Marrying a Highland Outlaw (Preview)
Shivering slightly, Taveon Macdonell wrapped his heavy woolen cloak tighter across his shoulders as he entered the tavern. The oak door slammed shut behind him and he looked around. He blinked, half-blinded by the sudden near blackness. He could scarcely make out more than dull shapes in the smoky, noise-filled interior.
He cursed inwardly as his eyes adjusted to the dim light. He was bone-weary, fatigued by his life as a hunted man, sick and tired of the distance he’d been forced to keep from his home in the Highlands. And oh-so-fed-up with seeing a stranger reflected back at him whenever he glanced in a looking-glass. He scarcely recognized himself – his hair darkened, his jaw shaved, his clothes shabby and nondescript. All he wanted was to cast aside this damned disguise and get his life back.
His heart cried out to be able to return to Macdonell Castle, to his brother Payton and his precious little sister Arya.
His gaze fell upon the two men who awaited him, seated at the rear of the room. On heavy, aching limbs he slowly made his way to their corner table. As he approached, one of the men rose menacingly, a dirk grasped in his hand.
The man, grey-haired and grey-bearded and burly, snarled. “Who the devil are ye? Ye’re nae Taveon Macdonell.”
Taveon scowled for he knew this man. His name was Tal Macintyre and if Tal didn’t know him, at least he could be assured his disguise was doing its job.
“Ye stupid arse, Macintyre,” Taveon countered. “Of course I’m Taveon Macdonell. Have ye nae eyes tae see?”
The man grunted. He was half a head taller, looming over Taveon. “I remember ye as fair-haired and bearded.”
“I once was. But blessed be walnut juice for dyeing my hair and this sharp knife for keeping my beard trimmed.” He placed his hand on the hilt of the sharp dagger sheathed at his waist, making no bones about his own ability to fight, if this meeting turned out badly.
“The password.” The seated man spoke abruptly. He was the younger of the two, his light-brown, greasy hair, tied at his nape, his shirt and britches of fine cloth.
Taveon spat the word. “Gaisgeach.”
The man laughed. “Ah yes, the Scot’s word for warrior.” He spoke with an English accent. “Name’s John Sykes, at your service.” He indicated a space at the table. “Join us Taveon Macdonell.”
As Taveon pulled up a chair, Sykes signaled to the tavern keeper, who hurried over at once.
“Three tankards of yer best ale,” Sykes said smiling affably. Once the man had departed, he turned his attention back to Taveon, his smile fading. “Are ye ready and willing to do our bidding Macdonell?”
Taveon leaned back in his chair folding his arms across his chest, biting his tongue on an angry retort. He spoke his answer in measured tones. “I’ve done all that was asked of me. Made meself a traitor tae Scotland tae suit William de Coughran’s blasted cause. And all tae keep me wee sister safe. I’ve nothing more tae give of meself.” He shook his head, a determined glint in his green eyes.
“There’s yet a month before I’m due in Carlisle tae deliver the details of the Scots’ battle plans tae yer English masters and I’ve sworn tae complete me mission. Ye cannae command more from me.”
The man gave him a tight-lipped smile. “You’ll do as you’re told Macdonell. That is, if you wish to see your family again.”
Shaking his head, Taveon went to rise, but Macintyre’s hand shot out, grabbing his arm in an iron grip, forcing him to stay in his seat. Gone was any pretense at civility.
“Ye’ll sit and listen tae what we have tae say, Macdonell, and ye’ll keep yer blasted mouth shut.”
Taveon drew in a deep breath, filling his lungs with the smoky air, steadying himself, holding back the torrent of rage building inside him.
So, this is what it has come tae.
He was nothing more than a pawn in the traitors’ games, helping the English against his own countrymen.
