My Wild Highlander
By Vonda Sinclair
London, England, 1618
"Lady Angelique! Come back, sweeting!" ancient Lord Chatsworth called.
Sacrebleu! Angelique Drummagan rushed down the corridor, eased open a door and slipped inside a dark drawing room, one of many within the maze of Whitehall Palace. She prayed Chatsworth would pass by. He fancied himself her suitor and did naught but drool on her hand every time he was near.
Heavy breathing and moans sounded from across the room. She turned and froze, her eyes searching the near darkness. Who was here? Only the shifting moonlight glinting off the Thames provided any illumination, revealing chair backs and settees.
A high-pitched giggle pierced the air from several yards away, in the vicinity of a sitting area near the cold hearth.
"Shh."A long moment of silence stretched out, broken by sounds of kissing.
"King James wishes her brought before him forthwith," a muffled male voice said outside the closed door.
"She vanished in this passage," Chatsworth said.
A pox upon the old lecher! And the king, too. Angelique crept across the Turkish carpet and slid behind the brocade window drapery.
"Ooh, I'm impressed with your swordplay skills, my laird." Lady Eleanor's voice, breathy and excited, shattered the quiet of the room. She was the one moaning and giggling?
"I'm not a laird, but I do thank you for the compliment."
A Highlander? Angelique would recognize that tongue-rolling speech anywhere.
She had never known Eleanor, countess of Wexbury, to dally with anyone below a viscount. What was she doing with a barbarian? That's what her mother—God rest her soul—would've called him, or any Scot. And Maman should know; she'd been married to one.
Eleanor cried out with carnal pleasure. Angelique's face burned hot. She couldn't comprehend how a woman found pleasure in the act. Never again would she entrust her body and heart to any man. Since men were naught but faithless pigs, she knew she only had duty before her, not happiness. Not love. That had been a foolish child's dream.
Eleanor gasped for breath and the Scot made a growling noise. The height of pleasure, some said. Surely the French term le petit mort—the little death—was more accurate. Nausea gripped Angelique even as shocking excitement quickened her heart beat. A dark, hidden part of her wondered… No, never again. I cannot marry and be subjected to a man's lust. She pressed trembling fingers against her throat and found it damp with perspiration.
The door opened and lamplight reflected off the white walls.
"Lady Angelique?" Dryden's nasal voice echoed through the room. He was the most vexing of the king's courtiers.
The two lovers became silent.
"I know you're in here. I heard a noise."
From her position behind the draperies, she noticed the light moving across the floor.
A thump sounded, then rustling.
"Sir Lachlan? What in Hades are you…?"
"I was but…resting," the Scot said.
"Have you seen Lady Angelique?"
"Dryden, the lamp, if you please," Chatsworth said.
"What is it?"
In the silence, the light shifted again, growing brighter as it moved in her direction.
Mon Dieu, do not let them find me, s'il vous plaît. Angelique's pulse roared in her ears. She detested Chatsworth, and now, to be discovered lurking about in a dark room while a Scot coupled with a lady harlot would be exceedingly mortifying. They might even accuse her of spying on them.
Dryden yanked the drapery aside.
"Parbleu!" Angelique blurted and pressed a hand to her mouth.
Dryden sent her a vile grin. In the background, Chatsworth scowled, then shot a murderous glance at the man they'd called Sir Lachlan, who stood in a darkened corner.
Where had Eleanor crawled away to? Angelique couldn't see her beneath the carved furniture in the dimness.
"You and Sir Lachlan?" Dryden snickered. "His Majesty will likely find this interesting."
"Non! I was not—Lady Eleanor was—where did she go?" Embarrassment flamed over her. Now, they thought she'd been with the Scot? Never.
"No need to lie, mademoiselle. Come. The king wishes to see you." He ushered her toward the door. "You, too, Sir Lachlan."
"Indeed." Dryden waved him forward.
The Highlander stepped into the light. The giant was more than a foot taller than she, broad shouldered and wearing a belted plaid, leaving the bottom portion of his muscular legs bare. She'd seen few of these barbaric articles of clothing since she was nine years old and her mother had taken her from Scotland.
His face was ruggedly masculine with a square jaw and hard chin, enticing to a woman's baser instincts, but not refined. This was the same man she'd seen leaving Lady Catherine's bedchamber the night before. Then, he'd been wearing trews. Dallying with two women at court? Or perhaps more? Lecher.
Amusement sparkled in his eyes before he bowed. "M'lady."
"Sir." She curtsied.
The Scot's darkened eyes fixed upon her in a too-knowing way. To cover the heat rushing over her face, she strode from the room.
Feeling like a prisoner headed for the block, Angelique walked beside the Highlander through several rooms and dark-paneled corridors, taking two steps for his every one. Dryden and Chatsworth followed. She would not be surprised to feel the prick of a sword at her back. Glancing around, she found the men empty-handed.
They passed through four doors, guarded by numerous courtiers and royal servants before reaching the antechamber with its gleaming ebony furniture upholstered in the finest red velvets. Numerous candles lit the room and glimmered off the gold leaf.
What did the king want? He'd sent for her two days before at Hampton Court Palace, though he hadn't been ready to meet with her until now. She disliked leaving the comfort of the queen's household, but King James was her guardian and she must do as he bid. Chatsworth and Dryden had been searching for her before they found her in the room with this Highlander, so the summons could have naught to do with him. Why had they asked him to accompany them?
They neared the king's private rooms and an usher opened the carved door. "Lady Angelique Drummagan and Sir Lachlan MacGrath," he announced.
The four entered. The men bowed, and she curtsied deeply before the king.
The scrawny, aging monarch, wearing overblown clothing in colorful silks, occupied an ornate chair on an elevated platform. Buckingham, his favorite courtier, a regally handsome dark-haired man in his early twenties, stood next to him, along with several other members of the aristocracy.
"You have found her." King James turned his rheumy, unsteady gaze toward the tall man beside her. "And Sir Lachlan, I'm so glad you have joined us once again."
"Your Majesty, 'tis a supreme honor." Lachlan bowed.
Dryden whispered something to another courtier, who whispered to Buckingham. And he proceeded to murmur into the king's ear.
The frail monarch's eyes widened. "The two of you have…met?"
Angelique's face heated. "Non. Not in truth."
The king frowned at his courtiers but his expression lightened when he looked at Lachlan. "It matters not. This is my ward, Lady Angelique Drummagan, the new countess of Draughon in her own right." He motioned toward her. "My dear, meet Sir Lachlan MacGrath, a hero to whom we owe much."
The cursed MacGrath took her hand and kissed it. "'Tis my great pleasure to make your acquaintance, m'lady." His rich baritone and the Scottish burr appealed more than it should have.
In the bright candlelight, she saw he was a most visually interesting man. His tawny hair was too long by far and not of the current style. His eyes gleamed like a tiger's eye stone. It was not the color that arrested her, but the expression—assessing and sensual. She had come upon many a rogue like him in France, and barely escaped marrying one.
She jerked her hand away but remembered her manners just in time and curtsied. Not too deeply, because he didn't deserve even that. "An honor, Sir Lachlan."
A tiny grin lifted one corner of his full lips. Though she already loathed him because he was a Highlander and a debaucher, something about him defied her to look away.
"Through his cunning and sharp wits, Sir Lachlan has saved the life of our dear marquess of Buckingham and broken up the den of conspirators," King James said. "We knighted Sir Lachlan a fortnight ago but we believe he deserves an even greater reward. Do we not, Steenie?"
"He will also receive a title." King James gave her a toothless grin. "Earl of Draughon."
What? Her late father's title?
The shock and silence threatened to render her senseless on the floor. What had the king meant?
"Yes, my dear, I have finally found you the perfect husband. He is Scottish, as you are. He is pleasing to look upon and…"
"Pray pardon…Majesty." Fearing she would faint, she quickly curtsied and fled the stateroom as if Lucifer himself chased her. She would die before she'd marry a Highlander whose favorite pastime was lifting skirts.
Lachlan watched the lovely red-haired lass dash from the room. What the devil had just happened? Had the king said something about a husband? And the earl of something? He shouldn't have drunk so much sack earlier.
