Loch Shin, Scotland, June, 1619
Torrin MacLeod awoke to the sounds of his men talking outside the tent. Dawn had arrived but, being close to midsummer, 'twas still early, around four in the morning.
"Chief," Struan, his sword-bearer, said just outside.
"Aye?" Torrin sat up, his eyes scratchy from lack of sleep.
Having slept fully clothed in his belted plaid, shirt and doublet, Torrin pushed through the flaps of the tent and joined his clansmen. "How many?"
"Six or eight." His brawny sword-bearer narrowed his eyes and squinted into the distance.
Indeed, those approaching through the mist from the south rode along the trail by Loch Shin at a quick pace. "They're in a hurry."
The other six MacLeods in his own party stood at the ready, though they appeared deceptively relaxed. He didn't have to tell them to prepare for an attack. They all well knew anyone could quickly turn into an enemy. He always took his best-trained guards with him whenever he traveled. They'd just left Lairg the day before. After his business there was completed, they'd headed north toward Durness. His good friend and foster brother, Iain Stewart, had wanted to accompany him, but Torrin had left while the man slept off a bad bout of drunkenness from the night before. He didn't need Iain's help on this mission.
None of his men, except Struan, had guessed his purpose in going to Durness. Of course, Struan could read him easily, and he knew Torrin held a keen interest in Lady Jessie MacKay. An interest that had only increased over the last several months since he'd first met her, even though he hadn't seen her again.
She haunted him. Her flaming red hair and her bright blue eyes wouldn't leave his mind or his dreams. Never had he seen such a beautiful lady. She had the presence of a Norse goddess, tall, lithe, and statuesque… almost as tall as Torrin.
Not only were the clan elders hounding him about marrying, but he was ready for a wife. At twenty-eight, he knew 'twas past time for him to marry and sire an heir. His younger brother was already married and had a wee bairn, a lass. He felt left behind. He'd arranged to marry Isobel MacKenzie, but Chief Dirk MacKay, Jessie's brother, had snatched Isobel from beneath his nose. He didn't hold it against Dirk. Torrin had been uncertain of the match anyway. But Jessie… she was a woman he didn't wish to let slip through his fingers.
The riders, swathed in belted plaids, slowed as they approached and eyed Torrin and his men cautiously.
They drew up as they came even with the camp. "A good morn to you," their leader said, his black hair in a queue and a few days' worth of beard stubble darkening his cheeks.
"Good morn," Torrin said. "You're traveling early."
"Aye, we needed an early start to reach Durness on the morrow at gloaming."
"That's where we're headed as well."
Their leader and two more men dismounted. "Gregor MacBain, Chief of the MacBains." He offered his hand.
"Chief Torrin MacLeod." He shook the other man's hand, noting that MacBain was shorter than him but also stockier. Of course, most people were shorter than Torrin. "Would you like to join us as we break our fast?" He wanted to ask the man what his business was in Durness, but since they'd just met, he didn't want to pry. Likely, the man would reveal his purpose before long.
"I thank you, but we've already eaten."
"It might be good to ride together into MacKay Country. A gang of a dozen or so highwaymen and outlaws troll the area." Torrin wouldn't add that his own brother, Nolan, had joined that gang. It saddened and shamed him greatly.
"Indeed?" Suspicion colored MacBain's tone.
"Aye. Donald McMurdo and Haldane MacKay lead them."
"Och. I've heard of McMurdo, a wily old highwayman who has murdered countless people."
"And who is this Haldane MacKay?" MacBain asked.
"A lad of around twenty summers but still deadly. The youngest brother of the MacKay chief."
MacBain's dark eyes widened. "Any relation to Lady Jessie MacKay?"
"Aye, her youngest brother. You ken who she is?"
"I do indeed." The man gave a smile which could only be called nasty and cunning. "We were engaged in a trial marriage three years past."
"What?" Torrin blurted the word before he could stop himself, outrage and disbelief tensing his muscles.
The man's smile broadened. "I take it you ken who she is as well."
Torrin wanted to smash his fist into the man's face. "I've met her," he said instead, keeping his response discreet so as not to alert MacBain to his interest in her.
"She is lovely," the man mused.
Torrin had no inkling that Jessie had been in a trial marriage. That meant this bastard had taken her virginity and then cast her off like a worn-out shoe. Had she been hurt by his rejection, or happy to leave him? And why would he send her away? Was she barren or had he simply tired of her?
