Our Story Begins: The war for Scotland's sovereignty rages on, as Robert the Bruce is crowned king and the Highland Guard, his elite fighting force of legendary warriors, battle for land... and love.
An Excerpt From Chapter One
Balvenie Castle, Moray, March 1305
Bella was distracted, her mind whirling with all that she had to do before she left. The brooch! She couldn’t forget the MacDuff brooch for the ceremony.
She didn’t notice the guard missing outside her door until it was too late. A man took her by surprise, grabbing her from behind as she entered her chamber.
Her heart jumped to her throat in shock and panic, immediately sensing the danger radiating from the intruder. He was big and strong and about as pliable as rock.
But she wouldn’t be taken without a fight. She lashed out trying to break free, but it only made his hold clamp down on her tighter. She tried to scream, but his hand muffled any sound.
“Calm down,” a rough voice whispered in her ear. “I mean you no harm. I’m here to take you to Scone.”
She stilled, his words penetrating through the haze of terror. Scone? But she was to leave for Scone tomorrow. And Robert’s men were to come to her in the woods, on her way back from church, not in the castle.
Her heart pounded wildly as she tried to sort it out, tried to decide whether to believe him, all the while conscious of the steely strength of the leather-clad arm wrapped tightly around her chest. Good God, the brute could snap her in two with one hard squeeze!
They stood there like that for a minute in the semi-darkness, unmoving, while he waited for his words to sink in.
“Do you understand?”
The gravely voice did little to reassure her, but what choice did she have? She couldn’t breathe with his hand covering her mouth so tightly. Besides, he could have killed her already if that was what he intended.
With that pleasant thought filtering through her mind, she nodded.
Slowly—cautiously—he released her.
Once the air had returned to her lungs, Bella spun in anger and indignation. “What is the meaning of this? Who—”
She gasped at the sight of him. Though little light streamed through the tower window with night almost fallen, there was enough to know that she’d been right to fear him. He was not the kind of man any woman would want to be alone with in the dark—or in the bright daylight for that matter—and her heart gave an involuntary start.
Good God in heaven, could this man really have been sent by Robert?
Built to intimidate, he was tall, broad shouldered, and packed with layers—and layers—of muscle. He was every inch a powerful warrior: solid, strong, and deadly.
But he was no knight. One glance told her that. He had the look of a man born to fight. Not on a steed of white, clad in mail, but a brute who liked to brawl in the dirt.
He seemed to have enough weapons strapped to his body to equip a small army, including the hilts of two swords she could see worn across his back. He wore little armor: only a black leather cotun and chausses studded with small rivets of steel. His mail was limited to a blackened coif to protect his neck.
But it was his eyes that stopped her. Beneath the ghastly steel nasal helm they were unnaturally vivid, the color so piercing in the darkness, they seemed to glow.
She’d never seen eyes like that in her life. A shiver ran down her spine, spreading over the surface of her skin like a prickly sheet of ice.
Cat eyes, she thought. Feral cat eyes. Chilling in their intensity and undeniably predatory.
“Lachlan MacRuairi,” he said, answering her unfinished question. “I’m sorry for surprising you, Countess, but it couldn’t be avoided. We don’t have much time.”
For the second time that night Bella was stunned speechless. Lachlan MacRuairi? Her eyes widened. This was the man Robert had sent to see her safely to Scone? A mercenary? And not just any mercenary, but a man whose exploits in the Western Isles had made him the most notorious gallowglass in Scotland. The greatest scourge of the seas in a kingdom of pirates.
Surely there must be some mistake. Lachlan MacRuairi would sell his mother to the highest bidder—if a woman could be found who would claim him. He was a bastard, but for his blood heir to one of the largest dominions in the Western Isles. Though the clan lands had gone to his legitimate half-sister, Christina of the Isles, he was still titular chief. But he’d ignored his duty and responsibility, forsaking his clansmen, to pursue his own ends.
He was a black-hearted villain if ever there was one, rumored to have murdered his wife.
Bella was incredulous. With everything she was risking, she couldn’t believe Robert had sent this . . . this . . .why, he was no more than a brigand!
She peered into the shadows, taking in the details she’d missed before. Saint’s preserve her, just look at him! He even looked like a brigand. She’d wager his jaw hadn’t seen the side of a blade or razor in a week. A thin scar lined the underside of one cheek, and his sharp, slitted gaze was hard enough to cut rock. Below the edge of his helm, his dark hair fell in thick, disheveled waves to his chin.
What she could see of his face seemed cut from cold, hard granite. With some surprise, she realized that the hooded gaze, square jaw, high cheekbones, and wide mouth might have been considered handsome—exceedingly handsome even—were they not set at such a menacing angle. What a shame to have such a face destroyed by a black heart.
Their eyes met, and Bella realized that she was not alone in her study. He was watching her with equal intensity. She could feel his eyes rake her in the shadowy twilight.
The sudden flare made her uneasy, though she didn’t know why. Bella was used to seeing that spark in men’s eyes.
She’d been barely three and ten when it started. It was exactly the same time her breasts had filled, her hips had curved, and her face had lost its youthful roundness. Since then, men had looked at her differently. As if they only wanted one thing from her.
She’d learned to ignore it. But with him, it felt different. It felt threatening in a way she’d never experienced before. Her pulse spiked and a strange flush skimmed over the surface of her skin.
Instinctively, she took a step back.
He noticed her reaction, and his gaze hardened. “Lachlan MacRuairi,” he repeated, not hiding his impatience. “Bruce sent me.”
“I know who you are,” she said, unable to keep the distaste from her voice.
The tight seam of his mouth seemed to get a little tighter. “I know you were not expecting me tonight, but there’s been a change of plans.”