But he reminded himself that, after his mother’s death giving birth to his baby sister Arya and his father’s decline into drink and gambling ending in his murder by the hand of William de Coughran’s men, he and his brother had made a sacred pact, one they had kept without faltering. The older brother, Payton, would fulfill his duties to the clan, while Taveon would be responsible for his family. It was Taveon’s sworn duty to keep his sister and brother safe from De Coughran, who was his father’s creditor and had vowed to make them pay for their father’s sins. If his actions were to save his kin from harm, he had no choice but to abide by whatever was asked of him now by his enemies.
“Go on, then,” he said, gritting his teeth as Macintyre twisted his wrist and pressed his hand to the table. Before Taveon had a chance to pull free, the man brought down the sharp point of his dirk, piercing the flesh between Taveon’s first and middle fingers, pinning him to the table, trapping him.
He watched, stunned, as a bubble of blood welled and trickled onto the worn oak table-top.
Sucking in a breath, ignoring the pain in his hand, he met John Sykes’s gaze front on. The man’s gray eyes flicked over him, lingering on Taveon’s bleeding hand for a moment, his lips spreading into an ugly grin.
“You may recall Castle Ardtun,” he said, clearly amused at Taveon’s plight. When he received no response other than a thunderous scowl, he continued.
“The MacKinnon Clan’s seat, the home of Laird Blaine MacKinnon? Surely, you recall the family.” Sykes gave a sharp laugh. “I am sure you have not forgotten your long months of incarceration there, waiting for the hangman to put a noose around your neck.”
Taveon’s mind shot back to the time he’d spent imprisoned on the Isle of Mull after he’d been captured on his way to the English. He’d been treated well, better than he had deserved, eventually making his escape with the assistance of a sweet young woman. He’d heard, later, that she’d wed the laird’s younger brother. He had forgotten her name, but he recalled her gentle, anguished words before she’d freed him from the dungeon. Her quest to free him resembled his own, a vow to protect her siblings. He wondered if she hated herself as much as he loathed himself while doing so.
“I remember it very well, Sykes. Although I cannae see it’s any of yer treacherous business whether my memory serves me well or nae.”
“Oh, that’s where you’re wrong.” Sykes swilled another mouthful of ale. “Your memory of the MacKinnons is exactly what my business is with you today. We have in mind a fitting punishment to be dealt to the MacKinnons. They must be taught a lesson and made to understand we will not be interfered with. We need reprisal for your imprisonment, something that will cut deep, cause pain. Something that will bring down a hail of nightmares, prevent them from sleeping.”
“I dinna follow yer train of thought, Sykes. Castle Ardtun is well guarded. Sir Michael Wemyss attacked and tried tae take the castle, but his men were nae match for the MacKinnons and their clansmen. Ye’ll find great resistance if ye attempt another raid.”
Sykes pshawed loudly. “No, Macdonell, we’ve nothing so clumsy in mind. We’re counting on your knowledge of the
castle and the country surrounding it. We’ve an altogether different and far more painful retribution in mind.”
He leaned forward, a sneer on his bloated features, his beery, rancid breath assailing Taveon’s nostrils. “You are to return to Ardtun and there you will whisk the laird’s younger sister out from under his nose. Once you’ve captured her, you’re to take her to Sir William at Castle Lochnell. If MacKinnon wants his sister safe back home with him in Castle Ardtun, he’ll have to pay a bounty to the English, in exchange.”
“Ye can count me out, ye lying bunch of bastards.” Taveon’s voice rose. “I’ve done what I was asked and that’s it. Nae more. I was told that once I’d delivered the Scots’ plans tae the English ye would leave me family alone. Me father’s debts would be overlooked and we could live our lives in peace.”
“You forget yourself, boy. You’re impertinent. Let me remind you that you’ve still to fulfill your side of our bargain. The plans have not yet reached the English commanders.”
Taveon slumped in his seat. His hand was throbbing steadily now, and a pulse beat in his forehead ached like the devil. Would he never be free?
“Ye ask too much of me. I was promised my actions would nae bring harm to any soul directly. My task was tae steal the plans and take them tae the English side. Nae more than that.”
