The Rogue (Highland Brides, book 2)
Published by Escape Publishing (Harlequin Enterprises Australia)
Release date: 05/12/2016
Was he forever destined to be a man without blood kin, a man of unknown origins?
Adair drained the ale from the cup the stony-faced older woman had slammed onto the scarred table he sat at in one corner of the busy inn. She’d offered him a meal when he’d entered, but the pungent smell of onions mingled with the ripe scent of unwashed bodies confirmed the loaf and salted ham in the sack secured to his saddle would suffice for this evening’s meal.
She looked at him now, still wearing her permanent frown. He smiled and held up his empty cup to signal he’d like another. It was the finest ale he’d tasted since coming to the Highlands.
The woman thundered toward him carrying a fresh cup, her brows slashing outward from between her narrowed eyes and her mouth scrunched tight as if she’d lived on naught but fruits of a bitter life. Perhaps she too was searching for something she’d never find.
Once again she slammed the wooden vessel down before him, sloshing a third of the contents onto the stained table. She towered over him and thrust her open hand out under his nose.
Adair reached for the leather pouch hidden inside his vest and smiled up at the glowering woman. ‘It has been some time since I’ve spoken with a fair maiden such as yourself.’ It had been several weeks since he’d talked with any woman, a first for Dair and in his mind a definite crime.
‘And I’d thought I’d been about long enough to hear it all,’ the woman said glaring down at him. ‘But ye’ve proven me wrong.’
This woman would be a hard nut to crack. Adair adopted his most innocent expression and looking up at her through wide eyes said, ‘Can a man nae pay you a compliment?’
‘I’m nae interested in yer compliments,’ she said in a fierce tone. ‘Only that ye have the means to pay.’ She beckoned with her fingers for him to hurry up and give her what he owed.
Adair held the correct amount of coin above her palm. ‘I’m more than happy to pay my way.’ He paused to paste on his winning smile. ‘But I’d be happier if I knew the name of the woman who so gracefully served me my ale.’
Her mouth fell open. ‘Well pull ma teeth and blind me.’
Adair shook his head and frowned. ‘Nae a good look.’
She stared down at him as if he were a puzzle she couldn’t solve. ‘Do ye nae give up?’
‘Never.’ He grinned up at her.
‘Give over the coin, lad,’ she said, wiggling her fingers once more. He dropped the payment into her palm, and the moment she saw it was the right amount she said, ‘There be a room for ye if ye want one.’
Adair lurched back in his chair. ‘You withhold your name yet offer me a room?’ He raised one brow. ‘You’re a wicked woman.’
She slowly shook her head. ‘And yer a rogue.’ Her mouth softened into a half-smile.
‘Ah, there it be.’ Adair flattened his palm over his heart. ‘My work is done.’
She turned to walk away, coin in hand, her lips more at ease than when she’d delivered his ale. She looked back over her shoulder. ‘The name’s Morag.’
Adair settled back in his seat and released a slow breath. He hadn’t lost his touch. He watched Morag resume serving others as he finished his second cup of ale. Having quenched his thirst, he stood and weaved his way out through the crowded tables to the door, where he stopped and gave Morag a wink before he left. Outside, he took several steps down a slight slope, away from the bustling inn that had given him a respite from the thoughts that troubled him more of late.
Was he forever to be denied knowing his true family and where he’d come from?
He lifted his face into the southerly breeze scented of pine and the warmth of early summer. At this very moment, standing atop a rise in another unfamiliar town, gazing over the local kirk and graveyard nestled among green and golden rolling hills, he’d wager he was, and he’d likely win a tidy sum.
But there was no one else about with which to wager. He stood alone, with the sun sliding low behind the furthest mountain to the west, stretching shadows into one another. But there lived, deep inside of him, a fierce stubbornness and an unwavering pride that refused to accept or believe such a disappointing outcome was to be his. A strength of will and rigid determination that loitered far down in the furthest recesses of his gut that always, always bucked and writhed when his thoughts took this same turn. And had ever since the day he’d been abandoned by his mother in the Borders at the age of four.
Who was he? Where did he come from? Why had she left him?
The muscles inside his chest tightened. Dair snorted, and slowly shaking his head at his mind’s dire wanderings and his body’s unwanted reaction, he looked down at his weathered leather boots. Duff and Cal would worry for him if they were privy to his recent line of thinking. But they never would, for he was adept at ensuring such foolish thoughts and the uncontrollable feelings he suffered were buried beneath a jest and a smile. He was simply tired. All he needed was a good night’s sleep.
