Wager with a Warrior – Emma Prince

Gregor MacLeod wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. It came away with a smear of red, confirming the metallic tang of blood on his tongue. He lifted a brow at his opponent, the first to land a blow all day. “A fair shot.” The man opposite him puffed with smug satisfaction. Those gathered in the alehouse, especially the man’s fellow Sutherlands, roared in approval. “Get him, Willem!” “Fists up, laddie!” “Knock the Black MacLeod on his arse!” Gregor eyed the crowd. They’d been loosened with ale and coiled back up again with outrage —directed squarely at him. The men pushing in around him were clearly spoiling to see Gregor beaten. And no surprise in that—he’d already defeated most of the best warriors from amongst the various clans gathered for the Caithness Games. Their clan pride pricked, these men were all too happy to see Gregor taken down a peg or two. His current opponent, Willem, shuffled toward him once again, his hands balled into fists before him. The man was nearly a head shorter than Gregor, yet half again as wide. He was built like a bull, stocky, shoulder-heavy, and relatively low to the ground. Then again, everyone seemed low to the ground from Gregor’s towering vantage.

He softened his knees and widened his feet in anticipation of Willem’s next attack. Of course, because the man had managed to land a punch by feigning right and swinging left, he repeated the exact same move. Gregor was more than ready. He ducked under Willem’s flying fist, then delivered a sharp punch to the man’s exposed ribs. Willem staggered backward, clutching his side. The crowd rumbled in anger at Gregor’s successful hit. Gregor paid them no more attention than a buzzing swarm of midges. He’d given the Sutherland lad a fair chance. Hell, the man had even drawn blood, which would surely soothe his pride and give him a wee something to boast about later. But there was no point in drawing this out longer than necessary.

As Willem approached again, this time warily, Gregor purposefully dropped his guard on the left, letting his shoulder and fist sag as if he were already growing fatigued. It was convincing bait. After all, he’d been fighting all damn day—all damn month. It seemed this was the only way to gather an army to stand against the Pretender King, Edward Balliol. Gregor’s wager was simple—any man he bested in combat had to pledge loyalty to Gregor’s cause and agree to fight against Balliol when the time came. Gregor would build this army even if he had to battle every last man in the Highlands. Using his impressive size, strength, and nigh-preternatural skill in combat was all he was good for anyway. Just as he’d intended, Willem’s muddy gaze shot to Gregor’s lowered defenses. The man wound up for what would have been a crushing punch—if he’d landed it. But the Sutherland moved like a lumbering ox, slow and predictable from a league away.

With a quick step, Gregor closed the distance between them. He delivered two fast hits to the man’s middle, causing him to sag forward. With Willem’s chin hanging out in the open, Gregor dispensed a devastating uppercut. Willem went flying backward, landing on the alehouse rushes with a muted thump. His compatriots closed in around him, urging him back onto his feet, but he was out cold. Gregor scanned the alehouse wearily. “Anyone else wish to have a go?” “Black MacLeod.” The sound of a woman’s voice had Gregor’s head whipping around. Many in the crowd, too, craned to see who had spoken, apparently unaware that a lass had been in their midst. Over the turned heads of the others, Gregor’s gaze landed on a wee slip of a lass pressed back into one of the alehouse’s corners.

Her chestnut head bobbed as she pushed her way through those gathered. When she broke into the circle that had been cleared in the middle of the room for the fight, he got his first good look at her. She was petite, the top of her head not quite clearing Gregor’s shoulder, yet she was no bairn. Her gentle curves were unmistakable beneath her simple blue gown. Wide, moss-green eyes fringed with dark lashes were set in her heart-shaped face. Two bright flags of color sat on her softly rounded cheekbones, a contrast to her otherwise creamy skin. This close, he could make out a smattering of freckles across the bridge of her pert nose. But what captivated Gregor’s full attention was the lass’s mouth. Petal-pink and sinfully full, her lips were lush and more than generous. “Is it true?” she demanded.

“Anyone ye best is indebted to yer service?” Her gaze was direct, her shoulders back, and her chin lifted as she spoke. The only sign of nervousness was the tightness in her otherwise melodic voice. “Aye,” he said, eyeing her speculatively. “And does it work the other way?” He arched a brow at her. “What do ye mean?” Her hands unconsciously gripped her skirts. “If someone bests ye instead, does that mean ye are indebted to their service?” Amusement rippled through the gathered men, who were watching the exchange with rapt attention. They might be bitter over their own warriors’ losses, but they seemed to find the idea of Gregor being handed over to one of them rather appealing. “It hasnae happened before,” he replied dryly, staring down at the lass. “But if it did…” Gregor snorted, crossing his arms over his chest. That drew the lass’s attention.

Her green gaze traced over the contours of his corded forearms with fascination. It took a surprising amount of willpower to stop himself from flexing like a preening peacock before her, if only to hold her notice for another moment. “Aye, I suppose if someone managed to best me, he could hold me in his service,” he said at last. The crowd buzzed at that. A few of the men shouted out to their compatriots to have a go against the Black MacLeod, yet none stepped forward. Gregor hardly noticed them. He couldn’t seem to stop staring at the mesmerizing lass before him. Despite himself, he couldn’t wait to see what she would do next. That lush mouth flattened in resignation, then she planted her fists on her hips. “Verra well.

” “Verra well, what?” The lass’s gaze lifted to his, and he couldn’t help marveling at the green fire burning there. “I will fight ye, then.” Chapter Two Birdie forced her chin to remain level and her gaze steady as the mountain of a man in front of her absorbed her words. His eyes narrowed. “Ye?” Several of those surrounding her tittered or guffawed. Birdie paid them no heed. They blurred in the periphery, her vision full to brimming with the man’s towering presence. She could see why they called him the Black MacLeod. His hair, which hung in thick waves nigh to his shoulders, was dark as pitch. She would have thought from a few feet farther back that his eyes matched the midnight hue of his hair.