Sykes cackled gleefully. “And were you such a prize fool Macdonell, that ye believed you’d be harming no one by giving the plans to the Scots’ enemies? The Scots will be slaughtered once the plans reach the army. And that will be on your head.”
Taveon shuddered. Of course, the man spoke the truth.
“So, if you want to keep your family safe, you know what is required of you.”
Taveon gave a weary nod. He could see no way out for himself but to accept this cursed new mission.
“I’ll do what ye want,” he said, his green eyes fixed on Sykes. “But I want your sworn word on one thing. Nay harm will come to Hannah MacKinnon while she’s held captive. She’ll be returned to her brother as soon as he pays the ransom.”
Sykes flicked his forefinger finger at Macintyre who ripped away his dirk, freeing Taveon.
“Of course,” Sykes said smoothly, as Taveon rose to his feet, blood still welling from his injured hand. “You have my sacred word on it. No harm will come to the girl and she’ll be returned, unscathed, to the heart of her family in due course.”
Castle Ardtun, Mull
Peeping through the leaves in the hedge, Hannah could just make out little Mirin half-hidden behind one of the shrubs in the garden. Mirin’s twin sister, Alba, stood in the middle of the lawn, eyes closed, counting to ten.
It was a golden day of sunshine. Apart from a few puffy white clouds, the sky was blue, perfect for a fun game of hide ’n seek with her nieces. Spring was all around, daffodils were blooming and Hannah’s favourite tree, the crabapple, was covered in buds, soon to be bursting into a mass of fragrant pink flowers.
Pulling up her kirtle, she hugged her knees. The girls would never find her in this spot. It was a hollowed-out space between the hedges, perhaps made by an animal sheltering over the winter, but it made for a perfect place to stay hidden, even though the girls were hardly more than an arm’s length away.
Squeals and giggles indicated that Alba had discovered Mirin’s hiding place. Now both twins were searching for her.
“Hannah, Hannah. Come out.” Alba called.
“She’s nae here,” Mirin whispered.
“Perhaps the little people have taken her,” Alba said, her voice suddenly fearful.
“Hannah, please come out,” pleaded Mirin.
Hannah could stand it no longer. The game was only fun if no one was scared by it. She leaped to her feet. It was at the moment that she heard the sound of men’s voices entering the garden. The girls swirled around and took off.
“Athair,” they cried in unison.
Hannah’s heart did a flip. It was their father, Blaine. Her brother. Straightening her kirtle and brushing leaves out of her hair she ventured out of her hiding place. It was unusual for Blaine to be in the garden. This was the place where the women came to chat, to embroider, or attend to their mending. It was her favourite place within the castle walls. She often came here with the twins and her sister-in-law Edina’s sisters Margaret and Skye, who were around her age.
Here in the garden, they could chat and make as much noise as they liked without an angry face appearing at their door telling them that girls should be seen and not heard. She also frequently came alone, just to sit and enjoy the birds and butterflies and the flowers coming into bloom. It was a peaceful place, a respite from the duties and busyness of the castle.
Now, disturbing the gentle harmony of the place, was her brother.
Whatever does Blaine want?
She stepped hurriedly out of the hedge, feeling foolish and off-kilter under the watchful presence of her brother. Her foot caught on a protruding tree root as she hastened forward, sending her head over heels. She squealed, putting out her hands to break her fall. But despite her best efforts, she landed face down on the grass.
Mirin and Alba raced over, giggling as Hannah struggled to s sitting position, her hands muddied and her kirtle covered in grass.
Alba tugged at her aunt’s braids. “Oh wait, Auntie Hannah, ye’ve a ladybird in yer hair,” she shrieked, gently removing the little insect.
Blaine stood watching them, his mouth screwed in lines of disapproval, his eyes narrowed.
It was not until Hannah had finally risen to her feet, and was brushing her tangled skirts and neatening her hair, that he spoke.