His thoughts remained on his two friends and he wondered if Duff and Cal were having more success finding out who they were and where they’d come from. He hoped so. Even if he never discovered his origins, if either Duff or Cal did, then their happiness would be enough. It would have to be.
He raised his chin, and drawing in a long breath, looked to where he’d left Demon beneath the lone Scots pine. His horse tossed his black head and pawed the hard ground, his dark coat rippling and highlighting the red smudges that looked to have been left by the sun’s fiery rays. They’d travelled far this day, and every other since they’d set out last summer’s end. They’d both appreciate a good night’s rest.
Demon stilled at the precise moment Adair sensed he was no longer alone. He lowered his hand to the sword at his waist and made to turn. But before he could, pain ripped through the right side of his head. He staggered and fought to stay on his feet as a succession of blows battered his body and his arms and legs from behind, and then from every direction. He’d been set upon by more than one assailant.
His fist connected with something solid and he heard a grunt that wasn’t his as he fell to his knees and then forward onto his hands, fighting to escape the fog threatening to steal his senses. He glanced up at the sound of thundering hooves and glimpsed Demon’s dark powerful shape pawing the air in his defence. Thank the Almighty he never tethered his mount. But his horse needed to flee.
He managed to give his command before booted feet and fisted hands joined the fray, along with whatever weapon they’d used to deliver the initial blow, demanding his attention and purging his every hard-won breath.
A kick to the underside of his chin sent him sprawling onto his back in the dust. But they weren’t done with him yet. With every blow, the fog became more dense and dark and finally won.
‘Rory McRae, don’t you dare poke the lass. Let her sleep a moment more while we fetch what we need.’
Keila almost smiled at her friend and companion Moira’s scolding of Rory. She didn’t move. She didn’t open her eyes. She waited for Rory’s reply.
‘Ah, keep yer hair up, Moira. I was just going to make sure the lass was alive.’ Rory spoke close to Keila’s ear in a whisper loud enough to raise the dead. His voice sounded strong, his words certain. She hoped the older man was having a good day. She needed his help.
‘Of course she’s alive. She’s sleeping. Leave my hair out of it and come help me fetch the earthen pots for the healing herbs.’
Keila envisaged Moira patting the sleek strands of her greying hair, pulled back into a no-nonsense bun every morning. She’d happily listen to their colourful banter night and day and never tire of it. Not for the first time, Keila could imagine the kind, yet oft times forgetful Rory and the proper, once-upon-a time lady’s maid as a wedded couple. If Moira wasn’t a confirmed spinster and Rory didn’t already have a wife.
But Moira’s words reminded her there was much to be done before market day, four days hence. A day that could again prove to be one of Keila’s most joyful, if the calculations she’d stayed up half the night figuring proved correct. If they finished preparing their goods to sell and if they sold well, she’d pay Leith of Drummin Castle the allotted protection money and Drummin House would remain hers.
She released a long breath. She would keep her home and she could even continue to take in the few passers-by who needed a meal and a place to stay for a short time.
Heavy footsteps returned and silenced near where she still lay, feigning sleep with one cheek upon her small, scarred wooden desk.
‘Is she alive?’
Keila’s short-lived joy fizzled at Rory’s repeated question. Moira had already answered him. Perhaps he was having a bad day after all.
‘She likely spent most of the past night scratching numbers onto her parchment and is dead tired.’
‘If ye say so, lass. But her bed is only two steps away in the corner there and I’ve never seen anyone leave such a great puddle of drool where they—’
Keila finally lost her struggle to hide her smile. ‘I do not drool, Rory McRae,’ she said straightening in her high-backed chair.
‘Are ye sure, lass?’
Keila gingerly wiped her fingertips across her right cheek to make certain there was no evidence of drool, either wet or dry, marking her face. ‘Aye, I’m sure.’
‘Then who left that great puddle of drool on yer table?’
Keila’s gaze slid straight to where she’d just lifted her head before she realised Rory was jesting. Her smile widened and she looked up at him. ‘I’m pleased to see you’re in a fine fettle this morning, Rory.’
‘And I’m pleased to know yer alive, lass,’ he said with a grin that slipped into a frown. ‘I thought the lad I found at yer door this morn was dead for certain.’
Keila’s entire body tensed. She stood. A lad being beaten was a cowardly act, but not unheard of about Glenlivet. Nor was the burning or pillaging of someone’s home. All reasons Keila ensured they always paid their protection money. But some suffered hard times and didn’t have the coin. ‘What lad, Rory?’