"So… you're no longer married to her?" Torrin inquired in a light tone.
"She was at my castle for a year and a day, as is customary, but…" MacBain shrugged. "I found someone else and sent Lady Jessie back to her family."
"Ah. So you found a more suitable wife."
"Aye, briefly. She bore me a fine son but she died soon after. I'm now in need of a wife again."
Torrin narrowed his eyes and nodded. Why hadn't the man kept Jessie as his wife in the first place if he was but chasing on her skirt-tails again? He disliked indecisive men.
"A chief must have a wife," MacBain said. "You ken what I'm talking about, aye? Are you married?"
"Nay, not yet. Soon, I hope."
"Well, if you will allow us a few minutes to break our fast and finish packing up, we'll ride north with you."
"We need a rest anyway." He turned to his men. "Water the horses." The remaining MacBain clansmen dismounted.
Torrin's men had the camp mostly packed up and his cook was handing out bannocks within minutes.
While Torrin ate, he eyed MacBain. "I take it you are going to visit Lady Jessie."
"How did you guess?" The man smirked.
Torrin shrugged. He didn't like the cheeky bastard. He'd appeared friendly at first, but once he'd started talking about Lady Jessie and his deceased wife, he'd become highly unlikable. Obviously, he had no respect for women. Nor could MacBain make up his mind.
"Are you going to try to arrange another trial marriage with her?" Torrin took another bite of the bannock, although he was swiftly losing his appetite.
"Aye, she was rather smitten with me, so I'm certain she will be agreeable to it."
Hmph. She damned well better not be. Nay, Lady Jessie was intelligent. She wouldn't submit to being the rushes beneath this man's muddy feet. And if she even considered it, Torrin was bound and determined to change her mind. She deserved a man who would treat her like a goddess. Torrin could do that.
Weeks ago, when Dirk and the MacKay party had stopped for a night or two at Munrick Castle, Torrin had been disappointed that Lady Jessie was not traveling with them. For the second time, he'd asked Dirk for Lady Jessie's hand in marriage, but Dirk had said he wouldn't force his sister to marry someone she didn't wish to. Torrin could understand that. If his younger sister were still alive, he wouldn't force her to marry anyone she didn't want to either. A stab of sadness lanced his gut as it always did when he thought of Allina.
He pushed the cutting emotion away and focused on the beautiful image of Lady Jessie in his mind instead. Every time he thought of her, his mood lightened even though she'd rejected him. She simply didn't know him; that was all. She was skittish and suspicious. But he didn't fault her for it; he didn't trust easily either. He'd simply have to prove his worth to her. She made him want to be a better man.
Minutes later, after everything was packed onto the horses, the MacBains and MacLeods rode north.
Torrin hoped Lady Jessie would not give MacBain one moment of her attention. He didn't deserve it. Was there some other reason he was now going back for her? Torrin was certain it had naught to do with MacBain having any feelings for her.
Jessie's older brother, Dirk, was not in Durness, which prevented a marriage arrangement from being made, but MacBain didn't need to know that. He might try to use it to his advantage, or even try to steal Jessie away. Torrin refused to let that happen.
At midday, the sunlight and blue sky glimmered off the dark water of Loch Stack, near blinding him. They stopped to eat and allow the horses to rest. Torrin was staring at the snowcapped mountains in the distance and thinking about Jessie when MacBain approached.
"Why are you headed to Castle Dunnakeil?" MacBain asked. The bold whoreson obviously had no qualms about prying.
"Business. Land," Torrin said and continued eating. Of course, 'twas a lie, but if he could indeed marry Lady Jessie, he would receive the land in her dowry—land that bordered his own. And a marriage was a business deal in most cases. Still, those things were of little importance to him at the moment. He'd wanted a wife like Jessie most of his adult life. 'Twas as if God had taken the woman from his imagination and created Jessie.
He'd never say that aloud, of course; people would think him mad. At times, he wondered if indeed he was going a bit mad. He dreamed of her often, and she occupied his mind during the day. His primary concern now was protecting her from this wily MacBain bastard.
MacBain sat on a rock near him. "I understand Jessie's father passed last fall. Do you ken her brother, the new chief?"