“I regret intruding intae yer area, sister, but it seems ye pay nae heed tae my requests for yer presence. Thus, ye give me nae other option but tae come here in search of ye.”
His displeasure was rolling off him in waves, and Hannah noted with dismay that the vein in the middle of his forehead was prominent. Always a sign he was in a rage, but containing it.
Her stomach lurched. She had received his summons but the time seemed to have flown and she’d lost track of when she was to have the meeting with him.
“I’m so sorry brother. Please forgive me. I was nae heedless of yer message, but simply unaware of the time passing.” She looked around. Gillebride had taken the twins by the hand and was leading them out of the garden.
It was only then that Hannah saw Errol, her other brother, standing quietly at the entrance to the garden, another man at his side. Her heart sank as she became conscious of her dishevelled state, her muddy hands, grubby kirtle and messy braids. Her forehead was stinging and she was afraid she may have scratched it when she fell, bringing further disharmony to her appearance.
She gripped Blaine’s sleeve. “What is it? Please tell me what’s going on. Who is that man and why is he looking at me like that? Are we in danger?”
The man had stepped forward, taking his place beside Errol and was now standing in the sunlight where she could observe him fully. He was tall, possibly around Blaine’s age, with well-coiffed dark hair and blue eyes.
Blaine made the introduction. “May I present my sister Hannah?” The man nodded in Hannah’s direction, favouring her with a haughty smile, his eyes mocking her.
“This is a dear friend of mine, Duncan Buchanan.”
Taking an instant dislike to him, despite his handsome profile and fine clothes, Hannah bobbed a curtsy and offered the man her most dazzling smile.
“I am so very pleased tae make yer acquaintance, my laird,” she responded as graciously as possible.
Inwardly she was heaping a mountain of curses on Blaine for putting her in such an unenviable position with a stranger. And why had her brother, the Laird, seen fit to bring this strange man to invade this private space?
“Would ye excuse me, sir, tae have a few words with me brother?”
The man nodded politely, turned on his heel and walked off with Errol.
Hannah turned to Blaine, her brows drawn in a frown.
“I dinna like yer Duncan Buchanan,” she hissed once the two men were out of earshot.
Blaine sighed. “Ye dinna understand, Hannah.”
Glaring, she placed her hands on her hips defiantly. “Well, then, brother, please do go ahead and explain what all this is about.”
“Ye’ve told us often enough of yer longing tae find a husband and be wed,” he began.
She huffed impatiently. “Yes. I’ve envied my brothers their happiness. Ye know I wish for nothing more than tae find a man tae love and tae have me own family. Like ye with Ivy, and Errol with Edina.” Her eyes misted as memories came flooding in. “After our parents died, ye two were everything to me, ye were me entire family.” She gazed up at him, trying to gauge his reaction to her words. Would he understand how much this meant? “But now ye have families of yer own, and I’m a little lost. It’s as if I dinna belong anywhere, nowadays.”
Blaine nodded, reaching a hand to squeeze her arm gently. “Well, yer brother and I have talked with the Council of Chiefs. Ye’re nineteen, old enough tae wed. It’s been decided we dae our best tae grant yer wish.”
Hannah’s blue eyes lit up. “Blaine, ye mean… ye’ve agreed tae allow me tae wed?”
He laughed softly. “Aye lass. It’s what ye want.” His eyes grew serious. “I want tae know ye’ve a man tae protect ye when the battles come again, and I cannae keep ye close forever, nae matter how much I’d love tae have ye in me sight.”
She frowned up at him. “Do ye think the English will attack?”
He shook his head. “I dinna ken, luv. All I ken is that a war is raging, that the traitor Taveon is still abroad with our battle plans, and sooner or later it will come tae our doorstep. And when it does, I want ye safe and – Heaven forbid, should something happen tae me and Errol – under the protection of a powerful family.”