‘We put him on a pallet in the healing room below and then came here to wake you,’ Moira said in a sober tone, as she stopped beside Rory. ‘He’s alive, but he’s been sorely beaten.’
Keila searched Moira’s tight-lipped expression and Rory’s frown. While it was suggested not to interfere in someone else’s troubles, she refused to do nothing. ‘I’ll see to him now.’ Shaking out her woollen skirts, she stepped from behind her desk and headed for the doorway leading out of her small chamber. She started down the timber staircase, Rory at her heels.
‘I found him lying facedown at the door to Drummin House as the sun rose this morn,’ Rory said. ‘Looks like he’d crawled there, but passed out before he could knock. His sleep is a deep one, lass. He’s lucky the rains stayed away through the night, else he might have drowned in a shallow puddle.’
Knots, borne of concern for the beaten lad, formed and grew inside Keila’s belly with each step she took and with every word Rory spoke. Thank the stars above Rory’s day had begun well and he’d ventured from his nearby croft at dawn as usual.
‘I’ll set these pots down by the hearth, then check the lad’s horse.’
Keila stopped and turned to Rory. ‘He still has his horse?’
Rory nodded. ‘Oh, aye. The great beast was standing over the lad, protecting him, like. It wasn’t easy moving the lad away and inside. ’Tis a fine beast, lass.’ A look of awe crossed Rory’s face. ‘All darkness splashed with fire, and a fury to match.’ He slowly shook his head. ‘I couldn’t get near enough to lead him around the back to the stable, but I’ll fetch a pail of grain and give it another try.’
‘My thanks, Rory, but please, have a care.’ Keila resumed making her way to the healing room. If the lad was beaten but still had his horse, the attack wasn’t a robbery.
‘I’ll fetch water and cloths and will meet you in the healing room,’ Moira said, turning toward the kitchen.
‘I’d appreciate your help, Moira,’ Keila said, heading in the opposite direction.
‘You’ll need it, lass.’
Keila glanced back at the older woman but didn’t miss a step; her fear growing that the lad’s condition was graver than she hoped. She might already be too late to help him.
She drew even with the healing room’s threshold and reminded herself she couldn’t save everyone. No one could. She wasn’t a healer.
She drew even with the healing room’s threshold and reminded herself she couldn’t save everyone. No one could. She wasn’t a healer. Her Aunt Fiona had only taught her a few basic healing skills when she was eight. She could only do her best.
Her gaze found the pallet on the opposite wall. Her legs ceased moving. Her hand grasped the doorway. Her fingers clenched stone and her heart skipped two beats. But no matter which way she angled her head to study the injured stranger, no lad lay on the healing room pallet.
Dust-covered leather boots encased large feet that almost hung over the end of the pallet. His boots continued up and covered his legs to his dirt-smeared knees, left bare by the faded blue plaid draping his thighs and hips. Green and brown smudges marred the tail of his linen shirt that had come untucked from his waistband. A leather vest, which looked worn, yet soft, covered his big body from flat stomach to wide shoulders. Clumps of matted hair that looked like stalks of wheat left to dry on the banks of a loch trailed over his leather- clad shoulders. The once stark white sleeves of his linen shirt were smeared with dark, dried spots of blood. Her initial appraisal showed no obvious wounds, but she couldn’t see the man’s face for his head was turned toward the wall. The blood must have come from somewhere.
The broad chest beneath the vest rose and fell with lengthy breaths as she watched, and a sense of relief rushed through her. He was alive.
With a small flexing of her fingers on stone and a steadying breath, she released her hold and entered the healing room. She halted near the foot of the pallet when she was close enough to see one side of his beaten face. Her breathing quickened as her fingers twisted together.
She wasn’t one to shy away from wounds or blood and she’d seen her fair share from passers-by she’d assisted and the odd injury sustained by Rory and Moira, but seeing a grown man’s face left unrecognisable, and the man himself insensible after being battered by another, made her stomach roil and turn.
‘How could someone do this to you?’ she whispered.
Moira walked into the room carrying cloths, and a bowl of water emitting faint wisps of steam. She stood beside Keila and stared down at the stranger. ‘My question would be, what did he do to deserve such a beating?’
Censure and suspicion threaded her words. Moira’s heart had been broken many years ago and her opinion of any man, even now, reflected her distrust and pain.
Keila stared at the prone stranger and her feelings of sadness reached out toward him, but also to her friend beside her. Keila hoped that someday Moira would see and feel the goodness in men instead of always expecting the worst from them.
