Mar 11 2011 3:06pm
Claimed by the Highlander: Excerpt
With his tawny mane, battle-hewn brawn, and ferocious roar, Angus “The Lion” MacDonald is the most fearsome warrior Lady Gwendolen has ever seen—and she is his most glorious conquest. Captured in a surprise attack on her father’s castle, Gwendolen is now forced to share her bed with the man who defeated her clan. But, in spite of Angus’s overpowering charms, she refuses to surrender her innocence without a fight . . .
With her stunning beauty, bold defiance, and brazen smile, Gwendolen is the most infuriating woman Angus has ever known—and the most intoxicating. Forcing her to become his bride will unite their two clans. But conquering Gwendolen’s heart will take all his skills as a lover. Night after night, his touch sets her on fire. Kiss after kiss, his hunger fuels her passion. But, as Gwendolen’s body betrays her growing love for Angus, a secret enemy plots to betray them both . . .
An exclusive extended excerpt of Chapters 1 & 2 of Claimed by the Highlander (Available March 29, 2011) by Julianne MacLean
Scottish Highlands, July 1718
The dream startled her awake mere minutes before the siege began.
Gwendolen MacEwen sat up with a gasp and turned her eyes to the window. It was only a dream, she told herself as she struggled to calm her breathing. Later she would call it a premonition, but for now, she was certain it was just the trickeries of sleep causing this terror in her heart.
Giving up any notion of slumber, she tossed the covers aside, sat up on the edge of the bed, and reached for her robe. She slipped it on for warmth against the pre-dawn chill as she rose to her feet and padded to the window, lured to the leaded glass by a faint glow of light on the horizon.
A new day had begun. At last. She closed her eyes and said a silent prayer that it would bring her brother, Murdoch, home from his travels. The MacEwens needed their chief, and if he did not soon return and claim his birthright, she feared someone else would—for there had been some talk of discontent in the village. She’d heard it from her maid, whose sister was married to the alehouse keeper. And after the dream she’d just had . . .
The horn blew suddenly in the bailey.
Unaccustomed to hearing such a clamor while the castle still slept, Gwendolen turned from the window. What in God’s name . . . ?
It blew again, a second time. Then a third.
A spark of alarm fired her blood, for she knew the meaning of that signal. It was coming from the rooftop, and it spoke of danger.
Gwendolen rushed to the door, flung it open, and hurried up the tower stairs.
“What’s happening?” she asked the guard, who was pacing back and forth through the early morning chill. She could see his ragged breath upon the air.
He pointed. “Look there, Miss MacEwen!”
She rose up on her toes and leaned out over the battlements, squinting through the dim morning light at the moving shadows in the field. It was an advancing army, approaching quickly from the edge of the forest. Some were on foot, others mounted.
“How many men?” she asked.
“Two hundred, at least,” he replied. “Maybe more.”
She stepped away from the wall and regarded him soberly. “How much time do we have?”
“Five minutes at best.”
She turned and locked eyes with another clansman, who exploded out of the tower staircase with a musket in his hands. He halted, panic-stricken, when he spotted her.
“They came out of nowhere,” he explained. “We’re doomed for sure. Ye should escape, Miss MacEwen, before it’s too late.”
Immediately incensed, Gwendolen strode forward, grabbed two fistfuls of his shirt, and shook him roughly. “Repeat those words again, sir, and I will have your head!” She swung around to face the other clansman. “Go and alert the steward.”
“Just do it!”
They had no leader. Her father was dead, and their current laird of war was a drunkard who was not even within the castle walls, for he’d been spending his nights in the village since her father’s passing. Her brother had not yet returned from the Continent. They had only their steward, Gordon MacEwen—who was a brilliant manager of books and numbers, but no warrior.
“Is your weapon loaded?” she asked the flustered clansman. “Do you have enough powder?”
“Then take aim and defend the gate!”
He hurried into position, while she looked out over the bailey below, where her clansmen were finally assembling in answer to the call. Torches had been lit, but everyone was shouting in confusion, asking too many questions.
“MacEwens, hear me now!” she shouted. “An army is approaching from the east! We will soon be under attack! Arm yourselves and man the battlements!”
Only in the hush of that moment, as all eyes turned toward her, did she realize that she was still wearing her dressing gown.
“You there!” She pointed at a boy. “Arm yourself with a sword! Assemble all the women and children. Take them to the chapel, bar the doors, and stay with them until the battle is ended.”
The boy nodded bravely and dashed off to the armory.
“They are MacDonalds!” a guard shouted from the opposite corner tower. It was Douglas MacEwen, a good friend and able swordsman.
Gwendolen gathered her shift in her hands and ran to meet him. “Are you certain?”
“Aye, look there.” He pointed across the field, now shimmering with mist and morning dew. “They carry the banner of Angus the Lion.”
Gwendolen had heard tales of Angus MacDonald, forsaken son of the fallen MacDonald chief, who had once been Laird of Kinloch. He had been a Jacobite traitor, however, which was why the King granted her father Letters of Fire and Sword, which had awarded him the right to take the castle in service to the Crown.
There were whispers that Angus was the infamous Butcher of the Highlands—a renegade Jacobite who hacked entire English armies to pieces with his legend- ary death axe.
Others said he was nothing but a treacherous villain, who was banished to the north by his own father for some secret, unspeakable crime.
Either way, he was reputed to be a fierce and ruthless warrior, faster and more ferocious than a phantom beast on the battlefield. Some even said he was invincible.
This much was true at least: he was an expert swordsman, who showed no mercy to warriors and women alike.
“What in God’s name is that?” She leaned forward and squinted, as a terrible sense of foreboding poured through her.
Douglas strained to see clearly through the mist, then his face went pale. “It’s a catapult, and their horses are pulling a battering ram.”
She could hear the heavy, muted thunder of their approach, and her heart turned over in her chest.
“You are in charge here until I return,” she told him. “You must defend the gate, Douglas. At all costs.”