He shook his head, attempting to clear it. Facing the king, Lachlan could hardly believe he stood once again in His Majesty's opulent private chambers—Lachlan, a Highlander and a second son with no title, nothing but a canny wit and a sword. During the past several weeks, while he'd been at court, enjoying every moment of the drinking, feasting, hunting and other, more carnal, pursuits, he had not been caught in such a compromising situation. And now His Majesty wished to leg-shackle him to a prickly lass? It made no sense. Clearly, Lachlan had overstayed his welcome and should've already departed for his clan's Kintalon Castle in the Highlands.
"Well, then," King James said. "Has there ever been a bride unafraid of the holy state of matrimony?" He grinned. "A toast!" He motioned to his courtiers and servants, who scrambled about for drinks.
Future bride? Lachlan shook his head. Nay, he could never marry. He loved women too much to settle with only one.
"Your Majesty, pray pardon… what are you saying? You wish me to marry Lady Angelique?"
"Yes, yes. I understand you two already know each other, in a sense." James winked.
"Upon my honor, I did not touch her. She happened upon me in the room where I was napping." Had she already been in there when he and Eleanor had arrived, or had she slipped in later? And who had she been hiding from?
"Very well." The king glared at Dryden. "He did not touch her."
Lachlan accepted a crystal glass of the king's prized Greek wine.
Marriage? God's teeth! 'Twill be a disaster.
"So, what say you, lad?"
Damnation, he should say naught. He should keep his tongue trapped firmly betwixt his teeth, but given the dozens of aristocratic gazes burning into him, including the king's, he could not play a mute this late in the day. Marriage? He could not entirely grasp the concept, except that it might be torture. But he could not offend the king by refusing. Besides, he had mentioned an earldom, had he not?
"I…I don't rightly ken what to say, Your Majesty, except I thank you. I'm overcome by your generosity." Lachlan bowed. Saints! What did I utter? He was afraid he'd just agreed to get married.
"I'm glad you are pleased." King James raised his glass and the other men followed suit. "To the next earl of Draughon and chief of Clan Drummagan."
Lachlan took a sip of wine, though in truth he did not want it. He must think clearly.
"Lady Angelique is much in need of a husband," the king said. "Her father, a good friend of mine, died without having a son, therefore Angelique is his heir. He wished that she marry a good Scotsman to guide her and help her run the estate. She will agree of course and, after the marriage, give you Draughon Castle, the earldom and all the lands she possesses. I will confirm it by charter. The men of the clan are headstrong and need an even stronger man to lead them. You, lad, are strong in mind and in body."
"I thank you, Majesty." Something twisted in Lachlan's gut. Though he recalled no past dealings or feuds between his own clan and the Drummagans—what if they refused to accept him?
"A distant male cousin of the fifth degree could be next in line but her father, John Drummagan, did not wish him to be chief, nor does the clan. Besides, there is some question as to his lineage. The only way I would approve of him is if Angelique wishes to marry him. Doubtful, I daresay." The king drank from his glass and a bit of the wine dribbled from the corner of his mouth. A courtier quickly blotted the liquid.
Lachlan remained silent. Me, married? He tried to visualize that without success.
"She is a spirited lass, but I'm sure you will tame her in no time," the king continued. "The estate is near Perth. I think you will find it most pleasant."
Lachlan's older brother was an earl and a chief, but he had never thought to rise to such a level himself. "I'm at a loss for words, Majesty. I'm sure I'm undeserving of such a grand reward."
One of the courtiers coughed and another cleared his throat—titled aristocrats, all, with more wealth and power than they knew what to do with. Everything in Lachlan rebelled at the disdain he witnessed in their eyes.
"Ah, but you do," King James proclaimed. "Does he not, Steenie?"
The extravagantly dressed man beside the king nodded. "Indeed. The brave Scot saved my life." Buckingham's gaze held sincerity.
"By the by," James went on. "I ken you have a smidgen of Stuart blood in your veins, laddie, from a hundred or so years ago. Anyone who's a descendant of kings is surely good enough to be earl of Draughon."
Buckingham nodded again.
God's bones! Could he become more than he'd ever imagined? More than anyone had expected of him?
