Highlander’s Love by Mariah Stone

 

Prologue

Lands near Loch Awe, 1295


A woman’sscream pierced the air.

“Whoa!” Owen Cambel pulled on the reins of his horse. He’d soon arrive at Innis Chonnel Castle, his clan’s seat. He knew he shouldn’t stop at all, given what he was carrying, but he couldn’t ignore the scream on his clan’s land.

Birds chirped in the woods around him, leaves rustled in the wind, a woodpecker tapped. It smelled like—

“Ahhh! Help!” There it was again. A woman needed aid.

Where was she? A breeze shuddered through the branches of tall trees. Butterflies fluttered by the daisies. He put his hand on his claymore and clicked with his tongue to get the horse to carry on slowly down the path.

“Get off me!” a woman screamed from somewhere ahead.

All ye’re good at is finding distractions and chasing skirts instead of taking responsibility and being a leader like yer brothers.His father’s harsh words echoed in his head.

But the woman was clearly in danger. Owen couldn’t live with himself if he didn’t help someone when they needed it. His heart beat hard as he spurred the horse on and rode faster, his fist clenching the handle of his sword. Between the trees to his left, movement caught his eye. A man crushed a young lass against a tree, moving his hands up and down her body. She tried to push him away and writhed to free herself.

Owen pulled his horse to a stop. “Let her go!”

The man turned, his face dark and threatening. He walked towards Owen and took out a dagger, his biceps bulging under his sleeves, his chest as broad as a barrel. How could Owen defeat a man like this alone? He wasn’t a small lad at sixteen, but the man clearly superseded him in size and strength. Pulse beating in his ears, he jumped off the horse and unsheathed his claymore.

“Are ye going to fight me with a dagger?” Owen said.

“Shut up, pup,” the man grunted.

He launched at Owen and thrust the dagger, but Owen hadn’t trained with swords since the age of eight for nothing. He ducked and deflected the weapon. It fell into the grass, leaving the man empty-handed.

His face reddened, and instead of looking for his weapon, he threw himself at Owen like a furious bull. Owen stepped out of the way, not willing to harm an unarmed man, and his attacker fell forward onto the grass. He put his sword at the man’s throat and stilled, panting.

“I dinna wish to kill ye,” Owen said. “Who is he to ye, lass?”

“I dinna ken him,” she said. “He took my silver and wanted…more.”

“Give her the silver back,” Owen spat.

“I will give ye nothin’,” the man growled through his teeth.

Owen pressed the edge of the claymore closer to the man’s neck. “Ye will, or ye’ll die.”

The man reached into the purse that hung on his belt. He removed a leather pouch and tossed it on the ground.

“Good,” Owen said. “Now leave.”

The man threw a malicious glance at Owen, turned around, and walked into the woods without looking back. When Owen couldn’t see him anymore, he put his claymore into its sheath. The lass sat by the tree, shaking. He picked up her purse and the man’s dagger and brought them to her.

“Take yer silver and this for protection.”

Owen’s chest puffed. Not only did he carry a very important gift for King John Balliol from the MacDougalls, but he’d also met and saved a beautiful lass. With trembling hands, she took the purse and the dagger. Her blond hair was in disarray, her cheeks were flushed, and her eyes were wide and wet. She didn’t look any older than him and was so pretty, so vulnerable, so defenseless.

“Thank ye,” she said.

He sank down to squat before her. “What is yer name?”

“Aileene.”

Her torn dress and undertunic showed more skin on her chest than a modest woman would show.

“Do ye live nearby?” Owen said.

“The village is a fair walk away.”

“Someone waits for ye? A husband, mayhap? I can take ye home.”

He needed to be careful riding alone with enough gold to buy an estate, but who would presume a youth like him was carrying a sack of gold? And the lass clearly needed help…

“I’m nae marrit yet.” She rubbed her ankle under the dress. “I dinna think I can move yet.”

“Aye. I’ll make fire to warm ye, and ye can have my bread and cheese for the road.”

But what about the gold? Shouldn’t he take it to Innis Chonnel first? A pretty smile bloomed on her face.

No, the best way to hide something was to put it in plain sight, right? And he felt needed, appreciated, important.

“When ye feel better, I will take ye wherever ye want,” he added.

“Ye have a heart of gold, lord,” she said.

She called him lord… Warmth spread in Owen’s chest. At his age, he hadn’t done anything yet to deserve the name. Aye, his grandfather was the chief of his clan and a close ally of King Robert the Bruce, and his father was a great warrior, and so were his brothers. Clan Cambel were proud descendants of Diarmid the Boar, a great hero from legends. And yet it was the first time in Owen’s life that he’d felt important.

Would he hear the same respect in his father’s voice once he delivered the package?