‘We will never know if we don’t help him,’ Keila said, slowly moving closer to the pallet. Aside from the rise and fall of his broad chest, there was no sign of movement, not even a twitch of a thick finger. ‘I don’t know how you and Rory moved him without his help.’
‘It wasn’t easy and the moving wasn’t pretty, but we managed.’
Keila stopped beside his shoulder and bending slightly, appraised the one side of his face she could see. Trails of dried blood mixed with dirt smeared the flesh. ‘I’m sure he’d thank the two of you, if he were able.’
‘He can thank us later, when we’ve seen to him and we’re certain he’s nae up to nae good.’
Keila turned and looked at Moira. ‘Ready?’
Moira responded with a decisive nod.
Keila drew her forearm across her brow to wipe a wayward strand of hair out of her eyes and released a long sigh. She stared down at the battered face of the stranger and wondered if their morning’s work would be for naught. Not once in the time they’d rolled, washed, stripped, stitched, shoved and bandaged the large form overflowing the pallet had he moaned, grunted, groaned or opened a swollen eye. The last likely because he couldn’t.
A neat row of ten stitches now marked the tanned skin like a sliver of the moon beside his right eye. Stitches she’d remove in a sennight. If he was still here. If he survived. Both eyes were puffed up and dark bruises were starting to discolour the bronze hue of his skin. His top lip was split and broken in two places and once she’d cleaned away the dried blood and dirt, she’d discovered a bowed dip in the centre. His lower lip was swollen on the right side, making his face appear uneven, and the whiskers shadowing his strong jawline washed up darker than the hair on his head. Even if she did know who he was, the beating had left him unrecognisable.
The clothes he’d worn had been smeared with dust, just as his palms and face and knees had been, and she’d found several old scars, long ago healed. But his knuckles bore only a single graze and nowhere else had she found any other signs to show he’d fought back, as she’d seen on other men she’d tended after they’d used their hands and fists as weapons. It was difficult to imagine someone of such strength and power being brought so low, and she believed there had to have been more than one attacker. Had the stranger been drunk on ale or had he been taken by surprise?
Keila’s gaze wandered over the man’s face and she silently wondered how someone could inflict such harm on another. It really was beyond her ken. She just hoped he survived the wounds she could see, and the discolouration beginning to show on his bared chest, back and on each side of his stomach didn’t herald any fatal damage within.
Whatever the outcome, she’d done her best for him.
Footsteps sounded on the stone floor and Rory entered the room carrying a tray. She smiled at the elderly man and was rewarded with a weathered smile in return.
‘How’s the lad faring, lass?’
The query reminded Keila that despite Rory describing the injured stranger as a lad, she should have expected to find a fully grown man. He did still refer to both Moira and herself as lasses, and she was a grown woman of two and twenty and Moira was twice older.
‘There’s been nae change or movement, but I like to think he’s more comfortable.’
‘Give him time, he’ll come around.’
She appreciated his positive thinking, so opposite of Moira’s dire outlook. ‘I’m hoping so, Rory.’
‘Here’s the cup of water ye wanted, as well as something for ye to break yer fast, even though half the day is gone.’ Rory set the tray down on a small, square table beside where Keila was sitting. ‘Ye’ve done what ye can for the lad, now take care of yerself.’
‘My thanks, Rory.’ She reached forward and squeezed his hand, before lifting the steaming bowl of oats from the tray. ‘I hope you gave Moira the same instructions.’
‘I’m nae a fool, lass.’ The grin he wore inspired hers. ‘I just happened to leave a bowl of oats on the table by the kitchen hearth. If Moira believes the oats are mine, she’ll have already eaten the lot.’
Keila chuckled at Rory’s wit and his understanding of Moira, as he gave her a wink and left the room. A flood of warmth filled her chest. She was so pleased today was one of Rory’s good days. For his sake and hers.
Her relief faded as she stared at the injured man while she ate her honey-sweetened oats. She didn’t know who the stranger was or who had beaten him. Whoever it was could return to finish what they’d started; and by taking him in and tending his wounds, she could be putting all their lives in danger. There was also the possibility that the man himself could prove to be the villain Moira expected him to be.
She set her empty bowl on the tray and lifted her chin. Her market day preparations would have to wait. The large and powerful slumbering stranger might be wounded, but not knowing if he was a decent man, or if he’d done something ill enough to give another a reason to attack him, made it difficult to leave him unattended in her home. He was her responsibility now and it was up to her to care for him and guard him at the same time. Her safety and that of the people she loved might well depend on it.
Excerpt from The Rogue (Highland Brides, book 2). If you enjoyed this excerpt, you’ll love the book! Available for purchase: