her friend’s expression softened, the glimmer of pity returning to her lovely blue eyes. “With half the castle abed with a bellyache from bad herring and the rest down in the hall, deep in their cups because tonight is Midsummer, I would’ve thought you’d be tempted to slip away. “I’ve done the like more than once, as well you know.” Catriona’s tone was quiet, reminiscent.

“Back in days before I was a settled married woman. Now” – she splayed her fingers across the swell of her abdomen – “I do see things a bit differently.” “You’re seeing them wrong.” Isobel should’ve known Catriona would guess the thoughts flitting about in her mind this night. “I’m not going anywhere.” She hadn’t actually planned to until Catriona’s words made the idea seem possible. Now… She bit her lip, half afraid Catriona would tell James, causing him to rush out after her, if she dared to sneak out on her own. But she so wanted to. She turned back to the window, the night’s sweetness beckoning. Midsummer magic steeped the air, the beauty of the luminous twilight combining with her desire to see Kendrew on the stones until her pulse raced as never before.

Longing swelled in her chest, hot and insistent, tugging on long-buried needs deep inside her. Across the room, Catriona sighed. “You truly do have your heart set on Mackintosh, don’t you?” “I…” Isobel took a long breath, knowing there was no point in denial. “Any other man pales beside him.” She left the window and started pacing before the fire, a strange sense of triumph beating through her now that she’d spoken openly. “If I see him at his boldest tonight, perhaps I can learn how to attract his attention.” Catriona snorted. “You have breasts and a comely face. Catching his eye is the least of your worries. The problem is that” – she pulled a small pillow onto her lap, her brow creasing again – “a fast tumble in the heather is all you can expect from him.

” Isobel didn’t want to believe it. “You won James’ heart-” “James is not Kendrew Mackintosh.” Catriona dismissed her objection, the words dimming the warm glow of hope that had begun to thrum in Isobel’s breast. “I can see no good coming from you sneaking off to Castle Nought tonight. That corner of the glen is also fraught with other dangers. It’s an unholy place, filled with weird mist and darkness. Bare rock and naked, jagged cliffs make it cold and forbidding. Mackintosh territory is nothing like Castle Haven and the wooded hills and waterfalls surrounding us here. “Nought is a terrifying, unwelcoming place.” Catriona drew the little pillow closer against her middle.

“They say the wind there carries ancient echoes of dreagan roars. I do believe that is true.” “I’m not afraid.” To her amazement, Isobel wasn’t. Catriona frowned. “If something happens to you and James discovers I kept silent about you slipping away, he’ll never forgive me.” “I never told you I’m going.” Isobel brushed at her skirts, offering her friend the only defense she could against James’ possible wrath. “Indeed, when I leave you, I’ll be heading to my own bedchamber.” She didn’t say that she’d simply meant to retrieve her cloak.

The crease in Catriona’s brow deepened. But she held her peace, settling back against the bed cushions.

.

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