Adam Macquarie walked around the edge of the contest field to see if he could spot anyone that might cause trouble at the Beltane Festival he had chosen for his mission. Several men stood watching the caber toss. The large thrower grunted under the weight of the one-hundred-fifty-pound log as he lifted it toward the sky, flipping it to land close to the true-north position. Adam dodged tents, laughing children, and several young lads who pointed to his sheathed sword, whispering guesses about how many men it had slain. The morning sun slanted down into the valley, sheltered from the Highland wind, and the shade of the small forest beckoned. It would grow hot, making him miss Wolf Isle off the west coast. He uncorked his leather flask and drank as he strode into the woods. The soaring trees and saplings had already unfurled their spring leaves, and the canopy muted the cheers, music, and laughter below, bringing peace. He inhaled the cool zest of pine and took another drink before hiking a few more steps higher. A flash of blue on the ground caught his gaze. A lady’s shoe sat on top of the leaf litter below a thick, branched tree. He nudged it with his boot and glanced upward, spying the match balanced on a limb high above. The lass’s other foot was bare, her toes curled to hold her in place. Blue skirts were rucked upward, twisted around her legs. Adam moved side to side to see past the leaves.
Dark lashes framed wide eyes set in a heart-shaped face. Reddish hair hung to one side in a thick braid. “Her father says he will not take her home, so she has to wed tonight.” A man’s voice broke the stillness of the wood. “She has no choice but to wed me.” “I have asked for her, too,” came another man’s reply. “Perhaps we could share her,” he said with a bark of laughter, hitting the other man’s arm. “She will not wed either of us if we cannot find her,” the first said. “She could say no to us both.” “Roylin was half in the bag last night with whisky and said he’d sell her off tomorrow if she did not wed.
With four other girls and no dowries, Lark must marry at this festival. Tonight.” “Bloody hell, five girls and not a single lad.” “Seems Roylin Montgomerie only makes lasses.” The man spit. Only lasses? We need lasses on the isle if ye want to rebuild it. His father’s old friend, Rabbie, uttered the reminder daily. The words burrowed through Adam’s skull. As if he didn’t already know his mission. The two men stepped into the shade of the forest.
“Oh, Lark,” one called, extending the name like a song. “Where are ye, lass? Fergus and I have something to ask ye.” Adam bent to retrieve the lost slipper, sliding it into the drape of his plaid and stepping away from the tree. “Ho there,” he called, making the men stop, their hands moving to their short swords. “Finding a bit of shade,” Adam said with what he hoped was a smile. He didn’t smile often, so it felt tight. One fellow frowned, but the other raised a hand in greeting. “Have ye seen a lass with wavy red hair come through here?” Adam looked off in another direction. “Nay, but I heard someone up that way. Twigs snapping, that sort of noise.
Thought it was children hunting for berries.” “Thank ye…” the smiling man said, a question in his tone. “Adam, Adam Macquarie.” His sword hung casually by his side, easy to grab if they reacted poorly to his name. “Macquarie? Not too many of ye around anymore. I am a Cameron, Giles Cameron.” The other man spit on the ground and didn’t bother to introduce himself. They hiked off in the direction Adam had indicated. After a long minute, he leaned back against the tree. “Would ye like assistance?” he asked without looking up.
“Go away,” she said, her words in a forceful whisper. Adam pushed away from the tree. He would not press upon a reluctant lass, even one from a family that only produced females. His brother, Beck, would find a bride elsewhere. “Blast,” the woman whispered. Perhaps she was too stubborn to ask for help. Stubborn determination was something Adam knew well. It was what kept people alive, kept them moving forward when all seemed lost. The leaves shook as the woman moved in the boughs of the tree. Adam walked under the branch where bare toes reached down, flexing and pointing, as she felt around blindly.
Her toes were tiny appendages, the nails neat and without dirt. The lass’s skirts billowed out as she squatted. “God’s teeth,” she murmured. Dodging the wildly circling kick, he reached up. “I will guide your foot to the branch,” he said. Her toes flexed. Glancing up, he saw a pale face with large blue eyes tipped down toward him. A thick braid hung over one shoulder, and her lips looked soft and lush. A sprinkling of freckles sat along her high cheekbones and the bridge of her nose. She blinked at him, her mouth closing into a tight line.