Bella almost laughed at the absurdity. To say that she was not expecting him was to put it mildly. What could Robert have been thinking to send such a man to her?
She was risking everything to go to Scone and place the crown upon his head. To do the duty her brother, a virtual prisoner in Edward’s English court, could not.
When her mother, Joan de Clare, had first come to her with the proposition about a week ago, Bella had been dumbfounded. To place the crown on Robert Bruce’s head—a man who’d been declared a rebel and an outlaw—would be to defy not only the most powerful king in Christendom, Edward of England, but also her husband.
John Comyn, Earl of Buchan, hailed from one of the most powerful families in Scotland who were the Bruces’ fiercest rivals and foes. That rivalry had turned deadly a few weeks ago when Robert had stabbed her husband’s cousin, the Lord of Badenoch, before the high altar of Greyfriars Monastery in Dumfries.
Even now her husband was in England demanding justice for his cousin’s death from King Edward. Buchan despised Bruce and would rather see Edward as his master than Robert Bruce on the throne. He wouldn’t listen to reason. The good of Scotland paled in the force of his hatred.
By doing this, her husband would never forgive her. He would consider her duty a betrayal. It would be the end of their marriage—such as it was.
But the MacDuffs held the hereditary right to enthrone Scotland’s kings, and without one some would question the validity of the ceremony. As it was, Robert’s claim to the throne would be contested by many of the important noblemen in Scotland, including her husband. To establish the legitimacy of his kingship among the rest, Bruce would need all the symbolism and adherence to tradition that he could find.
Even then it would be a challenge. Robert was in for a long, difficult struggle. His cause was anything but certain. Bella did not delude herself: in doing this, in aligning herself so publicly with Bruce, her future would be uncertain as well. She would be branded a rebel by the English king who claimed Scotland as his dominion.
If Robert lost, if he failed to gather enough support from Scotland’s nobles, he would stand no chance against Edward. And defying Edward Plantagenet was a grave risk indeed.
Bella had looked to her mother for guidance. Though her mother had recently married one of Bruce’s men, she would not be asking Bella to crown Robert for that alone. Like Bella, her mother wanted to see Scotland freed from English tyranny, and both believed that Robert Bruce was the man to see it done. Her mother’s conviction in Bruce’s cause was just as strong as her own. Edward Plantagenet had tightened his iron fist around the neck of Scotland, and Robert Bruce was its last breath. If anyone could do this, he could.
She had to take the risk. In many ways this was the moment she’d been waiting for throughout her entire life. A chance to do something truly important. A chance to stand up for what she believed in. Duty, loyalty, putting her needs behind the good of her family and Scotland. These weren’t mere words or ideals, but something real. Something worth fighting for.
Duty had kept her by her husband’s side for so long, but Buchan had never earned her loyalty. For the sake of their daughter she’d weathered his storm of jealous rage, suspicion, and obsessive lust.
To protect her daughter she might have had second thoughts, had her husband not mentioned that he was considering betrothing the twelve year old Joan, named after her grandmother, to one of his cronies, a man four times her age.
Bella would die before she let that happen.
Once her mother had assured her that Joan would be able to come with her, Bella had agreed.
But seeing the man he’d sent for her, she wondered what she’d gotten herself into. If Lachlan MacRuairi was the sort of man Robert was relying on, the rebellion was doomed before it had begun.
How much had he had to pay him? She doubted there was an amount high enough to ensure the loyalty of a brigand like MacRuairi.
MacRuairi folded his arms across his chest, an impatient gesture made threatening by the massive size of his arms. Muscles like that could only be earned on a battlefield. Many battlefields.
“Is there a problem?”
“I was expecting . . .” She glanced into the darkness behind him, hoping to see a party of shiny, mail-clad knights rush out of the shadows.
His eyes narrowed to slits, almost as if he knew exactly what she was thinking.
“Where are the rest of the men?” she finished lamely.
Her question seemed to amuse him, if the twist in his mouth could be construed as a smile. “Waiting below.”
“How did you get in here? What happened to the guard?”
“Guards,” he corrected. He gave her a hard look. “I thought Buchan did not suspect anything?”
Bella almost laughed. All her husband did was suspect. Falsely—not that it mattered anymore. But she knew that Lachlan was referring to her plans to crown Bruce. “That’s not why he has me watched.”
He gave her a questioning look but didn’t ask what she meant. She wouldn’t have told him anyway.
The brigand had extinguished his pleasantries—if they could be called such—and was obviously anxious to get on with his reason for being here. He moved to the window, careful to stay out of sight but sneaking a glance at the courtyard below. “Come.” He took her elbow, and every nerve-ending sparked at his touch. “We have to go. There isn’t much time. Fetch your cloak and anything else you wish to take with you. But be quick about it.”
What was he talking about? They weren’t supposed to leave until tomorrow. Nothing was ready. She’d left the evening meal early to start gathering their belongings.
Bella jerked her arm from his hold, having no wish to go anywhere with him. “I’m not going anywhere until you tell me what this is about.”
She didn’t think it was possible for his face to grow more menacing. He leaned closer, his eerie, piercing eyes pinning her. Green, she realized. Even in the darkness his eyes glowed like two golden emeralds in the sun.
“What is this is about?” he repeated. Grabbing her by the shoulders, he thrust her toward the window. “It’s about those banners in the distance just beyond the trees. In about ten minutes your husband and his men are going to ride through that gate, and if I were you I wouldn’t want to be here when he arrives.”
She gasped, the color draining from her face. Her eyes searched the brigand’s hostile, merciless gaze and read the answer to her question: Her husband knew. Somehow Buchan had learned of her plans.
And God help her, he was going kill her.
End of Excerpt
Learn more about the books in the The Highland Guard Series »
See the other books in this series »