You will amount to naught, his father had yelled at him more than once. You cannot make a living swiving every wench from here to Paris and back. Not to mention the drinking and gaming. Why can you not be more like Alasdair?
Nay, he would never be as good as his brother.
"Ah, I know what worries you, lad," the king said. "The estate is not in debt and comes with a generous income. The lands thereabout are rich and produce an abundance of crops. The sheep and cattle are too numerous to count."
"What of the Drummagan clan? Will they accept me as their chief?"
"They must. Angelique is the legal heir, and her husband, by right of the marriage contract, stands beside her and leads the clan with her. I command them to accept you. Any who do not will be dealt with as traitors to the crown."
But he would have to marry the flame-haired lass who had glared at him and fled. Had there ever been a woman, whether wench or lady, he couldn't seduce into his good graces? Well, maybe one or two, but they were few and far between.
"This is such an honor, Your Highness. My most sincere thanks to you." Lachlan gave his deepest bow.
"Are you in agreement, then?"
"Aye," he said before he could talk himself out of it. "But I would like to speak with the lady first."
The king nodded. "Be prepared for her resistance. She wishes to marry Philippe Descartes but he is unacceptable—some French nobleman's bastard, and a weak lad to boot. I will never allow it."
Angelique raced to her chamber, slammed and barred the door.
Camille shot from her chair, still holding her needlework. "What is happening?" she asked in French.
Breathing hard, Angelique turned to face her companion. "King James has found me a vile husband."
Camille's blue eyes grew round. "In truth? Who?"
"A wild Scot, a Highlander who does nothing but seduce women. A debaucher worse than Girard."
"No one is worse than Girard."
"Of course. But I cannot marry this MacGrath. You must take a message to Philippe." Angelique hurried to the desk and withdrew a piece of paper, her hands shaking. She almost overset the inkhorn as she dipped in the quill."Take a deep breath, mademoiselle. You will do nothing but waste paper in your haste."
"You are right." She paused a moment, sucked in two deep breaths, then continued at a more controlled pace.
"Would this be the Highlander who wears a belted plaid about, sinfully long hair, tall strapping man?"
"Oui. How can you know of him already?"
Camille gave a dramatic shiver. "The ladies and servants talk. Are you sure you do not want to marry that one?"
"No! Do not tell me he has bedded you as well."
"No. Heavens, no. I wish." She smiled. "If you do not want him…"
"You can have him, believe me. Traitor!"
"It was only a jest."
Angelique put pen to paper. She almost wrote Philippe's name. No, what if someone intercepted the message and took it to the king?
My Love, she wrote. We must run away together. Make arrangements tonight, then come to my room before dawn and I will be ready.
Camille read over her shoulder. "Must you lie and expect the impossible?"
Angelique frowned up at her. "What?"
"You do not love him, and he is not cunning enough to sneak you out of Whitehall. If you elope, you may jeopardize your inheritance. Anger the king, and he is likely to give the estate and title to Kormad."
Angelique thought for a moment. "Yes, you are right." She wadded the paper and took out a clean sheet. "Philippe must beg the king for my hand. That's the only way."
"Why do you want to marry the milksop anyway?"
"The truth." Only because her companion was also her illegitimate French cousin and best friend did she get away with such impertinence.
"Because he is a milksop," Angelique said. "He will not order me around. He will not force me to couple with him if I do not wish it. He will be the earl, but I will run my estate myself without an overbearing, demeaning swine of a man controlling every aspect of my life. I cannot abide it, Camille. I will smother and die." Her throat constricted and tears burned her eyes.
"Shh, it's all right, Ange." Camille rubbed her arm. "Do not overset yourself. Damn Girard for ruining your life."
Angelique shoved the emotion away and wrote the second note, telling Philippe to meet with the king and ask for her hand immediately if he wished to be an earl. She folded the note, dropped red melted wax on it and stamped it with an obscure seal only Philippe knew she used. One she had pilfered from her mother's last benefactor.
"Take it to him." She placed the missive in Camille's hands. "Quickly, please."
A curvaceous, flaxen-haired woman scurried past Lachlan in the passage, moving at such a brisk pace he but caught a glimpse of her. What was amiss? No one chased her. "Mmph."