“I need no help.” “Your cursing makes me think ye lie.” Her toes dangled in the air an inch above the branch that she could not see due to the petticoats. She gasped as he caught her foot, tugging until the ball of it touched the branch, her perfectly formed little toes curling around to help her balance. Holding tightly above her, she stretched while staring down at him. “Move back, and I can jump down,” she said, narrowing her eyes. She had the longest eyelashes, and some red curls had escaped her braid to slide forward along her smooth cheeks. “A leap from that high could break your ankle.” He reached for her waist. Shuffling sideways, she said, “I do not need any man to—” Her denial cut off as she lost her balance, falling forward, her hands grasping at the weak twigs with leaves, making the tree shudder.
Adam caught her, his hands wrapping around her cinched waist to pull her toward him. Her skirts caught on the branch, lifting them high as she descended. “Bloody hell.” She slapped her petticoat off the fingerlike branches that seemed intent on exposing the secrets she kept beneath. Her lush form slid down his, and he inhaled at the contact, as if the pressure of her plucked along every muscle in his body. She smelled of some type of flower and spice, making him suck in another breath as he held her form against him. She felt as soft as he was hard. For several heartbeats, they stared at one another, her face mere inches from his. What does she taste like? Her eyes grew wide, making him wonder for a moment if he’d spoken aloud. “Put me down,” she said, shoving against his chest.
Adam lowered her and stepped back as she righted the twisted blue gown around her trim waist, her full breasts pushing against the confines of her laced bodice. He could see why the two suitors were not taking rejection easily. Adam nodded in the direction the two swains had hurried. “They went that way. Ye should roll around in mud or go about with your hair soaked and straggly to keep them away.” Her lips opened as her brows raised, and he turned, traipsing away. The family only produced females, and the father was desperate to wed his daughter off. Halfway back to his camp, he realized that he still held her slipper. Damn. Pulling it from his sash, he frowned, knowing that he would give it to his brother, Beck, to return to her.
… Lark Montgomerie wiped her arm against her brow without losing the rhythm of the dasher shooting up and down in the butter churn, her mind churning just as fast. Ye will wed tonight. Lord, the sun was already starting to descend. Each second brought her closer to her being forced to take some irksome, lusty man as a husband. Her stomach tightened on Roylin Montgomerie’s words, making it twist so much she thought she might lose the little bit she’d eaten to break her fast. She glanced up into the woods behind the tent. Could she make it on foot to another town without being eaten by wolves or taken by wandering bandits? She was utterly ignorant on survival skills outside the home. “Maybe being eaten by wolves would be better than marrying an arse,” she murmured. But walking to safety would be impossible on foot, especially when missing a shoe. Lark braced her feet on either side of the churn, frowning at her one bare foot, now speckled with dirt.
Not only had the fierce, dark-haired Highlander held her against his hard body until she had flushed from her scalp to her toes, the blasted man had stolen her slipper. It didn’t matter that he’d held her without any effort or that his gray eyes had studied her with real interest. Or that he had kept her from falling from the tree. He had held her against him, and she’d lost her mind for a moment. Adam Macquarie. With renewed annoyance, Lark threw her muscle into her work, ignoring the ache forming in her shoulders. “Roll around in mud and soak my head?” Would that be enough to deter a man? “Talking to yourself?” Anna asked as she brought up a bucket of spring water. Her pretty golden hair was tied up high, and she wore one of their mother’s dresses that Lark had hemmed for her. She lifted out a wooden bowl and offered it to Lark. “With the way you are working that dasher, you have probably finished the butter.
” “I lost a slipper,” she said, taking the bowl. The cool water washed away the dryness in her mouth. Anna planted hands on her hips. “How do you lose a slipper off your foot without noticing?” “It dropped off when I was climbing a tree to escape Giles and Fergus, those foolhardy jackanapes. Then some bloody Highlander stole it.” “A mistake, one which I am now remedying.” The deep voice cut through Lark’s breath as she faced Anna’s wide eyes. It took all Lark’s will not to smooth her hair and wipe the moisture from her brow before turning. But nothing could stop the blush from catching her cheeks on fire. Adam Macquarie seemed even larger standing between her family’s two tents, but his size did not make her feel small.
The wind blew, and for a moment, his presence seemed to block her worry, allowing her to breathe in fully. Broad shoulders led to bare, bronzed arms, arms that had held her without demanding anything from her. She noticed a scar along his jawline, near his ear. Had it been earned in battle? Dark hair caught in the breeze, moving haphazardly around a strong, smooth jaw, which had been covered with dark stubble before. He stepped closer, and gray eyes stared intently into her own. “I have no need for a lady’s slipper. I picked it up so those jackanapes did not find it, and I forgot I held it.” “You shaved,” she said and nearly bit her tongue. His empty hand rubbed his chin without releasing her gaze. “Aye.