He nodded silently. She patted him on the arm with encouragement, then hurried back to the tower stairs. Seconds later, she was pushing through the door to her bedchamber. Her maid was waiting uneasily by the bed.
Gwendolen spoke without flinching. “We are under attack,” she said. “There isn’t much time. You must help gather the women and children, go straight to the chapel, and stay there until it is over.”
“Aye, Miss McEwen!” The maid hastened from the room.
Closing the door behind her, Gwendolen quickly tore off her robe and dropped it, without a care, onto the braided rug. She hurried to the wardrobe to find clothes.
Just then, a sudden, violent pounding began at her door, as if an animal were bucking up against it.
“Gwendolen! Gwendolen! Are you awake?”
She halted in her tracks. Oh, if only she were asleep, and this was still the dream, playing tricks on her mind. But the sound of alarm in her mother’s voice quashed that possibility. She hurried to answer the door.
“Come inside, Mother. We are under attack.”
“Are you certain?” Onora looked as if she had already taken the time to dress for the event. Her long curly hair was combed into a hasty but elegant twist, and she was wearing a crisp new gown of blue and white silk. “I heard the horn, but thought surely it must be a false alarm.”
“It isn’t.” Gwendolen returned to the wardrobe and pulled a skirt on over her shift. “The MacDonalds are storming the gates as we speak. There isn’t much time. They have brought a catapult and battering ram.”
Onora swept into the room and shut the door behind her. “How utterly medieval!”
“Indeed. They are led by Angus the Lion.” Glancing briefly at her mother with concern, Gwendolen hunted around for her shoes.
“Angus the Lion? Forsaken son of the MacDonald chief? Oh, God help us all. If he is triumphant, you and I will be doomed.”
“Do not speak those words in my presence, Mother,” Gwendolen replied. “They are not yet inside the castle walls. We can still keep them at bay.”
This was, after all, the mighty and formidable Kinloch Castle. Its walls were six feet thick and sixty feet high. Only a bird could reach the towers and battlements. They were surrounded by water, protected by a draw- bridge and an iron portcullis. How could the Mac- Donalds possibly overtake such a stronghold?
She longed suddenly for her brother Murdoch. Why wasn’t he here? He should have come home the moment he learned of their father’s death. Why had he stayed away so long, and left them here without a leader?
Her mother began to pace. “I always told your father he should have banished each and every member of that Jacobite clan when he claimed this castle for the MacEwens, but would he listen? No. He insisted on mercy and compassion, and look where it got us.”
Gwendolen pulled on her stays and her mother tied the laces. “I disagree. The MacDonalds who chose to remain here under Father’s protection have been peaceful and loyal to us for two years. They adored Father. This cannot be their doing.”
“But have you not heard the ugly rumors in the village? The complaints about the rents, and that silly debacle over the beehive?”
“Aye,” Gwendolen replied, tying her hair back off her shoulders with a simple leather cord. “But it is only a small number who feel that way, and only because we have no chief to settle disputes. I am certain that when Murdoch returns, all will be well. Besides, those who chose to remain never supported the Jacobite cause to begin with. They do not want to participate in another rebellion. Kinloch is a Hanoverian house now.”
She got down on her knees and reached under the bed for the trunk. It scraped across the floor as she pulled it out.
“No, I suppose it is not their doing,” Onora said. “They are farmers and peasants. This is the vengeance of the warriors who would not take an oath of allegiance to your father when he proclaimed himself laird two years ago. That is what we are facing now. We should have known they would return to take back what was theirs.”
Gwendolen opened the trunk and withdrew a small saber, then rose to her feet and belted it around her waist. “Kinloch is not theirs now,” she reminded her mother. “It belongs to the MacEwens by order of the King. Anyone who claims otherwise is a traitor to England and in breach of the law. And surely the King will not allow this powerful Scottish bastion to fall into the hands of enemy Jacobites. We will soon have assistance, I am sure of it.”
Her mother shook her head. “You are very naïve, Gwendolen. No one will be coming to our aid, at least not in time to save us from having our throats slit by that savage rebel, Angus MacDonald.”
“Kinloch will not fall to them,” Gwendolen insisted. “We will fight, and by God’s grace, we will win.”
Her mother scoffed bitterly as she followed her to the door. “Don’t be a fool! We are outnumbered and leaderless! We will have to surrender and plead for mercy. Although what good it will do, I cannot imagine. I am the wife and you are the daughter of the clansman who conquered this castle and slayed their chief. Mark my words, the first thing the Lion will do is take his vengeance out on us!”
Gwendolen would not listen to any more of this. She moved quickly out of the chamber and into the corridor, where she paused to adjust her sword belt. “I am going to the armory to fetch a musket and powder,” she explained. “And then I am going up to the battlements to fight for what is ours, in the name of the King. I will not let Father’s greatest achievement die with him.”
“Are you mad?” Onora followed her to the stairs. “You are a woman! You cannot fight them! You must stay here, where it is safe. We will pray for our lives and think of a way to contend with those dirty MacDonalds when they break down your bedchamber door.”
Gwendolen paused. “You can stay here and pray, Mother, but I cannot simply sit here and wait for them to slit my throat. If I am going to die today, so be it, but I will not depart this life without a fight.” She started down the curved staircase. “And with any luck, I will live long enough to shoot a musket ball straight through the black heart of Angus MacDonald himself. That you can pray for!”
By the time Gwendolen reached the battlements and took aim at the invaders on the drawbridge below, the iron-tipped battering ram was smashing the thick oak door to pieces. The castle walls shuddered beneath her feet, and she was forced to stop and take a moment to absorb what was happening.
The frightful reality of battle struck her, and all at once, she felt dazed, as if she were staring into a churning abyss of noise and confusion. She couldn’t move. Her fellow clansmen were shouting gruffly at each other. Smoke and the smell of gunpowder burned in her lungs and stung her eyes. One kilted warrior had dropped all his weapons beside her and was crouching by the wall, overcome by a fit of weeping.
She stared down at him for a hazy moment, feeling nauseous and light-headed, as cracks of musketfire exploded all around her.