This close, however, she could see that they were a rich, deep brown. Of course, her proximity also meant that she was acutely aware of just how enormous he was. He stood a head taller than all the other men in the alehouse—men who were supposed to be their clans’ most braw warriors. The breadth of his shoulders matched his impressive height, as did his heavily muscled arms, broad chest, and legs as sturdy as ancient oak trunks. But it wasn’t just his dark features that warranted the moniker, nor his size that was so intimidating. From what little she’d witnessed of him, his temperament was black as charcoal, with a scowl to match. The full force of his cold, hard stare, which he was leveling at Birdie just now, made her knees wobble beneath her skirts and her breath catch in her lungs. His gaze was direct, unafraid. She imagined that he could assess a great deal with a single look. That was what he was doing to her at the moment.

Weighing, measuring. And discarding. “I dinnae fight women,” he muttered. Was it her imagination, or had a shadow further darkened his eyes as he’d spoken? It was gone before she could decide. Giving her one last perusal, he began to turn away. Nay. This was the man Birdie needed. The biggest, strongest, fiercest warrior in all the Highlands. Only he could help her. “Wait.

” He cast a glance over one massive shoulder. Birdie drew a steeling breath. “Are ye afraid of me, then?” That drew several snickers from the onlookers. “Who is this cheeky wench?” a man off to Birdie’s right whispered loudly to his companion. “The Morgan Laird’s daughter, if I’m no’ mistaken,” the other replied. “Lady Roberta.” The Black MacLeod’s eyes flicked to the men, then back to Birdie. “As I said, I dinnae fight women. And I certainly dinnae fight Lairds’ headstrong daughters,” he added. “Run along to yer da.

This is no place for ye.” Heat blazed on her face, but she refused to back down. “What’s the matter,” she demanded, raising her voice over the chuckles of the crowd. “Afraid I’ll best ye in front of all these men?” It was a gamble to poke at the man’s pride. Based on what she’d observed, she did not fear that he would lose his temper, and with it, his control. Nay, she’d watched him best four men already without so much of a ruffle to his cold, almost bored demeanor. The real danger was that he wouldn’t be baited by her taunts, that he would simply brush her off like a fly and walk away, leaving her no better off than when she’d arrived at the Caithness Games. Which was to say, desperate. To her combined relief and trepidation, he paused, sweeping her with those dark, assessing eyes once more. “Where is yer nursemaid, my lady? Ye shouldnae be in an alehouse alone.

” He was right, of course, but Birdie wasn’t about to admit that. Although she hadn’t traveled to the Games with a chaperone, she had brought along a half dozen guards. But she’d managed to slip away from them earlier that afternoon when she’d heard the whispers about the Black MacLeod. The festivities had brought together the Sinclairs, Sutherlands, MacKays, and several other smaller clans for a sennight of competitions, buying and selling in the makeshift marketplace, and general merrymaking. On the wide, flat green not far from the alehouse, men were testing themselves against one another in the caber toss, hammer throw, footraces, and several other games of strength and skill. The green was surrounded by canvas tents selling everything from wrought silver and gold jewelry to mince pies, cloth, and even late-season livestock. The Caithness Games was one of the last festivals of the year in the Highlands, and all those gathered were eager to absorb as much cheer and entertainment as they could before the long winter set in. Plenty of women moved about the main festival, yet the alehouse was different. This was an all-male space, where men came to drink and fight, not in the controlled way of the Games, but to settle scores and end feuds with their fists. Or in the case of the Black MacLeod, to win a wager against the best warrior in the Highlands.

When she’d heard rumors that the Black MacLeod was here, and challenging men to test their might against him, she had to see for herself if the whispers about his fighting abilities were true. He had not disappointed. Now if only she could get him to square off against her. “Ye said before that anyone who bested ye could hold ye in their service,” she said, ignoring his question. “Were ye lying, then?” A few of the onlookers chortled at her continued needling. “I’ll give ye something to hold onto, lass,” a man called out from the back of the alehouse. That drew more snickers and another bawdy offer from elsewhere in the crowd. They instantly fell silent, however, when the Black MacLeod swept a deadly glare over those gathered. “Ye truly wish to fight me, lass?” he asked, settling his gaze on her once more. Birdie swallowed.

“Aye.” He cocked a dark eyebrow at her. “Verra well. I’ll set ye on that bonny wee behind of yers as gently as I can, if it’s a lesson ye’re after. Just remember that ye wanted this.” Despite the fact that her nerves were drawn taut as a drum head, Birdie almost snorted at the man’s arrogance. Of course, she couldn’t beat him strength to strength. He was easily twice her size, and hewn of naught but battle-earned muscle. Nay, she’d have to use the element of surprise—though from the looks of him, very little caught the Black MacLeod off-guard. Still, Birdie had precious few options.

She stepped farther into the open circle cleared around the Black MacLeod. He swept her with that cool, calculating gaze, and she had to resist the urge to shiver. He softened his knees—bent them deeply, more like—so that he only stood half a head above her rather than head and shoulders. Then he lifted his hands in front of him, not even bothering to curl them into fists as he had against his other opponents. “I’ll even let ye get in the first hit,” he said, his voice low and surprisingly velvety. More derisive murmurs rippled through the crowd, but they quieted when Birdie lifted her own hands and took another step forward. Standing this close, she could reach out and touch him if she wanted to. Her nearness afforded her a detailed view of the black stubble roughening his square jaw, and the flat press of his mouth. Her gaze slid to the massive hands held loosely before him. His knuckles were covered in cuts and bruises from his many fights that day—and before, judging by the older scrapes and fine white scars.

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