Lachlan continued his search for Lady Angelique's suite along the dim, wood-paneled corridor. Though visiting her chamber was inappropriate, he had to speak with her immediately. Besides, when had he ever cared what was inappropriate? His gut clenched, making him wonder if he'd made a mistake accepting the king's offer.
Damnation. Nothing was easy to find in the confusion of Whitehall Palace, and the directions he'd gotten from a servant were unclear. Believing he'd found the correct door, he knocked.
"Qui est-ce? Who is it?" a woman called. Her sensual French accent and husky voice awoke his carnal urges. He held a keen fondness for the French ladies.
He knocked again.
She muttered a French curse and he smiled.
Angelique yanked open the door and her gaze cut into him. "Why are you here?"
"I wish to talk to you, m'lady." He bowed.
"I have naught to say to you, Highlander. I have already agreed to marry someone else."
"Indeed? Are you speaking of Philippe Descartes?"
"How do you know of him?"
"His Majesty told me he found the man unacceptable as a husband for you."
Her green eyes widened. While she was distracted by his comment, he pushed his way inside her door and closed it behind him.
"Que vous êtes bête!" She backed away. "Leave at once, monsieur. We have nothing to say to each other."
Having never before been called a beast, he almost laughed. But he didn't want her to know he spoke fluent French, as well as Italian, Spanish and German. In the past, pretending ignorance had sometimes given him the advantage.
"I would ask you kindly to please speak English or Gaelic."
"I will never lower myself to speak your barbaric Erse."
Though her disdain of his native tongue pricked at him like thorns, her closed-mouth, purring accent stirred arousal within him.
"Because you don't ken the language? I shall teach you, if you wish."
She drew her lips into a firm line. Clearly, she had never known the pleasure of a good kiss, something he would enjoy tutoring her in. 'Haps she'd never experienced a kiss at all, good or bad.
Her rich voice and wise, guarded eyes were those of a woman, but her girlish face and slender, waif-like body made her appear she had not enough to eat. In contrast, her clothing of finest gold silk told him she could not be starving.
"How many years have you?" he asked.
He nodded, pleased she was not as young as she appeared…if she was telling the truth. He would ask one of the courtiers on the morrow. Nevertheless, the king wanted him to marry her and he was not one to forgo grand royal gifts, even if he didn't know what the devil to do with them yet.
"Et vous?" she asked.
"And you? You must be very old."
He chuckled. "You don't see any gray hairs, do you? I am twenty-six."
Her brows lifted, intensifying her haughty look, but this only increased her allure. He couldn't resist a challenge.
"We have much to discuss before we are wed."
"I will not marry you. King James cannot force me."
"'Tis dangerous to defy your king."
Her militant expression and rigid stance, hands on hips, told him she might be one of the few women in the world he couldn't sweet talk into liking him. A sinking feeling settled into the pit of his stomach.
"God's bones, I don't ken how you are a reward," Lachlan muttered. "'Haps His Majesty is wanting to punish me for saving the life of Buckingham."
Angelique murmured something in French that sounded like insolent lecher, though he couldn't be sure.
"I thank you for that compliment, m'lady." He winked.
The pink from her face spread down her neck toward her bodice and small breasts. How he loved a woman's creamy curves flushed with the glow of passion.
If she could've made dirks of ice shoot from her eyes, she would've slain him on the spot. She turned away. "Leave me at once."
Her prickliness didn't fool him. 'Twas all a front. Her blush told him she found him appealing, whether she wanted to admit it or not. But maybe she was a virgin and didn't know the pleasures that awaited her in his bed. He would attempt a kiss now, but she might bite off his tongue.
"As you wish, m'lady." He bowed. "I shall see you on the morrow."
"Bonne nuit, monsieur," she said in a condescending tone before he closed the door on his way out.
As he strode down the passage, his heart raced. She excited him more than any woman in a long while. Surely he did not enjoy her sharp tongue or chilly glares. Nay, but he loved a chase. Most women were too easy to catch—he winked, he smiled, and they came.
With determination, Lachlan continued toward the king's private chambers. He sent a message by one of the ushers and five minutes later, Buckingham emerged.
"I wish to inform His Majesty that I would be honored to marry Lady Angelique," Lachlan said.