“Get up!”she shouted, reaching down and hooking her arm under his. She hauled him to his feet. “Reload your weapon, and use it to fight!”
The young clansman stared at her blankly for a moment, then fumbled for his powder.
Gwendolen leaned out over the battlements to see below. The MacDonalds were swarming through the broken gate, crawling like insects over the wooden ram. She quickly took aim and fired at one of them, but missed.
“To the bailey!” she shouted, and the sound of dozens of swords scraping out of scabbards fueled her resolve. With steady hands and an unwavering spirit, she reloaded her musket. There was shouting and screaming, men running everywhere, flocking to the stairs . . .
“Gwendolen!” Douglas called out, stopping beside her. “You should not be here! You must go below to your chamber and lock yourself in! Leave the fighting to the men!”
“Nay, Douglas, I will fight and die for Kinloch if I must.”
He regarded her with both admiration and regret, and spoke in a gentler voice. “At least do your fighting from the rooftop, lassie. The clan will not survive the loss of you.”
His meaning was clear, and she knew he was right. She was the daughter of the MacEwen chief. She must remain alive to negotiate terms of surrender, if it came to that.
Gwendolen nodded. “Be gone, Douglas. Leave me here to reload my weapon. This is a good spot. I will do what I can from here.”
He kissed her on the cheek, wished her luck, and bolted for the stairs.
Hand-to-hand combat began immediately in the bailey below. There was a dreadful roar—close to four hundred men all shouting at once—and the deafening clang of steel against steel rang in her ears as she fired and reloaded her musket, over and over. Before long, she had to stop, for the two clans had merged into one screaming cataclysm of carnage, and she could not risk shooting any of her own men.
The chapel bell tolled, calling the villagers to come quickly and assist in the fight, but even if every able-bodied man arrived at that moment, it would not be enough. These MacDonald warriors were rough and battle seasoned, armed with spears, muskets, axes, bows and arrows. They were quickly seizing control, and she could do nothing from where she stood, for if she went below, it would be suicide, and she had to live for her clan.
Then she spotted him. Their leader. Angus the Lion, fighting in the center of it all.
She quickly loaded her musket and aimed, but he moved too quickly. She could not get a clear shot.
A scorching ball of terror shot into her belly as she lowered her weapon. No wonder they called him the Lion. His hair was a thick, tawny mane that reached past his broad shoulders, and he roared with every deadly swing of his claymore, which sliced effortlessly through the air before cutting down foe after foe after foe.
Gwendolen stood transfixed, unable to tear her eyes away from the sheer muscled brawn of his arms, chest, and legs—legs thick as tree trunks, just like the battering ram on the bridge. There was a perfect, lethal symmetry and balance to his movements as he lunged and killed, then flicked the sweat-drenched hair from his eyes, spun around and killed again.
Her heart pounded with fascination and awe. He was a powerful beast of a man, a superb warrior, magnificent in every way, and the mere sight of him in battle, in all his legendary glory, nearly brought her to her knees. He deflected every blow with his sturdy black shield, and swung the claymore with exquisite grace. She had never encountered such a man before, nor imagined such strength was possible in the human form.
She realized suddenly that her mother had been correct in her predictions. There was no possibility of defeating this man. They were all doomed. Without a doubt, the castle would fall to these invaders and there would be no mercy. It was pointless to hope otherwise.
She moved across the rooftop to the corner tower where her bedchamber was housed, and looked down at the hopeless struggle.
This had been far too easy a charge for the MacDonalds. To watch it any longer was pure agony, and she was ashamed when she had to close her eyes and turn her face away. She had wanted so desperately to triumph over these attackers, but she had never witnessed a battle such as this in all her twenty-one years. She’d heard tales, of course, and imagined the evils of war, but she’d had no idea how truly violent and grisly it would be.
Soon the battle cries grew sparse, and only a handful of willful warriors continued to fight to the death. Other MacEwen clansmen, with swords pointed at their throats, accepted their fate. They laid down their weapons and dropped to their knees. Those who surrendered were being assembled into a line at the far wall.
Gwendolen, who had been watching the great Lion throughout the battle, noticed suddenly that he was gone, vanished like a phantom into the gunsmoke. Panic shot to her core, and she gazed frantically from one corner of the bailey to the other, searching all the faces for those gleaming, devilish eyes. Where was he? Had someone killed him? Or had he penetrated the chapel to ravage the women and children, too?
She spotted him, at last, on the rooftop, clear across the distance, standing on the opposite corner tower. His broadsword was sheathed at his side, and his shield was strapped to his back. He raised his arms out to his sides and shouted to the clansmen below.
“I am Angus Bradach MacDonald! Son of the fallen Laird MacDonald, true master of Kinloch Castle!” His voice was deep and thunderous. It rumbled mightily inside her chest. “Kinloch belongs to me by right of birth! I hereby declare myself laird and chief!”
“Kinloch belongs to the MacEwens now!” someone shouted from below. “By Letters of Fire and Sword, issued by King George of Great Britain!”
“If you want it back,” Angus growled, stepping forward to the edge of the rooftop, “then raise your sword and fight me!”
His challenge was met with silence, until Gwendolen was overcome by a blast of anger so hot, she could not control or contain it.
“Angus Bradach MacDonald!” she shouted from the dark, outraged depths of her soul. “Hear me now! I am Gwendolen MacEwen, daughter of the MacEwen chief who won this castle by fair and lawful means! I am leader here, and I will fight you!”
It was not until that moment that she realized she had marched to the edge of the rooftop and drawn her saber, which she was now pointing at him from across the distance.
Her heart pummeled her chest. She had never felt more exhilarated. It was intoxicating. She wished there was not this expanse of separation between them. If there were a bridge from one tower to the other, she would dash across it and fight him to the death.
“Gwendolen MacEwen!” he shouted in reply. “Daughter of my enemy! You have been defeated!”
And just like that, he dismissed her challenge and addressed the clansmen in the bailey below.
“All who have taken part in usurping this castle, and are in possession of lands that did not belong to them—you must forfeit them now to the clansmen from whom you took them!”