She clutched his sleeve again. “If battle’s where yer thoughts take ye, I must tell ye this my dear brother. The man I’ll wed must be a true Scot. One who’s nay traitor tae the rightful king. Never a man the likes of that traitor Macdonell Edina helped escape from yer dungeon.”
“Aye. we have all forgiven Edina for the heartache she caused. I ken why she took such a great risk and almost broke Errol’s heart. Tae keep her sisters safe. I’d have done the same if I had been her.” Her eyes flashed. “But I’ll nae forgive Macdonell for his wicked treachery.”
Blaine smiled fondly at her determination and loyalty. “Never fear, sweet lass, the man ye wed will be one who takes an oath of allegiance to our Liege Lord, King Robert.” He gave her a wry smile. “Someone like Duncan Buchanan, the next Laird of the Buchanans.”
Hannah gasped, raising a hand to her mouth. “Och, my dear Lord. Are ye telling me that man is me suitor?”
Again, Blaine chuckled. “Dinna worry, lass, he’s nae the only one. Ye’ll be kept busy all through the summer. There are lads lining up tae ask for yer hand. Buchanan is only the first.”
Beaming, she glanced up at him.
“Methinks he’s the first, but by nay means will he be the last.”
“The first of many,” Blaine said, pulling her into his arms for a great bear-hug. “Ye’ll be wed before winter is upon us, wee sister.”
Ardtun, Isle of Mull
The heavily-laden woodsman’s cart rattled its way up to the castle gate.
“Whoah,” said the cloaked figure, pulling on the reins. The strong cart-horse came to a standstill as the two guards nodded toward the woodsman.
“It’s Euan, bringing another load for the castle fires,” the guard called. Moments later the gate into the keep was slowly raised, allowing the cart’s entry. The man on the cart gave a brief salute as the cart rumbled through the gate and across the cobblestones.
He circled around the back of the castle and pulled up beside the servants’ quarters near the kitchen, where he tethered the horse and set about unloading the timber logs and kindling.
Some of the heaviest wood he carried on his shoulders, muscles straining, to stack on the covered wood-pile beyond the kitchen while several servants filled baskets from his smaller choppings to be used in the great kitchen fires.
He filled a basket and carried it through to the great hall where he was relieved of the weight by the serving-man, whose sole job it was to ensure there was sufficient fuel for the roaring fires that warmed the castle.
The man they called Euan had been carrying out these tasks for the past weeks, coming and going through the castle’s iron gates with nary a glance from the guards, all the while taking care to keep his cloak wrapped securely and his hood shadowing his face.
Taveon hated his disguise almost as much as he hated being here. His memories of the dungeon were still fresh enough in his mind to make him shudder, even though it had been months since he’d found his freedom. Yet, it had been simple enough to find a way to enter the castle. He’d paid a handsome bounty to borrow Euan’s cart with its load of wood and take his place three times a week when he took the timber load to Castle Ardtun.
In his woodsman’s guise, Taveon had been able to make his way through the castle unhampered. On the rare occasions he’d been questioned, he’d simply shown his basket of trimmed logs and been waved on.
Now that his plan was coming to fruition, he had high hopes he’d be able to overwhelm the laird’s sister unnoticed. He’d capture her swiftly, putting miles between the two of them and the MacKinnons, before her disappearance was discovered and the alarm was raised. If his luck held, her absence would not be noticed until morning.
In the weeks he’d been surveilling the castle, he’d become aware of the small garden frequented by the women. The first time he’d been there he’d been casting his eyes around, taking in his surroundings, when a young woman and two little girls burst through the entry way. Before they could catch sight of him, he’d quickly crouched in the hedge, finding a space there where he could observe them.
The wee girls’ innocent play put him in mind of his sister Arya when she was a bairn. That memory was like a knife between his ribs.
He heard them call “Hannah,” and his heart jumped.