” There was such depth to his gray eyes, like he’d seen the world but decided he’d rather look at her. The man, who’d walked up with him, strode forward, taking the shoe from Adam’s hand. “Shall I place it back where it belongs?” he asked, a full grin on his face. There was a resemblance between them, but he was fairer in coloring and smiled easily with practiced charm. He looked like a scoundrel. “No,” Lark said, snatching the shoe. Anna came forward. “I amAnnabella Montgomerie, and this is my older sister, Lark.” She bobbed in greeting, as their mother had taught them when they were young girls trying to prove their worth. Lark had finally given up when she realized that nothing but hard work would prove her worth.
Lark worked her toes into the grass to get off as much dirt as she could. She slipped the shoe back onto her foot, wishing once again for boots. “Beckett Macquarie,” the man said, thumping his chest. “Although I go by Beck. And this is my older brother Adam, the chief of the Macquarie Clan.” “Chief?” Anna asked. “Aye.” Beck slapped a hand on his shoulder. “He is the eldest by a year and definitely the most serious. Perfect to be the new chief to our small clan on Ulva Isle off the west coast.
” He smiled at Anna and turned back to Lark. “And ye are the eldest Montgomerie,” Beck said, tilting his head. “Will ye be at the Beltane fires tonight?” “I will,” Anna chimed in. “Lark does not like going, but our father will make her this year. She must choose a suitor and marry this very night.” “Holy Mother Mary,” Lark whispered. Anna gave out unnecessary information as much as their father did when he was drinking. Beck looked between the two of them. “Ye are not being married off tonight then?” he asked Anna. She giggled.
“No,” Anna said. “Only Lark.” Beck shifted closer to her sister. “We happen to be looking for brides,” he said. “Oh,” Anna said, the word coming out more like a gasp. “We are a small clan that needs to grow,” he added quickly. Lark glanced at Adam. Where his brother was all smiles and teasing good looks, the leader of their clan was fierce and serious with that scar and lowered brows. As if he would be more comfortable slashing foes on a battlefield than discussing brides. Anna clasped her hands before her and nodded her way.
“Lark’s the eldest, well past time to wed, so Da is focused on marrying her off at this festival.” “Anna,” Lark snapped. “Although,” Anna continued, “that has been rather daunting.” Lark kicked Anna through the long folds of her dress, making her sister frown. “’Tis true,” Anna said. “You do not like anyone.” “I certainly do not like you right now,” Lark said and busied herself by looking inside the churn at the clumps of butter in the clear liquid. “Ye do not wish to marry?” Adam asked, his deep voice teasing a shiver through her. It beckoned her like the waves she had seen crashing on the shore during their journey there. Powerful and rugged yet bound by the reality of the rocks surrounding them.
She could refuse the whole institution of marriage, but the thought of staying in Roylin Montgomerie’s house made her stomach twist just as hard as considering Giles and Fergus. She slid her gaze away from the trees, where the sun had already started its decline, to Adam’s intense eyes. “Not when I am forced to choose a young idiot who would rather chase after me than attend more serious endeavors.” “Such as?” Adam asked. She tipped her head, studying him. “I prefer a man interested in securing a home for a family, debating the poor state of the government with English troops invading our country to steal away our child queen, planning crops and purchasing livestock to enhance his family’s chances of surviving the winter.” What type of man was Adam Macquarie? He’d helped hide her in the tree and returned her slipper. We are looking for brides. Was Adam part of the “we” his brother had mentioned? Lark realized her hands had found their way to her hips, and she slid them down into the folds of her skirt. Her mother had often stood with hands on her wide hips, frowning.
After the shock of her dying in illness two years ago, her sisters began to tease Lark that she had become her. Heat rose in her cheeks, with her stomach pitching, as she remembered her father’s slurred words about the resemblance. Beck raised his eyebrows high. “Those are indeed serious endeavors.” He closed his mouth as if not sure what else to say. “My sister likes to ponder important topics, which are rather dull,” Anna said. “Survival is not dull,” Lark countered. Survival had been her aim ever since her mother died. But could survival in a hellish life be better than death? “So ye wish for a serious husband,” Adam said, pulling her thoughts back from the macabre. “That is not mandatory.
” Lord, she must find a husband today. She felt the brawny Highlander’s gaze on her. “What is mandatory?” Lark’s lips pressed closed as she thought about her mother’s flushed face when her father didn’t come home until morning. She looked away from the lumps of butter and met Adam’s stare. “Trust.” “So…” Beck drew out. “I could be a slovenly drunk most of the time, but as long as I tell ye the truth that I am going to be drunk all the time, ye would consider marrying me?” Lark cut her eyes to Beck. “No.” The word came out like a slap. “Although, I do not drink…much,” Beck added quickly.