Gwendolen’s anger rose up again, more fiercely than before. “The MacEwens refuse!” she answered.
He immediately pointed his sword at her in a forceful show of warning, then lowered it and continued, as if she had not spoken.
“If that clansman is dead or absent today,” he declared, “you may remain, but I will have your loyalty, and you will swear allegiance to me as Laird of Kinloch!”
There was another long, drawn-out silence, until some brave soul spoke up.
“Why should we pledge loyalty to you? You are a MacDonald, and we are MacEwens!”
The Lion was quiet for a moment. He seemed to be looking deep into the eyes of every man in the bailey below. “Be it known that our two clans will unite!” He pointed his sword at Gwendolen again, and she felt the intense heat of his gaze like a fire across her body. “For I will claim this woman, who is your brave and noble leader, as my wife, and our son, one day, will be laird.”
Cheers erupted from the crowd of MacDonald warriors below, while Gwendolen digested his words with shock and disbelief. He intended to claim her as his wife?
No, it was not possible.
“There will be a feast on this night in the Great Hall,” the Lion roared, “and I will accept the pledges of all men willing to remain here and live in peace under my protection!”
Murmurs of surrender floated upward through the air and reached Gwendolen’s burning ears. She clenched her jaw and dug her fingernails into the cold rough stones of the tower. This was not happening. It could not be. Pray God, this was still the dream, and she would soon wake. But the hot morning sun on her cheeks reminded her that the dreams of a restless night had already given way to reality, and her father’s castle had been sacked and conquered by an unassailable warrior. Moreover, he intended to make her his bride and force her to bear chil- dren for him. What in God’s name was she to do?
“I do not agree to this!” she shouted, and the Lion tilted his head to the side, beholding her strangely, as if she were some sort of otherworldly creature he had never encountered before. “I wish to negotiate our terms of surrender!”
Her body began to tremble as she waited for his response. Perhaps he would simply send a man to slit her throat in front of everyone—as an example for those who were bold enough, or foolish enough, to resist. He looked ready to do it. She could feel the hot flames of his anger from where she stood, at the opposite corner of the castle.
Then the oddest thing happened. One by one, each MacEwen warrior in the bailey below turned toward her, and dropped to one knee. They all bowed their heads in silence, while the MacDonalds stood among them, observing the demonstration with some uneasiness.
For a long time Angus stood upon the North Tower saying nothing, as he watched the men deliver this unexpected defiance. A raw and brutal tension stretched ever tighter within the castle, and Gwendolen feared they would all be slaughtered.
Then, at last, the Lion turned his eyes toward her.
She lifted her chin, but his murderous contempt seemed to squeeze around her throat, and she found it difficult to breathe.
He spoke with quiet, grave authority. “Gwendolen MacEwen, I will hear your terms in the Great Hall.”
Not trusting herself to speak, she nodded and resheathed her saber, then walked with pride toward the tower stairs, while her legs, hidden beneath her skirts, shook uncontrollably and threatened to give out be- neath her.
When at last she reached the top of the stairs, she paused a moment to take a breath and compose herself.
God, oh God . . .
She felt nauseous and light-headed.
Leaning forward and laying the flat of her hand upon the cool stones, she closed her eyes and wondered how she was ever going to negotiate with this warrior, who had already defeated her clan in a brutal and bloody campaign, and claimed her as his property. She had nothing, nothing, with which to bargain. But perhaps she and her mother could think of something—some other way to manage the situation, at least until her brother returned.
If only Murdoch were here now . . .
But no, there was no point wishing for such things. He was not here, and she had only herself to rely on. She must stand strong for her people.
She took one last look at them. Angus the Lion had quitted the rooftop and returned to his men. He was giving orders and wandering among the dead and wounded, assessing the magnitude of his triumph, no doubt.
A light breeze lifted his thick golden hair, which shimmered in the morning light. His kilt wafted lightly around his muscular legs, while he adjusted the leather strap that held the shield at his back.
Just then he glanced up and saw that she was watch- ing him. He faced her squarely and did not look away.
Gwendolen’s breath caught in her throat. Her knees went weak, and something fluttered in her belly. Whether it was fear or fascination, she did not know. Either way, it did not bode well for her future dealings with him.
Shaken and agitated, she pushed away from the wall and quickly descended the tower stairs.
Standing on blood-soaked ground, Angus watched as his enemy’s daughter disappeared into the East Tower. The instant she was gone, he cupped his shoulder with one hand and tried to roll out the pain, but realized it was worse than he thought. He grimaced, then shoved hard and fast with the heel of his palm to jostle the joint back into place. Slowly, he walked to the other side of the bailey, where he took a moment to recover.
It had been a hard battle. His clothes were stained with dirt, sweat, and blood—some of it his own—but it had all been worth it, for this was his home. His castle. The MacEwens had no right to it.
And his father was dead.
He turned and faced the carnage, and felt the renewed arousal of his fighting spirit as he recalled the courageous lass who had raised her voice and interrupted his moment of triumph. She was a dark and radiant beauty, which somehow added fuel to the fires of his antagonism. He did not want a beautiful wife, and he hadn’t even given a single passing thought to what the daughter of his enemy might look like. Her comeliness—or lack of it—was of no concern to him. She was an instrument, nothing more, which was precisely why her beauty and bold conduct had lifted the hairs on the back of his neck.
Angus rolled his shoulder again to work out the pain, and resolved to forget her, for now. He would not let her spoil this moment. He had come too far not to savor this victory.
With a passionate cry of triumph that echoed off the castle walls and roused the attention of his men, he unsheathed his sword and thrust it into the ground. Then he lowered himself to one knee and bowed his head on the shiny basket hilt.
Relief flooded through him, though it was tainted with grief. His father had been dead for two years, and Angus had not known until these past months. In the meantime, Kinloch had fallen into enemy hands, and his clan had been absorbed into another.
He had waited too long to return.
His cousin Lachlan came to stand beside him. “It doesn’t seem right,” he said, thrusting his sword into the dirt as well.
Angus looked up. “Which part?”
“The part where a man must raise an army to invade his own home.”
Angus rose to his full height and regarded the cousin and friend who had spent the better part of two years searching for him, found him on the outer fringes of the Western Isles, and helped him to raise an army and fight for what was theirs.
“Perhaps it’s destiny,” he replied, “for surely I can have no greater purpose than this. I have drawn my sword on behalf of my home, my clan, and my beloved Kinloch. Perhaps this is to be my redemption, a chance to make up for past sins.”
He turned his eyes toward the shattered castle gate, then to all the casualties that littered the ground. There had been terrible losses on both sides.
“And what of the dead?” Lachlan asked, taking in the wretched sight of the fallen warriors.
“We will honor them. The MacEwens fought bravely.” He inclined his head at Lachlan. “A testament to their leader, perhaps?”
“Aye, she was something of a fireball—and a bonnie vision, besides.” Lachlan’s dark eyes narrowed questioningly. “Think you’ll be able to manage her?”
“Do you doubt me, Lachlan?”
“You just took her home and destroyed half her clan. I doubt she’ll be overjoyed to share a bed with you.”
Angus wrenched his sword out of the dirt and slid it into his scabbard. “I don’t care how she feels.” He had no patience for emotional women, and this was certainly no love story. She knew that as well as he did. “Her father stole Kinloch from us. She will settle that debt.” He started toward the Great Hall.
Lachlan pulled a flask out of his sporran and took a drink. “I shouldn’t have to tell you to watch your back,” he said. “Her saber may have been small, but it had a sharp point.”
Angus heard the warning, but gave no reply.
Gwendolen entered her bedchamber and found her mother waiting anxiously at the window.
“Oh, my darling,” Onora said, “thank heavens you’re alive. I expected the worst. What has happened?”
Gwendolen shut the door behind her and spoke plainly. “The MacDonalds have broken through the main gate. There was a battle, and they have taken the castle. Angus the Lion has declared himself chief, and he means to claim me as his wife in order to produce an heir, and unite our two clans.” She was surprised by how calmly she could explain everything, when her insides were careening with dread.
Her mother stared blankly at her for a moment, then laughed aloud. “He means to claim you? Good God, does he not realize what century this is?”
“Clearly not.” Gwendolen paused. “You should see him, Mother. All the stories about him are true. He is exactly what they say—mighty, violent, and fearsome. I was frozen with astonishment as I watched him exchange blows with our strongest, most skilled warriors, and I could not breathe when he spoke.”
Her mother strode forward, fascinated. “So it’s true then. He is fierce, and unconquerable?”
“Very much so.”
“And he intends to take you as his wife?”
“Aye. I am not sure what to do.”
Onora threw her hands up. “Are you daft, Gwendolen? You will accept him, of course. What other choice is there?” She turned toward the looking glass, pinched her cheeks for color, and ran her fingers through her long, curly locks of auburn hair. For a woman of her age, she was remarkably beautiful. Her lips were full, her cheekbones finely sculpted, her figure slender and trim. “This is very good news,” she said. “I must say, I am greatly relieved.”
“Relieved? How can you possibly be relieved?”
Onora turned. “Don’t be such an idealist. There is no way out of this. The Lion has taken the castle, and we are at his mercy. He could kill us both, but he is willing to spare you at least, and not only that, he wants to wed you. What more could you ask? Your position here will not change. In fact, it will improve. Mine, however . . .” She paused and returned her attention to the looking glass. “That is yet to be determined.” She wet her lips and puckered them. “But do not worry for me. I will negotiate for my own life and position.”
Gwendolen laughed bitterly. “Negotiate. That is exactly what I must do a few short minutes from now. But with what, I ask you? As you said, we are at his mercy. We have no power. He has declared himself chief and has terrorized every warrior who still breathes. Those who would not surrender are dead.”
Onora faced Gwendolen with fire in her eyes. “Which is why you are going to submit to him. In every way.”
“Submit . . .”
“Aye.” Her mother took hold of her wrist. “You are going to do exactly what he tells you to do, Gwendolen, and if you have any sense in that pretty little head of yours, you’ll act like you enjoy it.”
Gwendolen ripped her arm away. “Why don’t you submit to him, Mother? If anyone knows how to please a man in bed, it’s you, not me.”
“I assure you, I would submit in an instant if I was the one he wanted. But he wants you, which is exactly what he shall have, or we’ll both be dead. Now listen to what I say. You must be docile and agreeable. And for heaven’s sake, make yourself more presentable. Put on a prettier gown.” She reached out to untie the laces of Gwendolen’s stays. “He has offered you a gift—a chance to preserve our status here. You must thank him, and lure him to your bed.”
“Lure him to my bed?” Gwendolen shoved her mother’s hands away. “He has laid siege to our home. I will not simply lie back and wait for him to lay siege to my body, as well. I will go to the hall and meet him there, with dignity, as Father would have done.”
“And say what?”
“I will negotiate the terms of our surrender.” Onora scoffed. “You are forgetting that we have already been defeated. Surrender is no longer an option. He will laugh at you.”
Gwendolen backed away, then realized that she did, in fact, have some power. “That is where you are wrong, Mother. He wants something from me—a child—and I shall inform him that I will not be conquered quite so easily as this castle. More importantly, if I can buy us time, there is a chance that Murdoch will return and restore our freedom.”
Heart beating erratically in her chest, she walked out and shut the door behind her, then quickly made her way down the curved staircase, ignoring her mother’s outraged calls, which echoed through the vaulted stone passageways.
As she approached the hall, her stomach turned somersaults. She was about to confront and challenge a ruthless, battle-seasoned warrior, who thought nothing of ramming through castle gates and slaughtering entire armies before breakfast.
Physically, she was no match for him. That was certain. He was mighty and strapping, and he could slaughter her too in a single heartbeat, if he was so inclined. But no matter what happened, she would not show her fear. She was the daughter of a Highland chief, and she had the allegiance of her people. She would face him on equal ground.