Owen made a fire and kept a lookout for Aileene’s attacker. The man could return with another weapon or with some friends. But Owen doubted it. The man would probably assume Owen had continued on his way and so had Aileene. Owen had had his fair share of adventures with servant girls and willing farmers’ daughters, but this lass… No one had ever looked at him with such admiration and gratitude.

He was the joker in the family, irresponsible and left to his own devices. He was surprised when the MacDougalls gave him the sack of gold he had now hidden among other pouches on his horse’s back. But he was honored. Finally, he had a chance to prove his worth to his clan.

King John Balliol was a guest at Innis Chonnel, the Cambel clan seat. Owen couldn’t wait to see his father’s astonished face, as well as his brothers’. Craig and Domhnall would surely be surprised. Mayhap, his life had turned around today. Mayhap, his father would finally agree to take him into battle.

Aileene sat by the fire, massaging her ankle. Owen gave her a piece of bread and cheese.

“Thank ye,” she said as she took them from him. Their hands touched, and her eyes lingered on him. Her gaze moved down his tunic and even farther south to the front of his breeches. Was she really suggesting something? She’d just been attacked. Was she really ready?

Aileene broke eye contact and bit into the bread and cheese.

“I want to thank ye,” she said. “I need the silver to buy a potion for my sick father. Ye may have saved his life as well.”

Owen shrugged. “Nae need to thank me.”

She took a bottle out of her basket. “I make delicious berry wine and am on my way to trade it in the neighboring village. I’d love for ye to have a bottle. Would ye like some?”

“Aye.” Owen grinned. “I never refuse a fine wine.”

She smiled back, dimples forming at her cheeks. She removed the cork and handed the bottle to him.

“Sláinte,” he said and sipped. The wine was sweet and not very strong, and Owen drank more, suddenly thirsty. They shared the bottle and the food and chatted. Aileene was a lovely woman, and Owen sensed she was enjoying his company. She kept throwing those lingering glances at him, and he knew what they meant. He was all for it, but he also didn’t want to take advantage of her.

His head was pleasantly spinning from the wine and her company. She kept rubbing her ankle, wincing from time to time.

“Do ye ken anything about healing?” she said. “My ankle ails me.”

Owen licked his lips, his mouth dry. “I can look at it if ye want?”

“Would ye?”

“Aye, but are ye certain? ’Tis nae proper… And that man…”

“I trust ye.”

She leaned back and stretched her leg out to him. He sat closer, his groin already starting to warm, his cock waking as he imagined her smooth skin against his fingers. He took her foot in his hands and pushed the edge of her skirt up, revealing a white, delicate ankle. There was a scratch there, although not a deep one, and he covered it with his hand. He massaged the foot gently. Her soft skin against his rough palms set fire burning in his blood.

He swallowed and looked up at her face. Her lips were parted, and from under her lashes, her eyes were dark with desire.

“There’s nothing ye can do against my will, because I’m willing for anything.”

Owen cursed under his breath. Even if there’d been an army of angry, barrel-chested men here now, he couldn’t stop.

He put her leg back on the ground and crawled up to her. He kissed her, and she answered back, their tongues lashing in a sweet battle. He was hard. He’d never been so hard in his life. His cock as solid as a rock.

His mind filled with fog that smelled like berry wine, sweet, female skin, and grass.

He woke with a jolt and sat up. The woods were dark around him in, his fire already out. His head hurt, every pulsation of blood in his temples brought pain. He looked around. Where had Aileene gone? His breeches were still down, and his cock was still hard and ready to go. What sort of witchcraft was that?

“Aileene?” Owen called, rubbing his face. Mayhap she’d gone to take care of business.

Owen closed his breeches over the uncomfortable erection and stood up. Everything swayed and swam.

“Aileene?” he repeated.

Her basket was gone. Should he feel hurt she left without saying goodbye? How had he fallen asleep like that? How had it gotten so dark so quickly?

He looked at his horse, and his back chilled.

The purse with the gold was gone. She’d taken it. And she’d left. How would he find her in this darkness, with his head swaying like a banner on the wind?

This was bad. This was worse than anything he’d ever done. Worse than stealing his brother’s clothes when they were bathing. Worse than drinking half a cask of uisge and accidentally hitting the estate’s best-producing ram while shooting arrows at the targets in the darkness. Worse than taking the virginity of the Mackintosh’s daughter. He might still need to marry the lass if the truth ever came out.

What a fool he was. What a fool! And why the hell had his cock not calmed down yet? That had never happened before. He didn’t feel excited at the slightest.

He should never trust himself to make good decisions. He should have known she’d steal from him. Mayhap, the entire attack had been a plot?

He’d never find her now. Too much time must have passed.

He’d best make his way back home and accept the shame he knew awaited him…and his family.