Her sister covered her mouth to muffle a laugh and lowered it. “See, not easy finding her a husband.” “Not easy finding a sober, serious man in this country,” Lark countered. “And a drunk is not trustworthy,” she said with a frown at Beck. She picked a thistle thorn out of the heel of her slipper. “I best get the butter inside.” She glanced back at Adam, the breeze playing with the curls around her cheeks. “Thank you for returning my slipper.” He bowed his head, and she turned away while his brother spouted a promise to meet up with them later at the bonfires. … “The elder sister looks like she’d rather beat me with that butter dasher than marry me,” Beck said, frowning at Adam.
For the last hour, his younger brother had been coming up with every excuse not to ask for Lark Montgomerie’s hand. Adam agreed with all of them. “Does not matter,” Rabbie, their father’s old friend, said as they walked away from their campfire. “Make her father an offer.” He scratched his bushy gray beard and squinted hard at Beck as if he could force him to do what he said. “She is bloody serious and frowny. She is bonnie, but she will nag me every time I sip whisky.” He shook his head, his humor gone. “She is likely to be a shrew and might even stab me if I so much as look at another lass.” “Ye will heal,” Rabbie said.
“Now the younger lass, Anna, seems much more willing,” Beck said and grinned slightly. “Reminds me of my sweet Matilda at last year’s Beltane.” “Her name was Millie,” Adam said, his voice dry. Rabbie coughed into his fist. “’Tis all fun until there’s a lynching or a bastard born.” “And now we cannot go back to Beltane on Skye,” Adam said with a pointed look at his wild brother. “Too many MacLeods on Skye anyway,” Beck muttered. He shook his head. “Anna says her older sister must wed first. Ye should wed her, Adam.
I will take sweet Anna.” Adam snorted, but the idea of Beck wedding Anna instead of Lark lessened the tightness in his chest. “Does that mean aye or nay?” Rabbie asked, fingering the sack he continued to carry around as if he might throw it over some stray girl to carry her back home. “I have no time for a wife.” But he also didn’t want Beck marrying the beautiful red-haired woman. She does not want to marry anyone. Lark had chosen to hide in a tree rather than accept a proposal. “If ye will not ask for Lark, then ask her father for Anna,” Adam said. “He has five daughters and no wife from what I have heard. He would likely appreciate one less mouth to feed.
” Rabbie walked even with him. “Ye will need to marry, too, for the good of the clan.” “The good of the clan needs me focused on building it back from the ashes. For now, I will leave the daughter making to the rest of my brothers.” Adam shifted the weight of his father’s sword on his shoulder, its weight reminding him of the huge responsibilities he bore. Do everything and anything to bring our clan back. His father’s words were never far from Adam’s mind. The three strode through the temporary village of tents toward two smoking Beltane bonfires at the far end. A fiddle broke through the murmur of excited festivalgoers, adding to the lively tune. Boys with switches spurred cattle and sheep between the two fires to bless them.
Adam stopped at the far end with Beck and Rabbie and scanned those gathered, but Lark wasn’t there. “Go talk to those lasses over there,” Rabbie said to Beck, pointing to a group whispering together. “See if ye can find one who can birth lasses and ask her to wed.” “That is a difficult trait to spot, don’t ye think,” Beck said, tipping his head. “Pardon me, lass. Your hips look wide enough to pass bairns, but do ye happen to know if they will be wee lasses, not lads?” Rabbie snorted, and Beck continued to walk with them. At the end of the song, a middle-aged man with a full dark beard strode up between the fires to stop before the crowd of men, women, and children. He raised his clenched hands high and tipped his face to the darkening sky, bringing a rapid hush amongst the people. “We ask for blessings this Beltane.” The man’s voice filled the space, his arms open as if addressing the sky.
“Blessings for our animals, blessings for our children, and blessings for our Beltane brides.” Adam’s gaze snapped to a line of lasses who walked out from a tent as if they’d been waiting for the word to set them moving. He counted them as they emerged. One, two…they smiled brightly. Three, four, five…looked straight ahead but still smiled. The sixth one made his gut clench. Lark Montgomerie had not escaped her father’s order to wed. She was dressed in her blue dress, half her glorious hair bound up in ribbons while the rest fell down her back in waves. Her beautiful features were dull with acceptance as if she walked to a scaffold. Adam inhaled fully through his nose.