Thankfully, the hall was empty when she arrived, which awarded her a few minutes to collect her thoughts and decide how, exactly, she was going to address Angus Bradach MacDonald. She paused just inside the arched entry, behind the dais, and turned her eyes to the impressive display of MacEwen heraldry. Heavy silk tapestries draped the walls, flags and banners hung from the rafters, and their family crest had recently been carved into the stonework.
She glanced toward the heavy chair that her father had occupied until recently. When he had presided over this hall, feasts and celebrations were the order of the day. Laughter, music, and poetry filled the nights with culture and amusement. There was no threat of war or tyranny. He was a good man, a strong and fair leader, but all of that would soon change if she did not stand up to this new conqueror. Tonight, there would be subjugation, forced oaths, and peril for those who refused to submit.
Unless, of course, she could exert some influence, however small . . .
She stepped up onto the dais and approached the empty chair. Help me to be brave, Father, for I wish to do my duty for the MacEwens.
Her prayer was interrupted, unfortunately, by the sound of footsteps entering from the bailey. Gwendolen glanced up. Her pulse quickened as she beheld her enemy, Angus the Lion, at the far end of the hall.
Not yet aware of her presence, he paused just inside.
He looked up at the highest peaks of the ceiling, then his cool gaze moved along the string of MacEwen banners, hung from the wide wooden beams.
Gwendolen observed the finer details of his appearance—the dark kilt and tartan draped over his shoulder and pinned with a heavy silver brooch that had been polished to a brilliant sheen. He was an enormous man. That much she already knew. But up close, she could see that his hands were large, as well, which was especially distressing, to say nothing of the weapons he carried. In addition to the shield on his back and the heavy claymore belted at his waist, two pistols were tucked into the belt, and a powder horn was slung across his chest. A dirk was sheathed in his boot.
She looked more closely at his face, and felt rather anxious.
It was a face both rugged and beautiful—flawlessly proportioned, with a full sensuous mouth and a fine, patrician nose. His eyes were pale blue, as clear as ice on a winter lake, and yet they smoldered with fire. A curious commotion began inside her—an unusual trepidation, a shiver of heat that spread to her toes. She had to work hard to control it.
The great Lion studied the tapestries, the walls, and even the stones in the hearth, then his big hand went to the hilt of his broadsword, and his eyes narrowed in on her.
Before today, Gwendolen had not known what it felt like to be held in the gaze of a man so breathtaking. She had to focus on her sense of balance in order to remain upright on her feet.
Angus, on the other hand, appeared wholly relaxed, though there was something intense and frightening about the way he looked at her. A lingering bloodlust from battle still coursed through his body, no doubt.
If she was going to get through this, she would have to remember that he wanted something from her. She was not entirely without power.
His hand still resting on the hilt of his sword, he crossed the length of the hall with menacing determination. Her heart galloped inside her chest. By the time he reached the dais, she was feeling the same wild and reckless exhilaration she had felt on the rooftop when she challenged him with her small sword, and declared herself brave enough to fight him.
“Get down off there,” he said.
“Why? So you can look down on me?”
“Aye. Your family stole my home. You are thieves. The whole lot of you.”
Her body raged, and she worried suddenly that she might faint from all the mayhem. “You look pale, lassie. Are you ill?”
“No. I am fine,” she told him, until she thought better of it. “I beg your pardon. I wish to retract that. I am not fine. I am disgusted.”
He took a step forward and scoffed. “Disgusted? By me?”
“Aye. Did you expect otherwise?”
He stared at her with threatening resolve. “It’s not the response I was anticipating, but it matters not. This castle is mine now. I’ve claimed you as my wife. Those are the facts.”
She inhaled slowly in order to gather her wits about her. He was disturbingly succinct and to the point, with no consideration for politeness.
“And what am I supposed to do with those facts?” she asked. “Call everyone in and prance about the hall with delight?”
“Nay, there won’t be any public prancing, lassie. Whether you like it or not, I’ll be having you in my bed tonight—and that we’ll do in private.”
She took a deep breath, working hard to calm her rising hostility. “So soon?”
“Not soon enough, if you must know. I didn’t expect to be wedding such a beauty.”
Gwendolen laughed. “You think to get what you want by flattering me?”
The corner of his mouth curled up into a sinister grin. “I already got what I wanted, lass. Don’t need to flatter anyone.”
“And what was it, exactly, that you wanted?”
“Was it not obvious when I broke down the castle gate? I wanted Kinloch, and now I have it.”
She swallowed hard. “Of course you do.”
Neither of them said anything for a moment or two. Gwendolen was fighting to maintain a semblance of composure and dignity, while he seemed quite unabashedly distracted by the curve of her breasts and hips.
“Did I not ask you to get down off there?” he repeated, while tilting his head to the side. “Or do I need to come up and haul you down like a sack of turnips? I’ll oblige you, if that’s what you wish, but I’m weary from battle and in no mood for hauling vegetables. So get down off there, woman. Don’t make me tell you again.”
Gwendolen took careful note of the threatening message of command in his voice, and approached the edge of the dais. She stepped down, squared her shoulders, and stared up at him. He looked her over from head to foot, then leaped up onto the dais and strolled from one side to the other, as if he were taking measurements.
Gwendolen remained silent while he seated himself in her father’s chair and lounged back comfortably, his long muscular legs stretched out in front of him. “Home at last,” he said.
Again, he looked up at the MacEwen heraldry. He sat without speaking, and she knew he was pondering the future. Or perhaps recalling the past.
She watched his face for some insight into his mood and intentions. Sitting there like a sprawling lion, he appeared in absolute control, with no doubt whatsoever in his mind that he was now Laird of Kinloch, and she was to be his obedient wife and servant.
He was in for a rude awakening.
“Where is your brother, Murdoch?” he asked. “Why is he not here to defend Kinloch and protect his people?”
“He traveled abroad to visit Rome and educate himself. He believed a strong leader should be enlightened and knowledgeable about the world—an aspiration which I doubt you would understand. He left before my father died.”