Buckingham grinned. "I shall tell His Majesty. He will be most pleased."
"I thank you." Lachlan bowed and made his way toward his own bedchamber, trying not to think of the future or what he'd committed himself to. Could be hell itself.
From the passageway, he carried a lit candle into the darkened room. A breathy female voice called out his name in a sing-song fashion and a giggle floated from the draped bed. A second of excitement ignited within him when he thought of Lady Angelique, perhaps come for a surprise visit, but it could not be her. Unless she'd come to murder him. He parted the curtains.
Eleanor lay naked upon the velvet coverlet, gazing at him with heavy darkened eyes. "I am ready for you," she breathed.
He surveyed her ivory skin, her rosy, hard nipples highlighting full breasts, the dark patch of hair at the apex of her shapely thighs, but he felt nothing. No heat of arousal curled through him as it had the first time he'd seen her.
What the devil was wrong with him? He didn't want a naked, willing woman?
"You must go. I'm not in the mood."
He let the curtain drape back into place and set the candle on the mantel.
He poured himself some sherry and took a hefty swig. By the saints, was he changing his ways?
Nay, he was just…distracted. Preoccupied with the startling turn of events. Worried he'd stepped in a huge pile of horse dung.
Behind him, she struggled from the bed. "I heard about your reward from the king."
"Already?" He turned and watched her shove her arms into a silk smock.
"I knew before you did. She is not a virgin, you know."
Indeed? "Nor am I."
Eleanor smirked. "She's a French whore and you shall never see a moment's happiness with her. She will never please you in bed."
"From what I've heard, French whores are excellent in bed."
"You shall regret this!"
"Aye, likely I will," he muttered, but what else had he to do? Keep wandering about, looking for adventures and women? Now, he saw the futility of it. The pursuit of revelry was losing its appeal. What would his friend Rebbie say to that?
"A title and estate do not require your faithfulness," Eleanor snapped.
"Who said anything about faithfulness?"
"Then why are you throwing me out?"
Not wanting to insult her, he simply lifted a shoulder. In truth, he even surprised himself with how rapidly he'd tired of Eleanor. "As I said, I'm not in the mood."
"All the men want to marry her, but she will have none of them, save Philippe. What makes you think she'll have you?"
"She will obey the king, I suspect."
"I wouldn't place a wager upon it. You won't last long anyway. Kormad will grind you to sausage in no time."
"The baron of Kormad. Sorley MacGrotie."
"Ah." A Lowland Scotsman he'd met almost a fortnight ago. He had not been impressed with the man, medium of stature with a sizable gut. He would be clumsy on the battlefield. "Is he Angelique's distant cousin, next in line to inherit?"
"Yes. And the rumor is he will let nothing stand in the way of what he wants."
After Eleanor left, Lachlan slipped from his bedchamber and along the dark corridor. He'd traded his kilt for black trews and cowl. His basket-hilted broadsword thumped against his thigh.
Sorley MacGrotie. The longer Lachlan thought of the bastard, the more his sword hand ached to grip a hilt. How badly did the baron of Kormad want to be an earl? And what would he do to achieve his goal?
He will let nothing stand in the way of what he wants, Eleanor had said.
Mmph. He doubted the man had ever had a Highlander in his way. 'Twas the same as a rocky crag. He intended to gain the upper hand and ferret out Kormad's plans. Lachlan's instincts told him to expect a battle. This was his opportunity to finally be someone who mattered, to live up to a potential he never knew he had. And damned if anyone would snatch it away from him.
Lachlan lowered his cowl for a moment, allowing the guards to identify him at the gate. They let him pass. Outside on the dark muddy street, he listened to the sounds of the night—the fetid Thames flowing by, a dog barking—then proceeded along King Street to the nearest coaching inn, The Golden Cross, a likely haunt for Kormad. But the man was nowhere to be found.
Lachlan stepped into the third establishment along the Strand. The Black Spur was a din of English talk and laughter. Ale and beer scented the air of the low-ceilinged room, along with roasting boar and smoke from the fire.
He scanned the dozens of men seated at tables, then spotted his friend, Dirk MacLerie, near the back. Lachlan slipped over and sat in the empty chair.