She was beautiful. Tall, slender, her golden hair falling in waves to her slim waistline. He hadn’t counted on her loveliness, or on the feelings that stirred inside him as he observed her – hair flying, skirts tucked up, long legs on display. He watched, enthralled, as she laughed with the wee girls, playing catch-me-if-you can and skipping a rope. The ache in his groin and the urge to seize her and bury his face in that glorious mane of hair, to hold her soft curves against him, to crush her lips to his was, suddenly, almost unbearable.
It had been many years since a lass had made his heart beat faster. He’d been leading a monk’s life for too long.
He was suddenly assailed with doubt. This lovely creature did not deserve the fate that lay in store for her. The MacKinnons had treated him well while he was their captive. They’d given him good food and ale and despite knowing him as a traitor who threatened the lives of their clansmen, he’d not known cruelty at their hands.
To inflict the pain he knew was in store for them went against everything he believed was right in the world.
Conscious that such feelings were dangerous, threatening the cold-heart required for his mission, he steeled himself with the knowledge of the fate awaiting his own kin should he not succeed.
On several further occasions, when the weather was good, he’d snuck into the garden, observing the women chatting and laughing at their needlework or frolicking with the bairns.
Hannah spent more time there than the others. More often than not she was alone, sitting quietly, sometimes with her eyes closed, peacefully breathing in the perfumed air. He knew it was only a matter of time before he came upon her when there was no one around to come to her aid.
Tonight, after carrying out his usual duties with the firewood, Taveon slipped away from watchful eyes, making his way, unseen, to the little garden. The cart was empty, save for a sack containing his tools, and he’d drawn it as close as he could to the doorway near the kitchen. At this time of the evening, he could count on the servants being too busy serving the laird and his family to be coming and going through the door.
The evening was still warm in the long twilight, and Taveon had high hopes Hannah would come here, as she did so frequently, to take in the air before retiring to her bedchamber.
Once he reached the empty garden, he found his way to the space in the hedge where he could observe whatever was taking place there. His heart was pounding and the blood thundering in his veins. If he was caught now there’d be no mercy, hanging or beheading would be his certain fate.
As minutes turned into hours of waiting, his legs stiffened and he rubbed his calves, keeping them pliant, aware that any stumbling misstep could be his last.
His mind meandered idly over thoughts of Hannah, imagining her looking at him with glowing eyes, her lips opening tenderly…
He froze, straining his ears at the sudden intrusion of voices, groaning inwardly. One of the voices was Hannah’s, but the other voice belonged to a man.
Hannah flew out of the great hall, aware that Hendrie was following on her heels.
“Hannah, wait,” he said plaintively. “I have something I want tae say tae ye.” He was like a young puppy; all sad eyes, floppy hair and gangly legs. She didn’t lessen her stride, heading straight for the Ladies’ Garden. Surely the boy wouldn’t be so foolish as to follow her to that private spot.
No. He had no time for such niceties. Entering the garden, he scooted alongside her and clutched her hand. Ugh. His hand was limp and sweaty.
Oh dear! What was Blaine thinking?
All smiles this afternoon, he’d presented her with young Hendrie Davidson, the son of one of his oldest friends. In the space of two months, Hendrie was the eleventh offering her brother had trotted out for her approval as a prospective suitor. Eleventh.
But, by all the saints in Christendom, this lad was scarcely out of the nursery. Still wet behind the ears. He was sweet enough, eager to please, but not yet bearded, with aught but peach-fuzz on his chin. She’d wager he was not a day over seventeen. Why, she stood at least a head taller than him, for goodness’ sake!
Was this Blaine’s plot to force her to agree to marry the next man that actually looked like a full-grown man? At least one with a beard.
Hendrie was clinging to her hand like a limpet. She plonked her bottom on the bench at the far end of the garden, spreading her skirts in the faint hope he’d realize there was no space for him to sit beside her.
Not in the least deterred, he flung himself on one knee on the grass in front of her.