“But with your father’s death, why has he not returned?”
She regarded Angus with steady eyes. “I am not certain he knows of it. We have dispatched a letter to him, of course, but have no way of knowing if he has received it. I am hopeful, however, that he will return any day. Perhaps unexpectedly.”
It was an intentional strike at the Lion’s arrogance. She wished him to know that his victory this morning may have seemed effortless, but the MacEwens would not continue to be easy prey. He should be on his guard.
Angus rested an elbow on the arm of the chair. “Will he be difficult?”
“I hope so.”
He studied her with careful scrutiny. “I suppose the real question is whether or not you will be difficult.” “Oh, definitely.” His brow furrowed with displeasure, and she regretted the brash reply, when she had come here to negotiate in a civilized manner. She half expected him to rise up out of the chair and show her the back of his hand. He continued, however, to sit calmly, relaxed, but with a focused expression that made her feel as if she were standing before him naked. Her cheeks flushed with heat.
“Do you understand, lass, that I have already claimed you as my wife?”
“I heard as much when you shouted my marriage proposal from the rooftops, instead of asking me directly.”
He cocked his head to the side. “Do you wish me to get down on bended knee?”
He nodded, as if he were reaching a number of conclusions about her character and temperament in these moments, based on her replies.
He sat back. “Good, because I’m not the romantic sort.”
“You don’t say. I am astonished.”
There was a fluttering in the rafters above, and his eyes lifted. He caught sight of the tiny bird that had been nesting in the hall for as long as she could remember. It flew out the open arched doorway to the bailey.
“No one has been able to get rid of that bird,” she told him. “Maybe you’ll have better luck. Or maybe the poor defenseless creature has just realized what calamity has befallen her home, and has finally flown the coop.”
“We’ll see,” he replied, rising to his feet, as if he had grown bored of the conversation and had much more important matters to attend to.
She hastened to step forward before he could dismiss her. “All that aside,” she blurted out, “I would like to negotiate the terms of my surrender.”
His eyes settled upon her again and he spoke in a patronizing tone. “Your surrender . . .”
“Aye. I told you I would resist you, and I will, in every sense of the word, unless this situation can be resolved to my liking.”
For a long moment he stared at her, as if he could barely comprehend what he’d just heard. A dark scowl passed across his features, and yet there was something else . . . Was it possible that he was enjoying her insolence?
“To your liking,” he repeated.
A muscle clenched in his jaw, and any hint of interest vanished, as she realized she had struck a very bad note. It was obvious from the rising tide of fury in his eyes that he was not accustomed to hearing such demands from people, much less a woman he had just claimed as his possession. He was used to being feared.
He stepped down from the dais and approached her. She took a step back. It was one thing to speak to a conquering warlord seated in a chair, ten feet away. It was quite another to be standing at eye level with his chest—so close, she could see the bloodstains in the individual fibers of his shirt, and smell the fresh aroma of his sweat.
Slowly, carefully, she lifted her eyes.
He was glaring down at her with blistering antago- nism. “I’ll hear your terms now,” he said.
Thankful that his sword was still sheathed in the scabbard and she was still in possession of her head, Gwendolen cleared her throat. “I want you to honor the conditions you offered just now to the people of my clan, but I have something else to add.”
She wet her dry lips. “Those who must forfeit their homes, but choose to stay and pledge allegiance to you, will be given compensation from the Kinloch trea- sury. I understand that there will be no compensation given to those who leave, but I must be assured that if that is what they choose, they will be permitted to leave freely, without fear of death or retaliation by your warriors.”
“Agreed,” he replied.
Surprised by the swiftness and ease with which he accepted her first request, she nevertheless proceeded with caution. “I petition also that my mother will be treated with the appropriate respect due to her, as the widow of a past Laird of Kinloch. She will keep her apartments and jewels, and she will sit at our table.”
“Agreed,” he said. “Anything else?”
She swallowed thickly. “All members of the MacEwen clan will have rights equal to the MacDonalds in all matters.”
He thought about that one for a moment. “If they pledge their allegiance to me tonight, I give you my word that they will have equal rights.”
She realized suddenly that she was perspiring, and wiped the back of her hand across her damp forehead.
“Lastly, in regard to our marital union . . .” All at once, her belly swarmed with butterflies, and she had to swallow hard to keep her voice steady. “I request that you do not claim your husbandly rights until our wedding night.”
That one, oddly enough, was the only application that gave him pause—and soon after, his eyes smoldered with rising sexuality. “Are you a virgin, lass?”
“Of course,” she replied incredulously.
He studied her expression, then his gaze dipped lower. Time seemed to stand still as he lifted a hand and traced a slow finger along the line of her jaw, down the center of her throat to the valley of her cleavage, then along the breadth of her neckline from shoulder to shoulder, as if he were drawing a smile with his rough, callused fingertip.
Gwendolen shivered, for no man had ever touched her like that before, and this man was far more intimidating than most. He slanted a seductive glance at her, and all her bravado from moments ago poured out of her like water. Her skin seemed to burn with fever under his fingertip, and it made her head swim in churning circles.
She felt suddenly inept when it came to negotiating for anything. Perhaps her mother was right. Perhaps she should simply be thanking him.
“That’s a considerable demand, lass. I’d venture to call it impudent, and I’ve no interest in wedding a woman who doesn’t know her place.”
“And what is my place, exactly?”
“Your place will be in my bed. Pleasing me.”
She was having a devil of a time getting air in and out of her lungs. “I understand,” she said shakily, “that if I am to be your wife, it will be my duty to provide you with an heir. I only ask that I have time to prepare myself for that . . . obligation.”
His eyes narrowed with dark, sensual resolve. “What’s the point in putting off the inevitable? One way or another, you’ll be on your back, and I’ll be having my way with you. You might even find you enjoy it.”
“Enjoy it?” she scoffed. “I think not.”