"Aye, Dirk MacKay is a good man. Fair, honest." A bride thief. Torrin held back a grin for, in truth, he was thankful Dirk had stolen his betrothed. Isobel was beautiful, but if Torrin had married her, he would've missed his chance with Jessie. Aye, he had to believe he had a chance with her, despite her resistance.
Torrin glared at the man beside him. Maybe MacBain was the reason Jessie was turned against marriage and men. That had to be it. She would likely be furious that MacBain was back, sniffing at her slippers.
"I'm hoping Chief MacKay will be receptive to my offer of marriage to Jessie," MacBain said.
Doubtful, although Torrin wouldn't tell him this. Let him find out for himself that things were not so rosy. This would give Torrin an excuse and time for Jessie to get to know him. He wanted her trust… and a lot more.
"Why did you send her home at the end of the handfasting?" Torrin asked.
"Another woman bewitched me. 'Twas not something I planned. But I met Ellen about a month after I'd signed the trial marriage contract. I was smitten with her."
"So you sent Jessie home and married Ellen?"
"Aye, but I waited until the year was up so I wouldn't break the contract without good reason and rile her father. 'Twas difficult as Ellen was with child and I had to keep her condition a secret."
Difficult? Did he not think it was difficult for Jessie, watching her "husband" frolicking with another woman? Bastard.
"Lady Jessie must have been hurt and angry," Torrin said, as if only vaguely interested.
MacBain shrugged. "Aye, she glared at me a few times. Gave me the cold shoulder. But I'm certain I can warm her up again."
"'Haps." Ha. The man was full of horse dung. Jessie was more likely to dirk MacBain in his sleep than smile at him. And he hoped she would.
"She's a fiery one."
Torrin glared at him, not wanting to hear one more word or he might choke the bastard before they made it to Durness.
"Why are you pursuing her instead of some other lady?" Torrin asked. "Surely, 'twould be easier if you didn't have a history with the woman."
"Her dowry is…" MacBain clamped his lips shut.
"Aye?" Torrin prompted.
MacBain eyed him suspiciously. "Well, I suppose I can tell you. You won't tell anyone, will you?"
Torrin shook his head. "Nay. Who would I tell?"
"I heard that her brother increased her dowry, and added some land in."
"Ah." Money-hungry whoreson. All he wanted was the dowry. Not Jessie. Torrin knew this happened with a lot of marriage arrangements. Land was important to him as well, so his clan could grow more food and not starve. But for him, the woman he took to wife would be far more important than the land she brought to the marriage.
"You won't tell her I said that, will you?" MacBain's brows scrunched together.
"I barely know her." But he intended to change that, though it might take some time. Besides, he wouldn't need to tell her why MacBain was pursuing her again. She'd know. She was one of the canniest women he knew. He hadn't talked to her much, but he'd watched her plenty during the month he'd been at Dunnakeil last winter. He knew her to be friendly and caring, quick with a smile. Not for him, of course, but for those she was close to. She'd been managing the servants at that time and 'twas obvious everything was spotless.
She would make a perfect wife for him. He looked forward to convincing her of that.
During supper at Dunnakeil Castle, one of the guards approached Lady Jessie MacKay at the high table. "We have visitors, m'lady," he said, raising his voice over the roar of conversation in the candlelit great hall.
Halting her knife in the midst of cutting a piece of venison, she glanced up at him with trepidation. Please don't let it be Haldane. She couldn't deal with her outlaw younger brother. Although Dirk hadn’t exactly left her in charge of the castle, she was the next oldest of her siblings and of the highest rank here. Dirk's sword-bearer, Erskine, and the guards were to handle defense. But if they had noble visitors, she was the one left to entertain them… along with her other brother, Aiden. But his method of entertainment was music. She would have to deal with everything else.
"Who is it?" she asked with dread.
"Chief MacLeod and Chief MacBain," the guard informed her.
"What?" Jessie's mouth hung open. Noticing a few people staring at her, she snapped her mouth closed and tried to contain her shock. Those were two names she'd hoped to never hear again. "Are you certain? Torrin MacLeod and Gregor MacBain?"
"What on earth are they doing here?"
"They would not say, but they're requesting entrance."
"How many men with them?" her younger brother, Aiden, asked beside her.
"Just over a dozen."
"I'll see what they want." Aiden stood.