“Fair lady, please let me recite the poem I’ve written for ye,” he begged.
She huffed indignantly.
Blaine must secretly hate me. Otherwise, he’d never keep beleaguering me with unsuitable, unappealing, impossible lads.
“All right. I’ll listen tae yer poem. But, afterwards, ye must promise tae take yer leave. I wish tae enjoy the evening air by meself,” she said sternly.
Hendrie took a deep breath, issuing a sigh. “I shall, melady. I shall leave ye once ye’ve heard me out.” He took a parchment from the pocket in his britches and unfolded it.
After clearing his throat, he began. “Fairest Jennifer,” he read.
“My name’s Hannah” she said, her lips quirking in a smile. Why, this buffoon had not written the poem for her at all.
“Oh…” he gasped.
“Methinks ye should stand, Hendrie. I’ve changed me mind. I nay longer wish tae hear yer verses.” She reached a hand to help him up.
Suddenly, he switched his eyes from her face, to the small creature that was climbing on the bench beside her. A spotted, brown, scaly creature.
“Ye gods. A monster,” he shrieked, losing his balance and, hands flailing, landing bottom-first on the grass.
In fright, Hannah heaped to her feet, her skirt tangling her feet, bringing her down to land beside him.
Pointing with a shaking finger, his ashen face washed of all color, he squeaked, “There. It’s a deadly, poisonous, serpent”
Scrambling to her feet, Hannah looked around.
“Hendrie. Get up.” She snapped. “While there are some shy snakes here on Mull that are poisonous, that’s nae snake. It’s a wee lizard. They are common here and that one visits me often in the garden.”
She savagely brushed at her skirt with one hand, fluffing grass and leaves out of her hair with the other.
“Now,” Her voice was unusually sharp. “I believe it’s time ye left me.” She lifted her chin in haughty dismissal. The boy stumbled to his feet, swiveled without a word, and hastily made his departure, leaving Hannah alone in the gathering twilight.
“At last,” she breathed aloud.
Leaning over the lizard, she whispered her thanks.
“Mr. Lizard.” She said, breathlessly. “I do so appreciate yer help in chasing that boy away. I was beginning tae fear he’d never go.” She laughed.
Then came a whispered voice in response, “Happy to be of service melady. I could see he was nae the man for ye. Ye deserve a strong, handsome fellow tae set ye tae rights.”
For one fleeting second it seemed as if the lizard was speaking to her, and she giggled. But then it dawned.
Someone was there, unseen, beside her in the garden.
She drew in a breath, filling her lungs, ready to scream bloody murder.
But, before she had a chance to let out an awe-inspiring shriek, a tall figure leaped from the shadow of the hedges and clamped a ruthless hand over her mouth.
Struggling furiously, she raked the hand with her nails, kicking out as best she could, although hampered by her long skirts. She heard a rough swear word as she tore at the man’s hand, but his other hand clamped her waist and she was hauled unceremoniously into the hedge, landing a hundred tiny scratches on her face and bare arms.
Before any further ado, a heavy cloth was wrapped around her mouth and fastened, her hands were seized in a strong grip and tied tightly behind her back with string. Throwing her head back she tried to butt against the man’s chin, but he was too quick for her. He dodged sideways, grabbing her hair, twisting it painfully around his hand.
“Dinna try anything, lass. It’ll go badly for ye if ye dae,” he breathed into her ear. “Stop struggling and ye’ll nae be hurt.”
Then the world went dark as a sack was thrown over her head and pulled down over her body to her feet. She felt the man fastening a binding like a belt at her waist, securing the rough hessian sack, and another binding her ankles.
Bound hand and foot, her mouth gagged so that her screams were stifled, she felt herself being hoisted over the man’s shoulder as if she was nothing more than a sack of chaff.
“If ye make a sound, if ye try and wriggle, I’ll run ye through with my dirk,” he said in a low, gravelly voice that shot terror straight to her heart.
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