“Ready the horses,” he said low to Beck. “They are always ready,” Beck answered. “Looks like Lark Montgomerie chose one of her suitors.” The line of brides stopped before the fires where a tall man in the brown robes of a priest walked up next to the bearded man. Adam studied Lark’s heart-shaped face, his muscles flooding with restless energy. Bloody hell. Worry sat in the roundness of her eyes. Was she afraid? The thought tossed like a rotten turnip in his gut. “Ye have that sack?” Adam asked Rabbie. “Aye.
Ye plan to use it?” Beck’s eyes widened. “Adam? Are we not going to be welcome back to Glencoe Beltane next year? Because I have a desire to see Anna Montgomerie again.” The women lined up between the fires, and the bearded man beckoned the tall priest. The clergyman’s hair was cropped, and the skin of his forehead and nose was dark as if he spent hours in the sun. His chin was pale, showing he’d recently sheered a full beard. He clutched a Bible, while his sharp gaze scanned the crowd, stopping on Adam. Adam tried to relax the tension in his face. His brothers said he wore his anger as if he could strike people down with a glance. Rabbie handed Adam the sack while Beck cursed under his breath and grabbed the back of his neck. “Damn Adam,” Beck said.
“I was having a bloody good time here.” “Don’t ye be fathering any bastards,” Rabbie said. “It will be the end of Clan Macquarie.” “I know,” Beck said, his voice low with frustration. “Da told us every day from the time we first noticed that lasses smelled better than us. Spill your seed outside a lass,” Beck mumbled their father’s repeated saying. “We should have put it on his grave marker.” “And a bairn made on Beltane shall prosper and always find luck,” the bearded man pronounced, which made the cleric’s mouth turn up in a lecherous grin. Lark’s two suitors argued good-naturedly, Giles Cameron punching the other in the arm as he adjusted his cod through his kilt. Had Lark picked him? It didn’t matter.
The woman had hidden away from both of those fools, risking her neck climbing into a tree. She sure as Hell didn’t want to marry either one of them. “Get the horses,” Adam said. “Shite,” Beck murmured and jogged away while Rabbie chuckled. The first lass stepped before the priest with her father. The old man handed her off to a young man, who smiled like the whole bloody world was his. Within minutes, the two were wed, and bride number two stood before the cleric. Even the anxious lasses followed their father’s orders. Lark moved up in line, her eyes cast straight ahead. Beck ran up.
“They are loosely tethered by the tree line. Damn, she does not look happy.” Lark Montgomerie’s mouth squeezed tight, her eyes belligerent. She held her hands clasped before her, and Adam wouldn’t be surprised if her nails dug so far into the backs of her hands as to bloody the skin. “Lark Montgomerie,” the bearded man intoned. “Ye must choose from your suitors.” She hadn’t chosen yet. Adam released his breath. Stopping before the cleric, the bearded man came to stand by her side. Was he her father? “Ye will choose now,” he said, loud enough for everyone to hear.
The two swains stepped closer, as did Adam, the bag in his hands. He’d be damned if he would watch her be forced to marry. He’d steal her away and release her wherever she wished. Adam stepped closer, making Giles and the other man frown his way. Lark followed their gazes. Her lips parted as if she was surprised to see him. Without thought, he took several more steps toward to her, his hands clutching the sack. “Who will it be?” the cleric asked again, his accent odd as if he’d traveled far to do his preaching. He leaned in toward her until she likely smelled his breath. “Unless ye wish to take holy vows?” He laid a hand on her shoulder.
“Ye may escape a union by going with me tonight.” His appreciative gaze made Adam’s hand tighten into a fist. Lark Montgomerie stood tall, and the mutinous apathy faded from her face as she extended her finger. Everyone turned to follow her gesture, the entire crowd looking toward…him. Her voice came clear and loud. “I choose Adam Macquarie.” Lark held her breath as she stared at the giant Highlander. With his deep frown, broad shoulders, and the lethal sword at his side, he looked able to slice through Hell and carry her away. “I choose Adam Macquarie,” she repeated. If he had no interest, he wouldn’t have stepped forward.
Her face warmed in the continued silence. Adam took a step forward, making her able to draw in breath. “I am marrying her,” Fergus MacLeod yelled, barreling his way through the watching crowd. Giles Cameron was half a step behind Fergus. “Or me. I asked for her hand first.” Roylin made a noise in the back of his throat, his eyes narrowing on Adam. “Ye want to wed Lark?” She dropped her gaze to the ground at his rough tone, pushing the ache of his neglect down into a deep well within her.