"Wait." Jessie grabbed his slender arm. "I'll go, too." Why couldn't Dirk have been here at a time like this? He and around twenty-five had left, traveling south, a few weeks ago. They'd been planning to stop by Munrick Castle, Torrin MacLeod's keep. He knew Dirk wasn't here. Was that why he'd come? To harass her about marrying him? "Where is Erskine?" she asked. Her older brother's sword-bearer would ken what to do if conflict broke out.
"Outside," the guard said. "But he wanted your permission before we allowed them entrance. We're fair certain the MacLeods are allies, but we don't ken about the MacBains since… eh…" The guard's face flushed.
"Aye." Since her handfasting with him had gone sour three years past.
"I don't think Torrin MacLeod wants to wage war with you, sister." Aiden smirked, his boyish face taking on a pixie charm.
She rolled her eyes. She could guess why Torrin was here, but MacBain? The man whose castle she'd spent a year and a day at. She'd hoped to never see him again. Of a certainty, at the time, she'd fallen for him, but since being away from him, she'd come to realize what kind of knave he truly was. He cared for no one but himself. Gregor MacBain was incredibly selfish and changed his mind as often as the changing weather in the Highlands. He'd entered into a legal marriage with another woman. Jessie had naught to say to him.
After pushing herself up from the table, she crossed the great hall on shaky legs. But never could she let either of the men outside see a smidgen of weakness from her. They would circle and close in like hungry buzzards.
Stepping into the courtyard, she saw that gloaming had settled over the land with a purple light just after sunset, and a brisk breeze blew in off the North Sea. She, Aiden, and the guard moved toward the iron portcullis.
Erskine joined them, his short brown hair ruffled by the wind. He wore leather armor and carried a sword at his hip. But he did not appear overly concerned. "M'lady." He gave an abbreviated bow. "Both MacLeod and MacBain appear to have come in peace. They wish to speak to you."
Jessie's stomach knotted worse than the ropes used on the galleys. Saints! She gave a brief nod, though she did not want to face either man, but for different reasons. She took a deep breath and placed a hand upon the hilt of the foot-long dirk in the scabbard on her belt. She was never without it. Not that she expected to have to use it on either man. But it gave her more confidence.
As they approached the gate, her breathing grew shallower and her sweaty hands more fidgety. She clasped them before her.
Her gaze landed on Torrin MacLeod first. A wave of panic and something far more disturbing washed over her. The man was just as striking and attractive as the last time she'd seen him, mayhap more so, with his compelling green eyes, long chestnut hair and tall, lean frame. He was one of the few men who towered over her. But looking into his eyes filled her with a mixture of dread, fear, and something she didn't want to think about.
She quickly switched her gaze to Gregor MacBain. His black hair was much longer than it had been the last time she'd seen him and a scruffy short beard covered the lower half of his face. His dark-brown eyes had once completely bewitched her, but now she could hardly tolerate the sight of him. She had been so young and naïve when she'd first met him.
"Lady Jessie," Gregor said in a cheerful tone, then bowed deeply. His conciliatory smile annoyed her greatly. "I'm so glad to see you, lass."
"What do you want, Gregor?" she demanded.
Torrin snorted, one side of his lips kicking up in a half smile as he watched her with pronounced interest.
Heat rushed over her and she immediately felt even more edgy than before. No matter how disconcerting she found him, she simply needed to ignore Torrin, but remain ever vigilant around him for he was a dangerous man. She had seen firsthand what kind of lethal warrior he was.
"Is that any way to greet your husband?" Gregor cajoled.
"You are not my husband," she stated firmly, sending him what she hoped was a cutting glare. "You married another woman."
"Aye, but she passed giving birth to my son. I made a mistake. I never should've left you for her. I ken you must have missed me."
"You're wrong. I hardly remember much about you. And our marriage was not a legal one, so you were never my husband, in truth. 'Twas only a handfasting." She detested the Highland practice of trial marriage for a year and a day, to see if the woman would conceive a bairn, before the legal marriage took place. This, of course, benefited the man, usually a chief who needed an heir. She would never willingly enter into one of these arrangements again. She'd much prefer to remain unmarried and be of service to her family and clan.
Gregor sighed. "A storm is blowing in off the sea. Will you not let us in and feed us supper? What of Highland hospitality?"
"I have no hospitality or sympathy for you," she said, only now noticing the strong wind whipping her hair and cooling her overheated face.
"Allow me to talk to the lady alone." Torrin's tone was low and deep, but most disturbing of all, he never took his eyes off her.