Hand drifting to his sword hilt, Dirk turned dangerous pale blue eyes toward Lachlan in his cowl. "What do you want, friend?"
Dirk's auburn brows quirked. "Lachlan?"
"Shh. Has Sorley MacGrotie, baron of Kormad, been in here tonight?"
"I don't ken the man."
"Lowland Scot, dark hair, bushy beard. Ugly bastard."
"I've seen a lot of them like that."
The door opened and a boisterous group stumbled in. Among the six men, he found the whoreson he was looking for. "'Tis him, there."
"Why are you looking for him?"
"I'll tell you later," Lachlan said in a low voice.
The buxom alewife plunked a full tankard of ale onto the scarred wooden table, some of the brown liquid sloshing over the rim. Lachlan flipped her a silver coin. She thanked him with a wink and bustled away to see to the newcomers.
Kormad and his men took a large table on the other side of the room.
"We need to move," Lachlan whispered, picking up the tankard. "To that empty table behind them. You go first. He's seen me before."
"You better have a good reason for this," Dirk muttered and stood.
Squeezing by the chairs of other patrons, Lachlan followed Dirk to the closer table and sat with his back to the men in question. "Watch my back, will you?"
"When have I not?"
For a time, Kormad and his men talked of mundane matters. Dirk gave him a hard scowl. Lachlan shook his head and sipped the lukewarm ale.
"Any progress with the king?" one of the men at the other table asked.
Lachlan raised a finger at Dirk so he would pay attention.
"Nay," Kormad said in his gruff voice.
"If we take the lass and force her to marry you, the problem is solved."
"I don't want my head lopped off because of the hateful wench."
"You must woo her," one of his men said in a low, teasing voice.
"Aye, make her swoon with your lovely poetry."
The men guffawed.
"'Tis not a laughing matter. To be earl, I must marry her," Kormad grumbled.
"Or you could kill her," another man suggested.
Lachlan clutched the tankard of ale tightly when all he wanted to do was draw his sword and do the lopping off of Kormad's head himself. By the saints, I will protect her. Though he did not know why he should want to protect the thorny, insulting ice queen. Something inside her seemed vulnerable and alone. She reminded him of the wee injured wildcat he had found on his clan's lands when he was a lad. When he'd tried to help, the feline had scratched him, but she was simply protecting herself the only way she knew how.
Dirk frowned, scrutinizing Lachlan's face.
"Shh," Kormad hissed.
The men's voices lowered. "We could steal her away and hie back to Scotland. You can marry her there, legal."
"And have the king string me up like a bleeding boar? Nay, indeed."
"The lass will tell the king she wishes it. I can make certain of it."
"You're too daft to make certain of anything," Kormad snapped. "The Drummagans have been friends of the Stuarts for hundreds of years. I won't jeopardize that."
"Queen Jamie doesn't seem like a friend to you," a slimy voiced man muttered.
"Who is he going to marry her off to, then?" another man asked. "That damned Frenchman bastard?"
"Nay. The clan would never accept him as chief," Kormad said.
"Too old. And too English."
"The clan will settle for naught but a full-blooded Scotsman," Kormad said with finality.
"You're the best candidate. I say you should meet with the king again."
"He might be thinking of that Lachlan MacGrath what saved Steenie's life," a different man said.
Dirk's frown grew fierce and his glare deadly.
Lachlan was glad his friend finally understood.
"He's a Scot, but a damned Highlander," one of the men said.
"The king detests Highlanders," Kormad growled.
"He knighted MacGrath and took him hunting at Theobalds. He likes that one."
"Might be his bonny face."
"Maybe Steenie should watch his back," slime voice said.
Loud laughter erupted. Bastards. Lachlan wished he could shock them all by making his presence known, but that would not serve his purpose. Pretending to be naught but a skirt-chasing gallant would lull them into thinking he was no threat.
Moments later, the group quieted. "The lass is the only thing in your path, my lord."
"So let's remove the obstacle. 'Accidentally' of course."
"Not yet. Let's see who the king chooses for her first."My Wild Highlander copyright 2011 Vonda Sinclair
A longer excerpt is available at Smashwords.