His gaze lingered on her lips, and her insides seemed to melt into a big warm puddle of sensation as he cupped the side of her face in his hand and let his fingers play in the wisps of hair over her ear. “Since we’re negotiating the terms for your total and complete surrender to me,” he said, “I’ll agree to your blushing request on two conditions.”
“I am listening.” She struggled to banish the color from her cheeks.
“I’ll leave your sweet, luscious maidenhead intact, as long as you agree to be amiable toward me between now and then. Never again will you defy me in front of the clans like you did this morning, nor will you resist or dispute my authority over Kinloch. You will support my rule, both publicly and privately.”
Could she agree to that? she wondered uneasily.
Yes. She would agree to anything, if it meant he would not touch her like this, or attempt to take her this very night. And perhaps, before that moment arrived, if she was blessed with good fortune or mercy from above, her brother would arrive and save her from that fate.
“Fine. What is the second condition?” She worked hard to ignore the fact that his thumb was now gently brushing back and forth across her chin.
“When your brother returns like a hero on his white steed”—he said, as if he had read her mind—“which I am certain he will, your allegiance will be with me, your husband, and you will not betray that vow.”
“But what will become of my brother? This castle is his birthright, too. You cannot simply expect him to—”
A flash of anger burned in the Lion’s eyes. “It is not his birthright. It is mine. But your brother will have a choice. He can pledge an oath to me, and with that oath, he will be given land and a position of rank and stature. If he refuses, he will be free to leave.”
She paused, for she did not believe it. “Would you promise me—would you give me your word of honor as a Scotsman—that you will not kill him?”
Angus stepped back. “Nay. For if he raises his sword against me, or any other MacDonald, I will slice him in half without hesitation.”
Gwendolen looked down at the floor. She did not doubt his word in that regard, and for the first time, a true feeling of defeat swept through her. He was a powerful foe, and she was out of her depth.
“I will agree to those terms,” she said, consoling herself with the fact that she had at least attained some compensation for her people. And the Lion would not attempt to bed her that night. Perhaps, with any luck, her brother would arrive soon with an army of redcoats, and drag this Jacobite rebel off to the gallows for treason. She would try to get word to Murdoch about the urgency of their predicament, and cling to the hope that even after the forfeiture of her innocence, the castle could still be reclaimed. All hope was not lost.
It would be her sacrifice, she supposed. Her virtue in exchange for the eventual freedom of her clan.
Gwendolen looked up and found herself gazing into the unyielding blue depths of his eyes.
“Are we done now?” he asked. “Did you get what you wanted?”
“Aye.” But she felt completely unraveled.
“Then seal the agreement. Prove to me that your word is true.”
The tone of his voice changed in that moment. He spoke in a low, husky whisper. “Pledge it with a kiss.”
Before she had a chance to object, he pressed his mouth to hers, and the floor seemed to shift under her feet. She had never been kissed before, not once in her life. She had lived a virtuous existence, determined to evolve into a woman very different from her mother, who used sex as an instrument of power over men.
But this was not the same as that. Not at all. Gwendolen had no power here. She was completely beguiled and could do nothing but bend and soften to the strength of his will.
He slipped his hands around her waist and pulled her close, and her head tilted back under the pressure of the kiss—so urgent and probing, it sent her body reeling. All at once, this artless, naïve pledge of hers felt like a promise of profound physicality and commitment. He was demanding her complete surrender and capitulation, here in this room, by the joining of their mouths and bodies, and she had no idea what to do, but to respond.
He tipped his head to the side and cupped the back of her neck with his hand, parting her lips and sliding his tongue inside to mingle damply with hers. The kiss drew out an involuntary whimper of submission.
Then—just as she was becoming acquainted with the sensation of their lips and tongues colliding gently—he drew back from the kiss and ran a finger across her flushed cheek.
“I believe you will enjoy it, lass,” he said in a gruff voice, “when the time comes.”
Gwendolen’s legs nearly buckled beneath her. “I most certainly will not.”
He turned away and started toward the bailey.
“Wait!” she said.
He stopped, but did not turn.
“There is one more thing.” Gwendolen strode forward tensely.
He turned his head to the side.
“I want my family’s heraldry to remain here in the hall, beside yours.”
For the longest time, he stood with his back to her, refusing to speak. A knot of uncertainty tangled up inside her stomach.
At last, he turned. “You were doing so well, lass. Why did you have to spoil it?”
“Spoil what? I am only asking for what is rightfully ours. My father was granted possession of this castle by the King of Great Britain, and our name cannot sim-ply be erased from its walls.”
Another warrior entered the hall. He, too, was imposing like Angus, but his hair was black as night, his eyes dark as sin. He stood just inside the door.
Angus spoke over his shoulder. “Lachlan, come here and escort my future bride to my bedchamber. She needs to be taught a lesson or two about the rules of war and the meaning of surrender. Lock her in and put a guard at the door.”
“What?” Gwendolen’s heart began to pitch and roll. “I thought we had an agreement.”
“We did, and I confess, I enjoyed the negotiations. But you shouldn’t have stepped over the line, lass. I told you, I have no interest in wedding a woman who does not know her place. It’s time you learned yours and understood the limits of my tolerance.” He frowned at her. “I am not a kind man.”
“I didn’t step over any line. I only asked for one more thing.”
“The negotiations were finished,” he said. “That’s the end of it. Now go with Lachlan, and wait for me in my bed.”
The other warrior strode across the hall and took hold of her arm. “Don’t fight it, lass,” he said. “You’ll only make things worse for yourself.”
“How can it possibly get any worse than this?” she asked.
He chuckled softly. “You don’t know Angus.”
Copyright 2011 by Julianne MacLean
Julianne MacLean is a USA Today bestselling author with degrees in English Literature and Business Administration. She is a three-time RITA finalist, and has won numerous awards, including the Booksellers' Best Award, the Book Buyers Best Award, and a Reviewers' Choice Award from Romantic Times for Best Regency Historical of 2005. She lives in Nova Scotia with her husband and daughter, and she is a dedicated member of Romance Writers of Atlantic Canada.
Visit her web site at www.juliannemaclean.com.